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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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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.