Friday, April 15, 2016

Post-Obama Visit, Cuba’s Communist Party to Signal Next Steps

Post-Obama Visit, Cuba's Communist Party to Signal Next Steps
Younger generation waiting in the wings for Castro to cede power
April 15, 2016 5:30 a.m. ET

Cuba's ruling Communist party meets Saturday for the first time since
2011 amid a historic detente with the U.S. and a quiet revolution of
rising expectations as Raúl Castro prepares to cede power to a younger

Party officials have been particularly secretive about the four-day
congress, which is in charge of setting the nation's economic path until

One thing to watch will be whether the party signals it wants faster
steps toward a more free-market system—such as allowing Cubans to
operate more types of businesses—or if it keeps the current pace or even
slows things down.

The congress comes less than a month after President Barack Obama's
visit to Havana, which sought to bury the Cold War enmity that has
divided the two countries for more than half a century.

"It's the first congress of the party where the government has no enemy
to blame for its troubles," says Dagoberto Valdés, who runs a Catholic
think tank in Cuba.

Mr. Valdés said Mr. Castro and his elderly comrades could take advantage
of that to make deeper changes.

But most observers have lower expectations. As of Thursday, the only
article in the official Granma newspaper to deal substantially with the
congress made no mention of new initiatives.

It said that officials will review the implementation of economic
guidelines adopted in 2011. Only 21% have been put fully into practice,
it noted.

"There should not be any big surprises," says Omar Everleny, a leading
Cuban economist.

"It seems as if nobody knows what to expect—except very little," a
Western diplomat said after speaking with senior Cuban officials.

Mr. Castro, 84 years old, has said he would step down in 2018. His
generation has ruled the island since 1959.

Miguel Diaz Canel, 55, was named first vice president of Cuba's Council
of State three years ago, and is widely tipped to be Mr. Castro's
successor. Experts will be watching to see if he is promoted to second
secretary of the Communist Party, succeeding the 85-year-old hard-liner
José Ramón Machado Ventura.
The party congress is taking place in a somewhat changed atmosphere in
the wake of Mr. Obama's visit. In a speech broadcast across the island,
Mr. Obama challenged Mr. Castro not to fear the voices of his own people.

The "Obama effect," says Ted Henken, a Cuba specialist at New York's
Baruch College, appears to have driven a public wedge between
hard-liners and supporters of change within the Cuban regime.

Pro-government writers excoriated Mr. Obama in the official press,
warning that the new, friendlier U.S. policy was a Trojan horse to
overthrow the regime. Former President Fidel Castro also weighed in with
a rare article in Granma lambasting the U.S. and the president,
ironically titled "Brother Obama."

The island's economy has diverged significantly since the last party

About a quarter of the labor force now works in a growing private
sector, according to Mr. Everleny. Many in the booming tourist trade are
doing well, such as restaurant owners and employees, cabdrivers and
people who take in boarders.

But the other 75% who depend on state-sector jobs are struggling to
survive on salaries that average about $25 a month, as consumer prices

Cubans in the private sector now are limited to an odd list of 201
occupations that runs from cutting hair to acting as clowns in parties.
Many want to see a greater liberalization that would permit
professionals, such as lawyers, engineers and architects, to strike out
on their own, Mr. Everleny said.

Many Cubans also want foreign joint ventures to have the freedom to hire
Cuban workers directly, instead of having to go through state employment
companies that keep most of their salaries.

They also want the government to create a legal framework for small and
medium-size businesses to be able to export and buy supplies from a now
largely nonexistent wholesale sector, Mr. Henken says.

"The people are asking for reforms, almost demanding them," says Hugo
Cancio, a Cuban-American with businesses in Havana and Miami.

Foreign investors are living through a moment of "irrational exuberance"
about Cuba's business possibilities, says Carlos Saladrigas, founder of
the Cuba Study Group, an influential U.S. think tank.

"If the government doesn't make major changes, I expect there will be a
lot of disenchantment from investors," Mr. Saladrigas adds.

Write to José de Córdoba at

Source: Post-Obama Visit, Cuba's Communist Party to Signal Next Steps -

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