In the wake of Panama's seizing of a North Korean freighter laden with 240 tons of illegal weaponry traversing the Panama Canal from Cuba to North Korea, many observers have professed to be nonplussed by the brazenness of Cuba's role in the caper. After all, we have been told, this is a "new" Cuba under Raul Castro, who is ostensibly committed to reforming the outdated system of his brother, Fidel, and ushering in a kinder, gentler Cuba.
The reality is that the Panama incident only exposes the carefully constructed narrative of Raul the Reformer as utter propaganda designed mostly to force a unilateral change in U.S. policy toward Cuba. Raul Castro has no more interest in liberalizing Cuba and returning it to the peaceful community of nations than does Syria's Bashar Assad.
Still, it is remarkable how successful the marketing campaign has been for the idea of Raul the Reformer. Even The Economist has
bought the line, writing, "Since Raul Castro took over from his elder brother in 2006, he has moved to dismantle Fidel's system," and that the only thing holding his reform effort back is that the outside world "is not helping enough."
What bunk. The only transition underway in Cuba today is from a personalist dictatorship under Fidel Castro to a military one under brother Raul. And neither is good for U.S. security interests.
Since Raul Castro took power, the only defense minister that Cuba has known in 50-plus years has moved methodically and systematically to purge his brother's civilian acolytes from positions of power and replace them with generals loyal to him. Today, eight of the 15 members of the Cuban Politburo are members of the military, as are four of seven vice presidents on the council of ministers.
However, the militarization of the regime doesn't end there, as Mr. Castro has also created a parallel ruling body off the books where the real power lies. This 14-member junta is stocked with military men only, including the country's four most powerful generals: Leopoldo Cintras Frias, 72, minister of defense; Abelardo Colome, 73, minister of the interior; Alvaro Lopez Miera, 69, first vice minister of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs; and Ramon Espinosa, 74, vice minister of defense. In other words, not a group that can be expected to be a font of new thinking. (It's worth noting that Mr. Castro's much-ballyhooed successor, the 53-year-old nondescript civilian Miguel Diaz-Canel, is not a member of this group.)
Mr. Castro has also further expanded the military's reach into Cuban society by cutting it into lucrative economic enterprises, especially in the tourist sector. Today, the Cuban military elites control more than 60 percent of the Cuban economy. Operating under the holding company GAESA, the array of companies the military operates rakes in an estimated $1 billion a year for the generals to divvy up.
Yet even as the military has been steadily permeating all sectors of Cuban society, all that most outside observers focus on are minuscule reforms on the margins of the Cuban economy. That some Cubans are now allowed to work outside the state under a circumscribed list of microenterprises such as doll-repairer and refilling disposable cigarette lighters is myopically hailed as a stunning breakthrough.
The bottom line is that under Raul Castro, there has been absolutely no fundamental change in the regime's repressive governing philosophy. Cuban citizens are still subordinated to the state, and there is no recognition of their inalienable rights to think and do as they please. The tepid reforms to date reflect not a new willingness to grant more freedom to Cubans to better fend for themselves and give them a stake in their own future, but to help ensure the primacy of the regime in maintaining absolute control.
And, today, with military elites comfortably ensconced as captains of profitable economic enterprises such as tourism and dollar-only stores, the prospects for true reform in Cuba are as negligible now as they were under Fidel Castro.
The final irony regarding the Panama incident is that just as authorities there seized the North Korean freighter, State Department officials were sitting down with Castro regime officials to resume long-suspended immigration talks. As to why the Obama administration thinks the time propitious to restart talks with an unrepentant and inflexible Castro regime on any subject is what is truly incomprehensible. It certainly cannot be based on anything positive that is happening on that captive island nation.
In light of the Castro regime's egregious actions in trafficking illegal arms to North Korea under the U.S.' nose, what is needed now are not State Department talks for the sake of talking, but meaningful measures to hold Cuba accountable for its latest undermining of regional and international security.
Jose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration and is an associate with Vision Americas.