Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Today has been declared Cuba Solidarity Day by the White House to remind Americans that the citizens of that small island just 90 miles off U.S. shores are still trapped in one of the world’s few remaining communist dictatorships. It is a cause well worth paying attention to. These relics of the 20th century cling on to life in the 21st century, keeping their citizens from achieving the freedom and prosperity that so many states, formerly in communist thrall, have attained since 1989.

There was optimism in the air 18 months ago when Fidel Castro, aging and infirm, finally relinquished power. In February, there was an official handover to his (slightly) younger brother Raul, who immediately became the center of much attention in Cuba and abroad.

Hopes emerged for a kinder, gentler communist dictatorship. Among those who have bought into the agenda of hope is the Council on Foreign Relations, whose new report on Cuba advocates a whole new U.S. approach, including the lifting of U.S. sanctions. Raul Castro is known as a devoted family man, who values loyalty above all - in the power structure and in the military. He is said to have none of Fidel’s ambitions to export communism and cause international trouble. Raul encouraged hope by promising elections within 18 months. Well, that was then, this is now, and nothing of the sort has happened - although some recent reforms at the edges of the Cuban economy are creating more speculation about change.

The fact is that the Cuban transition so far has more resembled the Soviet transition from Leonid Breznev to Yuri Andropov than it did that from Constantin Chernyenko to Mikhail Gorbachev - to borrow two relevant historical analogies from the 1980s.

There were widespread, though entirely unfounded hopes that Mr. Andropov, allegedly an aficionado of bourbon, crime novels and country and western music, would be a Westernizer. But he performed entirely as one could have expected a former head of the KGB. The best thing he and his successor, Konstantin Chernyenko, did for their country was to leave the stage in short order, being both part of the Soviet superannuated communist oligarchy.

Mikhail Gorbachev was different. A highly dynamic individual from a different generation, he really did want to save the Soviet system. Mr. Gorbachev knew that somehow he had to draw on the talents and energy of the Russian people to make the Soviet Union competitive with the West. In the end, however, the route he took - via glasnost and perestroika, economic and political opening - led to the system’s collapse.

The difference between what is happening in Cuba now and what happened in the Soviet Union in the 1980s is that while Raul Castro is taking tentative steps in the direction of glasnost, he is hoping that minor economic changes will placate the yearnings of a restless and post-ideological Cuban population.

Hence Cubans are now allowed to buy cell phones, computers and motorcycles. The cost of such items is prohibitive. Cuba does not have Internet access; this leaves the government, for the moment at least, free of worries about installing the kind of filters that China and Iran deploy to vet Internet traffic. Cubans are also now being allowed to stay in the foreign-currency-only tourist hotels - though it is hard to imagine anyone but the political elite having the wealth to take advantage of it. A modest amount of private farming is also now allowed.

Meanwhile, Mr. Castro is carefully staying away from the other aspect of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms - perestroika - which was really more important. Perestroika meant freedom of expression, the publication of hitherto banned books, and even a certain amount of political activism. Once the Russians and all the other peoples trapped in the Soviet bloc were able to exchange information without the threat of imprisonment, the end for Soviet communism was imminent.

Now cell phones do offer a potential crack in the Cuban walls of repression. But Mr. Castro continues to keep Cuba’s hundreds of political prisoners in jail. Gatherings of more than three are still prohibited. Cuba deploys an army of 20,000 security agents and anyone suspected of the crime of “dangerousness” is sent to jail or subject to painful “acts of repudiation.” Arrests are swift and immediate for any kind of protest - including something as “subversive” as reading aloud the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

Until Cubans are allowed to speak freely and chose their political leaders, they are not free. When that day comes, undoubtedly they will have much to say, But let us not be fooled: It has not come yet.

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