For many Cuba-watchers, the highlight of Fidel Castro's speech before the 6th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in Havana on Saturday was a call to shorten term limits for the country's politicians.
The Castro brothers have held office so tightly and for so long, however, that questions are being raised about the extent to which Cuba's relatively tiny circle of political elite can nurture the sort of leadership transition that now appears on the near horizon.
"It's a fair question, whether there are a broad enough set of younger people who can assume the mantle of leadership inside the Cuban Communist Party and the state system," says Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America.
But Thale, in an email interview with Trend Lines, stressed that it would be "a mistake to think that change can't come from people inside the political system."
"I think the challenge is whether these younger advisers and other mid-level officials are promoted into secondary leadership positions in the next few years, where they will gain the experience they need," said Thale.
"What's worth watching here is not Raul [Castro] and [First Vice President] Machado Ventura, but the members of the Central Committee, the provincial party leaders and heads of the Young Communist League, and the No. 3 and 4 people in various government ministries and in the military," he added. "There are certainly qualified people there. Will the space for them to learn leadership open up in the next few years, so that they are positioned to become the next generation of leaders?"
"That's what the senior leadership have to ensure to make sure that the generational shift that's coming works smoothly," he said.
Such questions may seem particularly significant in light of the political transformations happening elsewhere in the world -- notably in Egypt and Tunisia, where old-guard rulers have been ousted from power after failing to move quickly enough on reforms and leadership transitions. Both countries are now in the throes of democraticization, although the process is chaotic, arguably because civil and political society had become so atrophied during the long and authoritarian reigns of former Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
But Thale cautions against comparing the atrophied political leadership of North Africa to Cuba's communist civil society.
"I don't think [Cuba's present leaders] are anywhere near as isolated as the leadership groups in Tunisia or Egypt," he said, noting that the Cuban Communist Party has some 800,000 members. While many may have "joined because it helped them get a promotion, it's still a big and well-connected group."
Links to neighborhood committees, women's organizations and other party-based popular organizations are "certainly weaker than they were in the early years of the revolution, and more bureaucratic, but they aren't nonexistent," said Thale.
Leading up to Castro's speech, he added, "the party organized a real discussion of its economic reform proposals and claims that 60 percent of the population participated."
"While the claim is probably exaggerated, and the participation sometimes nominal, it's pretty clear that the party organizations can reach out pretty broadly into society."
Geoff Thale offers additional insights into the developments in Cuba in this recent analysis at the Washington Office on Latin America.
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