April 28, 2008
By José Azel
What is Raul Castro up to with the announced reforms to Cuba's economic
system? Will these changes lead to a genuine free market economy and
more importantly to a democratic Cuba?
Given the character and nature of Cuba's regime, the measures we are
witnessing are not, as some suggests, baby steps toward a legitimate
transition. For starters, changes such as allowing Cubans to purchase
computers (without Internet access), DVD players, cell phones, microwave
ovens and other electronic appliances appear to be designed primarily to
extract hard-currency remittances from the Cuban exile community worldwide.
The Cuban population, with an average annual per capita income of
approximately $200, cannot afford to pay for these items at the highly
inflated prices dictated by Cuba's military-industrial complex. Nor can
Cubans afford to stay at a resort hotel where a one night stay requires
a year's earnings. Almost by definition, the funds for these purchases
will have to come from exile remittances to family members in the
island. It is indeed a clever and cost-free way for the Cuban government
to extort hard currencies from exiles anxious to improve the lives of
family members in the island.
That said, it can still be reasonably argued that these changes signify
a meaningful opening in the rarefied context of Cuba's totalitarianism
and centrally planned economic system. But let us consider the
concomitant evidence. At the same time that these measures are being
introduced, Cuba is moving to annul the licenses of over 150 foreign
firms, prohibiting them from operating in the island. Restricting market
choices while requiring Cubans to purchase exclusively from the
monopolistic military-industrial complex at exorbitant prices they
cannot possibly afford, bares no resemblance to even an embryonic market
mechanism much less baby steps.
Most importantly, there are no indications that the Cuban government is
planning to introduce political reforms toward democratic pluralism. In
the absence of political reforms and the building of self-governing
regulatory institutions such as an effective and independent legal
system, economic changes will not lead to democracy. Economic reforms in
isolation of serious political reforms will not lead sequentially and
inexorably to democracy in Cuba. In fact, the most likely outcome of
these changes is a transfer of wealth from the state to the ruling
military / party elite. Without the effective protection of society by
democratic institutions and the rule of law, the end result is likely to
be not democracy, but a form of kleptocratic governance where the
economy is subordinated to the interests of the kleptocrats.
José Azel is a senior research associate at the Institute for Cuban and
Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami.