Fifty years ago this weekend, the Cuban Revolution had its crystallizing moment: the defeat of the Bay of Pigs invasion. On April 17, 1961, a small army of 1,500 CIA-trained Cuban exiles stormed Cuba’s southern coast, only to be routed in three days by the forces of the island’s leader, Fidel Castro. It was an embarrassing debacle for the new Kennedy Administration, which gave the exiles inadequate support; but for Castro it was a tropical Battle of Britain that helped consolidate his fledgling communist regime. In a letter to President Kennedy, Castro sidekick Che Guevara thanked America: “Before the invasion, the revolution was shaky. Now it’s stronger than ever.”
Small wonder, then, that Cuba’s current leader, Raúl Castro, who officially replaced his ailing older brother Fidel as President in 2008, chose the victory’s golden anniversary, April 16-19, to hold the first Cuban Communist Party Congress in 14 years. The Bay of Pigs may have been one of the revolution’s mightiest moments, but right now its economy sits at one of its feeblest crossroads ever – a reality that even Raúl, 79, blames in part on himself and an aging leadership for whom this congress may be a last chance to set things right. In a speech last December, Raul denounced a lack of “unity, organization and coordination within the party and the government,” as well as “waste, abuse, lies, laziness, job padding and secrecy.” For those “who belong to the revolution’s historical generation,” he acknowledged, “the time we have left is short.”
This will be the sixth Cuban party congress since the first in 1975, and it could be the most important. The 1,000 delegates gathering in Havana plan to ratify almost 300 reforms Raúl proposed last year – the boldest of which, including broadened private enterprise, have Cuba-watchers asking if he’s moving the island to a China-style system of communist capitalism, or perhaps even a more liberal, less centralized political structure. In his December speech to the National Assembly, Raúl insisted, “I wasn’t elected President to restore capitalism in Cuba” but to “perfect” Cuba’s socialism.
But many wonder how Cuban socialism can be salvaged, let alone perfected, if rescuing the economy means ditching collectivist dogma. When Raúl announced last summer that half a million state employees, a tenth of Cuba’s workforce, would have to be laid off to help pull the island’s finances out of their sinkhole of inefficiency, Cuba’s central labor union conceded that a new doctrine would now be “the private management and initiative of the individual.” Raúl is counting on private businesses – which Cuba has permitted to a very limited degree since the collapse of Soviet aid 20 years ago – to absorb the unemployed. By 2015 he hopes almost 2 million Cubans, out of a population of 11 million, will have non-state jobs, three times the number of self- or privately employed today.
All those new barbers, taxi drivers, pizza makers and other small business owners require capital, which is hardly abundant in a wheezing communist state. Enter organizations like the Washington, D.C.-based Cuba Study Group (CSG), a non-profit headed by Cuban-American business leaders who say the U.S. has to engage Havana if it wants to affect Cuba’s democratic transition. The CSG urges a loosening of Washington’s 49-year-old trade embargo against Cuba – which the Castros blame for much of Cuba’s economic pain – to let Americans invest in private Cuban start-ups. “As the Cuban economy becomes increasingly more directed into the private sector,” says CSG Co-Chairman Carlos Saladrigas, “the question is whether the embargo is hurting Cuba’s government or hurting its people.”
Many Cubans can seed businesses with money from relatives in the U.S., who under new Obama Administration rules can now send remittances more freely to Cuba. But many more have no such bankrollers, especially Afro-Cubans, who have far fewer exile relatives. As a result, the CSG – with backing from the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba, a once marginalized institution that under Raúl has suddenly become a prominent interlocutor between the government, dissidents and the international community – this month proposed a $50 million micro-loan fund for a broader swath of Cuban entrepreneurs.
So far both Obama and Raúl seem cool to the idea – Obama because he’s wary of further provoking embargo hard-liners in Congress, who insist that any money sent to Cuba is a crutch for a dictatorship, and Raúl because, while he may not have qualms about U.S. investment in state-run Cuban business, he fears that letting yanqui-run capitalism in again would mean “the dismantling of what has been won at the cost of so much sacrifice,” as he said in December. But Washington and Havana will both have to realize sooner or later that making reform work in Cuba means opening capital doors into the island.
That reality will hover over this weekend’s Havana congress, whose main task, say observers, may be figuring out how to create a more open, efficient order in Cuba that the Castros and communists can still control. But if not via China’s model, then via what? Raúl (whom the congress is expected to confirm as Fidel’s successor to head the party as well as the government) has warned Cuba’s leadership, “Either we rectify [our mistakes] or we will fall off the cliff and the efforts of entire generations will be lost.” As he said, the time left for the generation that won the Bay of Pigs “is short.” The big question is how “shaky” – how close to the cliff – their revolution is 50 years later.