Last week, Cuban President Raul Castro endorsed sweeping economic reforms, proposed term limits for government and Communist Party officials, and conceded that the party's failure to groom a new generation of leaders will make it harder to find a successor.
The proposed reforms could usher in major changes. For the first time since the 1959 revolution, the government would allow Cubans to own and sell houses and cars. Taxis, barbershops, restaurants and other privately run businesses would be allowed to expand and hire workers. And the party's top leadership would be limited to two consecutive terms in office, making another 50-year president a thing of the past.
At the same time that Castro was bluntly calling for these reforms, however, he named two aging Communist Party hard-liners to help him implement them and cautioned that it might take as long as five years.
Any changes that might improve the lives of the Cuban people are welcome. But it's hard to imagine how successful such reforms will be if left to a party leadership that has spent much of the last 50 years defending a bankrupt ideology.
There is no question that Cuba is in need of swift and deep changes. The economy is anemic; some estimate that it grew by just 1.9% last year. (By comparison, Peru's economy grew by 9%.) Cuba imports more than half of its food supplies. It relies heavily on foreign help; Venezuela provided upward of $3 billion in oil and other subsidies in 2009. And the government has postponed plans to shed nearly a million state workers from its payroll because they are unlikely to find work in the nascent private sector.
This isn't the first time Cuba has experimented with reforms. But these proposals come in a very different time. Nearly 60% of all Cubans were born after the revolution, and the veterans of the Sierra Maestra who fought alongside Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara are dying off. Surely, the president and his Politburo know that the best way to ensure the survival of their revolution is to allow it to adapt to global economic realities. Ideologues have made concessions and adjustments in Vietnam and China, and the economies and standards of living in those countries — at least in the urban centers — have benefitted. Cubans deserve better than their country's planned economy, which has failed over the years to deliver on its promises.