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    March 20, 2011

    Watching Cuba


    HAVANA — Rising prices following years of economic failure, five decades of oppressive one-party rule, an aged first family, an education system producing graduates with few prospects, a rich exile community waiting in the wings.

    In this year of revolutions, will Cubans follow the Arab example and demand a better, freer future? Or are they condemned by the inertia bred of socialist egalitarianism and the opiate of Cuba’s wonderful music to remain passive? Or can this Communist regime follow Asian peers such as Vietnam and transform its economy while maintaining its grip on power?

    Of course Cuba is sui generis, however much some aspects of it may remind one of North Korea, Myanmar, Vietnam or the former Soviet Union as well as of Arab regimes that have failed or are under threat. As the Arabs have shown, stasis can continue for decades and revolt come when it is least expected.

    A superficial view provides scant hint of impending upheaval here. But there is an expectation that next month’s Communist Party Congress, the first since 1997, will point as to how far it will go in abandoning socialist shibboleths in the search for the economic gains it needs if its power is to survive much beyond the bombastic but genuinely egalitarian era of Fidel Castro and the more pragmatic era of Raúl Castro.

    Pressure is rising not just among the public but within the 700,000-strong party. How far can the party go in moving to a market economy, opening more space to the private sector and foreign investment, how far in cutting subsidies and welfare? The road to reform means more job cuts, lower food rations, higher prices — more risk of popular resentment.

    The regime has a few things going for it. Number one remains U.S. hostility, an embargo which is a mirror image of Cuba’s island redoubt mentality and makes anti-gringoism respectable. Secondly are its very real, internationally recognized and very popular, achievements in health and education. Thirdly is the lack of high-level corruption. The official cult is of long dead Che Guevara, not Fidel. Leaders lead modest lives, the party has a broad base and no one expects a dynastic succession to the Castros. Less admirably, the population is both aging and falling, so its demographic pressures are the opposite of those in the Arab world.

    But the time is up for an economic model which, for all the nationalist, self-reliance rhetoric, and tired revolutionary slogans, has always been dependent on foreign subsidy — currently cheap fuel from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.

    Cuba’s agricultural failings have been remarkable even by Soviet and North Korean standards, and revenue from tourism, remittances and minerals is not only insufficient but has created a divide between those with and without access to foreign currency.

    Raúl Castro has promoted many younger practical military and party types in place of old revolutionaries. The overt military role in the economy is growing.

    These new leaders may be the sort who can push toward a Chinese-style semi-privatized economy where market and party share power. Some of them may already be looking to feather their own nests, as counterparts elsewhere have done, as joint ventures with foreign companies seeing Cuba’s vast potential start to blossom.

    But this is not a vast China nor even a large mid-sized, self-confident Vietnam. It is a small country next to a giant neighbor which harbors a million people of Cuban origin who mostly do not want the island to evolve into a more successful version of the current system, but want the party to be swept from power and its system as well as personnel replaced.

    So to survive, the regime must have economic reform and much more engagement with the outside world without being swamped. It needs foreign money and markets, but it also needs the U.S. embargo as a political crutch.

    To survive, too, it may have to give dissidents — those who bravely speak out and decline to be exiled — more space, and so disarm those who view the whole system as an oppressive relic. Raúl Castro’s men may be economic pragmatists, but their instincts are naturally authoritarian, and they may find it easier to talk to foreign capitalists than to their own artists and intellectuals.

    Cuba looks unlikely to have a counterrevolution in the near future. But change is being forced on the regime, and it will be very difficult for the party to manage. Can Cuba find the space between socialist failure and again becoming an economic colony of the United States, a social democratic mean between one-party oppression and the corruption and violence of pre-Castro Cuba?