By PHILIP PETERS
When Fidel Castro fell ill in 2006, Washington thought change was at hand.
Secretary of State Condi Rice urged Cubans “to work at home for positive change,” and President Bush said Cubans were engaged in an “effort to build a transitional government.”
That did not happen. If anything, Cuba’s year without Fidel has been uneventful: no migration crisis, no attempt by Cuba’s dissidents to seize the moment, and 11 percent economic growth, according to the CIA.
But change may be in the offing, although not of the kind President Bush envisioned.
Cuba today is embroiled in a nationwide economic policy debate. It started in November 2005 when Fidel Castro gave his last major policy speech. “This revolution can destroy itself,” Castro worried, “and the fault would be ours.” He described an economy plagued by black-market activity, from pilfered inventories to off-the-books entrepreneurship.
Castro’s solution was more policing and more state control. He threatened to close Cuba’s remaining private restaurants and to give a “Christian burial” to private taxis that save Cubans from scarce public transit. He planned to deploy teenage “social workers,” who were already watching the till in gas stations, to combat corruption in bakeries, pharmacies, and cafeterias.
But then Castro left the political stage for the first time since 1959.
His brother Raul took over and soon made the economy his priority too. He declared that he is “tired of excuses.” He settled debts to farmers and tripled prices paid to milk and beef producers. He eased customs rules to allow Cubans to receive more aid from relatives overseas. Rather than “bury” private taxis, he ordered police to stop harassing them. Private restaurants remain open. Fidel’s social workers returned to their normal jobs.
And under Raul Castro, the economic debate took a very different turn.
Articles in the state-controlled media showed that many state enterprises are dysfunctional and have no supply system.
Discussion of the black market continues, but in Fidel’s absence, no one is scapegoating “egotists” and “cheapskates” who skirt the law. Raul Castro recognized that many Cubans resort to “indiscipline” because they are underpaid. There’s a big difference between blaming greed, and saying people deserve a day’s pay for a day’s work.
On July 26, Raul Castro gave his first major policy speech. He told folksy stories to highlight red tape and low productivity in state agriculture. He called for “structural changes and changes of concepts.” He quoted Fidel, seven years ago: “Revolution is a sense of the historical moment, it is to change all that must be changed.”
Before the speech, the Communist Party and institutions across Cuba were told to identify roadblocks to higher output, productivity and living standards. Today the speech is being debated in workplaces, union locals, and neighborhood party cells.
This debate is yielding ideas that were taboo one year ago: expand private agriculture and small enterprise, provide micro-credits, get the state out of services it provides poorly, grant autonomy to state enterprises, expand foreign investment.
Having unleashed this debate, Raul Castro has yet to make major decisions. But he has raised public expectations so high that he has obliged himself to deliver results. After all, he could be singing the old refrain that a besieged Cuba must concentrate on defense and cannot experiment in domestic policy. But his message is the exact opposite.
Meanwhile, President Bush now focuses on the day when “the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away” as a moment for Washington to seize. But that train has left the station. Cubans have assimilated Fidel Castro’s absence, a leadership succession has been accomplished, and Raul Castro is governing.
With real prospects of change looming in Cuba, the administration continues to shun the people-to-people and diplomatic contacts that could increase America’s influence there.
Raul Castro may prefer it that way, but it is no way to serve our national interests at a turning point in our neighbors’ history.
Philip Peters is vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia and author of the blog, The Cuban Triangle.