Thursday, October 25, 2007

Between a rock and a hard place

Between a rock and a hard place
Posted on Thu, Oct. 25, 2007

Time may be or may not be running out, but the Cuban regime chugs along
as if it isn't.

In early September, the Communist Party called on Cubans to discuss Raúl
Castro's speech last July 26. Spain's El País labeled the assemblies ''a
national catharsis'' while Mexico's Reforma noted a mood of ''exhaustion
and skepticism.'' Some spoke up emphatically on an inexhaustible list of
complaints. ''After a timid start, people are emboldened and can't seem
to stop talking,'' wrote a Cuban columnist in Encuentro en la red, a
Madrid-based digital newspaper. Cubans under 40 were mostly disengaged
and uninterested.

Anger, resentment

Raúl's speech raised economic issues that resonated with ordinary Cubans
and announced ''structural changes'' without giving specifics. In 1990,
the party convened a similar round of assemblies; the hot topic then was
the crumbled Communist world and what Cuba might do to avoid the same
fate. The leadership didn't need these assemblies to take the public's
temperature, then or now. For decades, they have conducted periodic
polls -- like the comandante's health, a state secret -- that give them
the unvarnished truth. But, the ''consultation'' ritual worked 17 years
ago, so why not now?

The catharsis this time may be working against the regime. In 1990,
enough Cubans still believed that things could change for the better.
Today, anger, resentment and disbelief have overtaken a good many of
those who still held out hope after the Berlin Wall fell. Ordinary
Cubans are outraged at the galloping corruption, the time-warped
doublespeak that flies in the face of reality and the material hell of
their daily lives.

Enter Hugo Chávez

Raúl and others are talking of slow, cautious changes. That, apparently,
is not where the public mood is. Most Cubans seem unfazed by the
prospect of swiftly discarding the comandante's bromides in favor of
reality-based policies that begin to tackle the nearly bottomless well
of economic problems. With the elder Castro still around, Raúl and the
generals are hedging their pace. Even after Castro is gone, their pace
may still be more hesitant than the citizenry expects. And, mind you,
I'm only talking about economic changes.

Enter Hugo Chávez. During his Oct. 13 to 17 trip to Cuba, he held a
four-hour meeting with the ailing Castro, broadcast his weekly Caracas
program, Aló Presidente, from Santa Clara, Cuba, and announced new
agreements to abet the ''unitary project'' between Venezuela and Cuba.
Chávez's visit supports the comandante and the hard-liners who are more
interested in ideological struggles than in tending to ordinary people's

By all accounts, reforms will start (soon?) in the agricultural sector.
Raúl's maxim more than a decade ago -- ''Beans are more important than
cannons'' -- is even more salient today. Chávez mentioned food
production as an area of renewed cooperation, perhaps a sign that the
topic came up in his long conversation with the comandante. What comes
after efforts to promote agricultural productivity are in place is the
crucial issue.

In the mid-1990s, the elder Castro stopped and then reversed the modest
openings. Once in place today, there's no going back but -- even after
he's gone -- Cuban-Venezuelan ties could be a brake on the economic
front. A comprehensive restructuring proved to be incompatible with the
Fidelista political ways which Chávez so admires. Raúl and the generals
know their ways can't be the same, which may be why there's no love lost
between them and Chávez.

Nationalism is supposed to be the comandante's forte. Yet, he is again
steering Cuba down a path of dependence on a foreign power.

Messianic politics

Still, ties with the former Soviet Union happened at a time when many
deemed socialism a viable alternative to capitalism. Chávez's
21st-century socialism is a rehash of the tried-and-false ideas of
economic statism and messianic politics. History repeats itself -- first
time as tragedy, second as farce.

Been there, done that, Castro's successors could say. Still, they are
caught between a rock and a hard place: being faithful to Fidel Castro's
legacy, which carries a continued disregard for the economic well-being
of ordinary Cubans, or truly burying Castro by embracing an economic
restructuring that may open a Pandora's box.

Marifeli Pérez-Stable is vice president for democratic governance at the
Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., and a professor at Florida
International University.

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