Cuba's Struggle to Awake

Sunday, April 30, 2006

It is very difficult to devise a Cuba policy for a time that may begin today or ten years from now—that is, whenever Fidel Castro, the world’s longest-lived dictator, is finally gone. But some guidelines are possible if we look with open eyes at current realities, examine transition experiences in other parts of the world, and regularly follow events on the island as they unfold. The bottom line—if we wish to be more than a harping, moralizing bystander or spoiler—is to base our policy on realities, not wishes, however noble those wishes may be.


No government bureaucrat wants to be unemployed, particularly if he has worked for a dictator whose death will leave the majority of the population looking for big changes, probably including the replacement and maybe punishment of the dictator’s surviving cronies. Thus top Cuban leaders today are grasping for a survival strategy, as the 2004 report by the presidential Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba put it, which will enable them to stay in power after Fidel. Indeed current leaders—with varying ideas on the relative importance of ideology, power, and economics—are looking at several possible survival strategies, which may be summarized as (1) batten down the hatches and (2) significant reform.

The first approach is favored by the hard-liners in the current government, who prioritize ideology and power over economic reform, in the best Fidelista tradition. They may take power after Fidel goes, but they have little hope of surviving for long without heavy levels of repression and global begging. The main benefactor of the hard-liners will be Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, assuming he survives in power until then. Rapidly expanding ties with China suggest that that country may be an important player as well. The Chinese have no use for Fidel’s nonsensical economic ideas, but they do have an interest (particularly as long as the status of Taiwan is an issue) in a Cuba that is critical of the United States.

If we wish to be more than a harping, moralizing bystander or spoiler, our policy for a post-Castro Cuba must be based on realities, not wishes, >however noble those wishes may be.

Then there are the reformers, the more moderate leaders and bureaucrats, who, in the immediate post-Fidel period, are likely to be the only ones in Havana with a potentially viable game plan. Knowing that the Cuban people have put up with abject poverty under Fidel but that they are unlikely to tolerate that kind of life under any other leader, the reformers are convinced that serious economic reform is the survival strategy of choice. These probable successors to Fidel know that near-term objectives, such as food, housing, and opportunities, will require significant step-by-step reforms. And they know that real progress in these reforms is the only thing that will justify their continuing roles in the national government. These more-moderate leaders are likely to take power within a relatively short time. If they do not, or if the island doesn’t opt quickly for democracy, which is desirable but unlikely, the country may well plunge into civil war and the United States may end up intervening militarily.

Hugo Chávez would prefer hard-line Fidelistas to reformers, at least in the short term, but he will support moderates if/when they take power. The Chinese will likewise support either type of successor government, seeing advantages and disadvantages for themselves in each.


One way to ponder and plan for the things that may happen in Cuba after Fidel is to examine what has occurred during recent transitions in other formerly authoritarian countries. Clearly there are no exact parallels, but aspects of these experiences will indeed be relevant to Cuba in the immediate post-Fidel period.

In time, Cuba certainly will develop a market-oriented economy and some form of democratic government, and thus it is both appropriate and useful to examine experiences from countries that have recently taken the democratic route, from Asia to Spain and the formerly communist nations of Central and Eastern Europe. But how quickly will a market economy and democracy come about and will the economic and political changes occur simultaneously? Judgments on this vary, but I believe that economic reforms will likely precede democratic governance. But absolute lines cannot be drawn: Although economic reforms are only part of the pie of Cuba’s future, they will be crucial in bettering the lives of the Cuban people quickly and they will contribute much in the medium term toward opening the door more smoothly to democracy.

Many of the reform-inclined leaders in Cuba today are studying the Chinese and Vietnamese experiences closely in planning for the post-Fidel period.

If this speculation proves to be even fairly correct, the immediate applicability of the European transitions is reduced and that of the two Asian countries is enhanced. Fidel Castro will leave Cuba in a terrible economic mess, just as Mao Zedong left China and Le Duan left Vietnam, when they finally died, 30 and 20 years ago, respectively. And Castro, like Mao and Le Duan, will leave his people with an authoritarian government and heritage. Not surprisingly, there is considerable evidence that many of the reform-inclined leaders in Cuba today are studying the Chinese and Vietnamese experiences closely in planning for the post-Fidel period.

Last year former Cuban U.N. ambassador Alcibiades Hidalgo and I wrote that Raúl Castro, Fidel’s designated successor, has sympathized for many years with change in the Chinese or Vietnamese style—that is, capitalism (or something like it) in the economy, which is still called socialist but with a single party and repression of politics. In an interview, former Cuban intelligence official Domingo Amuchastegui added that the Chinese approach is useful in many ways and has “considerable influence in Cuba.” Once Fidel is gone, he said, many aspects of “the Chinese experience will most probably be implemented rather quickly.” Several years ago, in a study for the Cuba Transition Project at the University of Miami, Carmelo Mesa-Lago, the dean of Cuba-watching economists, wrote that “Cuba could follow the path of China and Vietnam and move toward a socialist market economy.” Mesa-Lago ticked off many specific, basic reforms, including the right of individuals to establish and run private businesses, which is one of the market practices Fidel most detests.

Many Cuban Americans have begun weighing just how much the Cuban people will lose if U.S. policy remains rigid or ideological during a period of significant, if far from complete, post-Fidel reform.

Several years ago, a Cuba specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing told me that he thinks the most important thing Cubans have to do to develop economically is to change their way of thinking and then change the institutions that derive therefrom. The current governing ideas in Cuba come from Fidel’s fanatical rejection of all forms of markets, from the central management schemes of the Soviet bloc experience, and from the centuries-long heritage of Iberian paternalism. Another scholar in Beijing added that the key to Cuba’s future is recognizing the power of the market: Cuba must “deepen its reforms . . . establish the mechanisms of the socialist market economy and . . . smash egalitarianism.”

Cuba, China, and Vietnam are all burdened by very heavy baggage from the past, ranging from skewed economic thinking to politically twisted legal systems to resource-sucking bureaucracies to disillusioned youth and corruption. Still there are several very important and encouraging differences between Cuba and China/Vietnam. First, Cuba will begin its reforms with a much better-educated populace and thus a more capable labor force. These people are gagged and grossly underutilized in Cuba today, but they are there as soon as Fidel is out of the way and globalization begins. Also, although some noneconomic freedoms have emerged in China and Vietnam, there are few signs of movement toward genuine democratic governance. But Cuba, because of its history and its proximity to the United States and the Western world, will almost certainly move much more easily and completely to a significantly more democratic government, unintentionally promoted most likely in the early reform years by market-oriented economic change.


For decades Cubans have “eaten bitterness,” as the Chinese put it, but when Fidel goes they will have a chance to change all that. If Fidel’s successors move in the reformist direction outlined above, which I believe they are likely to do, how should the United States and other nations respond? One approach, which has been the U.S. line in recent years, would be to resist the reformers unless all the Castros are gone and major political changes are included, which they almost certainly will not be. The other, broader, approach would be to support much that happens, even if undertaken by Raúl and his comrades. This need not mean conceding everything to Havana and expecting nothing in return. Indeed, calls for a quid pro quo, which are shamefully disingenuous as long as Fidel survives, have a chance of actually working with his insecure, reform-ori-ented successors, if handled constructively.

Although economic reforms are only part of the pie of Cuba’s future, they will be crucial in bettering the lives of the Cuban people quickly and thus will open the door more smoothly to democracy.

One major obstacle over time to following a broad approach has been the anti-Fidel rhetoric more related to the past than to the emerging interests of the Cuban people on either side of the Strait of Florida. Indeed, there is some hope that the broader approach will become politically possible as increasing numbers of embargo supporters begin making conciliatory noises. Many Cuban Americans and others seem to be objectively weighing just how much the Cuban people will lose if U.S. policy remains rigid or ideological during a period of significant, if far from complete, post-Fidel reform.

For example, Edward Gonzalez, a longtime analyst at the Rand Corporation and supporter of the embargo, wrote several years ago: “Were a successor regime under communist reformers to come to power, the United States would shift to a strategy of engagement for the purpose of gaining optimal leverage in pressing for further regime change. . . . The application of maximum pressures against the reformist-led regime in order to install a democratic transition regime in power” might not be possible because “the reformers may enjoy domestic support from the populace.” Thus, in the end, “the reality inside Cuba may require that the United States not only deal with but also actively engage a reformist-led successor regime as the best alternative for speeding Cuba’s ultimate democratic transition.” The vanguard Cuban American National Foundation has been more moderate in recent years. Even one of the outspoken authors of the Helms-Burton Law, Miami Republican congressman Lincoln Díaz-Balart, took a great leap toward moderation in March 2006 when he reportedly said that under certain circumstances we should deal with Raúl. Of course the monkey wrench may still be hidden in the details, but change is under way in the United States as well as in Cuba.


We may hope that democracy comes quickly to Cuba, and we must work in constructive ways toward that end. But we should also recognize the probability that, because of the baggage Fidel leaves behind, democracy is likely to follow market reforms, not accompany them. Although some Cuban Americans and others may think accepting this probability is striking a deal with the devil, it is crucial that we deal constructively with the likely realities of the near-term future rather than allowing ourselves to be sidelined because we insist on clutching at ideals that ignore the possible. As in China and Vietnam, the market reforms themselves will almost certainly be highly advantageous to the vast majority of the Cuban people, and the improved living conditions they bring will, in the Cuban context, contribute to a more rapid erosion of authoritarian political rule and a relatively peaceful transition to democracy in the fairly near future. Moreover, by improving living conditions and gradually expanding opportunities, the reforms should also reduce the danger of civil war and the possibility of U.S. military intervention.