Wednesday, August 02, 2006

WSJ Editorial on Cuba situation

Because of the late nature of the news on Monday night, Tuesday's WSJ didn't mention the events in Cuba. Today this excellent editorial was printed in the paper.

The Fabulous Castro Boys
All about Raúl, ruthless and reformer?

Wednesday, August 2, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

To outlive one's enemies is said to be a kind of revenge. This would explain the big, noisy party on Calle Ocho in Miami Monday night when Cuba announced that Fidel Castro was undergoing emergency intestinal surgery for hemorrhaging and had passed power to his 75-year-old brother Raúl.

Whether Fidel is sick, dead or only merely testing the response of Cuba's military and political elite to the anointing of Raúl is still not clear. El Maximo Lider did qualify the power transfer as "temporary." But the old man turns 80 on August 13 and even he won't live forever. The most likely scenario is that we are now watching preparations for a transition of Cuban power not seen for 47 years.

Fidel is not only the longest-reigning dictator in the history of the modern world; he is also the archetype of the paranoid communist micromanager. He is known to be ruthless, insecure and distrustful, to the point of executing ideological allies suspected of disloyalty. He has also been obsessed with anti-Americanism for more than a half-century. If Cubans are malnourished and the country resembles a rundown 1950s' museum, so be it. Fidel has been more interested in his legacy as the revolutionary who stood up to the imperialists. The odd admiration for his handiwork among many on the U.S. left--he may be a dictator but the health care is good!--is a mystery of our time.

Enter Raúl, five years younger than Fidel, and, historically, every bit as dedicated to the revolution. During their exile in Mexico in the 1950s, Raúl was the brother who befriended Che Guevara and he encouraged the adoption of a communist hard-line in 1960. Beginning in Mexico and especially when consolidating power after they overthrew Batista in 1959, Raúl did the bulk of Fidel's political dirty work.

And yet, despite this brutal past, Raúl is now widely thought to be the reformer. Some of this is relative, given the harshness of his narcissistic older brother. But Cuba watchers say that Raúl has been known to express concern for the suffering of the Cuban people under the current system and has been a consistent voice for economic change.

As minister of defense, Raúl has also been in charge of the military which owns and profits from the most lucrative businesses in Cuba, particularly tourism. He has undoubtedly noticed how China's military has prospered from creeping market liberalization. Should the U.S. trade embargo be lifted, he knows that he and his cadre of raulistas would be the immediate beneficiaries.

Raúl has already successfully won one internal round for economic reform. Back in the early 1990s, when Soviet support ended and the Cuban economy sank ever lower, he pushed to allow at least some private economic activity, as well as more foreign investment, to alleviate the scarcities. Small farmers' markets, "restaurants" in private homes and taxi services permitted to carry tourists popped up around the country. Along with Spanish hoteliers putting capital down on Cuban beaches, these changes helped reverse a desperate slide.

Those same reforms also began to threaten Fidel's power, however. And he quickly closed the tiny space for Cuba's private sector, creating a system of economic apartheid in which foreigners and the military have prospered but ordinary Cubans have been shut out. Many of the revolutionary faithful are believed to be exceedingly dissatisfied with the resulting inequalities.

Raúl is aware of the political risks of creating more private economic space, and we would expect political repression to continue as he tried to consolidate his own control once his brother dies. Yet, as the world saw after the collapse of Communism in Europe, freedom movements are hard to contain once unleashed. Ask Mikhail Gorbachev. Raúl would probably attempt to imitate the Chinese model of opening up to foreign investment and private Cuban business while keeping strict political control.

If Raúl wants to go in that direction he may also make some conciliatory gestures to the U.S., shelving his brother's anti-American rhetoric and offering cooperation on bilateral issues. The U.S. will have to be ready to respond, and in ways that use American influence to leverage more freedom. One helpful step to take now would be to repeal the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which stipulates that a U.S. President may not lift the trade embargo as long as Fidel, Raúl or anyone they have appointed are in power. This denies the President important discretion and reduces the possibility that the U.S. could promote peaceful change through economic engagement with a post-Fidel Cuba.

Whether it comes sooner or later, Fidel Castro's death will be a moment of hope for the liberation of an island that was once a jewel of the Americas. If Raúl wants to go there, the U.S. ought to help show him the way.

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