Thursday, September 16, 2010

We must stanch Cuba's coming crisis

We must stanch Cuba's coming crisis
By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Thursday, September 16, 2010

Is this the beginning of the end for the Castro brothers in Cuba, and if
so, what should Washington do?

The announcement Monday that, over the next six months, Cuba will fire
more than 500,000 workers -- or fully 10 percent of the workforce in a
country of 11 million people -- is a far more radical change than any of
the island's past free-market flirtations and an extraordinary admission
of failure.

The firings have already begun, and the question is whether Raul Castro,
the plan's champion, can control an unraveling of this perestroika any
better than Mikhail Gorbachev did in the Soviet Union.

Personally, I doubt it. Raul is an admirer of the Chinese model of
economic freedom and political dictatorship, but Cuba isn't China. Fidel
is 84, Raul is 79, and they haven't allowed anyone to be groomed to
replace them. The Cuban government represses its people, but the
country's revolutionary fervor is long gone. There is no national,
unifying sense of mission to replace it.

The iconic Fidel still enjoys some popular fondness, and there has been
much speculation over just what he meant when he recently told an
Atlantic magazine reporter that "the Cuban model doesn't even work for
us anymore." He told students at the University of Havana on Friday that
he was merely musing. But the firings are hard evidence either that he
agrees with the change or that he is now irrelevant.

The latter is unlikely, though since Fidel fell ill four years ago and
turned over direct control to his brother, the relationship between the
two has been murky.

And no one in the American government, unfortunately, cares enough to
figure it out. The CIA, burned by Cuban moles and disinformation, has
arrived at the understandable conclusion that impoverished Cuba is
hardly a threat to the United States -- or anyone else -- and thus not
worth the effort.
clear pixel

This has left much of government policy to overheated exiles and
political charlatans, some in Congress, who seek only to punish the
Castros. To be sure, reasonable arguments are made by the likes of
Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Republican Rep. Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen of Florida that pressure might force freedom, particularly
now that the Cuban economy is on the ropes.

The Obama administration, in typical wonkish fashion, calibrates. It has
made it easier for Cuban Americans to visit the island and send money to
relatives there, and soon may expand outreach to cultural, sports and
other "people-to-people" exchanges as Cuba reciprocates with such
measures as the recent freeing of 26 political prisoners and the
promised freeing of 26 more.

But the punishment principle is the same and has failed for 50 years.
Even most dissidents inside Cuba oppose the trade embargo and travel
restrictions. The Castros use it to drum up internal support. They
especially campaign on the fear that Cuban Americans will come back and,
with U.S. government backing, reclaim houses from people living in them
now, as the 1996 Helms-Burton Act stipulates. The embargo should be
unilaterally lifted as a way to kick out the last remaining struts
supporting the dictatorship. We should flood the island with American
tourists and money at a time when the Castros will have difficulty
rejecting or controlling it. Short of that, Congress should overturn the
reclamation provision of Helms-Burton, which is unprecedented in
American law.

Cuba is indeed in crisis. It so lacks hard currency that it has cut
needed agricultural and industrial imports, has frozen supplier
accounts, and suffers shortages from toothpaste to potatoes. Tourism is
flat, nickel prices are low and an estimated $5 billion in annual
subsidies from Venezuela's Hugo Chávez are iffy.

The firings are a breathtaking gamble. About 85 percent of Cubans work
for the state, and it is unclear whether the tiny private sector can
absorb a half-million workers. Internal Cuban documents forecast
turmoil. The average monthly salary is only $20, but most necessities
are covered under a social contract in which Cubans give up political
freedom in return for a guaranteed job and minimal security.

That contract is being broken. Unless we want those half-million workers
taking inner tubes and small boats to Florida, we need to respond wisely.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers
Group. His e-mail address is"

No comments:

Post a Comment