Reform in Cuba Raúl the pragmatist


Bold changes intended to preserve Cuban communism may herald the beginning of its end

SHORTLY after he took charge of Cuba from his ailing brother, Fidel, in 2006, Raúl Castro declared that his country’s moribund communist economy needed to change. But his failure to make anything more than marginal adjustments disappointed hopes that he would follow Chinese and Vietnamese communist leaders in combining capitalist economics and growing social freedom with continued party control.
Now, at last, Mr Castro is showing signs of boldness. Over the past few weeks he has launched some potentially far-reaching changes. By April 1st 500,000 Cubans will be laid off from their state jobs and encouraged to make their own living in small businesses. Over the next two or three years, another 800,000 are likely to join them. Eventually up to two Cubans in five will no longer work for the state.

This week Mr Castro convened a much-postponed Congress of the Communist Party for late April: its job will be to bless the new economic model (see article). Meanwhile, the government has released more than 50 political prisoners. Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is Cuban communism finally on the way out?
Any answer must be hedged about with caveats. The economists advising Mr Castro are barred from talking of “reform”. In its guidelines for the party congress, the leadership declares that “only socialism [ie, communism] is capable of overcoming our difficulties and preserving the gains of the revolution” and that in the new economy “planning will be paramount, not the market.” No Cuban official has matched Deng Xiaoping’s embrace of “market socialism”, let alone his (perhaps apocryphal) injunction that “to get rich is glorious”. The welcome release of prisoners seems merely to have been a move to deflect outside criticism after the death of one of them in a hunger strike, rather than a first step in dismantling the island’s police state. Indeed the army is playing a bigger role in the economy and in government.
Yet Raúl’s reforms go much further than Fidel’s reluctant acceptance of foreign investment and limited self-employment after the collapse of the Soviet Union, partially reversed on the appearance of a new benefactor, Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. For the first time since the 1960s Cubans will be able to employ other Cubans (even though the constitution bans such “exploitation”). Many of the rules under which these new businesses will operate are still being drawn up. But it seems that Cubans will now be able to get loans and rent and buy property. Other changes are likely to follow. Mr Castro talks of gradually eliminating the free food rations that Cubans get, and moving towards targeted social assistance (as elsewhere in Latin America). The corollary is that wages will have to go up—and increasingly they will be set in the market.
In all this Mr Castro is bowing to reality. He has been withering in his criticism of the featherbedding that has bankrupted the state. He has also refused to blame the American economic embargo for problems which he rightly says are self-inflicted. His pragmatism has finally won out against his brother’s doctrinaire Utopianism.
Apart from the economy, the other big task facing Mr Castro, who is 79 (and Fidel 84), is to start handing over power to a younger generation. That may come after the party congress next year. In the meantime, his new boldness represents an opportunity for those who hope that Cuba will eventually join the rest of Latin America in accepting democracy and the market economy, for once the market’s green shoots appear they tend to flourish.
How to help kill communism
Outsiders should take their lead from the common position that Europe adopted in 1996, which allows it to help in “the progressive and irreversible opening of the Cuban economy” while predicating closer friendship on moves towards democracy. Offering training and credit—as Brazil has done—to Cuba’s incipient private sector would be a good move. Rewarding Cuba for releasing prisoners who should never have been locked up in the first place—as Miguel Moratinos, Spain’s recently sacked foreign minister, wanted—would not.
America’s embargo remains as futile and counter-productive as ever. Although Barack Obama has commendably reversed George W. Bush’s restrictions on visits and remittances by Cuban-Americans, Republican control of Congress will make it even less likely that the embargo will be dismantled. That’s a great shame. The embargo has allowed the Castros to pose as proud Cuban nationalists standing up to a bullying hegemon and thus helped them cling to power. If change is at last under way it is despite the embargo, not because of it.


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