As Cuba proposes new constitution, government must support economy

As Cuba proposes new constitution, government must support economy
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After becoming the first vice president of Cuba in 2013 as well as the potential successor to Raul Castro before then, Miguel Diaz Canel discretely traveled through Cuba to meet with Communist Party officials in “get to know you” sessions. Most of these meetings remained private, but occasionally content would leak out, either by accident or design. On one of these occasions, Diaz Canel met with Cuban journalists and was recorded explaining to them that the leadership transition from the Castros would pose new challenges to the Communist Party.

“We will not have Fidel anymore to go out onto the Malecon and calm the mob,” Diaz Canel said. He was referring to a spontaneous protest that occurred during the “special period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its economic assistance to Cuba. At one tense moment Fidel Castro walked into the crowd of protesters, who reacted to his presence with astonishment and fear. They peacefully dispersed.

The Cuban government has proposed a new constitution for public discussion. To leave no doubt about the authority behind this document, the commission charged with drafting it is presided over by none other than Communist Party First Secretary Raul Castro, Second Secretary Ramon Machado Ventura, and President Miguel Diaz Canel. It undoubtedly will be acclaimed and promulgated. Diaz Canel and his mentor Raul Castro are well aware that the next generation of Cuban leaders will not inspire the fear that the revolutionary generation holds over the Cuban population. The solution advanced to preserve the role of the Communist Party as the undisputed guide for the island nation is to separate the functions of the Communist Party and the government.

Government ministers and even a prime minister can be let go when policies fail or popular discontent rises, while senior members of the Communist Party politburo pull strings in the background. This strategy is reflected in the notably younger and more racially diverse members of the current Cuban National Assembly and Council of Ministers. The new constitution will put term limits and age limits on officials. It will give the aspiring Communist Party members the sense they can advance as the revolutionary generation dies off. It will also allow the Communist Party politburo to rotate positions creating upward mobility while assuring that new officials do not get too comfortable in their positions.

While the Communist Party has been highly successful in maintaining the political status quo in Cuba for nearly 60 years, it has failed to create economic opportunity. The economic reforms introduced by Raul Castro beginning in 2010 saw ordinary Cubans pushing the limits of what was permitted and in some cases achieving economic success that was previously unimaginable. But this also unnerved Communist Party loyalists who saw their power eroding as their relative standard of living declined. The response has been to issue new regulations to severely constrain private economic activity and to prevent the creation of wealth.

Despite all the constraints on their activity, Cuban entrepreneurs have been the most dynamic part of the economy and a source of new government revenue. The Cuban government should be facilitating their activity rather than restraining it. Economic stagnation combined with the United States decision to end its policy of giving all Cuban entrants legal immigration status will increase pressure for change on the island. As the economic pressure increases, the Communist Party is in a better position to rearrange the players, but it also raises the odds that Cuba winds up facing a crisis rather than transitioning to a more modern country.

John Caulfield is the former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and founder of the Innovadores Foundation, an American nonprofit that supports private sector technology and design entrepreneurs in Cuba.