NO ONE KNOWS what is going to happen next in Cuba, but in "Cuba, The Morning After: Confronting Castro's Legacy," Mark Falcoff lays out in depressing detail how unlikely any of the possible scenarios are to improve life on that afflicted island. In a book that mixes acceptance and pessimism, Falcoff reviews the political, economic, and social life of Cuba as the seventy-seven-year-old Fidel Castro enters the final stages of his dictatorship.
Falcoff, a distinguished Latin Americanist and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, seems to prefer an end to official hostility between Cuba and the United States. But he knows even that will not soon rescue a society that is desperately poor, unable to revive its best industry (the export of sugar), exhausted by failed projects of agricultural collectivization and nuclear power construction, and degraded by the dictator's control of information and culture.
Falcoff's acceptance of normal relations between the United States and Cuba is a bow to the post-Cold War dynamic that draws the two countries together. The forces of that dynamic include Castro's much-ballyhooed foray into tourism (prompted by the loss of massive subsidies when the Soviet Union collapsed), the constitutional recognition of the right of private foreign property in 1992, the circulation of the United States dollar in Cuba since 1993, and incipient business contacts between Havana and some Cuban Americans in Miami, members of a group once reviled by Castro as gusanos (worms).
Falcoff, however, is quick to admit skepticism about these ameliorative forces. He notes the tangle of legal claims by individuals and companies who had their property expropriated by the 1959 revolution will vex American and Cuban relations--whether the successor government continues Castro's one-party tyranny or is more open and democratic.
As for the legalization of the American dollar, it has "introduced new and sharp inequalities in Cuban society." The experiments in capitalism are almost entirely run by the military, with ordinary Cubans excluded. Castro's death or incapacitation could bring a popular revolt. Upheaval of this kind "raises the prospect of uncontrolled immigration" to the United States (but then again, so, in Falcoff's view, does every other scenario, including a peaceful and orderly transition).
Further darkening the picture are the economic statistics Falcoff cites. They indicate that tourism, even at its most successful, will not recoup the lost $6 billion that Moscow provided to Havana every year. Nor is the lifting of the American embargo, he forecasts, going to bring anything like the bonanza for exporters of rice, wheat, and other commodities that the would-be embargo-lifters (of both the American left and right) promise.
To understand why these things are so, we need to appreciate how much average Cubans have been infantilized by the state for the last forty years. It does not permit them to bargain collectively with an employer, to go on strike, to own a cell phone, or to rent a car. This is a woefully inadequate nanny state that leaves Cubans at once angry and bereft of any work ethic that could help them turn things around. One is tempted to find the book's main message in the statement that post-Castro Cuba may not turn out to have "a political and economic system very much different from the one that presently exists."
Falcoff is a miserabilist on Cuba--not just because communism has run the place into the ground, but because of American policy. Quotas on the importation of sugar into the United States hamper Cuba's already low chances of getting its rickety sugar mills to be productive again. Moreover, he argues that our anti-Communist policy favoring the admission of political dissidents from Cuba, though well-meaning, has been a helpful safety valve for the dictator over the decades since "many who would protest the policies of the Castro government simply opt out and queue up for an exit visa." And, he adds mordantly, some Cubans have managed to get here by merely posing as dissidents.
The author notes with concern the feelers being put out by American military officers to their Cuban counterparts, again with good intentions: to anticipate and prevent an explosion of violence (and boat people) when Castro goes. He's right that these friendly gestures strengthen the least democratic--and most pervasive and powerful--sector of Cuban life: its military.
The only real certainty is that the transition ahead is not something from which we can turn our gaze. That ninety-mile distance between the north coast of the island and the southern tip of the United States entwines the destinies of the two countries. If the tensions between "a revolutionary history [that] cannot be unlived and a market-oriented future that ultimately cannot be avoided" bring catastrophe for 11.2 million Cubans, America will have no choice but to try to somehow pick up the pieces.
Lauren Weiner is a writer in Baltimore.