Cuba’s Military with Unprecedented Power

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

President/General Raul Castro salutes the military parade on April 16th. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

HAVANA TIMES, April 26 — At this very moment in which I’m writing this article, we still don’t know what will be the multiple changes made to the “Guidelines” that served as the pre-convention discussion document for the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba.

Because of this, little is known about what was discussed and in what direction the rudder is steering.  Undoubtedly, when we find these out, we will have a clearer idea of how the Cuban political elite plans to continue advancing its “socialist updating.”

It is possible, however, to put forward some ideas about what has happened among the political elite based on some references by Raul Castro in his main speech and from the composition of the new Political Bureau (BP).

I believe there are three issues worth mentioning: the embarrassing mea culpa of the general/president, the deluge of military officers, and the emergence of new heirs who will have to walk a tightrope of being and not being to make it to the final act.

Short on replacements

In the first sense, I am obliged to borrow from Lord Acton’s axiom that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This is just what the president/general demonstrates to us when he speaks of the poor recruitment of leaders, referring to the errors of diffused third parties; or when praising the renewal of leaders in public responsibilities as a condition for good governance, as if the immense majority of people at that congress, on its political bureau and he himself were international consultants evaluating a situation from afar over which they have no responsibility.

They are very not very elegant concessions to the shamelessness that occurs when there exists no space for opposition or for public opinion to remind the rulers that political impudence has its limit.

Secondly, and this was the most interesting, the congress confirmed the absolute predominance of the military (the principal political supporters of the pro-market orientation and of the technocracy constructing it) over the other fragment of the elite: the anachronistic party bureaucrats headed by Machado Ventura.

Minister of Culture Abel Prieto (L) is no longer on the powerful Politburo. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

There were 12 politburo members eliminated (with nine seats going unfilled due to the reduction in the membership from 24 to 15), the most visible of which being the minister of Culture, Abel Prieto, who was said to have threatened the Cuban public with devoting more of his time to his vocation as a writer.

Of the 15 members of the new Politburo, eight are active officers in the military or come from its ranks.  However among these members are six people who hold their position in the PB while also holding presidencies or vice-presidencies in two other more important bodies: the Council of State and the Council of Ministers.  Four of them are organically tied to the military: Raul Castro, Colome Ibarra, Casas Regueiro and Marino Murillo; as well as Ramiro Valdes, who is not alien to this club and its opportunities.  Six others have seats with at least one of the two other institutions and three of these individuals are from the military.

In summary, if being in several of these institutions at the same time is an indicator of power within the elite, one would have to assume that of the 12 members of the PB in this situation, seven are tied to the military group – a degree of concentrated power greater than ever before.

This correlation has been developing since those distant times when Carlos Lage and Felipe Perez Roque were hunted down like frightened rabbits.  But what catches one’s attention is the intensity with which the president/general laid into his allies of the party bureaucracy, accustomed to their stingy prosperity at the expense of the state budget and resolved to put the brakes on any change that implies distancing them from that budget.

This is another shameless waste, because the president/general has been the second secretary of the Communist Party for almost five decades, and he has frequently devoted himself to aspects and internal workings of institutional life, concerns with which his brother never involved himself.

Nor are the arguments new, because they are continuing to use that same parroted phrase that “the party guides but does not administer,” which has been the standard line in so many repeated speeches.  But what is indeed new is the context, and in this is what’s different within the interior of the elite.  Machado Ventura’s guys have not only been reduced in their public positions, but have also been called to order, all of which I suppose we will be able to see in more detail in the party conference scheduled for January 2012.

Three Politburo members, Commander Ramiro Valdes, Gen. Casas Regueiro and Parliament Chair Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Lastly, as the whole process of the recruitment of younger leaders failed, the age of the new archons is extremely high.  This makes the disinterested offer by Raul Castro to govern for only five more years ring hollow.  The press has highlighted that the average age is 68, which doesn’t seem bad.  But let’s not forget that this factors in a 45-year-old girl scout and two schoolboys in their 50s.  Perhaps it would be more revealing to point out that the median age is 73, and that a third of these gladiators of socialism are over the average life expectancy on the island.  This is all record setting.

The rising star?

Above all, however, what stands out is the figure of a relatively young rising star: Marino Murillo.  Recruited from Raul’s own office, Murillo has displayed a meteoric career, first substituting for a person very close to Machado Ventura in the Ministry of Domestic Commerce, and then taking the place of Jose Luis Rodriguez at the Ministry of the Economy.

In 2009 he was named a member of the Council of State, and in 2011 became a sort of super minister of the Economy and Finance.  What is distinctive about Murillo is that he combined his reign in the area of the economy with a very conservative discourse.  Unlike other figures who have flirted openly with the renovating side of “updating,” Murillo has always clung to the more traditional side: he speaks disparagingly of the market, he emphasizes the need for planning in all its details, he swears that no one will be left abandoned by the state; and he sings praises of equality, which is not egalitarianism because it’s equality of opportunity, etc.

All of this makes me think that he is vehemently denying exactly with what wants to do, perhaps because he knows that this is how politics is played, particularly when it’s necessary to do it in a field mined by the resentments of displaced bureaucrats, along with the appetites of officials-making-themselves-bourgeoisie and the sensitivity of the quasi-octogenarian generals who perceive themselves anointed by the intangibility of the historic leaders.

Murillo is not indicating a solution to that great bottleneck that affects the Cuban elite: the shortage of regular mechanisms for recruitment and circulation.  But at least he’s opening a window in a room full of smoke.  His acid test will be to succeed at achieving real economic growth.  If this results, Murillo as much as the other Cuban leaders will begin moving the discussion toward greater economic opening, moving only what is indispensable on the political chessboard so that the economic opening functions.

Marino Murillo. Photo:Ricardo Lopez Hevia, Granma newspaper

If the Fourth Congress (1991) represented hope for socialist and democratic renovation, and the Fifth Congress (1997) was a setback in the slight advance that could be achieved, the Sixth Congress is the one that initiates the process of capitalist restoration in Cuba by the hand of the Communist Party and the technocratic-military elite.  Surely Murillo also understands this, though I don’t believe this generates the slightest ideological conflict for him.

Murillo knows — from the times when he was a diligent student in military school — that the leaders who have governed Cuba for half a century and each one of those who will do so for the next decade will take advantage of the peculiar polysemous sense of the word socialism, doing whatever they do but always shielding themselves behind it.

In this way they have associated it indistinctly with Guevarism, centralized Soviet planning, the Chinese model and always with Jose Marti, who serves all their aims.  Using one or another reference, they are building, consolidating and improving “socialism.”

The fact that they are now updating socialism is nothing strange.  In the end, Murillo — with his short 50 years of life — will say there is still time to continue with the rhyme for some time as long as they don’t fail in the immediate future with two things: remittances and the police.  And that in the end a semi-submergible oil rig will report the good news hoped for by Hindus, Norwegians, Brazilians, Venezuelans, Vietnamese and Spaniards – the same news that Halliburton is observing through the perforated blockade/embargo.

6 thoughts on “Cuba’s Military with Unprecedented Power

  • congratulations Dilla, a great piece of thinking. By the way, why are cubans forced to decide betwen the castro¨s regimen and the american plutocracy? Are there other alternatives?

  • Jim Burgess

    “The best government money can buy.Gov. by the rich and powerful for the rich and powerful.”

    Do you think this does not apply to Cuba?
    Is probably worst in Cuba. Because at least in the US we get to choose someone every 4 or 8 years over there is more like Monarchy or should I say Dynasty.
    There is even more corruption and cronyism.

  • @ Jim burgess: Assuming that you are addressing me, Jim, you apparently misunderstand what I’m saying.

    I’m saying that workable–and therefore “real”–socialism cannot be where the state owns 100% of the instruments of production. This sort of ownership is equivalent to the commune-building Utopian’s idea of abolishing private productive property and the trading market overnight.

    The kind of system I am proposing is socialism based on retention and use of private property and the market for socialist construction. In such a form of socialism the democratic and scientific socialist plan would be implemented by the vanguard party, but massive bureaucracy would not be the inevitable result.

    Good people like you have to get over the erroneous notion that socialism is where the government owns everything in sight. This error–which essentially is Utopianism with raw state power–has disgraced socialism for a century and must be discarded.

  • It is interesting to notice the inherent contradiction with this phrase

    “the party guides but does not administer,”

    and Raul’s political position.

    On one hand he is the president therefore he is the administrator and on the other he is also the head of the party. So how does he expect to function without contradiction of the above? 🙂

  • What would satisfy you,a system like the good old USA.The best government money can buy.Gov. by the rich and powerful for the rich and powerful.The United States one of the most corrupt in the world.

  • Good article, Haroldo. Your analysis is helpful in understanding what is going on with the changes.

    May I just say a brief word on the “market.” Socialists should not fear the market as thought it were something inherently evil. The market evolved historically over thousands of years. It performs differently under different modes of production. Under a workable socialist mode of production it can contribute enormously to socialist construction. “Fear of the market” is symptomatic of old line sectarianism, and socialists should understand how the market can help save the Cuban Revolution.

    The Cuban leaders are being forced by reality to reevaluate the market, and also the concept of private productive property rights. Let us hope that Cuba can work the bugs out of socialist construction and be a charismatic model for the world.

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