In Havana, the enfeebled fingers of Fidel Castro have handed the baton of dictatorship to the feeble fingers of his brother, Raul. The endgame is in sight, but what will it lead to?
There are those in Miami and Washington who believe that, by some miracle, the status quo ante will return to Cuba, but this time with democracy and transparency.
To understand what might happen in Cuba, let us look at two examples of countries where power was transferred.
First, take South Africa. The white minority government ceded power to the African National Congress by throwing open the franchise, enabling a black government to be elected. Significantly in South Africa, there were independent institutions, a democratic tradition among whites, and organized political groups.
Second, look at Russia. Change came quickly, but Russia was not ready for democratic emancipation in tandem with economic liberalization. While South Africa transferred power smoothly, it did not have to transfer ownership of its commerce. Result: an orderly transition. In Russia, the political transition was smoother than the commercial one. Smart kleptocrats stole Russia’s wealth. This has generated great public resentment; and from it, Vladimir Putin was able to abridge democracy. Of course, Putin was helped by the economic chaos of the early 1990s–another symptom of Russia’s democratic and commercial immaturity.
There are those who think that there will be a transition in Cuba akin to the one in South Africa. The parallel is faulty. They would be better advised to look at what happened in Russia and chart a future for Cuba that avoids the mistakes of Russia.
The great truth about Cuba, as far as the United States is concerned, is that it lies 90 miles off Florida; its economy is a disaster; and it has 11 million people—a goodly number of whom would like to move to the United States.
Here are some scenarios for Cuba:
1. The United States lifts the embargo. In the first week, Cuba is flooded with private aircraft and boats. There is chaos, and the Cubans fear that they are being taken over. Solution: a gradual lifting of the embargo over time.
2. A democratic government is established in Havana. But without political parties, Cuba divides along racial lines. Roughly 50 percent of Cubans are white and the rest are black. Solution: a government in exile is formed in Miami to prepare a constitution that could be adopted in Cuba, allowing for the special conditions on the island.
3. A new Cuban government seeks to privatize state-owned enterprises– the most valuable of which is the pharmaceutical research industry. Any move to privatize industry would put a new government at odds with the Cuban exile community in the United States. Many harbor claims against Cuba for companies and private property that were seized by Castro 48 years ago. These claims are extremely complicated and could bog down a new administration in litigation in Cuban and American courts. Solution: a commission of reconciliation, whose findings would be legislated into law in Havana with treaty recognition in the United States.
If things go wrong in Cuba, they go wrong for the United States as well. A rush to democracy could be as damaging as anything that has happened, including civil war. There are those in Havana who believe that there should be a period for private industry to be established before democracy is implemented. These are people who look not to the South African or Russian examples but to China.
And, of course, there are the Cubans. When I first went to Cuba in the 1980s, at least half of them remembered the days before the revolution and were sullenly angry about what had happened to Cuba. On my last visit, four years ago, the change in generations was apparent. There was less memory of the old days, and Cubans’ aspirations had more to do with their daily lives than with great upheavals. As I could define it, a wish-list included better pay, more meat in the diet, and better-fitting clothes. A distant fourth on the wish-list, and from the young, was to travel. But years of propaganda have taken their toll, and many young Cubans believe that life outside of Cuba is brutal and dangerous. Interviews on the street suggest that they fear the inequalities of the past as much as they resent the oppression of the present.
The Cuban question will not be resolved when two old men leave the scene there.