Is Cuba's Party Congress just a rubber-stamp exercise?

File photograph of a wall painted with the word Revolution in Havana, Cuba

After two decades of austerity, many Cubans hope that the Cuban Communist Party Congress, being held this weekend, will bring about substantial economic change.

Outside observers (mostly in Miami or Washington) - who often regard Cuba as Fidel Castro's personal fiefdom - tend to take one of two attitudes.

Either they dismiss the Congress as a rubber-stamping exercise or, conversely, they see tensions between "reformers" (including Raul Castro) and the "old guard" (led, perhaps, by a recovering Fidel) and attribute the Congress's long delay (it was due in 2001) to this underlying battle.

The reality, however, is more complex.

Firstly, Cuban Congresses have done much more than "rubber-stamping", and have often ended long processes of internal debate and initiated new debates.

While to many the idea of genuine debate might seem surprising, Cubans have in fact been encouraged to debate major issues frequently since 1959.

However, because discussions have often taken place within the Party or Cuba's mass organisations, they have largely gone unnoticed outside.

Consultation process

This month's Congress follows months of discussion, in party branches and mass organisations, of a lengthy set of reform proposals.

File photograph of Raul Castro Raul Castro is committed to the survival of Cuba's revolution

For example, the 1975 Congress followed years of fierce debate about Cuba's unorthodox definition of socialism.

In 2007, after harsh criticism of the revolution's failings, Raul launched a nationwide "consultation" which, through hundreds of local meetings, encouraged Cubans to echo those criticisms and strengthen his plans for economic reform.

He then called this new Congress within days of being elected president, in February 2008.

So why the delay?

Officially it has been attributed to the world economic crisis and the three devastating hurricanes of 2008.

But it could also be connected with resistance to reform from within the party hierarchy - there could be some truth to the idea of the battle between reformers and the old guard.

Resistance to change

Until Fidel confirmed recently (to the surprise of most Cubans) that he had resigned his Party leadership in January 2008, many outsiders had assumed that he was leading or legitimising resistance to reform, although he had given ample evidence to the contrary.

That resistance existed from others was demonstrated by Raul's announcement, in 2010, of an unprecedented pre-Congress conference to make personnel changes, in what was seen as a threat to those hoping to postpone reform.

File photograph of a small restaurant business in Havana, Cuba Cuba is inching towards market socialism

The threat clearly worked, since the Congress is taking place, and the conference has since been replaced by a post-Congress event, to enact Congress's decisions and, more significantly, to confirm the Party's role as one of ideological guidance, and not of involvement in government.

Raul seems to be saying that structures of governance, including a National Assembly which is gaining legitimacy and decision-making importance, should perhaps take precedence over a Party that has partly lost touch and has become a potential bulwark against change.

However, no-one should expect the Congress to announce either the Party's death or begin a transition towards capitalism.

However reformist he might be, Raul remains unremittingly committed to the survival of the revolution - there will be no wholesale privatisation.

While any changes will go further than previous reforms, they will not follow Washington's prescriptions or the Eastern European experience after 1989.

New generation

Equally, the Party's unique centrality will remain, although it may change, perhaps broadening to incorporate new elements.

Raul has said that this is his last Congress, but no future leaders will be clearly identifiable, to prevent them courting the outside world or creating patronage bases.

What one can say with certainty is that the new generation will not come from the ranks of former guerrillas, but from the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the emerging "technocracy" - those whom Raul has been steadily appointing to government in recent years. These are non-politicians with proven expertise, efficiency and loyalty.

So change will come - not as little as some outsiders suspect nor as much as others assume, and we can be sure that the Congress will, in turn, set in motion the next "debate".

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