Castro or not, meaningful change for Cuba far off

Freedom New Mexico

It is difficult to tell just how significant is the fact that Fidel Castro has formally resigned as Cuba’s president.

He “temporarily” ceded his powers to his younger brother, Raul, on July 31, 2006, but he remains a member of parliament and is likely to be elected to the 31-member Council of State.

He is still first secretary of the Communist Party. He is physically and mentally frail, but his legend in Cuba, built on charisma and blaming the United States for every failure, is still powerful.

The short take is that little in Cuba is likely to change until Fidel actually dies, and maybe not until Raul dies.

After that it is almost impossible to predict — but serious political change in Cuba is likely still a long way off.

Angel Rabasa, a Cuban-born political scientist and international security analyst at the RAND Corp., even said this event is “inconsequential.”

Roger Fontaine, who watched Latin America on the National Security Council during the Reagan administration, said that Raul Castro, shortly after the Soviet Union cut Cuba off (and then collapsed) talked about China as a model for the ailing (to put it mildly) Cuban economy.
In China the Communist Party maintained and maintains unquestioned political power, but it has allowed a significant amount of freedom in economic activities, which has led to economic growth.

Fontaine notes that Raul has not spoken of the China model lately, probably because the idea offends his older brother, so any reforms are likely to be done more or less by stealth while Fidel lives.

The shortcomings of the Cuban economy, based as it is on a single commodity — sugar — that is subject to fluctuations in the world price, overlaid by central planning, Draconian economic regulation and high taxes, and lately in collapse, can hardly be overstated.

During the “special period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its subsidies, Cubans were allowed to open small enterprises like bicycle repair shops or restaurants. In the late 1990s the economy got a small boost from tourism, although this improved lives for only a small number of ordinary Cubans, and the government reverted to outlawing small enterprises more aggressively.

Fontaine pointed out that Raul Castro has always lived in the shadow of his older brother and lacks his charisma and social skills, but unlike his brother he is capable of listening — to junior officers in the military and even to the few ordinary Cubans with whom he comes in contact. Thus he probably knows, at a level Fidel may be incapable of, about the shortcomings in the Cuban economy and society.

Rabasa believes the Cuban leadership below the level of the Castro brothers is beset by uncertainty. They know about China’s success, but they also know that Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform efforts in the Soviet Union led to the system’s collapse.
In a smaller country like Cuba, they may think, things could unravel more quickly once a process of change is set in motion.

He believes the immediate future is more likely to see intensified repression rather than liberalization.

We have long advocated that the U.S. embargo against Cuba be lifted, in part because the United States should practice the economic freedom it preaches, and in part with the hope that it would provide some pressure for liberalizing the Cuban economy and help everyday life improve.

Rabasa believes the effects of the embargo, both positive and negative, are overstated, and lifting it would make little difference. “Cuba’s problems are related to the structure of the economy, not foreign influences,” he said.

Fidel Castro was the longest-serving head of state in the world at 49 years, a ruler whose force of personality (and efficient instruments of control and repression) pervaded the entirety of the country he ruled. Observers have long expected big changes when he died.

Change may come to Cuba, perhaps even change in the direction of a more open and democratic society, although Fontaine notes that its modest experience with democracy was overlaid with corruption and kleptocracy.

Cuba’s regime has long anticipated that Fidel Castro could not rule personally forever and has taken steps to manage what Rabasa calls “a succession rather than a transition.” In truth, the succession has been relatively smooth since Fidel took sick 18 months ago.

One of the more fascinating characters of 20th century history may have relinquished power, but ambitious change seems unlikely in the near future.