by Lagan Sebert
Special to iVoryTowerz
Raul Castro takes the reins in a historic transition of power that changes…nothing — at least for now. Raul has been acting president of Cuba for the last 19 months since Fidel Castro underwent multiple intestinal surgeries. As long as Fidel is alive, it is probable that he will retain veto power, keeping the Cuban power distribution largely unchanged.
It is perhaps more telling that Communist party hard-liner Jose Ramon Machado Ventura was chosen as the country’s vice president. The message is clear; deep systematic changes to the Cuban state are unlikely in the near future. The passage of power came out of necessity rather than a willingness to change.
Though Raul is a very different leader than Fidel, big brother is watching — literally. It’s also important to remember Raul has been a member of the Communist party longer than Fidel and he is the leader of the Cuban army, so in some aspects, this transition could almost be interpreted as a step backwards.
But then there is the other side to Raul. In the 1990’s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Raul led a movement to privatize some small sectors of the state-controlled economy. The reforms legalized a number of micro-businesses at a time when the Cuban government was having a hard time feeding the population.
Now, the Cuban economy is being held up, to some extent, by the largess of the new leader of U.S. antagonism south of the border, Mr. Hugo Chavez. But with recent food shortages in Venezuela and a likely end to Chavez’s presidency in 2012, this assistance should not be relied on either. The pragmatist in Raul will likely lead him toward gradual market liberalization without political reform, much in the style of China.
Some may argue this style of reform would be detrimental to the ideological foundation of the Revolution, but that foundation has been damaged for years. The tourist industry has become one of the strongest sectors of the Cuban economy, but average Cubans are banned from entering ostentatious resorts built with foreign capital and frequented by foreign travelers.
While hotels more glamorous than the ones funded by mob money during the Batista days serve luxurious meals to international tourists and charge hundreds of dollars a night, locals live off of meager rations with little hope for anything more.
Without reform and increases in productivity, the Cuban economy is probably unsustainable in the long run. Any economy where taxi drivers make more money than doctors has serious transparency issues.
Since the '90’s, the black market has exploded. Many Cubans supplement their meager rations by working on the sly. Ironically, this phenomenon has helped create a culture of resourcefulness that may become one of Cuba’s strongest assets in a more market driven economy. These are people who have kept '57 Fords running for a half a century, and they do it without duct tape or any other U.S.-made products.
Which brings us to the embargo. Many argue without the economic embargo, Fidel Castro could never have ruled the island nation for almost fifty years. It is widely considered a failed U.S. policy, yet dropping it at once would create chaos.
Millions of Cubans are itching to leave the island. Cuban-Americans still dream of reclaiming family estates, and U.S. real estate speculators are ready to gobble up Old Havana as quickly as allowed. With Raul and a new U.S. president there is a historic opportunity to normalize economic relations. While normalizing economic relations is in the interest of both Cuba and the United States, Jamba Juice is probably not going to be opening its Old Havana location anytime soon — and rightly so.
Raul Castro brings with him an important step in what will likely be a long, slow transition in Cuba, as long as Raul embraces change. There is, however, an educated, tech-savvy, and restless youth movement in Cuba that is not as smitten with the tainted mysticism of the “Revolution” as much as they are eager to enter the 21st century.
Without the impending figure of Fidel, calls for more personal freedoms and economic opportunity will only get louder. Unless Raul and others acknowledge the desires of a new generation, young people may be tempted to give new meaning to the word revolution in Cuba. To drive Cuba toward violence now would be a tragedy — despite it’s failings, Castro’s Cuba is a largely nonviolent place.
(For more background on the historic changes in Cuba, please see these archival posts: "Dispatches from a Gringo in Havana;" and "Predicting the End of Fidel Castro.")
(The photo of Raul Castro is © copyright the Cuban News Agency (ACN), one of two official government news agencies. As the news agency is a product of the Cuban state, the photo is actually in the public domain.)
Jose Ramon Machado
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by Lagan Sebert