April 24, 2011

IT HAS NOW been five years since Raul Castro assumed control of the Cuban regime from his ailing older brother, Fidel. In that time, the younger Mr. Castro — an accurate, if strange, description for a man who will turn 80 in June — has repeatedly reflected on the economic failings of the Cuban Revolution and promised to correct them. Over the past year, in fact, Raul Castro has sounded almost apocalyptic. “Either we change course, or we sink,” he declared in December. “We have the basic duty to correct the mistakes we have made over the course of five decades of building socialism in Cuba.” Such rhetoric raised expectations that Raul would at last bring the free enterprise and political opening that Cuba so desperately needs.

But Cuba’s Communist Party congress last week, the first such meeting since 1997 and the first ever under Raul’s direction, confirmed that talk of reform in Cuba is mostly just that. Instead of liberating the economy, Raul sketched a program of limited privatization that could take “at least” five years to phase in. The most dramatic measure would authorize Cubans to buy and sell houses and cars for the first time since 1959, but Raul provided few details, except to assure Cubans that no one would be allowed to accumulate too much property. The plan calls for more licenses for small service businesses — a measure partly aimed at converting black market enterprises into taxable ones.

Even more disappointing was the lack of political reform — or even a shake-up of the Communist hierarchy. Yes, Raul suggested choosing more non-Communists for government posts, but he offered no plan for elections or actual party competition. Instead, Raul promoted Jose Roman Machado Ventura, a longtime crony and fellow octogenarian, to the No. 2 spot in what is still the “vanguard” Communist party. Nor was there any indication that Cuba plans a conciliatory gesture toward the Obama administration, such as the release of Alan Gross, the 61-year-old U.S. aid worker recently sentenced to 15 years on trumped-up subversion charges.

The Cuban “revolution” has devolved into a confused gerontocracy. Raul ostensibly recognizes that the “mistakes” of the past half-century have left the country nearly bankrupt; yet this clashes with his “firm conviction and commitment of honor that the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party has as his main mission and meaning of his life: to defend, preserve and continue perfecting Socialism, and never allow the capitalist regime to return,” as the Cuban state media put it. This is a contradiction that his bid to “update” the Cuban model cannot square — any more than the previous reform campaigns that litter the revolution’s history could.

Raul Castro’s speeches at the congress were full of the usual attacks on slothful Cuban workers, inefficient party cadre and perfidious U.S. imperalism. But the truth is that Cuba’s problems are mostly of the Castro brothers’ own making. They may never end until the Castros’ regime does.