Political Developments in Cuba: A conversation with Rafael Hernández

On November 4th, the Dialogue co-hosted an event with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) to discuss the latest political developments in Cuba with guest Rafael Hernández, editor of the Cuban periodical Temas. Hernández discussed a variety of economic and political developments occurring in Cuba. Hernández noted that the normalization process is not just about formulating a new bilateral strategic framework with the United States, but it is also a factor in how Cuba sees itself politically, economically, ideologically, and culturally.

Cuban society is in transition, noted Hernández, with the following new economic and political trends taking shape: a new emerging political economy, the historic leadership of the Cuban Revolution beginning to cede its role to a new generation of political leaders, the transformation of a new citizen political culture, a changing relationship between the state and Cuban civil society, a fresh regional and international alignment, normalized relations with the United States, and a redefinition of the Cuban socialist system itself.  Within this transition, however, Hernández warned that Cuban society is still distrustful of perceived US interference in Cuba’s internal affairs.  There is suspicion in Cuba of US backed NGO’s, foundations, universities, and churches. In addition, rhetoric around “human rights,” “democracy,” and “transition,” are seen in Cuba as code words for US meddling in Cuba’s domestic affairs.

Hernández also noted that there have been changes to Cuba’s migration laws to allow more Cubans to leave the island for longer periods of time and not lose their property rights. This allows them to live abroad and earn more income to send back to family and friends in the form of remittances. It is also easier to become a dual resident, which is becoming a growing trend.

The international image of Cuba has also changed since the announcement of new diplomatic relations with the US on December 17, 2014. There has been an increased emphasis on promoting tourism as well as “people to people” exchanges. There is some trepidation about a “Tsunami Americano” invading the island and the recognition that increased US tourism and travel is putting a strain on Cuban resources.      

There was an acknowledgement of the increased use of information technology and the internet on the island, especially the Wi-Fi hotspots in outdoor public facilities. Hernández highlighted that the increased availability of the internet is expanding the ability of Cubans to gain access to outside information around the world. 

Current political issues surrounding the transition were also analyzed. It was noted that poverty and inequality have increased in recent years. In addition, there are demographic changes occurring in Cuba that will impact the future of the economy. Cuba is experiencing an aging population as well as an immigration outflow of its young people. The government is also experiencing challenges. There is hyper-centralization in the government sector and a large, inefficient bureaucracy, as well as an overextended state sector. This inefficient bureaucracy has caused the implementation of legislation surrounding approved political changes to be delayed. Increased corruption has also become a problem. Finally, normalization between the United States has caused a retrenchment from some senior Cuban officials who distrust US motives.

The Cuban government is looking at developing policies that address the following: taking advantage of the normalization and the multiple actors on both the US and Cuban sides to help alleviate some of the problems mentioned above; identifying new interlocutors inside the United States for enhanced cooperation; developing initiatives for cooperation regarding objectives on the Cuban side and not solely on the US side; and moving beyond the defensive mentality of some in the Cuban decision-making body regarding normalization to look at it from a strategic stand point.

Hernández highlighted the new policies approved at the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba in April 2011 that sought to “update socialism” and address some of the challenges facing the Cuban government (the overextended state, government concentration and centralization, and weak rule of law). Decentralization is one of the proposed updates, which will allow regional and local level governments to evaluate problems facing their municipalities, improve their ability to implement their own solutions, and develop their own resources. Another development is the expansion of agricultural land to allow up to 85 percent of productive land to be leased to co-ops. It was noted that due to changes in laws regarding labor, the percentage of private labor is now at 27 percent in 2016, up from just five percent in 1993.

Hernández discussed the proposed reforms of the government approved at the Sixth Party Congress. One such reform is to shrink the size of the state. Another is to separate the division of government into the following areas: state administration, state economy, and overall government representation. A final goal is to limit the micromanagement of the government to allow more effective implementation of the modernization initiatives. Hernández also noted ways in which the government has undertaken several initiatives to strengthen the rule of law. One is to improve decision-making by the National Assembly and give them an increased role in the legislative process. Another is to continue to attract younger Cubans to be part of the National Assembly and inject fresh new blood into the Cuban political system. A third initiative is to increase the co-op model into the non-agricultural sector. A fourth initiative is the development of more private small, medium, and micro-enterprises through the new private sector law. A final initiative is a constitutional reform that restricts top state and party positions to two five year terms. 

Cuba is experiencing profound changes both economically and politically. These changes represent both opportunities and challenges, especially with regard to the normalization of relations with the United States.  Only time will tell regarding the full effects of this rapid change in Cuba and the end result that normalization will have on the island.