Will Cuba follow China's path?
By ZHANG QUANYI
Column: Global Survey
Published: March 27, 2008
SHANGHAI, China, Cuba's National Assembly smoothly transferred the
country's presidency from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul Castro last
month. Although the succession was within the Castro family, the world
in general acclaimed this power transfer, hoping it would give Cuba a
new face to the world.
Former President Fidel Castro controlled the Caribbean island for 49
years. He was both a revolutionary and a symbol of nationalism to his
country. In 1959 he overthrew the regime of General Fulgencio Batista,
though the regime's collapse can be attributed as much to internal decay
as to the challenge of Castro's revolutionary movement.
The Cuban government later progressively dissolved the capitalist
system, establishing a centrally planned economy, which largely resulted
in Cuba's present difficult situation.
Cuba was largely dependent on the Soviet Union until its collapse, and
isolated from international markets dominated by the United States. The
United States has embargoed the country since the 1960s, and extended
its policy in 1996 to penalize foreign companies that deal with Cuba.
Cuba's economy is now in a state of bankruptcy. Wages are inadequate,
housing and transportation are in crisis and the health and education
systems — once the pride and joy of the revolution — have deteriorated
badly. There are insufficient supplies of food, medicine and basic
industrial products. High unemployment has destabilized the country
economically and politically.
Cuba's current situation bears some resemblance to China's circumstances
in 1978, when China called for renovations in its static planned
collective economic system. From 1966-1976 China had endured the
Cultural Revolution, when all private commercial activities were banned
and the tightly controlled planned economy brought the people as well as
the economy to the brink of collapse.
Therefore, when the "capitalist roader" Deng Xiaoping came to power and
initiated his open-door policy, the Chinese people acclaimed him and
anticipated his reforms with great enthusiasm. Deng had been sacked by
Mao Zedong, the founder of the People's Republic of China, because of
his capitalistic ideas.
Deng did not disappoint his people much. He successfully guided China
onto the track of reform, tried by various means to abolish Mao Zedong's
personality cult, suspended the ideology of class struggle, and
gradually introducing a market economy to China. In addition he adopted
flexible policies to take advantage of foreign direct investment,
setting up several special economic zones in China's coastal areas,
which set the example for other areas to follow in the process of
Deng's pragmatism has born great fruit. Since he began the reforms,
China's economy has experienced a consistent rise. Gross domestic
product reached US$3.43 trillion in 2007, according to the National
Bureau of Statistics, making it the third largest economy in the world
after the United States and Japan.
China is also the third largest exporting country after the United
States and Germany. The country's foreign currency reserves are the
highest in the world, surpassing US$1.4 trillion. China appears to have
shifted from a primarily agricultural country to an industrial one.
China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, and will host the
Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 and the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010.
It can be said that China has become a member of world society.
Furthermore, China has established healthier relationships with other
countries, especially the big Western powers, and has become active in
world affairs. It has been positively involved in international efforts
to handle issues in Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Over a period of 30
years, China has become a stakeholder and a member of international society.
Facing an economic situation similar to that of China 30 years ago, will
Raul Castro, like Deng Xiaoping, become a Cuban reformer? Will Cuba
follow China's path in opening its door to the outside world? And will
international society respond positively to possible reforms in Cuba?
Raul Castro has sent some signals that he may partly loosen controls on
the economy. For example, he plans to allow some Western luxury products
into Cuban markets, such as sunglasses, videos and cameras. However,
Castro's vision for modernization is not identical with Deng's, and
Cuba's background is not the same as China's.
First, Raul Castro has persistently supported and implemented Fidel
Castro's policies. He was an army general and defense minister for 49
years, hence, a de facto policy-maker. Having been so close to his
brother in the inner power circle, Raul Castro would not risk
accusations of abandoning his principles or tarnishing his family's
history and glory. Even if he does initiate some reforms, he will not go
so far as Deng, who had been ousted by the central leadership.
Secondly, the influence of the first generation of leaders in the Cuban
republic is still intact. Fidel Castro is still alive, as are other
senior leaders. Aging officials and other leftists will not allow Raul
to alter Cuba's Constitution or fundamentally change the socialist
system. For example, 75-year-old former Interior Minister Ramiro Valdes
has been a strong supporter of Fidel since 1953, when the Cuban
revolution began. He does not agree with Raul on matter of reform.
It can therefore be presumed that Raul Castro will not go so far in
carrying out reforms in Cuba. He is already 77 years old. He may take
some small steps to stabilize his power and make his mark on the
presidency, but that is all. In his address to the National Assembly,
Raul Castro proposed that Fidel should be consulted on important decisions.
Thirdly, the situation faced by Cuba is different from China's in some
ways. China's open-door policy benefited from the geopolitics of the
Cold War, when the United States and the former Soviet Union were
competing for hegemony. Accordingly China and the United States, as well
as other Western countries, could cooperate economically regardless of
After 1978, China was able to take advantage of the geopolitical
situation and attract large amounts of foreign direct investment,
especially from Japan, the United States and Western Europe. This
investment played a significant role in boosting China's economy in a
Cuba does not have the same advantage. Even if the new president wants
to reform, the supportive environment is lacking; the Cold War is over.
If the Soviet Union still existed, Western countries — particularly the
United States — might want to be first to assist Cuba economically.
However, in the foreseeable future, Cuba will only reluctantly distance
itself from socialism, taking a few aggressive steps to open to the
outside world. Unless Cuba resolutely declares that it is giving up
socialism, Western states, especially the United States, will not easily
abandon their hostile policies toward Cuba. They will merely continue
their containment strategy toward the island nation.
Therefore the assessment of Fidel Castro's daughter, Alina Fernandez —
who lives in the United States and has long opposed her father's regime
— may be correct. She told CNN just after her uncle took over the
presidency, "I think that the government will remain mostly the same,
but I think they are going to bring on different faces that they need,"
The face of Cuba itself is unlikely to change significantly for awhile.
(Zhang Quanyi is an associate professor at the Zhejiang Wanli University
in Ningbo, China, and a Ph.D. candidate at Shanghai International
Studies University, studying policy making and collective identity. His
research interests focus on conflict management and identity
construction. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. ©Copyright