Explainer: What is Cuba’s Communist Party Congress and why is it being watched closely?

Adriana Brasileiro
·3 min read

Communist Party leaders in Cuba are convening in Havana to discuss the island’s future at a moment of economic crisis, mounting social tensions and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Party leader Raúl Castro is expected to retire from what is regarded as Cuba’s most powerful political position after announcing in recent years that he would step down in 2021. The leadership change would mark the first time in over six decades that a Castro brother is not at the helm of the government.

Here is a look at how Cuba’s party congress works.

What is the Communist Party Congress?

Cuba’s Communist Party meets once every five years - usually - to discuss the island’s economic and political policies.

Past congresses have helped usher in some of the most significant changes, such as in 2011, when delegates gave a green light to more than 300 economic measures, including proposals to cut government jobs and encourage more private sector activity.

Raúl Castro became the party’s first secretary after Fidel stepped down. In 2016, the main theme was succession. Castro said party leaders were getting old and needed to make way for a younger generation.

What will happen at this year’s gathering?

Delegates from throughout the country will evaluate country’s economy and implementation of the 2011 reforms, considered the biggest shake-up to the island’s state-run socialist economy in decades. The reforms have been slowly implemented, and some have not been enacted at all.

Party leaders are under pressure to come up with quick solutions as quality of life on the island deteriorates amid its worst economic crisis in three decades. But the event has been billed as a “Congress of Continuity” and few expect a significant departure from the current economic model.

The congress will also decide who will form the party’s leadership going forward. Current President Miguel Díaz-Canel is widely expected to become the next first secretary.

Why is the party’s first secretary so important?

The constitution describes the Communist Party as the leading force of society and of the state in Cuba. That’s why the first secretary of the party is considered the country’s most powerful figure.

Within the party, there is a 17-member Politburo, Cuba’s most powerful political leadership body. The first secretary oversees the Politburo and all groups under the party’s central committee.

Fidel Castro led Cuba’s Communist Party from its creation in 1965 until 2011 when his brother Raúl became first secretary. In this photo Castro is seen giving a speech at the first party congress in 1975.
Fidel Castro led Cuba’s Communist Party from its creation in 1965 until 2011 when his brother Raúl became first secretary. In this photo Castro is seen giving a speech at the first party congress in 1975.

How is Cuba’s system structured?

In Cuba, only one party is allowed to exist: The Communist Party.

According to its constitution, Cuba is a Marxist-Leninist state, influenced by the ideology of independence hero José Martí. Other political organizations can be deemed “illicit association,” “enemy propaganda” and other crimes under Cuban law.

Cuba’s Communist Party was created in 1965 after the merger of smaller parties and revolutionary groups.

The executive branch is represented by the Council of State -- a 31-member group that’s elected by the legislative branch, Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power -- and the Council of Ministers, which is basically the president and the government’s cabinet, with the highest-ranking administrative officials.

The National Assembly, Cuba’s parliament, is an elected legislative body but it’s not independent from the Communist Party. It currently has 605 members who are selected every five years by commissions whose members are controlled by the party.

The office of the prime minister was resurrected in the 2019 Constitution after a 43-year hiatus. The prime minister is responsible for day-to-day operations of the government.

At the grassroots level, Cuba has Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, a network of neighborhood and municipal organizations across the island of 11 million people. The organizations are tasked with communicating educational and political campaigns to ordinary Cubans, and to report “counter-revolutionary” activity to the party’s leadership.