Left at the Crossroads: Cuban reform and the international scene

The Cuban government recently released a 32-page document of “Guidelines for Socio-economic Policy.” This very summary charter of economic reform confirms that the winds of moderate change encouraged by Raúl Castro are prevailing, but it is still characterized by the euphemistic vagueness of its formulations.

The Cuban government recently released a 32-page document of “Guidelines for Socio-economic Policy.” This very summary charter of economic reform confirms that the winds of moderate change encouraged by Raúl Castro are prevailing, but it is still characterized by the euphemistic vagueness of its formulations. Of course, it will be unanimously approved by the next Communist Party Congress in April 2011 (the last one took place in 1997).

The Guidelines leave no doubt about the failure of the system of authoritarian central planning. But though they also state that the Cuban economy’s extreme fragility is partly due to its dependency on international market trends, they do not offer any serious commentary on the financial crisis or on the new developments in international politics. There’s no analysis whatsoever of the global scene, not even one of the wooden “Marxist” vituperations against the evils of capitalism and imperialism to which the Soviet-style ideologues had us accustomed to.

In fact, the words capitalism and imperialism –or the related adjectives– are never mentioned in the Guidelines, while the word “socialism” appears only three times in the most perfunctory way, one of them to insist that it should not be confused with “egalitarianism.” The only “ism” that is abundantly glossed upon is “tourism.”

How do the reformist sectors of the Cuban elite perceive their country’s chances of success in the regional and global context? If the Chinese and above all the Vietnamese experiences offer clues to the possible evolution of the economy, the three “significant others” for the Cuban regime are Brazil, the European Union (particularly Spain) and the United States.

Notice that I didn’t mention Venezuela. Cuban intelligence services are omnipresent on the ground in their “sister” Caribbean Republic. They are perfectly informed of the erratic nature of the Venezuelan regime, the whimsical mind of its leader and the questionable sustainability of his policies. They also know a lot about the corruption, inefficiency and deep opportunism of the new parasitic class in power in Caracas, whose commitment to “socialism” and Cuban-Venezuelan friendship is rather shallow.

As for the Cuban generals and senior officers, who generally possess real combat experience in truly heroic conditions –as was the case in Angola– and proven economic management skills –in the tourism industry in particular, they secretly despise their often overweight and crooked Venezuelan colleagues, who lack both. Of course, you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, and Chávez’ aid and oil are more than welcome, but the Cubans know that it can’t be the base for a solid recovery of their ailing system.

For Havana’s leaders, Dilma Roussef’s election in Brazil last month is an enormous relief. They don’t need bombastic declarations of ideological solidarity to understand the value of Brasilia’s discreet support. Lula’s country is the economic and diplomatic powerhouse of regional integration in Latin America and the Cubans want to be part of it in their own terms. They are also eager to benefit from the capital and skills of Brazilian investors, who are officially expected to provide training and resources to the emerging Cuban private sector.

In spite of some delays and obstacles, the release of dozens of political prisoners, with the mediation of the Cuban Catholic hierarchy, now at least implicitly recognized as a valid political interlocutor, clearly marks a will to unfreeze relations with the European Union, Spain being the main actor and facilitator in this evolving scenario.

The circumstances are not so encouraging on the other side of the Straits of Florida. While Obama had taken some measures to soften the U.S. embargo and sensibly reversed George W. Bush’s restrictions on visits and remittances by Cuban-Americans, the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives will certainly favor a hardening of Washington’s stance. With so many problems at home and abroad, the White House won’t pick a fight with the right-wing hawks over Cuba, arguably a subject of minor economic and geostrategic importance in spite of the ideological fervors it fuels.

The next chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl) symbolizes everything that is wrong with the Cuban-American old guard. She has publicly called for the assassination of Fidel Castro and fiercely antagonized any initiative of dialogue and negotiation from the moderate wing of the Cuban community in Miami.

Ros-Lehtinen’s brand of ideological stubbornness will systematically discourage the more open attitude of the younger generation of Cuban-American entrepreneurs and educated decision-makers. Unfortunately, this new generation is precisely the segment the Cuban reformers counted on to try to replicate on a minor scale what the Chinese communists did with their own diaspora: mobilize the talents and resources of their overseas compatriots to revolutionize their productive sector.

That’s why the result of the November elections in the United States is very bad news not only for Raúl Castro, but for the Cuban citizens and their families on the island and in Florida, whatever their views are on the present regime and its muddled reform initiatives.


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Globalization might already sound like a stale catchword, but the new interconnected reality it describes still has surprising tricks up its sleeves. So what do you do when you’re a leftish French writer born in Africa and living in South America, with a background in Slavic Studies, a worried fascination for emerging Asian powers, and interests ranging from classical political philosophy to Bollywood film music? Read, travel, wonder. And send scattered dispatches from modernity’s frontlines.

Marc Saint-Upéry is a French journalist and political analyst living in Ecuador since 1998. He writes about political philosophy, international relations and development issues for various French and Latin American publications and in the international magazines Le Monde Diplomatique and Nueva Sociedad. He is the author of El Sueño de Bolívar: El Desafío de las izquierdas Sudamericanas (Bolivar’s Dream: the Left’s challenge in South America).

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