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Cuba's Deng Xiaoping

Don't expect a "Velvet Revolution" in the Caribbean--even after Fidel Castro dies.

11:00 PM, Nov 16, 2004 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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Coral Gables, Florida

"CUBA'S FUTURE is in the hands of Cubans," declares James Cason, mission chief at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. He is addressing a seminar of earnest Cuba watchers hosted by the University of Miami's Cuba Transition Project (CTP).

Before this crowd, the puckish Cason needs no introduction. Since assuming his post in September 2002, he has turned his office into a vanguard of the Cuban democracy movement. He's befriended dissidents. More than that, he's visited their homes and had them over to his. He's also cranked up U.S. aid--radios, books, computers, and other materials. Cason recently drew attention to human rights by building a replica of a Cuban prison cell in his backyard.

He exudes a sober yet robust faith in the Cuban opposition. "Cuba's courageous pro-democracy activists are already laying claim to a say in their country's future," Cason says, "and are having an international impact." Their "lonely voices," he adds, "are getting less lonely by the day." The conferees later hear, by telephone, from two of the island's most famous activists: Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello and Vladimiro Roca Antúnez.

The CTP gathering was scheduled months ago, but its timing is felicitous, coming just a few weeks after president-for-life Fidel Castro's much-publicized fall. The tyrant's tumble prompted renewed speculation over his health--and over his successor. Fidel's brother, Raúl Castro, how head of the armed forces, has long been the heir apparent.

Such a dynastic takeover is not what those assembled here at the Omni Colonnade Hotel want to see. They yield to no one in their loathing of totalitarianism and their desire to see Fidel's revolution rolled back.

But they're not Pollyannas. They know Cuba's pro-democracy forces have been paralyzed since Castro delivered his knockout punch--a massive anti-dissident crackdown, the worst since the 1960s--in March and April of 2003. They realize the opposition is on the canvas, getting a standing eight count. They concede, reluctantly, that a peaceful "Velvet Revolution," á la Czechoslovakia in 1989, is unlikely.

I must say, I left Coral Gables feeling semi-despondent. The bravery and resolution of Cuba's democrats is inspiring. But, truth be told, they are nowhere near toppling the dictatorship. And the machinery of Raúl's succession is well oiled. While Cuba deserves a Václav Havel or Lech Walesa, it may have to settle for a Deng Xiaoping. That is, post-Fidel Cuba will probably resemble post-Mao China more than post-Soviet Eastern Europe.

Too pessimistic? Perhaps. After all, there is now a global consensus on Cuban democracy. European diplomats meet regularly with Cuban oppositionists, much to Fidel's ire. This has soured E.U.-Cuba ties. Indeed, America and Europe are now in greater harmony on Cuba policy, relatively speaking, than they've been in decades.

Nor should the island's dissident movement be written off as wholly impotent. Cuba's nascent pockets of civil society show promise. Says Jorge Más Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, "There are many Lech Walesas in Cuba, but they are not known." And recent history is littered with examples of prisoners-cum-presidents: Havel, Nelson Mandela, and Kim Dae-jung, to name three.

Havel, as it happens, is one of Castro's fiercest opponents on the world stage. And among European nations, the Czech Republic is the most active supporter of Cuban dissidents. Several speakers at this conference--held in concert with the Czech embassy--are Czechs, including Prague's ambassador to the United States, Martin Palous. They explain how Cubans can apply the lessons of Charter 77 and the Velvet Revolution to their own country. They recall the velocity of change in 1989.

"Don't believe pragmatists who say morality and politics are two separate things," booms Ambassador Palous. Havel has pre-taped a message for the seminar. "Cuba survives like a strange relic of the past," he intones. Nearly everyone notes the CTP seminar is occurring 15 years to the day (November 9) after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Conferees have studied Eastern Europe's democratic transition religiously.

The trouble is, so has Fidel Castro. Alcibiades Hidalgo, Cuba's former U.N. ambassador, says Fidel's inner circle has meticulously analyzed the peaceful implosion of the Soviet satellites. Few foreign events had a more profound impact on the Cuban Communists. Hidalgo, a high-ranking defector, predicts an "internal succession" after Fidel's death.

But even absent a succession, Cubans are hardly ready to break out the Magna Carta and draft the Federalist Papers. It's difficult to overstate the psychological and moral carnage wrought by 45 years of communism. (Just read AEI scholar Mark Falcoff's Cuba the Morning After.) "Simply plunking down a genuine electoral system won't be sufficient in the future," James Cason says. "It will take at least a generation to acquire the habits of democracy on the island."

Today, Cuba's economy is in tatters. Foreign tourism, European trade, and low-cost Venezuelan oil keep Fidel's revolution afloat. And yet, as the past months have made sorely clear, nothing will change so long as the bearded despot is pounding his iron fist. Castro has initiated a military takeover of the tourism industry. He has curbed and reversed the modest market-oriented reforms of the 1990s. And he has outlawed the free trade of U.S. dollars on the island.

There was once hope that Fidel might adopt China as a template for reform. In other words, that he might liberalize the Cuban economy within an authoritarian leadership. No such luck. After touring Vietnam and China in early 2003, Castro disclaimed any such changes in Cuba. As Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O'Grady puts it, "Cuba is not likely to follow China until Fidel follows Mao."

The Chinese model, a strange brew, has six key traits--three highly negative, two positive, and one ambiguous. The negative: authoritarian rule, one-party dominance, and gross manipulation of nationalist fervor. The positive: improved living standards and indulgence of low-scale civil society. The ambiguous: state-run capitalism that mainly enriches party plutocrats and regime-linked entrepreneurs--and would've horrified Adam Smith--but whose benefits also trickle down to the general populace.

This blueprint allowed Deng Xiaoping to proclaim getting rich "glorious," and then send the tanks into Tiananmen Square a decade later. For anyone who gives a fig about liberty, justice, and truth, it's a noxious recipe, far from optimal. Still, it would be an improvement on Fidel's Orwellian nightmare. And it would offer small everyday blessings to Cuba's long-suffering people.

This assumes, of course, Raúl Castro will morph into a Deng-like reformist after grabbing the reins of power. That's a big assumption. But it's not out of the question. Insiders have said Raúl is more pragmatic than Fidel. Plus, as Hoover Institution scholar William Ratliff points out, Raúl has allegedly "sympathized" with the Chinese model for years. Following his 1997 visit to China, Raúl supposedly reached out to Zhu Rongji, the foremost craftsman of Beijing's economic reforms, and invited one of Zhu's top aides to address a coterie of Cuban officials. Capitalism buoyed the Chinese Communists. Raúl, or some other successor, may eventually decide it can buoy Cuba's Communists, too.

In the meantime, what should America do to promote civil society and human rights? Chiefly three things, according to the speakers here in Coral Gables. First, preserve economic and travel sanctions so as to deny Castro hard currency, erode the standing of hard-liners, and give Washington leverage during a post-Fidel transition. Second, maintain and expand the budding international consensus on Cuba's pro-democracy dissidents. Third, aid the dissidents however possible.

"Change will come from within in Cuba," says Otto Reich, President Bush's former Latin American envoy. "It has to come from within." Nevertheless, Reich emphasizes, "The United States is the 800-pound gorilla."

Duncan Currie is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.