HAVANA — Since the collapse of Communist dictatorships across Eastern Europe more than a year ago, Cuba's President Fidel Castro has adopted the slogan "socialism or death," trumpeting his resolve to keep ruling this Caribbean island as a one-party socialist state.
"If they told me that 98% of the people did not believe in the revolution, I would carry on fighting," he declared in a speech last October. "A revolutionary must be a man who, even if he is left alone, continues to fight for his ideas."
But behind the aging leader's defiant rhetoric, his Communist Party is engaged in a lively debate over how to rid the political system of some of its dogmatic, Soviet-style trappings and make it more responsive to the needs of 10 million Cubans during their worst economic hardships since Castro led a guerrilla band to power in 1959.
Most of the discussions are part of an official effort to shape the everyday complaints of ordinary Cubans into an agenda of reforms at the Fourth Party Congress to be held some time this year. Among the demands most likely to be accepted are freer emigration and an end to discrimination against religious believers.
At less formal round tables, held twice a month at the University of Havana, Communists and outsiders are debating the "crisis of socialism" and what new form Cuba's official creed must take to survive. One indication is the university's curriculum, which requires more study these days of 19th-Century Cuban independence hero Jose Marti and less of Karl Marx.
"The Cuban revolution is searching for a new philosophy," Mercedes Arce, head of the university's Center for Study of Political Alternatives, said in an interview. Tying Cuba's economy to the Soviet Bloc, she explained, influenced the way the entire society was organized. Now that those ties are unraveling, "people are hopeful that the Party Congress will steer a new course for society."
Some Cuba watchers dismiss the debate as insignificant because Communist leaders have precluded any challenge to Castro's rule. Yet even the most skeptical admit that the 64-year-old president's charismatic appeals to Cuban nationalism and his image as a renovator could shore up his popularity.
"The Party Congress is not going to change Cuba into a quasi-capitalist system or a democracy," a Western diplomat said. "But it could bring some changes to make the system appear more open and more productive."
That's exactly what some party leaders hope for in order to help confront growing shortages of food and machinery, once supplied by Cuba's former East European allies, and of Soviet fuel, which became costlier under a new commercial agreement that all but ended Cuba's status as a favored Soviet trading partner.
Cuba's productivity, especially in agriculture, has declined since 1986. That is when Castro abandoned a short-lived experiment with market mechanisms on the ground that material incentives had created a class of high-paid middlemen who exploited the Cuban people by charging exorbitant prices for food and services.
Managers of the centralized economy are now relying on moral incentives--and the rallying slogan "Cuba va" (Cuba can make it)--to enforce a wartime rationing plan, mobilize 20,000 volunteer workers from Havana to the farms and replace thousands of cars and tractors with bicycles and oxen. The rationing regime, dubbed "special period in time of peace," has raised the level of grumbling and cynicism among Cubans, who stand in longer lines for more of their food.
Part of the debate within the party is over the extent to which the market should be restored. Material incentives, in the form of better pay and privileges, already go to workers in tourist hotels and pharmaceutical research labs--two of Cuba's most promising dollar earners. Thousands of Cubans have acquired pigs since the government last October authorized independent trading in pork--part of the 5% of agricultural production now in private hands.
Dining in a popular state-owned restaurant one night, a party official thought of McDonald's. He wondered aloud why the state couldn't adopt the franchise concept--retaining control of businesses but allowing private individuals to manage them as concessions and share profits.
"It is fair to say that there are two currents in the party--the more orthodox Marxists and those looking for a creative process of change, in a uniquely Cuban way," said the official, who put himself in the latter camp and claimed it was gaining the upper hand.
But Angel Tomas Gonzalez, a journalist for the newspaper Juventud Rebelde, predicted "a period of backsliding as the economic crisis forces more centralization at a time when we should be moving the other way."