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The Illusion of Cuban Reform: Castro Strikes Out

The 2006 succession from Fidel Castro to his brother Raúl, programmed since the early days of the Cuban revolution, was efficient, effective, and seamless. The eighty-two-year-old Raúl, who recently announced that he will step down in 2018, is now orchestrating his own succession behind the scenes. But however the transition from the Castro era plays out, one outcome is off the table: that Raúl will emerge as a reformer to end the Communist era and inaugurate a new democratic and market-oriented Cuba.

How Cuban communism will finally meet its demise is yet to be known, but perhaps we will find parallels in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982 at age eighty. His successor, Yuri Andropov, took over at sixty-eight and died less than two years later. Andropov was in turn succeeded by the Konstantin Chernenko, who died a year later at the age of seventy-four. Chernenko was then succeeded by the fifty-four-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev. It took the Soviets three leadership changes to get to a new generation with prospects for reform.

Cuba’s first vice president of the Council of State, the eighty-two-year-old José Ramón Machado Ventura, was expected to be Raúl Castro’s pro forma successor. In February 2013, however, he was replaced in that post by Miguel Díaz-Canel, a factotum-like party apparatchik in his early fifties. The international media jumped on the appointment and concluded that Cuba’s Gorbachev had arrived on the scene. But while Díaz-Canel is in line to succeed Raúl in the Council of State, this is not equivalent to being number two in the regime.

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General Raúl Castro leads Cuba not because he is president of the Council of State, but because he is first secretary of the Communist Party, head of the armed forces, and Fidel’s brother. Article 5 of the Cuban Constitution makes it clear that the Communist Party is “the superior leading force of the society and the State.” It is the eighty-two-year-old Machado who remains second secretary of the fifteen-member Politburo of the Communist Party—and thus, at least for now, Raúl Castro’s heir apparent. Under Cuba’s governing succession protocol, the military-dominated Politburo is the cabal that will recommend, when the time comes, the country’s next leader.

The succession plot thickens when we consider that the president of the Council of State is also the commander in chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. When Raúl Castro leaves office, it is difficult to envision old comandantes like Ramiro Valdés and three-star generals of the Politburo offering their allegiance and subordinating themselves to a youthful civilian bureaucrat like Díaz-Canel. Civilian control of Cuba’s armed forces is not part of Revolutionary Cuba’s genetic makeup.

When contemplating change in Cuba, one must be mindful that for the past half-century Cuba’s history and political culture has been shaped and dominated by the Castro brothers and their ideas. Raúl Castro’s inner circle is not made up of closet democrats waiting for an opportune moment to put into practice their long-suppressed Jeffersonian ideals. Their governing philosophy is inseparable from the totalitarian ideology that subordinates citizens to the state, and the state to an unelected Communist elite. The incentive for democratic reform is further hindered because this elite profits personally from a symbiotic relationship in which authoritarianism engenders a corrupt oligarchy and that oligarchy profits from the continuation of corrupt authoritarianism.

 

The extraordinary degree to which Communist Cuba has failed to provide for the citizens’ economic well-being is well documented by an avalanche of statistics and data that have defined the country’s stagnation and regression since the 1959 revolution. A most disturbing illustration of this economic condition is Cubans’ purchasing power compared to that of other countries. A study by the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies shows, for example, that to purchase fourteen ounces of powdered milk, the average Cuban worker has to work 57.5 hours. To make the same purchase, the average worker in Costa Rica has to work only 1.7 hours. Comparable disparities hold for the other items analyzed in the study’s consumer basket.

A centerpiece of the reform program announced by Raúl Castro in 2010 is the government’s decision to fire up to 1.3 million workers—something on the order of twenty percent of the country’s workforce—from state jobs and then “allow” them to become self-employed “outside the government sector.” In the Cuban version of Orwellian doublespeak, this particular reform is called an “actualization of socialism,” and the term “private sector” is not to be uttered.

The measure assumes that the newly unemployed have the interest, training, and resources to be entrepreneurs able to make an independent living in jobs that may be far from their work experience and training. Furthermore, the reform makes no allowance or acknowledgment that these newly anointed entrepreneurs might require access to cash, credit, raw materials, equipment, technology, or other resources necessary to produce goods and services.

To fully appreciate the extent of this reform surrealism, one must understand that General Castro’s reform measure has helpfully identified the one hundred and seventy-eight jobs that the state now permits for private employment. Cubans can now request permits to become self-employed in activities such as: trade number 23, the purchase and sale of used books; number 29, attendants of public bathrooms; number 34, pruning of palm trees; number 49, wrapping buttons with fabric; number 61, shoe shinning; number 62, cleaning of spark plugs; number 110, box spring repairs (not to be confused with number 116, which is mattress repairs); number 124, umbrella repairs; number 125, refilling of disposable cigarette lighters; number 150, tarot cards fortune telling; number 158, peeling natural fruits (which is different from number 142, selling fruits in kiosks).

With significant fanfare, Granma, the Cuban government’s official newspaper, later announced that the activities permitted “outside the government sector” were being expanded to one hundred and eighty-one. The three new permissible activities are granitero (doing tile work), party planning for weddings and quinces (sweet sixteen–like parties), and selling insurance. Cuba’s vice minister of Finance and Prices (yes, there is a ministry in charge of prices) also announced that the activity of granitero would have to be approved by the work directives and by the office of the City Historian. The bureaucrats further decreed that these three  activities will be taxed at markedly different fixed monthly fees as follows: graniteros at one hundred and fifty Cuban pesos, party planners at three hundred, and insurance agents at twenty. The central-planning logic of these taxation rates is left for the public to decipher.

Not surprisingly, three years after the issuance of these new rules, the process is mired in a web of internal debate and paralyzing regulation. The dismissal of state employees has been essentially halted and is now supposed to take place over five years. Kafkaesque “efficiency committees” will determine the “ideal” number of employees for each function, and then other committees will decide who is to be dismissed.

The reforms that General Castro has initiated are not driven by any philosophical awakening that recognizes that open political and economic systems produce opportunity and prosperity for the society. They have been adopted in an effort to help save the regime. These are not reforms to unleash the market’s “invisible hand” but to reaffirm the primacy of the Castros’ clenched fist. One does not have to be an economist to appreciate that the refilling of disposable cigarette lighters, for example, will not contribute in any measure to economic development. And yet, the callousness and inadequacy of the reform measures promulgated by Raúl’s diktat are somehow lost in the eagerness by some observers to believe that any change from the Castro brothers, no matter how empty and silly, is a positive sign of genuine reform.

One thing that Cuba’s central-planning arrogance does indisputably accomplish, however, is an exacerbation of racial tensions. Access to dollars is essential for self-employment. The vast majority of Cubans receiving remittances from relatives living abroad and able to become self-employed are white. Afro-Cubans, without access to remittances from family members abroad, are left behind as income inequality increases.

One lesson to be learned from the history of political transition in the former Soviet bloc countries is that the success of reforms hinges on placing individual freedoms and empowerment front and center. This is not where Cuba is headed with its “actualization of socialism,” as Raúl Castro made clear in a speech to the National Assembly in late February: “I was not selected to be president to restore capitalism to Cuba . . . I was selected to defend, maintain, and continue to perfect socialism and not to destroy it.”

 

In sorting out the future of Communist Cuba, China is also a helpful example. As the United States and other countries began to engage China in the 1970s, attempting to lure it into the larger community of nations, it was widely assumed that a liberalized Chinese economy would create not only prosperity but also greater political freedom. China’s experience has demonstrated the virtue of market reforms and capitalism as engines for prosperity, albeit a prosperity that is enjoyed disproportionately by Communist Party members. But the personal freedoms and the empowerment of the citizenry have not followed, discrediting the belief that any market reform necessarily creates a freer society. Some observers, sharing this mistaken belief, have applauded gestures like Raúl Castro’s “privatization” initiatives. But in reality, the dominance of a one-party regime, coupled with the absence of an independent legal system and legislature, a free press, or other open civic institutions, ensures that these economic changes will not lead to democracy in Cuba. In fact the most likely outcome of General Casto’s latest central planning will be to transfer any wealth generated from the state to the ruling military and party elite—in other words, a kleptocracy.

General Castro has led the Cuban armed forces for more than fifty years. In this period he has taken full advantage of the opportunity to appoint his military officers to positions of command in government and industry. The Cuban military elite control more than sixty percent of the economy. The breadth and depth of this control, over the country’s key sectors, is astonishing. GAESA, the holding company for the Cuban Defense Ministry, is involved in all key sectors of the economy. Enterprises with innocuous-sounding names such as TRD Caribe S. A., Gaviota, S. A., and Aerogaviota are all part of the vast economic holdings of Cuba’s army, navy, air force, and paramilitary forces—the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FAR). There is every reason to expect that Castro will continue to promote the monopolistic control of the economy by his armed forces, as he has since the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s. Accordingly, the most likely “after Raúl” scenario will feature a strong military presence in the country’s civil and economic sphere, as exists in China, with Raúl’s loyalists adhering to the Castro regime’s ideology and methods, with perhaps some minor tinkering around the edges. The likely succession scenario in the short term will follow the lines of a more or less classical military dictatorship, but perhaps led by a triumvirate or some “first among equals” approach. It is hard to imagine a Cuban Gorbachev emerging before the country runs through the remnants of this aging generation of revolutionaries.

It is entirely possible that Raúl, or his immediate successor, will eventually introduce partial but somewhat genuine “reforms” to avoid economic collapse. In that case, the reforms will not be designed or intended to better the lot of everyday Cubans. Rather, he will opt for a variation of the Chinese, Vietnamese, or Russian model in order to prolong the dictatorship and at the same time enrich himself and his comrades by privatizing the country and morphing his revolutionary officers into revolutionary businessmen.

In the current system, where enterprises are state owned and managed, military officers enjoy the privileges of an elite ruling class. Their standard of living is higher, they live in better homes, and they have access to luxury consumer goods. But today’s benefits are minuscule when compared with the future opportunities for self-enrichment in positions of equity ownership of the enterprises under their managerial control.

A defining feature of Cuban totalitarianism has been the intrusive use of pervasive repression to atomize society. This process has eliminated political competition, destroyed economic performance, and rendered civil society weak, ineffective, and debilitated by fear. By and large, the politically demoralized—and by now apathetic—Cuban population will not view these ownership changes as particularly undesirable or nefarious. They may even view them mistakenly as a positive transition toward a market economy and prosperity. The irony will be that, believing that they are experiencing democracy and free markets when actually they are not, Cubans will come to despise a new system that serves only to enrich the governing elite. This may set the conditions for a new round of Cuban revolutionary cycles, akin to 1933 and 1959.

Cuba today is not yet post-Castro, but ideologically it is post-communism. When Raúl goes, there may be the appearance of a political “opening” in which other parties may be permitted to exist so long as they don’t challenge official party domination. In this disheartening endgame scenario, the generals oversee a hegemonic party system offering a patina of political legitimacy, and the international community acclaims the generals, or their civilian front men, as agents of change bringing a market economy to Cuba. The post-Castro regime will then present a facade of political normalcy that will enable the generals to monetize their behind-the-scenes power. It will not be important who fills the civilian poster-boy roles. After all, the Roman emperor Caligula made his favorite horse a consul—to show that even a beast could perform a senator’s duties.

José Azel is a senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami and the author of the book Mañana in Cuba.

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