Channeling Dissent

September 25, 2007

AT A PUBLIC PRESENTATION OF A BOOK ON the Cuban constitution in Havana in June, a lawyer
quipped,'"Too bad this book will be outdated so soon! "Less
than a year ago such a remark might have raised eyebrows
and perhaps called into question the speaker's loyalty to the
revolution. Instead. it generated approving nods and laugh-
As transformations sweep Eastern Europe, Fidel Castro
exhorts Cubans to maintain absolute unity in defense of
socialism and independence. While resisting external pres-
sure, however, Cubans are engaged in a broad public debate
on reforms needed to save their socialist revolution.
In March, the Communist Party (PCC) issued a call for
widespread discussion in preparation for the fourth party
congress to be held in the first half of 1991. Though couched
in the uncompromising rhetoric of "socialism or death," the
call represented a significant departure from the past. It did
not offer the Cuban Politburo's agenda for resolving the
nation's problems. but rather solicited public analysis and
debate of alternative policies. Unanimity, previously touted
asadisplayof "democratic unity," wasexplicitly rejected in
favor of tolerance of diverse opinions: "Certainty of the
people's overwhelming support spares us the unreal quest for
unanimity, which is often false, mechanical and formal and
can lead to pretense, double standards or hiding of opinions,
and illustrates the need [for]...diversity of views on a certain
At first, many were skeptical of the party leadership's
sincerity. To some, the call was a public relations strategy to
buy time. An even more cynical interpretation suggested that
the debate would be used to identify potential troublemakers.
Indeed, individuals and small groups who declared their
opposition to socialism orto Cuba's one-party system found
no tolerance of their political views; some were even ar-
rested. Many thers, familiar with public discussion where
opposing views are encouraged and respected, were unsure
how to respond.
This combination of fear, cynicism and inexperience
turned thefirstroundof meetings in April intoan unmitigated
disaster. Participants stood up one after the other to declare
their loyalty to Fidel, socialism and the leadership of the
Communist Party. Dismayed, Carlos Aldana, head of the
Central Committee's Department of Revolutionary Orienta-
tion, called the sessions to a halt. A month later, the debate
resumed, this time with qualitatively different results.
The meetings of provincial party and national mass or-
ganizations involved several thousand delegates and typi-
cally lasted from eight to 14 hours each, portions of which
were televised. A fascinated public watched and listened
almost daily to sharp criticism of dysfunctional economic
institutions, stagnant bureaucracies, ineffective political struc-
tures and policies which impede creativity and responsive-
ness. As the discussion proceeded, problems were detailed
with increasing specificity and the debate became bolder and
more dynamic.
In an apparent attempt to assuage both conservatives and
those supportive of vigorous democratic discussion, the
Politburo issued a statement on June 23 defining its position
on the parameters of the debate: adherence to socialism under
the leadership of a single party, but with a commitment to
public debate: "Those limitscannot be set beforehand....The
point of the discussion is precisely to promote views...[andl
to consider alternatives to improve our work ... Not open to
question is, of course, the socialist option...which...involves
the principles of revolution, socialism and national
independence....Nor will we accept the new reactionary
dogma that there is no democracy or renewal without mul-
tiple parties..... Within these limits, the debate expanded
into almost every workplace, where not only national issues,
but local policies and problems were submitted to energetic,
frank discussion.
Although the debates are bounded by allegiance to social-
ism, defects in Cuba's economic system are people's greatest
worry. At almost every meeting participants presented a
series of horror stories revealing inefficiencies, irrational and
stifling bureaucratic procedures, and ineffective labor poli-
cies. Issues previously considered too problematic for public
discussion were put forward. For example, at the June 12
assembly of the Union of Communist Youth (UJC), a dele-
gate insisted that immigration and travel policies be resolved
in a coherent and publicway.Suchpolicieshavealwaysbeen
announced and justified without debate. In fact, Cuban
authorities are currently considering reforms in this area,
including removal of all travel restrictions.
Substantial concern was expressed about the vitality of
Cuba's political institutions. Cuba's legislative assemblies,
the People's Power, were criticized as formalistic, impotent
at the municipal level and unrepresentative at the national
level. One participant at the City ofHavana meeting noted
that many delegates to the national assembly of People's
Power who live in the capital represent municipalities in
other provinces and often know little about the provinces
they are supposed to represent.
In a discussion paper prepared for a debate among spe-
cialists in constitutional and administrative law, Angel
Fernaindez Rubio-Legra, of the Superior Institute of Interna-
tional Relations, analyzed the municipal assemblies and
made numerous sullggestions: separate legislative, political
and administrative functions, a smaller bureaucracy, longer
legislative sessions to provide time for genuine deliberation,
_Icnuinc dclieration
and longer terms of office (five years instead of two-and-a-
half). Sone Cubans recommend that delegates to People's
Power become full-time paid representatives; others argue
that this would remove delegates from direct contact with
working people. Another suggestion being debated is direct
election of national assembly delegates; currently they are
elected by the municipal assemblies. Many of these sugges-
tions would require modification of the constitution.
Already some steps have been taken to improve the
functioning of the People's Power. In February, Juan Es-
calona, former Minister of Justice. was named president of
the National Assembly. Escalona is credited with having
transformed the Ministry of Justice from an inert, inept
bureaucracy into a dynamic, professional institution. It is
expected that he will do the same for the National Assembly,
where he has already begun to pare down the staff and
bureaucratic procedures.
are also being scrutinized. Granma reported that at the
Havana party assembly the first secretary from Artemisa
argued that the PCC put an end to "clandestine" discussion
of issues. Numerous delegates have called for elimination of
bureaucratic party structures and a more democratic process
for selecting the party leadership. In several sessions, the
party was reproached for assuming administrative and gov-
ernmental tasks instead of limiting itself to its legitimate role
of political leadership. Overandover again, delegates argued
that the functions of the Council of State and legislative
bodies, the ministries, and the Communist Party should be
clearly defined and distinct.
A recurrent refrain was that party militants are tired of
"reunismo"-attending ig innumerable meetings that rarely
seem important and tend to interfere with other tasks. To the
surprise of many, the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC)
was criticized in several sessions as having lost its relevance
to the revolution. Some even suggested that its work at the
base level be eliminated since it duplicates many of the
services performed by the Committees for the Defense of the
Revolution. These criticisms inspired emotional debate and
reflection at the FMC meeting, in which several delegates
acknowledged that the organization had lost its identity and
that a bureaucratic apparatus had replaced lively exchanges.
Many argued for a renewal of the organization.
Among the subjects submitted officially for discussion
was the admission of religious believers to the party, a
proposal Fidel Castro publicly advocated in April. Press
accounts of the meetings reported some disagreement, pri-
marily on the grounds of maintaining ideological purity. The
overwhelming majority, however, appeared to favor elimi-
nating discrimination against religious believers. In private
discussions, many also advocate elimination of all forms of
discrimination, including against gays and lesbians.
Cuba is engaged in this process of democratization in an
atmosphere charged with anxiety about the future. When
several dozen Cubans sought asylum in foreign embassies in
mid-July, the tensions heightened, and some feared the
debates would be cut off. In an unprecedented move, the UJC
Communist youth organization responded by staking out a
position against "conservatives" in the party. In the July 23
issue of Juventud Rebelde, the UJC warned: "We must not
allow some [party members] to use such dangers to cling to
the defense of their conservative positions in the Revolu-
tion." The UJC's preemptive statement strengthened the
hand of those who support continuing democratization, and
may be an indication that even the party leadership is willing
to shed the veneer of consensus that has hidden internal
disagreements from public view.
What concrete proposals will be made at the party con-
gress next year is still unknown. Some continue to doubt that
the points of view expressed in the process will really
influence decision-making at the top. But there is growing
expectation that significant reforms will be adopted, and that
the political process will become increasingly more demo-
cratic. Failure to respond positively and concretely to these
expectations will almost certainly increase tensions and
frustrations. In the context of a deepening economic crisis,
that could prove explosive. Expanding political democracy
seems to be the only option for strengthening the system's
capacity to withstand the economic troubles on the horizon.
Whatever the results of the fourth party congress, the process
of discussion and debate has already altered Cuban politics,
setting in motion a process not easily stopped.

Tags: Cuba, socialism, Revolution, Dissent, debate

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