The Changing of the Guard
Have you seen any indications under Raul Castro's leadership of a move toward economic reforms or political change?
It all depends on how you define "reforms." In Cuba there are no reforms taking place, at least not in the sense that they are interpreted abroad by those who would like to witness a return to capitalism.
The changes that you see now in Cuba are aimed at upgrading the performance of its institutions and improving quality of life for Cuban families. The demands of the population focus on three basic areas: nutrition, housing and transportation. In addition waste, inefficiency and misuse of resources have created dissatisfaction and unjustifiably limited the well-being of individuals and the society as a whole. But addressing those issues has no bearing on the country's social, economic and political organization.
Raul's reputation as an economic pragmatist comes from his experiments with Western business management techniques in the defense industry during the 1980s and his support for reintroducing farmers' markets during the depths of the economic crisis in the 1990s, even though Fidel opposed them. Raul finally convinced Fidel that nothing was more important than providing people with enough food and that farmers' markets would boost agricultural production--which they did. As minister of the armed forces, Raul also gained a reputation as a good manager who gets results.
In October the newspaper Juventud Rebelde ran a series of investigative stories exposing corruption in the state sector of the economy. The government then appointed a committee of scholars to examine socialist property in Cuba for sources of corruption and inefficiency. At the same time, academic economists are openly debating alternative development strategies and candidly discussing Cuba's macroeconomic problems. Anticorruption campaigns are not new, but acknowledging that these problems may be rooted in how the economy is organized--that's new.
On the political front, however, Raul has not shown any indication of being more tolerant of dissent than Fidel. In fact, Raul has often been central to past government crackdowns on dissidents. In early 1996, it was Raul who gave a tough speech to the Central Committee of the Communist Party criticizing Cuban academics for becoming too involved with their counterparts overseas and letting themselves be swayed by enemy ideology. With Fidel on the sidelines and the United States promising to disrupt the succession, the rest of the leadership will be especially sensitive about the risks posed by internal opposition.
Several things have been most striking about Raul during his short tenure as acting president. First, he has made it clear he wants to shake things up by encouraging more debate and criticism. The articles in Juventud Rebelde were remarkable.
The Cuban system is well-known for tolerating very little public dissent, enforcing conformity, looking with disfavor upon criticism and shoving open discussion of problems under the rug. This makes Raul's actions even more interesting because he has insisted that in order for the country to address its serious challenges it needs to adopt a public culture that is more critical and open. While it's difficult to gauge how far Raul's change in style will translate into a change in substance, I see this as a fresh development that may indicate the start of something new. In politics, big changes often start from little acorns such as these.
Most important, Raul has made it legitimate and even fashionable to start discussing the country's myriad everyday practical problems instead of staying focused on the more abstract themes of international relations, of which his older brother is so fond. There is hardly anyone in Cuba today who does not believe that there is an urgent need for substantial economic reforms that will begin to address the kinds of serious structural problems the country faces. As a very senior former government official who also describes himself as a Marxist put it to me recently, "The first thing this country needs is a lot more private property, more entrepreneurs, more decentralization, more small and medium-sized businesses." People like him are the rule, not the exception, and they fill the ranks of the party and the government. Their fear is that unless change comes soon, it will not be possible later on to manage it in an orderly fashion.
There is no doubt that Raul Castro has different ideas about the economy, although no one can tell how fast or how far he will carry reforms once he's in charge. My strong hunch is that Cubans would overwhelmingly welcome economic reforms that allow them to engage in enterprise, earn better wages and live in an economy with a single currency and affordable prices for their basic needs. But none of those changes would affect freedom to engage in dissent, free speech and free association. Human rights are in a different box, and I don't see any sign that Cuban authorities are considering improvements in that area.