Cuba is Reforming, But Not Nearly Enough

G. Philip Hughes (Ambassador to Barbados and Eastern Caribbean, 1990-1993)

Op-Ed as it appeared in the February 17, 2012 issue of U.S. News and World Report


Here is the headline Cuban authorities impressed on a delegation of former U.S. ambassadors during a week-long visit in early February: Change is coming to the Castro brothers’ Cuba. With the younger Raúl now in charge, Cuba has embarked on major economic reforms.

They had a point—up to a point.

Yes, reforms have happened. That’s clear. Small businesses—privately operated restaurants; small repair shops; hairdressers and similar personal care enterprises—are springing up and allowed to hire a few employees. Farmers may sell their “excess” production—after fulfilling their state-assigned quotas—in private markets for competitive prices. Cubans can even buy and sell private property—homes and autos—for the first time since 1959. Reportedly, there are nascent lending facilities, brokerages, advertising, and other essential accessories of markets springing up, though they’re so embryonic as to be scarcely noticeable.

Cuban officials say that the reforms are permanent—there’s no going back. Perhaps, but that wasn’t true with comparable, though more modest, reforms of the 1990s, when Cuba was coping with the loss of Soviet subsidies after the U.S.S.R. collapsed. The crisis ended; so, largely, did the reforms.

The latest reforms are intended not to change Cuba’s economic system but to “stabilize” it—and to make the Castro brothers’ political system “sustainable on a long-term basis.” As a European statesman once said of Gorbachev’s perestroika in the U.S.S.R., that is “like trying to make roasted snowballs”—but it’s what Raúl Castro intends. So these reforms come with strict, predefined limits.

There is no privatization or devolution of large enterprises or government monopolies; no privatization of the professional occupations; no privatization of the financial “sector”—such as it is. Foreign investment is limited to minority shares in joint ventures with state-owned enterprises. And the government aims to extract an uneconomically high “take” from any joint ventures seeking to exploit Cuba’s promising offshore oil deposits. As Cuba’s Foreign Minister emphasized: the reforms are limited—and they’ll stay that way.

Trouble is, limited reform can never generate enough prosperity to reverse the appallingly dilapidated, squalid conditions of Cuba’s society. Havana is a wreck. Its once stately buildings are shabby and decrepit beyond imagination. Judging from our brief glimpse, the countryside isn’t any better. There’s remarkably little to show for 53 years of the “revolution”—practically no buildings constructed after 1959; few cars and little traffic; crumbling infrastructure; healthy-looking, nourished people shabbily dressed with apparently lots of time on their hands—and very little money in their pockets.

In some ways, the revolution’s main achievement is to have transformed Cuba from a client of the United States into a dependency, first, of the Soviet Union and then, when the U.S.S.R. collapsed, of Venezuela. So after Venezuela’s cancer-stricken Hugo Chavez can no longer support it, who will be next to prop up the Castro brothers’ fantasy island Iran, perhaps? Or North Korea?

Cuban officials seem to reckon that Raúl’s reforms will, or should, earn them further relaxation (or even removal) of the U.S. economic embargo—the obsessive, omnipresent complaint featured in every conversation. But why? Lifting the embargo and its travel ban would produce an avalanche of curious, bargain-hunting American tourists—and provide Raúl’s government with an oceanof cash. Two of Cuba’s three top revenue sources now are tourist dollars and remittances from Cuban-Americans. Opening the tourist floodgate would only help keep afloat a dictatorial regime that has foisted deprivation and repression on the Cuban people. Why do that?

Meanwhile, Cuba has repaid President Obama’s liberalizing initiatives—the most sweeping since former President Jimmy Carter’s—with a 15-year prison sentence for USAID contractor Alan Gross. His crime was helping Cuba’s tiny Jewish community connect to the outside world via the Internet. And the case seems little more than hostage-taking. They want us to free five Cuban spies convicted in the 2006 shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue airplanes. This is no way to win friends or influence anybody.

Cuba is a sort of political Rorschach test. Some Americans look at it hopefully, as a revolutionary, nationalist society providing healthcare for the Cuban people while struggling against an oppressive U.S. economic embargo. And they buy into Cuban officials’ contentions that the United States “owes” it to Cuba to lift its embargo.

But, after a week observing the Cuban reality on the ground, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the fault for Cuba’s appalling backwardness, squalor, and repression rests with those—the Castro brothers and their coterie—who’ve been running the show for more than a half-century.

Any significant change in U.S. policy should await real change in Cuba—the one that’s coming, actuarially, at the top.