New leader, new Cuba?
Guy W. Farmer
Special to the Appeal
April 6, 2008, 4:01 AM
"Raul Castro is Revolutionizing Cuba," declared a recent headline in the
Reno Gazette-Journal. Sorry, but I don't believe it.
"Raul Castro is revolutionizing Cuba in small but significant ways," the
Associated Press reported from Havana. As an example, the AP said the
younger Castro brother (76), who took over from ailing 81-year-old
dictator Fidel in February, will permit "ordinary" Cubans to own cell
phones and stay in fancy tourist hotels, although most of them can't
afford such luxuries on salaries that average around $20 per month. So I
think things will stay much the same in Cuba for the foreseeable future
despite wishful thinking on the part of some left-leaning Cuba-watchers.
In his Feb. 24 inauguration speech, Raul issued a vague promise to
eliminate "excess prohibitions and regulations," but said any change
would be slow and require hard work. That's sort of like President Bush
promising to withdraw American troops from Iraq, but warning that the
process will be "slow" and require "hard work," which may take 100 years
to accomplish. But he'll be out of office next January while the Castro
brothers continue to rule Cuba, as they have since 1959.
Last month, Washington Post foreign correspondent Manuel Roig-Franzia
reported that Raul Castro promised "structural and conceptual" shifts in
Cuba's economy when he replaced Fidel. "Economists and many islanders
see much in Raul's track record to suggest that he may expand private
business opportunities and perhaps even restore some of the vaunted
mid-1990s reforms that his all-powerful brother dismantled," the
"Raul pushed to make some self-employment legal in the mid-1990s as
Cuba's economy was staggering and its populace starving after the Soviet
Union collapsed," Roig-Franzia continued. "Besides allowing produce
vendors, the government also began granting licenses for guest houses,
mechanic shops and small restaurants known as 'paladares.'" But Fidel
soon complained about "inequalities" and railed against "a new rich
class" that was living off tourist dollars, and self-employment plunged
from about 200,000 at that time to approximately 100,000 today.
Fidel also cracked down on the "paladares," which serve better food than
drab, state-run restaurants. Now there are fewer than 100 paladares in
the entire country. So much for capitalism in a Soviet-style command
economy, in which the government controls more than 90 percent of all
Some Cuba-watchers, like Duncan Currie of the conservative Weekly
Standard, expect Raul Castro to adopt a Chinese economic model, mixing
political repression with expanded economic freedoms starting with
piecemeal reforms in agriculture. Currie speculated that the U.S. may
drop its trade embargo if Cuba emulates China; however, that would be
more likely if a Democrat is elected president in November because the
Republican Party is still beholden to Cuban-American voters in South
THE HELMS-BURTON ACT
In this context it's worth noting that the 1996 Helms-Burton Act
stipulates that the U.S. embargo can't be lifted until the Cubans dump
Fidel and Raul and meet a series of democratic benchmarks such as
legalizing all political activity and releasing all political prisoners,
which won't happen as long as the Castro brothers are alive.
Another longtime Cuba-watcher, Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment,
believes the so-called "resignation" of Fidel "gives both Cubans and
Americans a chance to escape the trap they've been in for more than four
decades." Writing in the Washington Post, Kagan said the U.S. should
offer to ease and eventually lift the trade embargo if Cuba agrees to
hold free and fair elections monitored by respected international
observers. "The first Bush administration supported a similar process in
Nicaragua in 1989 and 1990, which culminated in the election of
(pro-American) Violeta Chamorro, as president," Kagan recalled.
If I were Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, Kagan's quid-pro-quo would be
the centerpiece of my Cuba policy. And if maverick Republican John
McCain is our next president, he should immediately confront the Miami
Cubans who have controlled U.S. Cuba policy for far too long, continuing
their wild-eyed hatred of the Castro brothers (which isn't all bad) and
pouring many millions of taxpayer dollars into Miami-based Radio and TV
Marti, which no one on the island watches and/or listens to.
Although I don't expect any major changes in Cuba with Raul Castro in
charge, I'm hopeful that our next president will ease the implacable
hostility that our government has directed toward Cuba for nearly 50
years Ð a short-sighted policy that helped to keep Fidel Castro in power
until he stepped down earlier this year.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, lived and worked in Latin America for
nearly 20 years during his U.S. Foreign Service career.