By Vladimír BenáČek | Prague Post
Contrary to the reputation of strained relations between the Czech Republic and Cuba, Czech export figures to the communist nation confirm an accelerated growth that started in 2002. An estimated $16 million (396 million Kč) in exports this year could be the highest figure in the past 15 years, promising at least a partial return to the days when Czechoslovakia was the second most important exporter to Cuba during the Soviet era.
The world, meanwhile, is surmising with much uncertainty where Cuba will end up politically after the end of Fidel Castro’s rule. Castro has become one of the most intriguing political personalities of the past 50 years. He masterminded a most improbable revolution from 1953�59, outfoxed 10 U.S. presidents and 15 CIA directors, withstood the communist collapse after 1989, survived a series of economic catastrophes in the past 15 years and currently sneers at the world’s high-power politics ó all making him a magus of the impossible.
In the first half of this year, Czech diplomacy stood at the center of the European Union controversy over renewing sanctions against Havana, but this initiative only marginally succeeded, failing to rescind the more pragmatic Spanish, French and British approach. Czechs became the staunchest of moralists by proposing a boycott of Castro’s regime, and so became the closest U.S. allies in tightening the embargo against Cuba.
Castro has fought back, however, and his external policies seem again to be on the ascent, though his internal policies remain a disaster. Cuban prosperity, supported by an annual Soviet subsidy of $5 billion until 1989, collapsed in 1990, and its gross domestic product (GDP) sunk by as much as 50 percent. The present GDP of $2,900 per capita seems to support the Cuban government’s official proclamation that it has weathered the “externally imposed” crisis, but the figures appear misleading: The stability concerns only the totalitarian regime, not the 11 million Cubans it rules. The state budget has recovered its heyday’s financial status, but at the cost of the misery of households.
The average monthly wage of 300 pesos ($12/290 Kč) remains one of the lowest in the world. It buys hardly 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of food, usually a choice between rice and bread. A ration card adds some additional 8 kilograms per person, if one is lucky. The Cuban problem remains one of monstrous bureaucracy, punitive labor and the shortage of everything good for living.
Only three reforms can accurately be said to have achieved success, and all of them deal with Cuba’s external relations. The most successful one was opening up the country to tourism. In 2004, 2.4 million visitors brought the regime $2.7 billion. That had to be combined with lifting the ban on foreign capital, the second major reform.
The third successful economic reform was the introduction of the U.S. dollar as a parallel currency. The ensuing influx of remittances from 2.6 million Cuban emigres became an essential injection to the standard of living of normal Cubans. Every Cuban citizen is able to observe daily what capitalism offers, especially after the fall of European and Soviet communism in 1989 ó so how does Cuban communism survive?
First, the execution of General Ochoa in 1989 helped Castro recover control over the army and police. That strengthened the executive power of Raúl Castro, the least-charismatic leader imaginable, allowing him ó as chief reformer, and commander over all armed forces ó to integrate the army and police into the economy. Political power now has direct access to the foreign exchange from investments and transfers, in addition to more than 80 percent of GDP revenues.
Paradoxically, however, the main underpinning of the totalitarian regime comes from making the danger from outside seem credible. The EU, Russia and China are not considered threats. But Castro remains most efficiently helped by past U.S. policies. The decades-long embargo sealed off the presence of both U.S. capital and U.S. visitors. The threat that the United States would seek to restitute property nationalized after 1958 (estimated by Castro’s propaganda at over $60 billion) undermines both national pride and the momentum for a domestically driven change.
Last but not least, U.S. political support of Cuban immigrants makes them a Trojan horse that frightens the majority of Cubans. “Cuba sí, yanquis no” ó this hackneyed slogan surprisingly did not go out of fashion.
Although the solitary U.S. embargo has had only a marginal impact on the Cuban economy, it developed high ideological value to the rest of the world: It clearly (and rightly) identified the regime of the Castro brothers as evil. But this also backfired: It made the communist propaganda of an “external threat” a credible story locally.
Since the early 19th century, Cubans have embraced the tradition of patriotism (“patria o muerte”), and Castro discovered that heating this awareness would bring the rotten regime popular support of the last resort. World politics should dissociate the abolition of communism with external aggression. Has it already forgotten that it was exactly this that powered the unique success of the “velvet revolutions” across Europe?
The free world should help Cubans mastermind a “velvet” dismantling of communism by themselves. This is the idea of the dissident project Varela. Czechs have the best understanding of how changes mature from the inside, while external pressure should act as a catalyst only. The shakeout should come from the grass roots of society, where even the present apparatchik elite should feel a chance for survival.
Unfortunately, Cuba missed its moment in early 1990s. There is a growing concern that the demise of the Castro brothers will result in a civil war. The conflicting policies of the free world, offering too many whips and too little carrots, may even press Cubans into such a panicky reaction.
When the EU suspended its Cuban sanctions in January 2005, a new debate ignited about their reinstatement because of Cuba’s treatment of dissidents. In response, the Castro brothers immediately intensified their alignment with China and Venezuela. Now, after the June controversy over the expulsion of EU activists from Cuba, China represents the only global power to have any chance of a strategic alliance there. And, as a long-term strategy, a bridgehead in Cuba represents an excellent bargaining position for China to strike a new arrangement over the freedom of Taiwan.
The renewal of the presence of U.S. visitors and businessmen in Cuba will subdue the present paranoia of the Castro brothers, support the expectations of more entrepreneurial Cubans and offer new hope and courage to normal Cuban citizens, who might otherwise suffer civil war. The future of 11 million Cubans, and even hundreds of millions of people in the whole of Latin America, depends on the concerted co-acting between Europe and the United States.
It was that coordinated mix of sticking to liberal values and practicing economic openness that brought communism to an internally induced soft crash in Europe. The voices proposing that Cuban communism should be brought to its knees by unyielding external pressure disregard the causes of the fall of communism 16 years ago, as well as underestimate Cuban national pride.
An open U.S. trade policy is more likely to subvert the Cuban communist system than an embargo. The presence of American and Czech businessmen at the Havana Trade Fair a year ago, and a growing economic relationship, is therefore not a paradox, but a part of the diplomatic game ó one that should be more coordinated, not discontinued.
ó The author is a senior researcher at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University, Prague.