Posted on Thu, Jan. 04, 2007
Wanted: economic opportunity
BY MARIFELI PEREZ-STABLE
''I promise I won't give long speeches,'' Raúl Castro told a gathering
of university students recently. There's only one commander-in-chief,
and no one should copy Fidel's style.
The Comandante's policies — not marathon speeches — are the main
problem. Ideological battles, revolutionary ethics and true socialism
lie at the heart of his legacy. Pluralism, autonomous institutions and
markets are anathema. What will Raúl do? Will he muddle through a status
quo that hasn't restored living standards to 1989 levels? Might he
resume modest economic reforms or even embrace a radical restructuring?
The tea leaves aren't saying much yet. The elder Castro is still
watching over Cuba, or so says his New Year's message. Raúl may deem it
prudent to tread lightly as the moment of truth approaches. Still, some
signals are emerging. A collective leadership is truly taking shape
under the younger Castro. An anti-corruption campaign is in progress.
Discipline and concrete results seem to be the new catch words. The
doble moral — people saying one thing in public while privately
believing another — is under attack, again.
Free the markets
That's the problem. Except for collective leadership, nothing done or
said over the past few months is new under the revolutionary sun.
Efficiency and productivity — has eluded the Cuban economy for decades.
It's no mystery why, for instance, agriculture in a land so fertile is
in dire straits. Markets must be set free.
Since the early 1960s, corruption has been endemic. Transparency, which
requires undoctored access to information by citizens, is a partial
antidote. In the early 1990s, Raúl himself decried the doble moral,
which would certainly recede if fear didn't reign over public spaces.
Though tried-and-false remedies won't improve living standards, the
Comandante's successors are likely to go there first. Why rock the boat
if tinkering will do? But, will it? Ordinary Cubans are seemingly
resigned to their circumstances. Will they so passively accept them once
Fidel's shadow is lifted? Castro's passing will leave a huge
psychological vacuum, an uncharted terrain of possibilities and dangers.
Fidelismo light may carry the regime for a while but it is not a
blueprint for a longer-term succession.
Gallup recently released the results of a poll conducted among residents
of Havana (600) and Santiago (400) in early September. These citizens
registered familiar satisfaction with their healthcare and education,
much higher than did their counterparts in Latin America. Less
predictable were the 25 percent who expressed dissatisfaction with
personal freedoms in choosing how to live their lives or the 40 percent
who disapproved of their leaders' performance.
Even if taken at face value, Raúl and the others should weigh these
responses carefully. The urban citizens who uttered them may be but the
tip of the iceberg, and the successors — at least, in their current
mode — have no way of persuading them. Only 42 percent of interviewees
considered that working hard is the way to get ahead. Cubans see
themselves as creative and entrepreneurial, yet they are more unhappy
with their jobs and the opportunities to excel in them than other Latin
Americans. Tinkering around the edges will neither motivate hard work
nor unleash pent-up entrepreneurial energies.
If the Cuban people once welcomed the revolution wholeheartedly, Cubans
today are largely mired in fear, apathy and a sense of impotence. I
suspect the new collective leadership understands that their only
platform for reaching them is a radical economic restructuring.
Legalization of small businesses would certainly catch the attention of
ordinary Cubans. Sure, it's risky, but so is doing little or nothing.
The Comandante avoided a Tiananmen Square, but the successors may not.
An economic opening that empowers ordinary Cubans to earn their living
could have a host of positive consequences. Living standards would
certainly improve. Food production and light consumer durables would
increase in no time. Beyond material gains, Cubans would once again
hope. That's why we in the diaspora should welcome such an opening: A
greening of their spirit would redound to the benefit of a democratic
Cuba, the only one that would have room for all of us.
Marifeli Pérez-Stable is vice president for democratic governance at
Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., and a professor at Florida