The sudden arrest in April of several score Cuban human-rights activists, dissidents, independent journalists, and librarians, followed rapidly by their sentencing to long terms in prison and, only a few days later, by the summary execution of three men who had attempted to hijack a ferry to Florida—all this has served to remind us that quite apart from China, Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Zimbabwe, Fidel Castro’s police state in the Caribbean remains one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
Given the fact that these events occurred at the very moment when both the media and American foreign policy were focused almost wholly on Iraq, they might seem to have been purposely timed to take advantage of the world’s momentary distraction. In fact, however, Castro’s actions may have been motivated by precisely the opposite consideration: namely, a desire to make sure that he was not being forgotten. As one of the regime’s highest ranking defectors remarked to me at the time, “this creates a crisis, the thing Fidel likes best.” Lending credibility to this interpretation was the fact that the arrests and executions coincided with the annual sitting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, thus giving a resolution against Cuba a much higher-than-usual chance of passing—which it duly did.
The purported justification for the crackdown was that a handful of pro-democracy activists—all of them civilians, and most of them living a precarious existence—were somehow threatening Cuba’s “national sovereignty.” At the “trials”—closed to foreign diplomats or journalists, and with only the prosecutors and Cuban intelligence agents permitted to speak—the proof of guilt was said to consist in the fact that some of these unfortunates had had the temerity to meet with James Cason, the head of the U.S. interests bureau in Havana, or his staff. They not only had allegedly received books and short-wave radios from these persons but also—here, supposedly, was the smoking gun—had been allowed to use the mission’s fax machine and Internet connection, two items not normally accessible to Cuban civilians.
Needless to say, it is altogether inconceivable that some 70 individuals from many different parts of Cuba, many of them no doubt unknown to each other, could have imperiled the island’s established order. Still, currents are running there that warrant a closer look.
More than a decade after the collapse of its Soviet ally, the regime of Fidel Castro is, in many respects, more powerful than ever before. This is due in part to a new investment law that has made possible joint ventures with foreign partners (Canadian, Mexican, and European) and opened the island to as much as $2 billion a year in foreign tourism. It is also due in part to virtual gifts of oil from the Cuban dictator’s new best friend, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
At the same time, having legalized the possession of U.S. currency, Cuba is now receiving millions of dollars annually in remittances from Cuban-Americans and other Cubans living abroad. Since no Cuban (with very few exceptions) can start a business of his own on the island, recipients of this money have no choice but to spend it on consumer items, available at special stores established by the regime to vacuum up far more than the lion’s share of the profits. (Television sets, for example, are sold at roughly three times the price they would fetch in nearby Haiti or the Dominican Republic.) Finally, immigration accords reached with the United States in 1994 have committed Washington to take 20,000 unhappy Cubans off Castro’s hands each year. Whereas the stated purpose of this arrangement is to prevent uncontrolled migration and discourage Cubans from setting sail on makeshift rafts, an added effect has been to neuter any potential political opposition: many discontented individuals, instead of channeling their unhappiness into a demand for change, simply leave.
Nor does Castro’s power rest on these advantages alone. Cubans are subject to one of the world’s most advanced systems of political repression, brought to perfection by masters of the art: Soviets, East Germans, and, latterly, Vietnamese. Schools and media are rigorously censored; “uncooperative” citizens can lose their ration cards; demonstrations of ideological orthodoxy remain a prerequisite for access to higher education or a government sinecure; thanks to numerous bizarre regulations forcing virtually everyone to violate some law just to survive, the regime can “legally” impose criminal sanctions on any citizen at will.
Secret police and intelligence services also remain omnipresent in Cuba, as do the notorious neighborhood block committees (the so-called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution). Civil society, or rather “civil society,” has been thoroughly organized along Communist lines, so that every civic element is now integrated into one or another series of “revolutionary” institutions. And where coercion fails, still another factor works to preserve the power of the seventy-six-year-old Castro: a subtly encouraged fear of the moment, presumably not far distant, when he himself will no longer be on the scene to assure his people of their impending “victory” over the United States.
Under these circumstances, one might ask why there is any opposition in Cuba at all—even the anemic kind typified by those now facing prison sentences of twenty years or more. The answer lies in several developments that lurk just beneath the surface but that do not always receive proper attention by foreign observers.
First is the blowback created by the legalization of the dollar. While this has certainly proved beneficial to a regime starved for hard currency, it has also introduced new and troubling fissures into Cuban society. Until fairly recently, and with the exception of a handful of high-ranking party officials and military officers, Cuban life was distinguished by a radical kind of equality—equality, of course, at a very low level. Moreover, there was only one way to improve one’s lot in society: by demonstrating conspicuous loyalty to the regime, from which all blessings flowed.
Now, however, those lucky enough to have remittance-paying relatives abroad are significantly better off than their neighbors. Nor do such individuals invariably need to be well-viewed by the authorities to have achieved this status. An added nasty twist is that most of those with relatives in exile are “white”; the 50 percent or more of Cuba’s population that is black enjoys no such advantage.
A second potential cause of unrest is the sharp decline in Cuba’s already pitiful living standards. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of oil-for-sugar barter arrangements, the island has experienced a precipitous drop in its gross national product. By some estimates, the economy hit bottom in 1994-95 and has made a modest recovery since then; but it is still far from the socialist “prosperity,” such as it was, of the 1970’s and 80’s, when Cuba was receiving a subsidy from the Soviet Union estimated at roughly $6 billion a year. And no less devastating has been the disappearance of Moscow’s satellite states in Eastern Europe. Most of Cuba’s motor vehicles and much of its industrial machinery, including the equipment in its sugar mills, came from East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, and spare parts for all these machines—inferior things in any case—are exceedingly hard to find.
Since the mid-90’s, Cuba’s capital stocks have likewise been sharply depleted and show no signs of being replaced. Last year it was announced that almost half the country’s sugar mills would be closed, releasing more than 100,000 workers from their traditional employment. The government declared they would be retrained—though it did not specify at what.
It would be hard to exaggerate the significance of the island’s fall as a major producer of sugar: for over a century and a half, this has been Cuba’s most important export. At fault has been not only the serious decline in the industry’s physical plant but a diminution of the world’s appetite for the one thing Cuba is uniquely favored by nature to produce. In 1959, on the eve of Castro’s rise to power, Cuba enjoyed privileged access to the vast U.S. sugar market: it was the beneficiary of a quota of more than a fourth of our domestic consumption, at subsidized prices. Since the end of that arrangement in 1960, the old quota has been divided among 44 countries. Meanwhile, however, more than 100 other nations have started to dump sugar on the world market, and, no less ominously, artificial corn-based sweeteners have come to replace cane-based sugar in such major products as soft drinks, candy bars, and baked goods. As if this were not troubling enough, sugar from Mexico will, under the NAFTA agreements, enter the United States duty-free after 2008.
In theory, tourism could replace sugar as Cuba’s chief source of hard currency—indeed, it has already done so. But tourism by itself will never produce anything like the level of prosperity Cuba enjoyed under the U.S. economic umbrella from 1901 to 1959 or even during the term of its membership in the Soviet commonwealth of nations from 1960 to 1991, when positive trade balances were secured and underwritten by a politico-military alliance.
There are several reasons for this. Since so little of value is produced on the island, most of what the tourist industry needs to sustain itself—including food—has to be imported. This is itself not an unusual situation in the Caribbean: according to official figures, Barbados, for example, manages to retain a mere nineteen cents out of every dollar entering that country. Although Cuba claims to keep 22 cents, that seems unlikely: in contrast to Barbados, it does not possess a small business class or a significant private agricultural sector to supply at least some goods and services. And even if the Cuban figure were correct, the island would have to gross more than $30 billion a year in order to replicate its former annual Soviet subsidy of $6 billion—a flatly impossible task. Mexico, which possesses a far more sophisticated infrastructure and boasts a vastly greater menu of attractions than Cuba, grosses $10 billion from tourism in a good year.
While the tourist industry has unquestionably provided a much-needed source of economic oxygen for the regime, it has also introduced new distortions into Cuban life. To anyone visiting the island, the most striking of these is the geometric growth in prostitution of both sexes. Another is the invidious comparisons that Cubans are now in a position to make between their own situation and that of ordinary tourists not only from European countries but from nearby Latin nations like Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, not to mention the thousands of Cuban-Americans who are permitted under U.S. law to visit their families once a year. (Many, ignoring U.S. restrictions, visit as often as they like by traveling through third countries.) At the same time, Cuba’s vaunted health-care system, which foreign visitors never fail to praise (often without actually bothering to visit a clinic or hospital), has been completely reoriented toward offering sophisticated services, including plastic surgery, to foreigners who can pay in dollars. Not surprisingly, clinics servicing ordinary Cubans often lack medicines, bandages, syringes, and other basics.1
Since tourism—the only dynamic sector of the economy—can provide employment for only a tiny percentage of the Cuban work force, it has threatened to create a kind of worker’s aristocracy (to use a Marxist term). The regime claims to have mitigated this danger by requiring all foreign enterprises, including many hotels and other tourist services, to hire personnel from a pool provided by the government, to which the foreign employers must also consign wages. The government then typically pays these workers at a rate of about a tenth of what they would earn in a free-market economy, with the remainder being transferred to what it calls prestaciones sociales—that is, social services like free education, free health care, etc. It requires quite a stretch of the imagination to believe that the full 90 percent is being allocated to good works and that the Communist party, the army, and the police are not first taking their own hefty shares.
Similarly contributing to discontent, and thus to the nascent human-rights movement, is the emergence of a privileged class associated simultaneously with the armed forces and with the Castro family. The tourist industry is itself now administered by members of the military, both active and retired. Its chief is General Raúl Castro, the dictator’s younger brother and designated successor. In brief, what we are witnessing in Cuba is an incipient alliance between thuggish colonels and unscrupulous foreign investors—an alliance similar in structure, though not in formal ideology, to those that once characterized Papa Doc’s Haiti, Anastasio Somoza’s Nicaragua, and Rafael Trujillo’s Dominican Republic.
The resemblance to these old-style dictatorships goes deeper still. The Castro regime is increasingly becoming a family affair. Aside from Raúl, another brother, Ramón, serves as the liaison to potential foreign investors, and many members of the extended Castro family are now in charge of key ministries, particularly those involved in joint ventures with foreign companies. We know a bit more about at least some of these characters ever since, in recent months, the Cuban media broke decades of silence in matters pertaining to Fidel Castro’s personal life by publishing profiles of two of his five (or possibly six) sons, a nuclear physicist and a surgeon. The former, Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart, is Soviet-trained and was formerly the head of the Cuban Atomic Energy Commission. Physically he bears a stunning resemblance to his father in his glory days, right down to the beard. In light of the fact that General Raúl Castro’s health is supposed to be more precarious than that of his dictator brother, some dissidents are beginning to wonder whether these recent disclosures are meant to prepare the way for a “North Korean” or “Syrian” scenario of biological succession.
But if such family dictatorships are hardly unknown in the circum-Caribbean, none has ever claimed to represent the vanguard of a new social system or to herald a revolutionary era of equality and social justice. Nor has any claimed the mantle of Communism or socialism. It is this divide—between the government’s formal identity and what one might call the “Somozist” facts on the ground—that has aroused dissidence most particularly within the Communist party itself.
The ranks of the pro-democracy movement in Cuba are increasingly being filled by people like Elizardo Sánchez, now the head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights. These are defectors who once shared the regime’s vision but have at long last come to feel betrayed by it. Especially troubling to Fidel Castro must be the growth within this opposition of a true social-democratic tendency that—whatever one may think of its ultimate relevance to Cuba’s political culture—can hardly be tarred with the brush of association with the United States or the Miami exile community.
What, then, of the future? In the near and perhaps even the medium term, Fidel Castro has nothing to worry about. His control of the island is all but absolute, and he enjoys a remarkable degree of support in the foreign press and in the so-called international community—Syria, China, Iran, North Korea, South Africa, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, Vietnam, Algeria e tutti quanti. He remains a hero to those Americans—they are not few in our academic, cultural, and entertainment communities—who despise their own government or country. He has turned his island into a movie set for the delectation of Latin Americans, Africans, Arabs, and Asians who dream of spitting in the face of the United States themselves but are unwilling to bear the cost.
In the long run, however, his country’s future is very problematic indeed. Modern Cuba has been “invented” three times—once as a Spanish colony, once as an American protectorate, once as a Soviet ally and satellite. Today, its entire national identity is based on its being the most aggressive and intransigent enemy of the United States at the United Nations and in the so-called nonaligned movement. But countries, even very small and unimportant ones, cannot survive on rhetoric and resolutions alone. What role can Cuba possibly assume after Fidel Castro is gone?
Increasingly bereft of resources and markets, with a tourist industry of rather limited potential, with most of its ambitious young people hoping or planning to emigrate, Cuba has been forced to mortgage its future to the proposition that an end to the U.S. trade embargo will suddenly render workable an economic system—Communism—that has failed everywhere else on the globe. That proposition is doubtful in the extreme; but neither, so far, has any other come along to replace it. This is only one of the many issues troubling the handful of Cubans courageous enough in recent weeks and months to challenge the system frontally. Behind bars for long terms—many of them in solitary confinement—they will, alas, have ample opportunity for reflection.
1 Typically, foreign visitors are told that the reason for this is the U.S. trade embargo. (One visitor who swallowed the Cuban line whole was Bernard Cardinal Law, until recently the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston.) In fact, however, there is no embargo on the sale of medical products to Cuba, though there is a requirement for end-use monitoring to make sure that what is transferred does not end up either in special hospitals reserved for the Communist-party elite and high-ranking military and police officials and their families or in the clinics that sell their services to foreigners for hard currency.