November 25th marked the day many people and opponents of the 58-year-old Cuban regime had long waited for: the death of the 90 year old, Fidel Castro who lead the longest dictatorship in the history of human kind. Not only has Castro’s dictatorship been the longest but will hold that record long after his death.
Even with his demise, Cuba’s democratic transition is not on the horizon and, in fact there are no signs that the long established dictatorship is receding. Furthermore, the international context and the way the normalization process with Cuba was carried out by the Obama presidency have been counterproductive and ineffectual if not enabling.
If we compare Cuba with the Eastern European regimes that experienced a transition from communism almost three decades ago, Cuba is far behind.
In Poland, as uprisings and protests increased, the government privatized 80% of the agriculture and the Catholic Church kept a level of independence that enabled a certain degree of intellectual pluralism. Universities were granted certain degrees of autonomy and professors were allowed to travel abroad. After 1980, strikes by labor succeeded in creating independent trade unions with more than one third of workers becoming members. Later, the Polish government agreed to negotiate economic reforms. Finally, a round table was formed that led to limited political reforms that eventually led to full political participation as the Soviet Union lost its imperial influence.
In Hungary, the totalitarian regime began to slowly give up in 1962. In1968, Hungary began to open part of its market. A second economy was installed. In the early 1980’s property rights were legalized. Beginning in1988 civil organizations began to emerge aimed at promoting freedom of expression. The creation of political parties ensued. Hungarian citizens began to demand respect and implementation of the reformed laws that the state enacted. The state responded to that demand and finally agreed to negotiate with the opposition.
In Cuba, the opposition has been co-opted or repressed. Political parties were formed but ultimately squashed and persecuted by the regime as it happened with the Cuban Council, a coalition of opposition political parties. Likewise, since the 1990’s there have been active organizations that created independent libraries and a network of independent journalists. They were all repressed and outlawed. Initiatives such as the Varela Project, a proposal of law aimed at institutionalizing reforms in Cuba like freedom of association, freedom of the press and free elections was dismantled in 2003 and its leader, Osvaldo Paya, died in “mysterious” circumstances in 2012.
Civil society in Cuba is in a situation of subordination to the state. Associations and NGO’s are controlled by the state apparatus and the communist party. Recognition of NGO’s or civil associations was dependent on the degree of loyalty to the state.
Organizations such as The Ladies in White, the Patriotic Union, the Lawton Foundation and others that promoted free elections, freedom of association, freedom of expression, and other civil rights have no power to accomplish anything or secure any government concession. Therefore, they remain highly ineffective and unable to mobilize public opinion. The Cuban government, contrary to the Polish communist government, has made sure that these organizations and movements never moved one inch forward.
Likewise, unlike the Hungarian government, the Cuban market reforms that began in 1993 were never codified into law. Property rights were never enacted. Cubans were not allowed to invest or hire workers (only foreigners were allowed) or form associations.
Only the Cuban military benefitted from reforms. The military began to manage the tourism industry and also established partnerships with foreign companies. The idea was not to develop the economy but to secure the loyalty of the military to perpetuate and strengthen the Castro regime.
For example, Cuba allowed remittances from the U.S. to be received by individuals in Cuba. However, the Cuban government forced people to sell their dollars for local currency. In that way, the Cuban government benefited from millions of dollars in revenue. In contrast to the Hungarian government that conceded gradual property rights, the Cuban government used concessions to extract more from its own people.
Raul Castro, who has been in charge of Cuba for the last 10 years, made some market reforms as part of the “Upgrade of the Socialist Model”, which include some expansion of private activity under strict government control and some reduction of public expenditure.
But even with these reforms there has not been meaningful upgrading of Cubans’ civil, economic and political rights. Even the few private economic activities have not been codified into law. The state is still authoritarian and paternalistic.
Unfortunately, the international context is not helpful. The communist regimes of Eastern Europe faced the collapse of the Soviet Union on the one hand, and on the other hand their closeness to Western Europe represented a stimulus to move towards a democratic transition. By contrast, the Latin American countries dominated by the left reaffirmed the Cuban revolution. They view Cuba as a symbol of continental independence and its isolation as a reflection of American imperialism.
Furthermore, countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador established an alliance with Cuba (ALBA) vindicating and following its totalitarian socialist model, more than 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, whose leftist regimes were sympathetic to Cuba, also demanded accommodation with Cuba to undo what was seen as an “historical injustice” towards the Castro regime.
Barack Obama’s normalization policy resulted from this desire to go along with Latin American countries. That became the main pillar of Obama’s foreign policy in the region without further nuances.
In exchange for the enormous benefits Obama’s diplomacy bestowed on this highly repressive regime, the president never demanded that Cuba put forth meaningful domestic reforms or expansion of rights, or substantial openness. Thus, as a recent Washington Post editorial rightly pointed out “(The Obama) initiative has brought in more U.S. dollars and tourists but no relief from stifling and frequently violent repression of speech, assembly and other basic human rights”.
The Obama Administration gambled with the idea that trade with the U.S. and minimal economic liberalization would lead to political democracy as a matter of natural historical evolution. This assumption is based on speculation. Worse, Obama never demanded Cuba stop supporting the Venezuelan government that imprisons and starves its population.
Meanwhile, Cuba also continued to train and provide material support to Venezuela’s ultra-authoritarian regime and strengthen Venezuela’s agenda of expanding repression throughout the region.
A Trump presidency can now reevaluate this misguided and counterproductive policy by demanding changes in human rights policy and an end to supporting dangerous regimes such as Venezuela that promote drug trafficking, relations with countries like Iran and other rogue elements.
A Trump Administration now has an opportunity to adopt a tougher stand towards Cuba on domestic and foreign policy and demand what is in the security interests of the United States, the freedom of the Cuban people and the stability and security of the region.