Cuba moves forward, but with one eye on its past

Cuba moves forward, but with one eye on its past

In approving a draft of a new constitution that seeks to modernize Cuba’s economy and society, the Cuban National Assembly took another big leap forward last week in the long process of interweaving its communist-socialist ideology and values with more free market policies. Replacing the current Constitution, which was written in 1976 during the Soviet era, is a bold and pragmatic move that will allow much-needed faster economic growth.

The country’s lawmakers have opted to support the leadership in continuing to introduce quite radical changes that have their origins in the policies of former President Raúl Castro a decade ago. However, recognizing the right to private property, as the new draft constitution suggests, is a big step for a country in which public ownership has been a fundamental tenet of its ideology. Interestingly, this draft contains no statement of the Cuban Revolution’s long-standing objective of building a communist society, but the document nevertheless reaffirms the socialist character of the state and society. In these new constitutional arrangements there is no suggestion of moving toward a multi-party system; instead they reaffirm the Cuban view that democracy can prevail in a one-party system in which the Communist Party remains as the beacon of the country’s progress and prosperity.

For now, the draft constitution has not been published, and much of what is known of its detail has come from the country’s official media outlet, the newspaper and website Granma. Its approval by the National Assembly was the start of a consultative process whereby after lawmakers have approved the draft it is submitted to broad popular discussion and consultation. Following these consultations and any changes that might be made accordingly, it will be submitted to the Cuban people to make the final decision in a national referendum.

Under the draft constitution changes are not confined to the economy, but include meaningful political-structural ones. For instance, the president will cease to be the head of the Council of State, Cuba’s highest executive body, and of the council of ministers. Instead, the new position of prime minister is introduced and the president of the Assembly is designated to preside over the Council of State, which will contribute to a much-needed decentralization of power. Another change that represents a departure from the past is the recognition that marriage is “the consensual union of two people, regardless of gender” — in other words gay marriage is now approved, an issue which in Latin America generally is progressing slowly.

The new Constitution, accompanied by what Cubans call “updates,” would encourage more to leave the relatively comfortable public sector, which however offers only low state salaries, and venture into the world of private enterprise.

Yossi Mekelberg

As has been the case since the end of the Cold War and the subsequent years of extreme hardships, economic and social reforms have taken the shape of evolution rather than revolution. Moscow’s overnight cut in financial aid, combined with the uncompromising and deeply damaging American economic and political embargo, which led to the euphemistically named “special period,” compelled the Cuban leadership under Fidel Castro to consider introducing some elements of free-market and foreign investment activity. Such inclinations gathered momentum especially under Fidel’s brother and successor Raúl. The latter accepted that preserving socialism required swallowing the bitter pill of some aspects of market-based mechanisms. In just a few years since the government began granting permission for small private businesses to operate, the number of self-employed has quadrupled to 600,000. To inject some life into the stalled economy and following the reforms announced at the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba in April 2011, the government amended the General Housing Law to legalize the sale of real estate and cars between private parties. The 2011 legislation permitted Cubans to do so through exchanges, gifts, and sales. In many cases it also led to international partnerships in real estate. What had always been taken for granted by free-market capitalist societies, such as owning cars and mobile phones, represented a sea change for the Caribbean island.

Under the extremely adverse conditions which were the result both of being abandoned by Moscow and having to suffer a senseless six decades of severe US sanctions, there also evolved in Cuba a great resourcefulness and ability to improvise. Springing from necessity rather than any preconceived plan, such resourcefulness is a great asset in a world where sustainability is a major asset and a source of wealth. Harnessing, these traits of the Cuban economy and society could play a major role in advancing economic development and improving standards of living. The old American cars that are so associated with Cuban ingenuity in the minds of many of us, are just one example of how to turn potential scrap materials into assets worth thousands of dollars apiece. Instead of sugar plantations, organic farms are gradually emerging to supply the growing demand for organic products in the developed world. The new Constitution, accompanied by what Cubans call “updates,” would encourage more to leave the relatively comfortable public sector, which however offers only low state salaries, and venture into the world of private enterprise.

In recent decades Cuba has taken its first steps into a free-market economy, but without turning its back on some of its exceptional achievements in the fields of education, health, and ensuring that there is no homelessness and no one goes hungry. Wages may still be low, but this tells only part of the story, as the socialist system largely compensates for this. Cuba is ranked 68 of 188 in the UN’s Human Development Index, which puts it in the High Human Development category: no mean achievement for a country with almost no natural resources and an extremely hostile neighbor just 90 miles away.

It seems that the new guard in Cuba, led by President Miguel Díaz-Canel and with the tacit consent of the old guard watching carefully over his shoulder, accepts that structural changes and a more flexible ideological approach are the only way forward. Nevertheless, no one should expect a quick veering toward a fully-fledged capitalist and/or multi-party system. Cuba is keen to preserve as much as possible of its values and past achievements while cautiously introducing necessary changes. Characteristically, this beautiful island and its unique people prefer to find their own path, instead of accepting imposed solutions from anyone else.

  •  Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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