Jaime Suchlicki | Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies
General Raul Castro recently announced that the Cuban Communist Party will hold its sixth Party Congress in April 2011. Although legally Congresses must be held every five years, the last Congress was in 1997.
It is significant that the announcement was made by Raul, Second Secretary of the Party and not by Fidel, the First Secretary. This may indicate the final stages of a succession that has been taking place for the last few years. Fidel is likely to announce his resignation before April, opening the door for his brother to become First Secretary and thus assume all major positions in Cuba’s political structure.
But what is the significance of the Communist Party in Cuba and why a Congress in 2011? Of the three institutional pillars of most Communist regimes, the party, the military, and the security apparatus, in Cuba the Party seems the least important. Fidel Castro always disliked institutions. His style of leadership was personal, Stalinist, and caudillista, and he viewed institutions as instruments to carry “his” policies rather than as policy-making bodies. He has never been a strong vocal advocate of the Party.
The Communist Party (the old PSP) played a small role in the revolutionary victory and was victimized by Castro in the early years of the revolution. Castro, unlike European communist leaders, did not rise to power through the Party ranks nor did he owe his successes to the Party machinery. Even as the new Communist Party of Cuba was organized in 1965, it was a Castro creation, an attempt to legitimize an already existing Communist regime.
Since 1965 the relevance of the Party has been limited. While major decisions in Cuba are discussed and made at the Party Politburo, Fidel Castro and his brother have dominated the Party. Congresses have been held at irregular intervals and then only to discuss and ratify pre-approved policies.
The military, which preceded the Party in its organization and development, is now not only independent from the Party but superior to it. Neither military personnel policy nor military doctrine and internal control is handled by the Party. Increasingly, military figures have taken key positions not only in the Politburo but in other key Party positions. The militarization of the Party is consistent with the militarization of society and the economy.
In distinct contrast to his brother, Raul has nurtured the development of the Party and seems to believe that institutions, beyond the military and the security apparatus, are necessary to support his regime and to carry on policies.
Especially at this critical and difficult juncture, the Party is needed to help the military in implementing the economic adjustments decreed by Raul. The Party is an important organization to retrain and channel the more than 500,000 workers being fired by the State. Vigilance, education, and control are functions that Communist parties have traditionally performed in other countries and will continue to perform in Cuba.
It is expected that the set of adjustments announced by the Cuban government will be adopted at the Congress with little opposition or discussion.
One interesting possibility is the appointment of Raul’s only son, Alejandro Castro Espin, to a key Party position. A colonel in Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior and a rising star in Cuba’s hierarchy, Alejandro is young, ambitious and may be being groomed as a future successor. It is yet too early to tell whether the North Korean model is well and alive in Cuba!