Friday, September 26, 2008 10:00 AM
Hurricanes Gustav and Ike devastated Cuba. Preliminary estimates put
damages at more than $5 billion. The United Nations and more than 20
countries have already sent planeloads of humanitarian aid. Many Cuban
exiles, too, are sending donations in cash, clothes and food.
On the question of U.S. aid, the United States and Cuba engaged in
shameful posturing. In the end, Washington offered help unconditionally
but did not issue a temporary suspension of the embargo, which Havana
Why the United States didn't offer aid without strings attached from the
get-go is beyond me. Cuba would have said "No" anyway. Still, the Bush
administration is speeding up licenses to nonprofit organizations for up
to $10 million in humanitarian aid each.
In one of his columns, Fidel Castro explained that "the dignity of a
people has no price" and chastised "those in our country who are upset"
with the decision not to accept U.S. help. Is the dignity so flaunted by
Cuban leaders more important than helping ordinary Cubans when they most
need it? The answer is a disgraceful "Yes."
What else can we conclude given Havana's "No" to donations from the
European Union? Welcoming aid from countries that have yet to sign
cooperation agreements is also an affront to dignity. In the European
Union, only Spain and Belgium qualify to help the Cuban people. All the
same, Cuba recently accepted an ongoing dialogue with the EU.
Cuban leaders are playing politics. With the EU, they hope to get
cooperation agreements on their terms while sustaining a dialogue that
isn't overly emphatic on human rights. With or without strings, U.S. aid
is noxious for official Cuba, which needs the United States as an enemy
to bolster its David-Goliath image before the world and as a scapegoat
for its economic failures at home.
Though the damages from Gustav and Ike may yet prove overwhelming, the
Cuban government knows how to respond to natural disasters. Havana's
problems lie elsewhere, in governance. While patently insufficient, Raul
Castro's economic reforms aim to ease the harshness of daily life.
Agriculture _ devastated by pigheaded policies _ is most in need. After
a long decline, agricultural output grew in 2007 at the first inkling of
more reasonable policies. On Sept. 15, the government finally started
leasing peasants land that had lain fallow in state hands. More than
16,000 applied in the first three days.
In the early '90s, Cuban leaders learned from the strategic errors made
by three friends:
_No economic and political openings as Mikhail Gorbachev had done.
_No hundreds of thousands gathering in protest in the country's premier
public square as happened in China.
_No elections without a victory guarantee as the Sandinista defeat in
Power and arrogance are soul mates. The former Soviet Union, Deng
Xiaoping and Daniel Ortega thought they could pull it off but didn't.
Before the hurricanes, Cuba was already facing dire economic straits.
The government responded by stalling the faint-hearted reforms. Maybe
Fidel vetoed broadening them; he'd done it before in the 1990s. Albeit,
Cuban leaders are profoundly averse to change, prize caution above all
and, in any case, don't really know what to do.
Cuba's gerontocracy had hoped to set things minimally right before
passing the torch to younger generations. Let them be audacious and live
with consequences. But nature has thrown a big wrench in their works.
Without meaningful economic openings, forget about a recovery from
Gustav and Ike that meets the most urgent needs.
That's why caution is more risky than audacity. Cuba's old men _ some
quite brave in the battle long ago _ hesitate rather than muster the
courage to do the right thing from the heights of power. If at the end
of the day caution wins, the Castro brothers and their colleagues could
well fall victims to a strategic error of their own making.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Marifeli Perez-Stable is vice president for democratic governance at the
Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, a professor at Florida
International University and a columnist for the Miami Herald.