Sunday, April 17, 2011

From Fidel's Giron to Raul's Congreso

Saturday-Sunday, April 16-17, 2011
Havana, Cuba

A day that began with a massive patriotic celebration of past victories over external enemies under the historic if personalistic and paternalistic leadership of former President and Comandante-en-Jefe, Fidel Castro, ended with a startling call from the less flashy and more consultative Raul Castro for a new committment to defeat the twin internal enemies of economic stagnation and political rigidity.

Surprising many who expected Raul's opening address at the 6th Party Congress to focus exclusively on the economic "updating" outlined in last November's widely circulated and debated "lineamientos" document, Cuba's leader also referred obliquely to necessary political adjustments (including the concept of 5-10 year "term limits" for elected officials) aimed at further "perfecting socialism."

Saturday's morning march to commemorate the nation's victory at the Bay of Pigs in April, 1961 (usually reffered to here simply as Giron, the name of the beach where the exiles were to have landed) was heavy with military symbolism, including a near dawn start time, anti-aircraft guns, numerous army vehicles and uniformed military personnel, and a series of MIG fighter jet fly-overs (reminiscent of the Blue Angles on the 4th of July).

All this was combined with a tightly choreographed and smartly dressed contingent of students ranging in age from 8 to 28 to memorialize the young educator army brigade "Conrado Benitez," which led Cuba's historic Literacy Campaign during the summer of 1961.

As is usual in these massive demonstrations of revolutionary and nationalistic pride, state workers were bussed into the city center starting well before dawn, with delegations representing many workplaces, municipalities, schools and universities. Turnout was extensive as Cubans from many walks of life demonstrated their commitment to the revolution, reaffirming its socialist orientation, even with (or perhaps because of) the looming implementation of massive layoffs in the state sector and concomitant fear of loosing one's job.

The atmosphere was both festive and soberly patriotic with a clear effort to conflate nationalism and the preservation of Cuban sovereignty with the defense of Cuban socialism and an historic preoccupation with countering attacks from "el imperio" (the USA).

While the city was eerily quiet for the rest of the day given that nearly all state enterprises and workplaces were shuttered, elements of Cuba's emerging private sector were also on display throughout the capital. New and recently reopened food carts, kiosks, and paladar restaurants were open for business, as were 1,001 other private initiatives, including CD, DVD, and jewelry vendors, private hostels and taxis, and even one-stop-shops for Cuba's wide array of religious paraphernalia.

At 4:00 in the afternoon in the far western Havana suburb of Cubanacan, 1,000 delegates of Cuba's Communist Party kicked off their 6th Congress. As was the case the previous day in Plaza, all roads to and from the Convention Center were blocked off and heavily guarded by police and military personnel.

In his opening speech, Raul...

(I'll give my impressions of the speech in my next post. I actually missed the speech when he gave it as I was stranded outside the Convention Center trying fruitlessly to get a photo of some delegates. Then, this morning's newspapers were not delivered on time so I'll have to wait for the rebroadcast of the speech during tonight's Mesa Redonda to give you my take on it. Sometimes it's easier to follow events in Cuba from abroad than from within! Still, Radio Bemba, Cuba's unique grapevine, has been buzzing with Raul's talk of impending changes to Cuba's electoral system).

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