Sunday, April 20, 2008

Cuban Economic Changes Not Enough

Admiral James Stavridis, head of the U.S. Southern Command, told a congressional committee this week that we need to watch if the changes in Raúl Castro’s Cuba are “sincere” or just “cosmetic.”

Admiral, you bet that the changes are sincere — as far as the economy.

With Fidel Castro bedridden and apparently reduced to venting in a newspaper column, Raúl and his people have been able to lift their heads, look at the world around them and realize that absurd laws like not letting people buy cell phones make Cuba the laughingstock of the world.

Without the heavy weight of Fidel right on top of them, these guys came to the realization (or, more likely, were finally able to act on the realization) that Cuba will be forever condemned to backwardness — unless some of the extreme economic prohibitions are abolished.

That explains the fast pace of economic reforms in the two months after Fidel Castro officially ceded power to his younger brother.

Cubans can now freely buy not only cell phones, but also computers and domestic appliances like air conditioners and toasters; they can get title to their homes, once held by the state; on vacation, they can stay at hotels and resorts previously reserved for foreigners; at work, they may now practice that quaint capitalist ritual known as asking the boss for something called a “raise.”

These changes are a reminder of how bad things had gotten.

“You mean Cubans couldn’t just walk into a store and buy a radio?” No, they could not — they had to wait their turn until the government assigned them one.

“You mean Cubans couldn’t stay in the best hotels in their own country?” No, they could not, except that if they brought a foreigner, they were allowed in.

In some ways, the reforms are meaningless. Few Cubans can afford a cell phone, to say nothing of an air conditioner or a $600 weekend (and that’s just for the room) at the Melia Varadero hotel. Few employers can afford to pay workers more, even if it’s now legal to do so. And as for holding title to your property — well, it’s nice to have that piece of paper, but you are not allowed to sell the house you own.

Still, the mere fact that more economic liberalization has taken place in the last two months than in the past 50 years is significant, even if such reform is on the books and not so much in practice.

Cuba’s new rulers are undoubtedly “sincere” about moving the country’s economy into the 20th century, now that we are eight years into the 21st. They cannot hide from five decades of disastrously dogmatic communism that made the Cuban economy into a ruin. Maybe they can start catching up to Haiti — most people there can’t afford a cell phone either, but at least it isn’t illegal to buy one. Well, at least Cuba’s economy is moving in the right direction.

That is not something you can say about Cuba’s politics. Raúl’s Havana has not moved one inch in the direction of democratic pluralism.

There is nothing resembling an independent judiciary or free elections. Only one political party is permitted to take part in elections — or even exist.

Neither is there freedom of expression — all media are owned and operated by the government, which will harass or imprison people who print unauthorized publications, run a Web site or merely speak up in public to protest the absence of freedoms. Nineteen journalists are still imprisoned for committing free expression, five years after the “Black Spring” crackdown. Criticizing the system is considered an act of subversion.

And lest anyone think Raúl is a closet Democrat, an editorial this week in Granma, “Official Organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba,” said that “there will be no room for subversion in Cuba.”

It was an attack on exiles in Miami who support Cuba’s always-harassed, in-and-out-of-jail dissidents. In Havana last week, some of the best-known ones announced an “Agenda for the Transition,” and called for national reconciliation.

If the Raúl crowd is sincere in modernizing the economy, it is just as sincere in avoiding democracy. Instead of praising the regime for reform that is merely economic, the international community must ratchet up the pressure for political change. It can unleash a demand for freedom from inside Cuba that the regime cannot control.

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