Cuban Revolution at 50

2009-01-08 00:00

I have learnt one thing from my various visits to Cuba over the years and that is not to predict the demise of the regime. I did that sometimes in the past, if only to offer a bit of hope to various despairing individuals who thought that a visiting foreigner might know more about their future than they did themselves. But the brothers Castro are still there, ever more moth-eaten (in Raul’s case, almost mummified), and they have just celebrated the 50th anniversary of their revolution.

Nevertheless, change may be lurking around the corner at last, for Barack Obama represents the greatest danger that the regime has faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidies 17 years ago. The survival of the regime is due in large part to the unremitting hostility of the United States, which lets it appeal to Cubans’ patriotism and to the trade embargo that gives it an excuse for its economic failures.

Obama is clever enough to understand that the best way to kill the communist regime in Cuba is with kindness, and he has no domestic political debts that would keep him from acting on that insight. In particular, he owes nothing to the Cuban exile establishment in Florida, which mostly voted for George W. Bush.

He could start right away by ending the rule that allows Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island only once every three years, and limits their remittances to $300 every four months. Even within the Cuban exile community in the U.S. those restrictions are controversial, as it is hard to see how they hurt the Cuban regime.

Once the question of where to send the remaining Guantanamo detainees has been resolved, Obama could close the base down entirely.

Indeed, he could give the land back to Cuba as a free gesture, since it has no economic or strategic value to the U.S. That would seriously undermine the communist regime’s argument that the U.S. is an implacable enemy that Cubans must confront with discipline and solidarity.

Then he could get to work on the ridiculous embargo on trade and travel to Cuba. The sanctions have been written into law in recent years, so he would need Congress’s assent to remove them. But if he got it, all the mechanisms of control built up by Fidel over the past 50 years would probably begin to crumble.

The real question is: what happens then? The last time the fall of the Castro regime seemed likely, a couple of years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, I went to Cuba in the guise of a tourist (there’s nothing like having a baby along to make you look innocent) and talked to a great many people informally.

Most of them expected the regime to fall soon and a majority (although not an overwhelming majority) welcomed the prospect. However, they were all frightened of what might come next, for two reasons. One was the fact that at least 10% of the Cuban population — over a million people — were true communist believers and they were armed to the teeth.

Would they let their dream die without fighting to save it?

The other was that the exiles would come back from Miami and take over. Their money would let them buy up everything of value, and those who had endured decades of poverty under Fidel would stay poor and marginalised. Even the few good things about “socialist” Cuba, like the health- care system, would be destroyed.

Well, my last trip to Cuba was fewer than two years ago and things had changed. The poverty, the oppression and the despair were the same, but the true believers who would kill and die to save the revolution were noticeably scarcer.

This visit was part of a project in which various Western embassies, thinking that Fidel’s illness might mean that big changes were on the way, brought in “experts” to talk to the Cuban elite about how things are done in democratic countries. It was pretty pointless work, frankly, but it did offer unusual access to the apparatchiks who really run the show in Cuba.

Most of the officials were about what you’d expect: loyal, fully institutionalised servants of the regime. But very few of them were passionate ideologues who would launch and fight a civil war to save it.

Generational turnover had done its work and these were just people who were glad to have their jobs and the few privileges that came with them.

Generational turnover has been at work in Miami, too. Fifty years on, the original generation of Cuban refugees is gradually giving way to an American-born generation of people who still care about the country, of course, but are much less interested in going back and recreating the Cuba of the fifties. So change is a lot less dangerous for Cubans than it would have been if the regime had collapsed in the early nineties. If Obama sets out to destabilise the communist regime with offers of help and friendship, it might well work. And even if it doesn’t work right away, it would make the lives of Cubans a lot easier.

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