Hints of More Reform in Cuba

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Adalberto Roque / AFP / Getty

Cuban President Raul Castro

Raul Castro may admit that his oratorical skills are limited, but these days his speeches are some of the most closely scrutinized in the hemisphere. Since Raul stepped in for his ailing elder brother Fidel as Cuba's President in 2006 — a change that became permanent in February — analysts have scoured the communist leader's every utterance for signs that he intends to pursue economic and political reform. And, in small but noteworthy doses, he has delivered —targeting Cuba's "excess of prohibitions" (last month he permitted Cubans to own cell phones) and urging what he called "fearless debate" about its socialist system (this month Cuban artists and writers openly pressed for greater Internet access on the island).

But on Monday night, Raul gave Cuba-watchers even more reason to anticipate change. In a speech to the Cuban Communist Party's Central Committee, the 76-year-old President announced that a party congress will be held in the second half of 2009 — the first such Cuban powerfest since 1997. Communist Party congresses are usually a chance for the government to trumpet its achievements, and many analysts expect that its scheduling could portend greater liberalization of Cuba's economy over the next 18 months. Because Raul possesses little of the charisma that helped keep his 81-year-old brother in power for so long, he may need to improve Cubans' economic well-being if he's to legitimize his hold on power — especially since the congress will be held in the year of the Cuban Revolution's 50th anniversary.

"If Fidel were still President and he was the one announcing the congress, I think most people would yawn," says Cuba analyst Philip Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "But for Raul, it's saying, 'By the end of next year we're going to face the music and put forth a record.' "

In his speech, Raul made clear that his record will focus on reform of Cuba's agriculture, whose shortfalls and inefficiencies he has regularly slammed since becoming President. "Food production has to constitute the principal work of the party's leaders," he insisted, calling it a "matter of maximum national security" — and pointedly telling those leaders not to address the problem with "studies and meetings, but on the ground, talking directly" to farmers.

Toward that end, Raul, widely considered a more pragmatic and managerial successor to Fidel's more fiery and ideological rule, has already announced changes such as allowing farmers to grow private crops on unused state land. Some analysts speculate that he may even use the speech he's expected to give on Thursday, May Day, to broach the subject of foreign investment in agriculture, especially since he was largely responsible for bringing private capital into Cuba's tourism industry in the 1990s to help keep the island's economy afloat after its Soviet subsidies disappeared. He could also announce further measures to bring Cuba's convertible peso, a hard currency used mostly by tourists and other foreigners on the island, into alignment with the weaker peso used by regular Cubans, most of whom only make about $15 a month.

On the political side, Cubans are hoping Raul will confirm the rumors and formally announce the abolition of the tarjeta blanca — the "white card," a hard-to-acquire exit permit that allows Cubans to travel abroad — and let them leave the island freely. In a move applauded by international human rights groups that have long criticized Cuba's tradition of carrying out executions by firing squad, Raul on Monday night also announced that the government would commute almost all death sentences currently in effect to prison terms of between 30 years and life. While the death penalty would remain on the books in Cuba, he said, it would only be used in special cases such as terrorism. He also made a point of telling committee members that Fidel had been consulted on the matter and that he was "in favor" of it.

But as the 2009 congress draws closer (Raul did not specify a date), speculation will grow over whether Fidel Castro will remain as head of the Cuban Communist Party — which many still regard as the island's real power — or whether Raul will take over that position, too, and consolidate the kind of political authority held by his brother for almost 50 years. On Monday, Raul promoted a mix of so-called Fidelista and Raulista officials to the party's Politburo; but he appointed a group considered Raulistas to help him head a new "oversight committee" to streamline the party's decision-making. Either way, Castro critics ask, will Raul's rise lead to greater democratization? In his Monday speech, Raul insisted his main goal — "like that expressed by comrade Fidel," he said — is to "assure the continuity of the Revolution when its historic leaders are no longer here." Cuba has hardly arrived at a level of "fearless debate" about its future. But by the time Party '09 arrives in Cuba, "the continuity of the Revolution" could mean something very different than what it's meant for the past half century.