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AMERICAS

Cuba 2005: End Game
Aiming Cuba towards the future.
By Toby Eglund


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NOVEMBER 10, 2005. Nobody knows what to do about Cuba. After years of trying in vain to sweet talk their way to human rights, the European Union resorted to mild diplomatic sanctions in 2003 when Cuba jailed seventy-five librarians, dissidents, independent journalists, and summarily executed three ferry hijackers. Cuba offered no concessions in the area of human rights, except for releasing on probation a few gravely ill prisoners, and moving others to prisons closer to their families. In January of 2005, the E.U. gave up the sanctions in favor of yet more talk.

The return to the status quo was protested by some E.U. members, notably the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia. With their own histories of communist dictatorships, the Eastern European countries, in particular, preferred a harder line. During the 2003 crackdown, former Cold War dissidents Vaclav Havel, Arpad Göncz, and Lech Walesa widely published an open letter calling for stronger European support for Cuban dissidents and pro-democracy activists. However, they did not advocate joining the macho U.S. economic embargo, which after forty-six years has accomplished little in terms of democracy, freedom, or human rights in Cuba.

Groups like Human Rights Watch argue that the embargo and other U.S. political and economic sanctions actually make things worse. HRC recently said that the latest U.S. restrictions on travel to the island for Cuban Americans divide families as effectively as the Castro government's own measures. HRC also denounced the Castro government for requiring Cubans to get official government permission to leave the island, even to reunite with family, and preventing others from returning home.

Even the timid, short-lived E.U. diplomatic sanctions, which didn't amount to much more than inviting dissidents to embassy cocktail parties instead of high level government officials, had their own negative effect. Castro used the opportunity to reject several million euros in economic aid from the E.U., excoriating it as "a group of old colonial powers historically responsible for slave trafficking, looting and even the extermination of entire peoples."

If talk doesn't work, and sanctions don't work, then what? The U.S. has steadfastly refused to re-consider the matter. Europe doesn't seem to have the will to find out.

Elvis in the House
As the recent rejection of the European Constitution indicates, the E.U. itself is divided on whether or not it should have a common foreign policy, or just stick to economic matters. Cuba is an especially touchy issue because many of the members states have significant investments there, particularly Spain. The E.U. is Cuba's largest trade and investment partner.

Cuba is also a sentimental favorite. For years, the Cuba shaped by the 1959 revolution was widely applauded by European intellectuals for establishing universal health care, creating literacy programs, fighting poverty and racism, and countering U.S. neocolonialism. Regime "excesses" were blamed on a vindictive and voracious Uncle Sam hovering to the North, or explained away as necessary evils of revolution. Advanced mental gymnastics even managed to prove that locking up fags in concentration camps, or dykes in mental hospitals somehow put a book or a bowl of rice and beans in a peasant's hand.

Forty-six years later, the Castro regime has lost much of its glitter, but the Comandante himself can still sweep into an international conference like an aging rock star, hogging the media, and eclipsing the presidents elected for a mere four or five years. It is hard to blame the press for giving him airtime. The nose-thumbing, anti-American Elvis still has million dollar charisma and a facility with the spoken word that any Beat poet would have admired.

Castro's power shows no signs of waning at home, either. He can still lift his little finger and get hundreds of thousands of his compatriots out on the streets, as he did in 2003 to protest the E.U. slap on the hand. With a stroke of a pen he can accept or reject millions in aid. Which means, essentially, that after forty-six years, it's no longer possible to blame the ancien regime for Cuba's current problems. The state of today's Cuba, good or bad, must be laid at Castro's feet, including the country's morass of poverty.

Broken Promises
Perhaps worse than his penchant for social and political oppression, is that somewhere along the way Castro seems to have decided not only that economic inequality is bad, but that there's something inherently wrong with having money.

Since the 2003 crackdown, his regime has withdrawn licensing from many entrepreneurial activities, including the apparently antirevolutionary birthday party magician. The result is a further dip into a grinding poverty that dollar remittances from Cuban Americans can barely stem.

Ironically, one of the biggest promises of the 1959 revolutionaries was to end poverty and diversify an economy dependent on sugar, the degradations of tourism, and the dominant U.S. market.

It was harder than they thought. With their arrogance and inexperience — Che, a medical doctor, was briefly in charge of overhauling the economy — they sometimes made things worse by destroying existing industries without having viable plans to replace them. They also had to face the limited physical resources of the island, and pretty soon the U.S. embargo.

But after forty-six years of seasoning, new access to the European and growing Latin American markets, if not the American one, the top three sources of Cuban revenue are still tourism, the U.S. — in the form of dollar remittances from exiles — and sugar. Economically, the island is still trapped in the 1950's. Now, Cubans are among the poorest people in the region. In 2003, each inhabitant averaged an annual income of $2808, significantly less than half of the neighboring Dominican Republic's average of $6823, even though that country, according to United Nations estimates, falls short of Cuba both in terms of literacy and life expectancy.

The New Economy
Given its relatively high levels of health and education, Cuba has the potential to be one of the richest countries in the region. In a global economy in which medical and scientific innovation, and information technologies are paramount, a country's greatest resources are no longer vast acres for enormous agricultural production, or the big deposits of ore which Che envied when he fantasized about replacing sugar refineries with steel mills. The key in 2005 is a healthy, literate population. Small countries can now play with the big boys. Cuba could be another Singapore, Taiwan, or Finland.

Already, one of the regime's apparent success stories is Cuba's biotech programs. They consistently produce cutting edge research, which has often translated into valuable pharmaceutical patents. The country also produces quantities of medical doctors and engineers, fields largely based on science, rather than ideology. Beyond those borders, Cuba's vaunted educational system falls prey to the monsters of ideology. Most students of history, political science, or even psychology are routinely denied free access to current developments in their fields. And when they are finally trusted enough to be given access, ideological shackles practically guarantee that they will be operating in a fantasyland.

Cuba is also hamstrung in the lucrative areas of computer science and information technologies because the Castro regime has established its own embargo against the web and its world of information. And even if students had the resources, why bother pursuing a field in which you're paid in worthless Cuban pesos? Better to be a shoe-shine boy in a hard-currency hotel. Some of the best minds still in Cuba are probably driving cabs.

Now What?
So, what do you do with Castro when Cubans who criticize the regime are dismissed as American spies and traitors, and money is something to be scorned? You quit concentrating on him, and instead prepare for the future.

There are probably only three post-Castro models. The least likely is the status quo overseen by a new generation, with economic, political and social restrictions continuing in all directions. It's hard to imagine any successor pulling that off. Castro's mythological stature is a large part of why ordinary Cubans seem mesmerized in the face of repression and poverty. They won't put up with more of the same from a second-string dictator, who would also have to be charismatic and strong enough to maintain international allies, and rally the Cuban people against inevitable challenges from Cuban exiles and American interests.

There's no one of that caliber on the horizon, unless the U.S., with its knack for making things worse in Cuba, inadvertently manufactures him with threats and attacks. Bush administration officials have repeatedly sworn not to "accept" a handover of power to Castro's brother Raúl, Cuba's longtime Defense Minister.

Caleb McCarry, appointed in July as the Cuba "transition coordinator" in Bush's "Office for Reconstruction and Stabilization," which prepares scenarios for countries ripe for intervention, remains coy about whether an unacceptable Raúl would trigger a U.S. military intervention, or just a continuation of the embargo. At any rate, McCarry's State Department project has a military component, just in case.

A New Spain?
The second, and most hopeful model, is that of Spain, where the dictator Franco himself oversaw the transition to democracy. Spain now has one of the liveliest societies and most vibrant economies in Europe. Fidel Castro isn't likely to see the light. But his successors might.

They would need strong international allies to shield them from those poised to seize the country in the name of elections and the free market. But the specter of Iraq and the horror of U.S. nation-building attempts there and in Afghanistan, might be enough to unify the E.U., even members from the former Eastern Bloc. Latin American nations, newly committed to democracy, would also put their weight behind this option.

An essential part of this scenario would be the reconciliation of Cubans on the island with those in exile, partly because a real democracy must start with a clean ethical slate, but also because Cuban Americans will fight any regime that excludes them, no matter what it promises. Included, they may be persuaded to put their vast energy and expertise to constructing a real, independent, and democratic nation — hopefully one with a sustainable, viable economy. Anything less will leave a new Cuba prey to colonizing-lite from the United States, and a resumption of the old vicious circle of intervention and rebellion.

An invaluable first step is "Cuban National Reconciliation," a 110-page report issued in 2003 by a Task Force on Memory, Truth and Justice sponsored by Florida International University and financed by The Ford Foundation and George Soros' Open Society Institute. The 26-member Task Force worked for two years to produce this groundbreaking report. The Task Force (16 Cubans from the diaspora and 10 persons from other countries) was coordinated by Cuban-American scholar Marifeli Pérez-Stable.

Dire Straits
Which brings us to our third model, unfortunately, Russia and most of Eastern Europe. There, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, former Communists rapidly embraced the free market, privatized everything, and allowed corruption to run rampant. In Cuba's case, the role of privatizers could be former communists, Cuban exiles looking for reparations for all their pain and suffering, American corporations who lust after any market that opens up, or any combination of the above. The vultures are numerous and voracious.

If this happens, Cuba's educational system, such as it is, doesn't stand a chance to survive long enough to fuel a new technologically-based economy. According to the Financial Times, the U.S. post-Castro scenario includes keeping schools open and providing "instructional materials," but one imagines that Washington is talking about books for long division and reading, not molecular biology. In all likelihood, the bad old days will return, and the island will once again be nothing more than one big plantation and playground for the United States, and whoever else gets their toes in the door.

Only planning and an international consensus can prevent this depressing scenario, as well as the destructive right-wing backlash that has followed the demise of some communist states like Poland and Russia.

E.U. and Latin American politicians must stop using Cuba as tourist playground, cash cow, or symbol to thumb their noses at Washington. They should come to a bottom-line transition agreement with input from Cubans on and off the island, including whichever independent-minded Cuban technocrats and military personnel can be brought discretely to the table. After that, they must figure out what carrots or sticks could sell their plan to the U.S., which has long viewed Cuba with proprietary eyes, and these days sways precariously over the abyss of its own corrupting power.


From the Web

UNDP: Cuba Statistics 2005
HRW: Human Rights Watch denounces US and Cuba for travel restrictions
Amnesty: A report on prisoners of conscience in Cuba on the 2nd anniversary of the 2003 crackdown
Telegraph: 2003 — Cold War Dissidents Letter to Editor re: Cuba Crackdown
US State Dept.: Report to the President: Commision for Assistance to a Free Cuba
USAID/University of Miami: Cuba Transition Project Research
Task Force on Memory, Truth and Justice: Cuban National Reconciliation report


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