- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2003


By Mark Falcoff

AEI Press, $35, 303 pages


Will Cuba’s communist regime survive the passing of the brothers Castro? Probably not. Will Cuba then soon emerge as a stable and liberal democracy? Same answer.

But why shouldn’t it? Cuba has a hardworking and talented people who with the assistance of the Cuban Diaspora, should undo in no time 50 years of economic idiocy, with or without the help of the United States and the European Union.

Already there are stories of returning emigres planning to open car rental agencies and establishing McDonald’s franchises the morning after. Cuba, it would seem, is doomed to success.

Well, maybe not after all.

Consequently, cock-eyed optimists about Cuba’s prospects after Fidel better read Mark Falcoff, a true expert on the island and its prospects. The AEI scholar has published “Cuba: The Morning After,” a sobering account of precisely what Fidel Castro’s legacy is and what Cuba has to do to overcome it. His analysis is not at all reassuring. But it is timely.

We seemed to have learned nothing about the difficulties of transition in Eastern Europe, not to mention Russia. Reversals (bumps in the road to optimists) have led recently to the facile assumption that markets don’t work as well as the University of Chicago economics department would have it.

What that sophomoric conclusion leaves out is the immense destruction that all command economies have inflicted on their hapless victims. Changing the rules (assuming they are changed in the first place) is simply not enough. A whole culture, attitudes toward work and building trust, for example, needs radical change and that can’t be done overnight.

In Cuba’s case, the troubles don’t even begin with Castro as the author rightly points out. Cuba by 1959 had already accumulated a series of political and economic failings long before a young lawyer from Havana led a Keystone Kop assault on the army barracks in Santiago de Cuba. And it must be added Cubans got a lot of unwanted help from foreigners, from the Spaniards who stayed too long and the Americans who came too soon. Even today most Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits are convinced that Cubans needed no help in their liberation in 1898.

To be sure, they did not need the Platt Amendment either, which kept the U.S. in a broadly supervisory position for a generation after Cuba’s formal independence from Spain. The tutorial was resented and didn’t work anyway. And what we did in the first part of the last century was repeated in even worse form towards its conclusion in the Helms-Burton Act. This piece of legislation virtually dictates how Cuba must conduct itself after the end of the Castro era if it is to normalize relations with Washington.

All of that, of course, almost guarantees another Castro-style anti-American demagogue in Cuba’s future. But Helms-Burton is not the only lurking problem as the author points out in excruciating detail. There is also a chapter on the future of Cuba’s beleaguered sugar industry, once Cuba’s largest employer and earner of foreign exchange, now rapidly declining into obsolescence. For this sad state, years of communist management can take much if not all of the blame. The same could be said for the rest of Cuban agriculture as well as its fishing and mining sectors.

But these problems serve only as starters. In a richly detailed chapter on property, for example, the author notes that the Cubans of the Castro era did not simply and slavishly follow the Soviet model. They vastly exceeded it. For example, he notes, in 1988 the Cuban state owned 92 percent of agricultural land compared to 14 percent in the Soviet Union and 17 percent in East Germany.

In the face of the collapse of his Soviet benefactor, Castro has relented a bit, but not nearly enough to keep the Cuban people well fed at low cost — a trick capitalist economies mastered decades, if not centuries, ago.

Agricultural tenure., however, is only one problem that needs to be sorted out. There is also the question of confiscated foreign property, much, but not all, of it owned by U.S. investors. After nearly 50 years who owns what is a legal tangle that could take years to sort out. Does it matter? If Cuba is to join the 21st century, it most certainly does. Who is going to invest in a post-Castro Cuba when even the basics of property are left to gnawing uncertainty?

As for security questions, each in turn is examined and felt to be minimal. All, except one, namely, the worry that before, during, or after the demise of the Castro regime, the United States could receive a massive wave of desperate refugees. And here, the author notes, even the experts are in a quandary about what to do about that real possibility. That leaves the rest of us watching it on CNN.

There are chapters on tourism and the environment — neither in as good a shape as the regime’s apologists would have it. For example, the environmental damage done by Soviet-style industry is already well known and Cuba is no exception. The author notes that cement plants and oil refineries are especially toxic in effect. What it means for future Cuban governments — replacing a generation of industrial plant — and sooner rather than later is all too obvious. As for the Juragua nuclear power plant in Cienfuegos, that billion dollar white elephant has been abandoned, probably for good, another brainchild of the caudillo gone sour.

And if that were not enough, the author reminds us that to establish a genuine democracy, Cuba needs to build a civil society — yet another socialist failure. Compounding the problem, pre-Castro’s Cuban civil society was a flawed one indeed. There were to be sure, a variety of professional, labor, and business organizations, but they were not “coherent,” that is, they did not effectively represent their members’ interests to government authorities, many like Batista, who were either too corrupt or authoritarian to bother.

The communists, of course, replaced incoherence with coherence, but individuals had even less voice in how they were governed. If the Maximum Leader said 10 million tons of sugar was Cuba’s goal for 1970 — so be it — even if it made no sense at all.

That means the day after Castro departs, Cuban civil society is composed of the Roman Catholic Church, a handful of non-governmental organizations subject always to the whim of the authorities, and a military that remains an enigma. All of this does not strike me as encouraging although there is the hope that many Cubans wholly unknown to Castro’s police and us will emerge after the demise of the dictator. But that is more hope than expectation.

In fact, there is little in Cuban history or Cuban-American relations that inspires much confidence in a smooth transition. U.S. governments, Democratic and Republican alike, have passed up the opportunity to lift our unilateral embargo thus at least easing the economic crisis on the island.

Our Iraq experience suggests our ability to anticipate and deal with post-regime problems is limited. It certainly inspires no great confidence in guiding Cuba towards a future without Fidel. But Mark Falcoff’s book at least gives us a good map of a very uneven terrain.

Roger Fontaine was a member of the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration.

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