Pope Benedict XVI’s call for “authentic freedom” during his recent visit to Cuba is unlikely to result in any early conversion to democracy. Communism will remain an excuse for authoritarian, one-party rule in that benighted island. A Cuban “spring,” modeled on events in the Arab world, is not about to blossom.
But if party rulers were quick to rule out any prospect of political reform, other factors suggest economic changes are under way. They are patterned after the Chinese example, namely creating a market economy under a communist political system. The Cuban regime has been closely following China’s course.
Raúl Castro, who succeeded his ailing brother Fidel in the presidency, announced last year that half a million government workers would be laid off and that the creation of small private businesses would be encouraged.
That has not happened as speedily as projected, but there is substantial progress in shifting from an all-government-employed workforce to a newly created private sector of small businesses.
Cuba’s many small farmers now can lease unused state lands for up to 25 years to expand their production. For the first time, Cubans can now buy and sell cars and houses. They can own mobile phones and computers, although the government continues to restrict their access to information from outside Cuba. Access to the Internet is difficult and expensive.
This is a far cry from turning a tattered and forlorn state-run economy, which Raúl Castro himself deplored for its absenteeism and corruption and work-shirking, into a thriving free-enterprise one, but it moves in the right direction.
It is also a welcome change for many Cubans from declining social services in such areas as health care and education, and a new emphasis on production and even exports.
A critical question is who will succeed Cuba’s aging leadership. Raúl Castro is 80. Fidel Castro is 85, and although he no longer takes an active role in governing, he remains an influential oracle of the Cuban revolution. The worst scenario would be the emergence of an Army strongman who plunges the country into martial rule.
At the Cuban Communist Party Congress last year, the first in 14 years, it had been anticipated that a younger and more vigorous leadership team might be installed. But the old guard prevailed. Raúl said he regretted the absence of replacements with “sufficient experience and maturity.” In fact, ambitious younger candidates were discouraged or sidelined.
Another uncertainty is the role being played in Cuba by Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez. He has succeeded the old Soviet Union as Cuba’s benefactor and principal ally, the donor of cheap oil. But Mr. Chávez has political challenges at home and medical issues for which he has sought help in Cuba. The long-term relationship between oil-rich Venezuela and economically distressed Cuba is therefore in question.
For the meantime, the ruling regime in Havana is making it clear that though careful economic reforms are in order, political ones are not. Some dissidents were sequestered during the pope’s visit and others who requested an audience with the pope did not get one. Cuban leaders swiftly declared that Cuba would remain a one-party communist state.
In a message more welcome to his hosts, the pope also deplored the lengthy American embargo on trade with Cuba. But no American politician, mindful of the substantial Cuban expatriate population in Florida, is going to suggest a change in that policy during a presidential election year.
And no American politician should ever suggest such a change without getting a quid pro quo from the Cuban regime. That quid pro quo should involve a major humanitarian shift requiring Cuba’s release of political prisoners and an end to harassment of political opponents.
John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.