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Cuba on verge of political & economic change - Russian writer’s observation

Posted November 28, 2006 by publisher in Cuba Business.
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Pyotr Romanov | Providence Jouranal

Having recently spent two weeks in Havana, I saw for myself what seemed quite obvious—after Fidel Castro’s departure, which is not far off, Cuba is in for serious change.

The Cubans themselves are well aware of this. The official slogan about the monolithic unity of Cuban society is no more than a propaganda myth. Some Cubans are looking forward to change, and are already thinking of how to adapt better to the future reality, while others are sticking to their old positions and getting ready to resist change. Still others are somewhere in between. They are trying to be flexible, and combine the gains of the Castro era (which do exist, whatever his enemies may say) with the efforts to develop a fully fledged democracy and an effective economy that would be oriented to social values.

Only a few people I talked to voiced a different opinion. Giving credit to Castro’s prestige, they argued that the loss of a leader of such caliber does not mean the end of an era. “We are closely studying Vietnam’s experience, where the party managed to fully preserve its positions after Ho Chi Minh’s death,” said one of them.

I’m not sure that such a parallel is justified. It is more in the nature of a dream. The Cubans and the Vietnamese have little in common in mentality, and the geopolitical positions of their countries are different. But I’ve decided to cite this view because it is held by some members of the Cuban political elite.

Before making political forecasts, let’s determine the point of departure. In other words, let’s sum up what Fidel Castro has given to Cubans, and where he has let them down.

In 1959, victory was achieved by one of Cuba’s three traditional political movements—the radical trend, which considered José Marti its apostle. A Cuban thinker and poet, he consistently fought imperialism and for Cuba’s sovereignty. Two other movements were the moderate centrists who merely bargained with the United States for a little more independence for Cuba, and the annexationists, who wanted Cuba to join the land of “great American democracy.” At that time, both of these movements lost, but their remnants are still there.

It is possible that these trends will gain momentum when Castro is gone. According to some sources, about 500 clandestine opposition groups are operating in Cuba today. So far, they are small and scattered, and do not exert serious influence on the domestic situation. Their members do not dispute this fact themselves—I had a chance to talk with some of them. But this is how the matters stand today. I wouldn’t underrate the Cuban domestic opposition tomorrow.

Cuba’s sovereignty is one of Castro’s major achievements. This is the main goal, which José Marti—Castro’s ideological teacher—set before Cuban society. There is no doubt that Cuba has gained genuine independence against the backlash of permanent confrontation with the United States. Moreover, Cuba has managed to protect its sovereignty not only against American hostility, but also against Soviet friendship. Cuba simply put on a socialist mask in gratitude for Soviet help but in reality, Marxist-Leninist ideas have never had any deep influence on Castro or his associates, and Cuba’s policy has always been independent of Moscow.

Today, it is particularly clear that socialism was just a mask. Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban communist party, mentions this word on rare occasions, to say nothing of Marxist-Leninist classics. In the two weeks I was there, I did not see a single portrait of Lenin or Marx, although I didn’t set myself a special task of finding one. But there were many monuments to José Marti all around. Even the pre-revolutionary monument to his mother, put up by Cuba’s great Masonic lodge in 1956, is in excellent shape.

After the Soviet Union’s disintegration, Cuba turned to China. However, Chinese influence on its ideology is no more serious than the Soviet one was in the past. At any rate, it is limited exclusively to the economy, and Havana’s conspicuous politeness toward Beijing by no means implies ideological proximity.

In other words, in Cuba José Marti has consistently defeated Marx, Lenin, Mao and Deng Xiaoping. I’m sure that in the future he will “update” Castro as well, because the 1959 revolution has failed to reach his other goal—to bring genuine democracy to the Freedom Island.

In this respect, Havana has every reason for despair. Cuba has indisputable achievements in education and medicine, but it has obviously failed to build a free and democratic society, and an effective economy, which would ensure a decent life for its population. Rank-and-file Cubans remain poor despite the government’s versatile social support.

The Cubans are always blaming their economic hardships on the American blockade. They have some grounds for that. It is very difficult to survive in such conditions. Washington is the only capital that fails to understand that its blockade is absolutely immoral and irrational. The recent voting in the United Nations on a resolution urging an end to the blockade has made this particularly clear—out of 188 countries, only four voted against it—the United States; Israel, which had no other choice because of its heavy dependence on the United States in the U.N. Security Council; and two more “influential” states—the Seychelles and Palau.

However, this does not mean that the Cuban economy does not require sweeping reforms. Whether the state wants it or not, it will have to allow private enterprise if it wants to improve its economic performance. There is simply no other option.

Cuban leaders are aware of this, at least to some extent. This is why the Cuban economy is a mixture of seemingly incompatible archaic and modern elements. Judge for yourselves.

The Cuban government’s approach to exchange rates has nothing to do with economic considerations. It has recently invented a so-called convertible peso, a currency for all foreigners arriving in Cuba. (When dollars are exchanged for these absolutely unsecured slips of paper, the visitors are charged an extra 20 percent.) Those who have lived under socialism will easily grasp the idea. The Cubans are countering imperialist aggression—the U.S. blockade—with an undisguised revolutionary racket.

But this is just one side of the coin. The other is made of a different metal. The Cuban economy is already closer to the market than was that of the U.S.S.R. before its disintegration. Many corporations and plants are joint stock companies, with foreign participation.

Here is just one example. Bucanero has a monopoly on beer production in Cuba. The government shares the brewery with mixed foreign capital 50-50. Bucanero’s CEO is Belgian, its financial director Brazilian, its commercial director Italian, its production manager Czech, and its master brewer German.

Modern Cuba abounds in such contrasts. The old and shabby Havana is falling to pieces, but one of its districts—Miramar—is an oasis of modern living, with five star hotels and an up-to-date business center, where foreign management runs absolutely everything.

To sum up, at the dusk of Castro’s era, Cuba has largely given up its socialist principles in the economy (at least in their Soviet version). Ideologically, it is drifting back to José Marti’s principles, and to the traditional Bolivarian ideas of fighting for Latin American independence.

It is hard to say which part of this policy is purposeful, and which was forced by the circumstances, but today’s Cuba is moving in the direction of those countries that are placing their bets not so much on the socialist economy as on the socially oriented capitalist model. Brazil, Venezuela (for all the radical rhetoric of the extravagant Hugo Chavez), Bolivia, and now Nicaragua (after Daniel Ortega’s victory) are following this road.

This is Cuba today.

Pyotr Romanov is a political commentator for the Russian News and Information Agency Novosti.

Member Comments

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On November 29, 2006, J. Perez wrote:

Very good and insightful article, I believe Mr. Romanov’s analysis is very close to Cuban reality today, the gains made by the revolution and where it is heading for. His comments with respect to Cuban sovereignty’s being one of Castro’s achievements are absolutely correct and so are his claims for the necessity of substantial changes from a socialist economy, to one following the social oriented capital model of Brazil and Venezuela. His comments to the effect that Cuba, ideologically, is drifting back to the ideas of Marti and traditional Bolivarian ideas of fighting for Latin American independence are correct as well, although I would submit that those ideas were always a great part of Fidel’s ideology.