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Posted February 19, 2004 by publisher in Cuban History

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BY MARIFELI PEREZ-STABLE | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Cuba’s history is full of might have beens. In the early 1990s, reformist elites called for an economic restructuring like China’s and Vietnam’s. Allowing independents to stand in legislative elections, instituting a ‘‘separation of functions’’ at the top and seeking better relations with the United States were also in their cards.

Nothing much reasonable happened. Economic reforms have lingered without oomph; legislative elections are more rote than ever; and an aged Fidel Castro still heads the Communist Party, the government and the state. The Washington-Havana co-dependency is alive and kicking: the United States with its knee-jerk imperiousness; Cuba in its adolescent victimhood.

Had Cuba followed the trail blazed in Asia, ordinary Cubans would unlikely be mired in the material and spiritual helplessness of today. Percentage-wise, China and Vietnam have set world records in lifting people out of poverty and, for the first time, both societies have a fledgling middle class. True, inequalities and corruption are rampant but, then again, the same can be said about Cuba without any of the gains.

The Chinese and Vietnamese regimes are dictatorships. Politics, nonetheless, bears no resemblance to Mao’s cultural revolution or Ho Chi Min’s wartime communism. Entrepreneurs are joining the Chinese Communist Party. Token independents serve on their legislative assemblies, which—though far from democratic—are becoming more responsive to their constituencies. As the bottom line has risen, old-style campaigns for ideological purity have receded.

Cuba has gone in the opposite direction. In 2002, Oswaldo Pay, 11,000 Cubans who signed a referendum petition and President Jimmy Carter’s public mention of the Varela Project threw the top leadership into a frenzy. Officials circulated another petition proclaiming socialism irrevocable that gathered more than eight million signatures. When the National Assembly met to burn the proclamation onto the constitution, the government declared a three-day holiday so all could watch the live discussions on television.

Facing a dim future

A few weeks later, a restructuring of the sugar industry was announced, an apparently pragmatic decision. By this year’s end, 45 percent of all mills will have closed and nearly 100,000 workers displaced. Since the National Assembly never sanctioned Cuban entrepreneurship as reformers intended, these workers face a dim future for unemployment may be as high as 12 percent. Until ‘‘recycled,’’ they are receiving their full salaries.

After 2000, the economy has gone from bad to worse. Foreign investment is down, net revenues from tourism are only 10-15 percent of the $2 billion a year earnings, and malnutrition is on the rise. Growth figures are illusory as Cuba stopped making payments on a hard-currency debt of $12 billion in the mid-1980s. Only a full-bodied restructuring can begin to turn things around.

Castro’s mulishness

Politics, however, interferes. Unlike Deng Xiaoping, Castro will never say: ‘‘To get rich is glorious!’’ The Cuban Communist Party has yet to summon the congress overdue since late 2002. Why meet if the comandante won’t budge on the economy?

Contrasting Castro’s mulishness with China’s and Vietnam’s forward-looking policies on that count is instructive. Seeking to retain power at the expense of the majority carries a totally different political import—internationally and domestically—than doing so by improving living standards.

During the 1990s, Vietnam and the United States normalized relations. In the mid-1980s, Hanoi launched a far-reaching reform program while still embargoed by the West for its 1979 invasion of Cambodia. Two million war dead did not prevent the Vietnamese leadership from looking ahead.

Cuba’s grievances against the United States pale in comparison. Yet top leaders cannot admit that easing tensions between the two countries is also a Cuban responsibility. The reforms proposed a decade ago sprung from Cuban needs and might well have prompted a new modus operandi from Washington.

What might have been

In late January, former South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky traveled to Vietnam at the government’s invitation. It was time, he said, for reconciliation and a new chapter. While admirable, the overstay in Cuba last summer of Miami-based Cuban dissident Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo cannot convey the same sense. Havana has yet to turn the page.

After Castro passes, many current elites may well find themselves on the outside looking in and pondering what might have been had Cuba embraced the future instead of the past in the early 1990s.

Marifeli Perez-Stable teaches at Florida International University.

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