Cubans to Debate Economic Reform

Closed party congress may consider some privatization, but politics won't be on the agenda

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE straws in the wind indicate Cuba's Fourth Communist Party Congress opening Oct. 10 will be a roll-up-your-sleeves working session where meaningful economic - but not political - reforms will be debated, analysts say.For the first time since the Cuban Constitution officially established a one-party communist system in 1976, observer delegations have not been invited. Foreign reporters will also be barred. The closed doors signal the likelihood of open debate among the 1,800 delegates, analysts say. And given Cuba's challenges, it will be needed. The August failure of the hard-line coup in Moscow and last month's announcement of Soviet troop withdrawals from Cuba point to dwindling support from its long-time benefactor as the Soviet economy worsens. "Events in the Soviet Union have given Cuban economic reformists a lot more clout coming into this Congress," says Gillian Gunn, Cuba specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. In internal debates, reformists have pushed for privatizing small-scale manufacturing, farmers' markets, and services such as shoe repair, plumbing, and plastering. These are activities state entities do poorly and are already done on the black market. "It's recognizing and legitimizing reality," Mr. Gunn says, "licensing private entrepreneurs and encouraging them, and introducing a taxation system to ensure profits don't get out of line." Free farmers' markets - where farmers can sell produce directly to consumers at market prices after filling state quotas - were tried and shut down once before. The scheme created middle men who began reaping huge profits and building large homes. "[Cuban leader Fidel] Castro was outraged," says Gunn. "It not only offended his ideological preconceptions, but more important, it created a power base for opposition to his regime. A merchant class with financial clout - that's the beginning of real opposition." The farmers' markets did boost production and delivery of goods, however. The reformists want to reintroduce the idea - probably with a new name - but with taxes on profits and regulations that prevent price gouging. Earlier this year, in a speech commemorating the April 1961 rout of the United States-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, Mr. Castro for the first time gave passing approval to privatization in a reference to bicycle repairs. A Cuban official confirms that the Congress is likely to "formalize privatization of small business services," but adds that it will occur, "Only at the level of consumption and services, not at an industrial level. That's where troubles began for China." The official also sees the congress discussing liberalizing foreign investment laws, loosening the state's grip on organized religion, and some "local" party democratic reforms. Last year, town meetings were held throughout Cuba, and locals were encouraged to voice concerns as a way to develop reform ideas. But meetings were shelved as participants grew critical. Despite the US's continuing 30-year economic blockade and calls for free elections, Cuban officials say replacing the communist system will not be discussed. "A revolution such as ours does not change its ideas nor its names," Castro said in a press conference in Havana last week. But as store shelves grow empty and the list of rationed items grows longer, Cubans are looking for government solutions. "There's no sense of organized opposition forming. The people want change, but they're hoping Fidel will make it," says Wayne Smith, director of Cuban Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Any economic changes at the Congress are expected to be couched in vague language. "Cubans are convinced that any admission of major reform will be interpreted by the US as a sign of vulnerability," Gunn says. "They're worried the US will say 'Aha, we've got them on the run' and apply more pressure."

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