Cuba’s political system is a source of fascination to analysts, as in many respects it is unique. The country defines itself as a socialist state, guided by the political ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin, and having the communist party as its sole political party and its leading force.
What makes Cuba unique within the communist bloc is its stability. Until his voluntary handover to his brother Raul in 2008, after almost 50 years, Fidel Castro was the world’s longest serving head of government, and, despite rumors of his death, he is still seen as the power behind the throne.
The position of Raul Castro, like that of Fidel before him, is as President of the executive bodies of the Cuban government, the Council of State and the Council of Ministers. These bodies are elected by the legislature, the National Assembly of the People’s Power, consisting of 601 members elected by municipal and local committees. This assembly mainly exists to ratify the decisions made by the executive, which basically means Castro himself.
The basis for this constitution was formed in 1976, following the first congress of the Cuban Communist party, which after the Castro revolution in 1959 had eventually established itself out of three rebel groups. Subsequently, policies have been developed through a series of further congresses.
These congresses have been significant in the sense that, despite the apparently dictatorial nature of the regime, Cuban politics clearly allows a fairly substantial place for debate in decision making and policy making. The most recent, and certainly not the least important, of these congresses took place in Havana in April 2011. This was the first since Raul came to power, and had been repeatedly postponed since 2002.
The main reason for this delay seems to have been that the stated aim of the congress was to ratify Raul’s economic reform program.
This is basically designed to attempt to revive Cuba’s flagging economy, by moving sections of it from the state to the market sector. In the run-up to the congress, there was substantial resistance to this from various groups, including older Cubans and middle ranking activists, as well as members of the bureaucracy, who saw it as a threat.
The reforms set in motion by Raul seem to have had little effect on ordinary Cubans, who privately express discontent, but fear reprisals if they express the discontent publicly. There are a number of opposition groups, but ordinary Cubans are largely unaware of their existence, as the groups have little opportunity to communicate with the public. Most people therefore tend to assume that there is little chance for change to come from within Cuba.
However, there are a few activist organizations, such as Directorio, or the Cuban Democratic Directorate, which exist to provide training and support to the fledgling pro-democracy youth movement. Some have placed hope in the Catholic church as a vehicle for change, but the church has so far proved a disappointment.
In particular, the hopes of the democratic opposition were raised in early 2012 by the Papal visit, but were dashed by the Vatican’s ambivalent response.
However, the movements are growing, even if slowly. The situation is not helped by the fact that the Castros, who are both over 80, have so far shown no sign of planning for succession. The longer it takes Raul to get the economy established on a sustainable basis, the more likely it seems that the end of his rule could open up the opportunity for a popular uprising.
Meanwhile, the very tentative moves towards greater economic freedom have failed to impress the outside world, in particular the USA and Canada, who at the 2012 Summit of the Americas refused to guarantee Cuba’s inclusion in future summits. This puts the next summit in 2015 in doubt, as several other states have announced their intention of boycotting it, if Cuba is excluded.
The fate of this summit could depend on the decision made about Castro’s successor, which could be as early as 2013. The world, and the Cubans, will have to wait and see.