New leader, new Cuba?

"Raul Castro is Revolutionizing Cuba," declared a recent headline in the Reno Gazette-Journal. Sorry, but I don't believe it.

"Raul Castro is revolutionizing Cuba in small but significant ways," the Associated Press reported from Havana. As an example, the AP said the younger Castro brother (76), who took over from ailing 81-year-old dictator Fidel in February, will permit "ordinary" Cubans to own cell phones and stay in fancy tourist hotels, although most of them can't afford such luxuries on salaries that average around $20 per month. So I think things will stay much the same in Cuba for the foreseeable future despite wishful thinking on the part of some left-leaning Cuba-watchers.

In his Feb. 24 inauguration speech, Raul issued a vague promise to eliminate "excess prohibitions and regulations," but said any change would be slow and require hard work. That's sort of like President Bush promising to withdraw American troops from Iraq, but warning that the process will be "slow" and require "hard work," which may take 100 years to accomplish. But he'll be out of office next January while the Castro brothers continue to rule Cuba, as they have since 1959.

Last month, Washington Post foreign correspondent Manuel Roig-Franzia reported that Raul Castro promised "structural and conceptual" shifts in Cuba's economy when he replaced Fidel. "Economists and many islanders see much in Raul's track record to suggest that he may expand private business opportunities and perhaps even restore some of the vaunted mid-1990s reforms that his all-powerful brother dismantled," the journalist added.

"Raul pushed to make some self-employment legal in the mid-1990s as Cuba's economy was staggering and its populace starving after the Soviet Union collapsed," Roig-Franzia continued. "Besides allowing produce vendors, the government also began granting licenses for guest houses, mechanic shops and small restaurants known as 'paladares.'" But Fidel soon complained about "inequalities" and railed against "a new rich class" that was living off tourist dollars, and self-employment plunged from about 200,000 at that time to approximately 100,000 today.

Fidel also cracked down on the "paladares," which serve better food than drab, state-run restaurants. Now there are fewer than 100 paladares in the entire country. So much for capitalism in a Soviet-style command economy, in which the government controls more than 90 percent of all economic activity.

Some Cuba-watchers, like Duncan Currie of the conservative Weekly Standard, expect Raul Castro to adopt a Chinese economic model, mixing political repression with expanded economic freedoms starting with piecemeal reforms in agriculture. Currie speculated that the U.S. may drop its trade embargo if Cuba emulates China; however, that would be more likely if a Democrat is elected president in November because the Republican Party is still beholden to Cuban-American voters in South Florida.


In this context it's worth noting that the 1996 Helms-Burton Act stipulates that the U.S. embargo can't be lifted until the Cubans dump Fidel and Raul and meet a series of democratic benchmarks such as legalizing all political activity and releasing all political prisoners, which won't happen as long as the Castro brothers are alive.

Another longtime Cuba-watcher, Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment, believes the so-called "resignation" of Fidel "gives both Cubans and Americans a chance to escape the trap they've been in for more than four decades." Writing in the Washington Post, Kagan said the U.S. should offer to ease and eventually lift the trade embargo if Cuba agrees to hold free and fair elections monitored by respected international observers. "The first Bush administration supported a similar process in Nicaragua in 1989 and 1990, which culminated in the election of (pro-American) Violeta Chamorro, as president," Kagan recalled.

If I were Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, Kagan's quid-pro-quo would be the centerpiece of my Cuba policy. And if maverick Republican John McCain is our next president, he should immediately confront the Miami Cubans who have controlled U.S. Cuba policy for far too long, continuing their wild-eyed hatred of the Castro brothers (which isn't all bad) and pouring many millions of taxpayer dollars into Miami-based Radio and TV Marti, which no one on the island watches and/or listens to.

Although I don't expect any major changes in Cuba with Raul Castro in charge, I'm hopeful that our next president will ease the implacable hostility that our government has directed toward Cuba for nearly 50 years Ð a short-sighted policy that helped to keep Fidel Castro in power until he stepped down earlier this year.

• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, lived and worked in Latin America for nearly 20 years during his U.S. Foreign Service career.


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