August 31 , 2007

Better opportunities await Cuba

Marifeli Perez-Stable, The Miami Herald, August 30, 2007.

An era is ending. With Fidel Castro's inevitable passing, neither Latin America nor Cuba will ever be the same. The Comandante has always valued ideas -- i.e., his own -- over the prosaic -- i.e., ordinary people. Since Cuba alone never satisfied his supersized ego, he looked elsewhere, Latin America in particular.

In the 1960s, Castro tried to export the revolution by creating or supporting guerrillas. The strategy -- centered on his own Sierra Maestra experience whereby a handful of individuals supposedly toppled the Batista regime -- failed miserably.

The Fidelista script doesn't even do justice to the Cuban revolution's triumph. Complex historical dynamics had rendered Cuban society vulnerable and, more immediately, the llano -- the urban-based resistance -- heaped more damage on the dictatorship than the rural guerrillas ever did.

Venezuela, then an incipient democracy, and Bolivia, a highly mobilized society since the 1930s, for example, repelled Cuban-inspired efforts. Venezuela carried out a no-holds-barred counterinsurgency, and Ernesto Guevara's guerrilla never caught fire in Bolivia. In 1988, I stood at Machu Picchu in Peru and fully comprehended the folly of the Comandante's call to turn the Andes into the Sierra Maestra of Latin America. If nothing else, geography rendered the call null: the Sierra Maestra is no Andes.

In 1979, guerrillas won in Nicaragua but only because the Sandinista strategy fit their circumstances. Their revolution, moreover, never reached the heights of exclusion and repression that Cuba's has. Albeit reluctantly, the Sandinistas respected the electoral outcome that ended their rule in 1990. We're still waiting in Cuba.

Castro has lived long enough to see Latin America take a favorable turn. During the 1990s, democracy and markets swayed the day. Now, there's a resurgent populism that is gutting democracy and reinstating the state at the economy's center. Heir-apparent Hugo Chávez is buying allies, or silence, doling out cheap oil or buying bonds.

Still, hardly anyone respects Chávez while just the opposite -- whether from friend or foe -- is true of the Comandante. In addition, Ecuador's Rafael Correa may not be prone to follow Chávez's lead. Bolivia's opposition and the government's radical allies are making life rather hard for Evo Morales. Flying high now, statist policies will eventually wreak economic havoc. If successfully enacted, Chávez's proposed constitutional reforms could require widespread repression to enforce them.

In short, choppier seas may lie ahead. Democrats beware: Whatever the fate of Chávez and the others, the citizen anger they have exploited must still be redressed. Though much more is needed, that's exactly what Brazil and Mexico are doing by reducing poverty and expanding the middle class.

Raúl Castro's interim government has not brought economic -- let alone political -- relief to the Cuban people. Yet, intimations of change are in evidence. I can't see any other starting point than opening the economy; a dictatorship doesn't start reforms by granting freedoms. There are no guarantees that a freer economy will lead to political liberties. Maintaining the status quo, however, is the surest path to a regime breakdown, which is why Raúl will probably decree economic reforms once Fidel passes.

Whatever happens next is anyone's guess. Two of the possible scenarios -- radical economic restructuring under communist rule or a democratic transition -- could pose different challenges to Latin America.

** While still a dictatorship, a relatively prosperous Cuba -- with less pronounced inequalities than elsewhere -- might best the economic performance of Latin American democracies.

** A democratic Cuba -- where freedom abets national reconciliation -- may reveal uncomfortable truths about the revolution's human costs, which many Latin Americans, particularly on the Left, have yet to recognize.

Once the inevitable happens, Cuba and the new populism will lose their most imposing myth. Neither Raúl Castro nor Hugo Chávez can hold the fort the way the Comandante has. Who will steady Chávez in times of crisis? Raúl has a better sense of his own limitations, which -- given the circumstances -- may be good news.

An era is, indeed, ending. For one, Raúl and Hugo are not soul mates. For Cuba, unexpected opportunities will surely arise, there and here. Will we find the courage to seize them? For all of our sakes, I hope so.

Marifeli Pérez-Stable is vice president for democratic governance at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., and a professor at Florida International University.


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