Raúl Castro's China Strategy
MEXICO CITY - Fidel Castro's resignation from two of his three leadership posts, together with the appointment of his younger brother, Raúl, as his successor, marks the end of an era…sort of.
Raúl replaced Fidel as President of the Councils of Ministers and of State, but not as First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party. And, in a scene worthy of the glory years of Stalinism, Raúl received the unanimous permission of Cuba's "parliament" to consult with Fidel on all major issues.
As long as Fidel is around - writing, meeting foreign dignitaries, and weighing in on everything from ethanol to the American presidential campaign - two things will remain clear. First, Raúl will barely be able to budge even on the modest, strictly economic and regulatory reforms that he hopes, somewhat naïvely, will put food back on Cubans' table.
|Cuba's new President Raul Castro. AP
Second, while the succession arrangement that the Castros designed years ago has the advantage of stability and predictability, Raúl will be unable to replace the old guard with younger leaders (his successor in the Armed Forces is 72 and his vice-president is 77). Doing so would give whomever he chooses an edge when Raúl, who is 76, passes on, and he and Fidel do not necessarily agree on who should come next.
Raúl's strategy is to pursue a Vietnamese or Chinese solution: pro-market economic reforms under continued Communist rule, with no progress on democracy or human rights. For those in the United States who have rightly concluded that the half-century trade embargo has proved counter-productive, this is an appealing halfway response that provides an alibi for moderation: one day, economic reforms will bring political change. For Latin American pragmatists, always fearful of Cuban fifth columnists, it offers a way to square the circle: encouraging change in Cuba without going too far. And, for some European governments, it is a typical hands-off remedy that places the problem squarely in America's lap.
But the Vietnamese or Chinese roads are unacceptable in Latin America, which has made huge progress in transforming advances in democracy and respect for human rights into a regional legal order that goes beyond national sovereignty or the sacrosanct principle of non-intervention. After decades of coups, dictatorships, torture, and disappearances, Latin America today, while not devoid of these plagues, has built a number of firewalls to forestall them.
Accepting a Cuban exception would represent an enormous setback. What will deter the next Central American dictator and murderer if the Cubans are given a free pass? Invoking pragmatism to justify continued human rights violations in Cuba merely because economic reforms might dissuade a mass exodus to Mexico and Florida is a bad idea.
Mexico has seemed especially tempted to return to its Cuban complicity of the past. It appears that during an upcoming visit to Havana, the Mexican foreign minister will not meet with local dissidents, breaking with precedents established since 1993.
There are sound reasons to set a timetable for Cuba's return to the Latin American democratic fold, without imposing elections as a first step or precondition. Indeed, free and fair elections and full respect for human rights can come at the end of the road - if that end is clearly established.
What would be unacceptable are the two extremes: making an immediate transition to democratic rule a precondition for normalization of relations with the US and re-entering the Latin American community, or exempting Cuba from the obligation to adhere to democratic principles and practices on the grounds that it is somehow different.
In 1953, Fidel Castro, in what is probably the best-known speech in Latin American political history, proclaimed in court that history would absolve him. In fact, history will judge him, and his nearly 50 years in power, only when the results are in: when the initial achievements in health and education and combating inequality are evaluated according to international standards and with the transparency to which the rest of the region's countries are subject.
Only then we will know if the trade-off at least made sense, even if for many it was unacceptable: authentic social justice and progress in exchange for authoritarian rule, international ostracism, and a cultural desert.
(Jorge G. Castañeda, former Foreign Minister of Mexico (2000-2003), is a Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American Studies at New York University.)
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008. Exclusive to The Sunday Times