Cuba Rising?

Good riddance to Fidel.

Last night, President Fidel Castro of Cuba made the announcement that many thousands have been awaiting for a half century.

I will neither aspire to nor accept the positions of president of the state council and commander in chief.

In other words, for the first time in living memory of most Americans (and almost all Cubans), The Leader will not be the cigar-smoking, verbose, bearded dictator that has been on every TV screen, newspaper, and wall in Cuba since Ike Eisenhower lived in the White House.

No need to fear a power vacuum, though.  To all appearances, the octogenarian dictator will be smoothly replaced by his septuagenarian brother Raul, who has been running the country on a "temporary" basis for the last year and a half, while Fidel had a series of medical operations.

Though they are brothers, the two appear to have very different styles.  Fidel loves to give bombastic, hours-long speeches; Raul's public orations, if you can call them that, tend to be relatively brief and low-key, and would not be entirely out of place coming from a Southeast Asian technocrat of the 1970s.

In fact, in many ways, that's what Raul seems to most resemble - someone like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Suharto of Indonesia, or the Kuomintang government of Taiwan.  In other words, though there's certainly no reason to believe that Raul has any intention of being the Cuban Gorbachev, there has already been something of a loosening there (relatively speaking), and he may well continue in this vein.

President Bush, not unnaturally, has called for democracy in Cuba.  But as we've explored previously, "democracy" is not a magic cure-all that fixes all the problems of a nation that has been under the thumb of a dictatorship for many decades.

A totalitarian state destroys not just dissidents; it removes all the elements of a functioning civil society.  The judges are not concerned with the law and the truth; they are concerned with obeying the wishes of their political masters.  The police are not concerned with serving and protecting the civilian population, but rather with harassing dissidents and squelching the opposition, if any.  The media, if such there be, is nothing more than a mouthpiece for official propaganda; any journalists, if they're even called that, certainly do nothing that we would recognize as independent journalism.

All these institutions, so essential to operate a free country, will need to be rebuilt from scratch.  This doesn't happen overnight.

In addition, Cuba has a resource which seems helpful but could be extremely hazardous: the thousands of members of the Cuban diaspora found in Florida and elsewhere in the U.S.  These folks are of Cuban descent, or escaped from Castro's prison island over the last fifty years; but they have now been living in the United States for a fair time.

Their way of thinking has become rather more American; certainly their way of life has.  This is not a bad thing; but will the current residents of Cuba, who have been grinding in poverty under the thumb of an oppressive dictatorship, necessarily welcome the parachuting in of thousands of rich, bossy folks who have not had to endure the same suffering - at least, not recently?

When the Iron Curtain fell in Eastern Europe, the newly freed countries were a lot further away from the U.S. than Cuba is, so the numbers of returning emigres were far fewer; and yet even in that circumstance, things have not entirely gone smoothly.  Consider the ongoing conflicts in Germany between the "Ossis" and the "Wessis" - almost twenty years on, there is still a tremendous gap in wealth and personal satisfaction between the two, with all the political problems you might expect.

Even if returning Cuban emigres were welcomed back, the devil of Yankee imperialism would not necessarily be.  Castro's Cubans have been living in a world where every bad thing and every misfortune is blamed automatically on the monster across the waters.  No doubt many of them know better; no doubt more do not.

So is it wise, or productive, for the United States to be seen as meddling in Cuba's internal affairs at this delicate time?

We should certainly oppose the repression of dissidents.  If a Cuban dissident movement arises and appears to be gaining some measure of support and power, we might do well to carefully give them quiet help - although even there, we have a long history of botching support in this way and making the problem worse, if nothing else than by creating the impression that the local freedom-fighters are little more than our puppets.

There is, however, one way in which we can help the Cuban people, and that is by immediately and unilaterally ending the embargo that has been in place for all these years.  The nation of Cuba is a tiny place; it is no potential threat to the U.S.  If Communist China with its billions and its nuclear missiles can be a welcome trading partner, surely Cuba can be.

And as we've seen all over the world, to the fury of European traditionalists and Islamic extremists, there is nothing so pervasive as American consumer culture.  A major reason for the fall of the Berlin wall was the impossibility of preventing the East Germans from seeing the wealth of the West - and wondering why, exactly, they couldn't have the same luxuries.  Fidel has had a ready-made reason all this while: the American embargo on Cuba.  Remove this reason, and we remove a major prop of the Communist totalitarian propaganda.

Raul Castro has shown signs of a willingness to loosen the white-knuckled grip of the Cuban state on all aspects of his people's lives.  We cannot expect him to turn into Thomas Jefferson.  Nor will his successor, some years from now, be Patrick Henry.

But as we have seen in China, a little loosening can lead to a little more loosening, and then a little more.  And before you know it, the central government would no longer be able to turn back the clock even if they wanted to.

In all probability, Cuba will remain Communist in name, just as China has.  There will continue to be repression and violations of human rights for many years to come; and we should expose and excoriate them, just as we do with China.  But each year that goes by, the winds of freedom blow a little bit stronger.

The United States should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good; and a movement for freedom that comes from within is far stronger, healthier, and more permanent than one imposed from without.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
It'll never happen until we get a President with the balls to do the right thing and not the politically expedient thing, for one reason: Florida. In an era where presidential elections are so evenly split between the parties, Florida's 27 EC votes are crucial to the outcome of the election, indeed in 2000 they decided it. The state itself is split pretty evenly between the Democrats and the Republicans population wise. The Cuban Ex-pat community is vehemently against lifting the embargo, whichever President did so, they would swing their support en mass to the other party, taking Florida with them. Nobody has been willing to cede Florida's EC votes to the other side, so the embargo stays in place.

Now, this may change with the resignation of Fidel Castro, but I don't know if the ex-pats view Raul any more favorably than they do his big brother. If not then the embargo will stay in place, at least until both Castros stroll of the world stage as leaders in Cuba.

It's a damn shame, though, we should have lifted the damn thing 20 years ago, would that we'd done so I'd bet we'd have a much friendlier, more democratic regime in place down there right now, plus we'd be able to enjoy those fantastic cigars here instead of sneaking off to Canada and Mexico for them.
February 19, 2008 4:20 PM
I don't believe the US is "meddling in Cuba's internal affairs" or even appearing to. That's the same thing Fidel always said. All Bush said is that he wants the nation to pursue democracy - a GOOD thing. We're not pushing it down their throat, only suggesting that try it. And why not? It worked for the United States. In fact, the only "meddling" that we would be doing is lifting the embargo since the embargo has been status quo.
February 19, 2008 5:26 PM
Raise the embargo. It has no purpose and I can't imagine any consequences the US can't handle. Then go one step further and encourage Cuban-American intermarriage or partnerships.

February 19, 2008 6:51 PM
Embargos are put in place for many reasons. This one with Cuba is entirely symbolic. There are plenty of places to spend vacation and sugar dollars if we really want to. So the question is: has the symbol changed? Raul could be as bad or worse than Fidel was.
February 20, 2008 3:40 PM
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