John Hughes

In Cuba, Castro's communist hard-liners dash hopes of reform

Raúl Castro has freed some political prisoners, talked of term limits, and announced plans to lay off half a million government workers. But he's chosen for his inner circle senior hard-liners who resist change. Until they leave, change will be limited.

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When Fidel Castro first seized power more than 50 years ago, he got rid of Cuba’s golf courses. Now tiptoeing toward some modest reforms, the government is giving preliminary approval for four luxury golf resorts.

The problem is that there is no suggestion of any change in the harsh political regime. Cuba has been studying China’s example of running a market economy under a communist political system, but Havana’s attempts to jump-start a stagnant economy look nowhere near as innovative as Beijing’s.

The April Cuban Communist Party Congress, the first in 14 years, had been anticipated after hints by President Raúl Castro of change to come. But hopes of a leadership shake-up and the appointment of a younger and more vigorous team that would re-invigorate the system were dashed.

Raúl succeeded his brother Fidel, who has been inactive because of illness, as the top party official. Instead of choosing a young, new successor-designate, the second-highest party slot went to an 80-year-old communist placeholder, José Ramón Machado. Although Raúl bemoaned the absence of replacements with “sufficient experience and maturity,” ambitious younger candidates have been discouraged or sidelined. The aim seems to be to retain the political system in place and offer some economic improvements to a disillusioned populace, but in the guise of updating the socialist model. As one Cuban exile, who held senior positions in the early years of Fidel Castro’s ascendancy, put it: “Raúl is more of a communist than Fidel.”

Raúl Castro has freed some political prisoners. He has talked of two five-year term limits for himself and other politicians. He has announced, but postponed, plans to lay off half a million government workers. He has encouraged the emergence of small businesses instead of massive government employment. He has suggested curbing government handouts, such as the monthly food ration books. But the state, backed by a powerful military whose generals are embedded throughout its infrastructure, remains paramount.

Where does this leave Cuba’s relations with the US? Not coincidentally, the date for the Party Congress coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, the abortive US attempt to overthrow the Castro regime. Julia Sweig, director of Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, who recently had a memorable interview in Havana with Fidel Castro, puts it this way: The Cuban message is: “Just because we’re changing doesn’t mean that we’re casting off our nationalism and our revolutionary ethos. Economic reform does not mean a concession to the United States.”

The Obama administration has lifted travel restrictions to Cuba for Cuban-Americans as well as restrictions on Cuban-Americans sending money to relatives in Cuba. American educational and religious institutions can also now send their representatives to Cuba.

The White House has also moved to encourage more cultural and economic exchanges with Cuba, lessening the emphasis on regime change. The US government’s radio and TV broadcasting to Cuba has been jammed by the Cuban regime over the years. Radio and TV Martí have used various means, including broadcasting signals from blimps and aircraft, to provide alternative news and information to Cubans subjected to propaganda from their own government-controlled media.

Critics, including the US government’s own watchdog agency, have faulted the Martí operations, and their cost, for their inability to reach a substantial Cuban audience. The broadcasts were recently reformatted to make them more relevant and to reach a younger audience.

One complicating factor in the current US-Cuban relationship has been the Cuban arrest and sentencing to 15 years imprisonment of American Alan Gross. Mr. Gross went to Cuba as the employee of a US company under contract to USAID, was kept under surveillance by Cuban intelligence agents, and was arrested late in 2009 for alleged subversive acts against the government.

For the moment the relationship is quiescent. The closeness of a communist country with a restless population and a dictatorial regime of uncertain future needs watching.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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