Cuba: Same as the Old Boss

by , August 06, 2006

It gives me little pleasure to suggest that the block parties in Miami’s Little Havana were premature. I have had a visceral dislike for Fidel Castro and what he has done to what is by nature one of the most pleasant places on earth for a long time, and there will be a certain satisfaction in knowing he has finally departed the vale of tears. But whether Fidel is alive or dead just now – and there seem to be valid reasons to wonder – the damage he has imposed on Cuba is deep-rooted and will not be undone in years and perhaps not in decades.

Beyond that cold dose of realism, it was gratifying that the news that Fidel Castro was having some kind of intestinal surgery that caused him to hand over formal power to his brother Raúl (who is hardly a spring chicken at 75) was so fraught with hope that Cuban-Americans in Miami’s Little Havana turned out for a massive street party. That even a rumor of the 79-year-old dictator’s imminent demise would create a surge of joy among decent people is not surprising. But getting rid of the old scoundrel, even if it involved more extensive reform than simply handing the apparatus of oppression over to his brother or to some kind of collective leadership, will not necessarily usher in a new day of freedom and prosperity in Cuba.

BEST CASE WON’T HAPPEN

There have been many over the years who have believed in a best-case scenario involving Cuban-Americans, certainly some of the most successful and influential of American immigrant groups. The idea is that expatriates, especially those with financial and business experience and connections, perhaps after a period of transition, would be welcomed back with open arms. They would then set about reviving the sugar, cigar and tourism industries, building new industries, and encouraging Cubans who never left the island to emulate their capitalist ways and creating widespread prosperity.

However, Mark Falcoff, an old Latin American hand long affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute who wrote Cuba: The Morning After in 2003, was disinclined to buy that rosy picture. In the book he wrote that

“to assume that the reconstruction of Cuba can simply be farmed out to the Miami diaspora is a fantasy that the United States would be best advised to abandon. The future relationship of Miami and Havana is bound to be far more complex than that, even assuming a political transformation that is likely to be nowhere near as far-reaching as many (myself included) would wish.”

The impression that Cuban-Americans will quickly set things to rights once Castro and his regime are gone should be further dispelled by any number of stories this week based on interviewing Cuban-Americans in Miami and elsewhere. Those who came in the first wave have been here about 47 years, and by definition the idea of uprooting themselves to engage in enterprises that might be risky (both commercially and personally) at this stage of their lives is not something they will automatically welcome. Besides, while not abandoning their hostility to Castro, many have come to think of themselves as more American than Cuban.

Many younger Cuban-Americans have spent their whole lives in the United States. Because of proximity and familial memories they may feel closer to Cuba than many earlier immigrants felt to Italy, Poland, Germany or wherever. But despite constant fears that immigrants will overwhelm America, what usually happens is that recent immigrants become more Americanized than native-born Americans, and so not inclined to want to return to the motherland except perhaps for vacations or (if they have the means) even a vacation home. A few will want to start businesses or branches of businesses in Cuba, but it’s unlikely there will be enough to make much of a dent in the economy.

UNLIKELY REFORMER

Although he is little known outside Cuba – and apparently doesn’t have a high profile inside Cuba either – Raúl Castro doesn’t seem a likely candidate to lead a movement toward freedom or democracy. He has been his brother’s right-hand man since the ouster of former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Far less charismatic than Fidel, he is reportedly ruthlessly competent. When Fidel deemed executions, bloodshed and terrorizing latent opposition were deemed necessary to consolidate power, Raúl orchestrated it. He heads a military that has been a relentless instrument of Fidel’s power. In the old days he was viewed as a more ideologically committed communist than Fidel.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and cut off the $5-6 billion per year subsidy to the Cuban regime, the Castro brothers faced a potential crisis. They saw the Chinese experience – where the Communist Party retained absolute political power but allowed some market-oriented economic activity to reverse the economic stagnation socialism always brings – as a possible model.

So they allowed the formation of some small businesses and encouraged tourism – with the military owning and profiting from most of the tourist facilities. But they kept the quasi-private, commercial sector small and walled off from the rest of the economy. Fidel seems to have seen the development of a middle class that might develop more independence from the state as more of a threat than Raúl did, but whatever went on behind the scenes, tourism has been kept isolated.

I talked to a friend who visited a couple of years ago and he said that ordinary Cubans, for a variety of reasons, don’t interact with tourists or receive even trickle-down benefits from the tourism industry. The military runs most of it, which means a few generals get disproportionate benefits and the rest of the revenue subsidizes the military.

When I talked to Mark Falcoff this week, he told me several things are odd about the current situation. “The first is that Raúl has not appeared in public. And I might have thought they would have showed a photo of Fidel in the hospital bed looking a little tired, perhaps, but doing just fine.”

Whether Fidel is eventually replaced by Raúl or by an anonymous collective of gray generals, Mr. Falcoff doesn’t expect dramatic changes. When he visited a few years ago, even having pored over economic statistics, he was shocked at how pervasive the poverty was, especially outside Havana, and how the infrastructure has been allowed to crumble.

The story told by statistics is depressing enough. In 1958 Cuba ranked near the top of Latin American countries in per-capita income, life expectancy, consumption of oil and electricity, per-capita auto ownership, literacy and medical services. Today it is near the bottom in nearly every category. The gap between rich and poor is not as marked as it was before Castro came to power, but the country as a whole is poorer than it was – quite a substantial negative accomplishment

It seems certain that the most entrepreneurial Cubans long ago fled the country, though there may be some budding entrepreneurs there. But those who remained in Cuba have been indoctrinated for two generations in the evils of capitalism. They have come to depend, at least psychologically, on a charismatic leader and the expectation that the government will take care of their needs, however inefficiently. Civil society, which was weak to non-existent under Batista, has been decimated under Castro, so there’s not much on which to build a democratic political culture. Even if the system becomes freer, there’s not much there on which to build prosperity.

I’d love to be wrong, and perhaps if Castro had fallen 20 or 30 years ago things might have been different. In a way Castro is a remnant from a different, almost forgotten era, when the Soviets seemed 10 feet tall and an ally in the Americas mattered. Now, however, the eventual change from domination by Castros (though there is a Fidel Jr., don’t forget) doesn’t seem likely to set off a period of freedom and prosperity in Cuba. Too bad.

Read more by Alan Bock