March 7, 2008

In Cuba, China Emerges as a Major Player

By Louis E.V. Nevaer
New America Media

HAVANA—Beijing is moving forcefully to fill the power vacuum left by Washington’s indifference to the first peaceful transfer of power in Cuba in almost a century.

Throughout Havana, China’s single-minded global pursuit to secure the natural resources it needs for its economic development is in full evidence. While it was business-as-usual at the U.S. Interests Section a block from the memorial commemorating the sinking of the Maine, there was a flurry of activity at the Chinese embassy. And throughout Havana, China’s rising profile is undeniable: China is beaming three television stations to the island – one in Chinese, one in Spanish and another in English. The streets of Havana are littered with cardboard boxes marked “China/Cuba” commerce. Chinese flags are being flown where Soviet flags once were.

“China is offering Cuba’s ruling elite a way out – and Washington is not,” an official at the Mexican embassy explained. “They are offering Cuba a deal Raul Castro can’t refuse: capitalism without democracy.”

In the almost two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new phenomenon has emerged on the world stage: Command Capitalism. Both China and Russia have built prosperous market-driven economies without the democratic institutions once thought inevitable – free elections, an unfettered press and transparency in government. Washington is beholden to the view that without free elections, freeing of political prisoners and a free press, the economic embargo stays in place.

In contrast, China offers Cuba a tantalizing possibility: Who needs free elections, or prisons emptied of political prisoners or a pesky press, when through the magic of Command Capitalism, Raul Castro and the entire leadership of the National Assembly – whose average age is 70 – can remain in power indefinitely.

This is not a new idea, and it is one that pitted the Castro brothers – Fidel and Raul – against each other. For over a decade, Fidel struggled to reconcile his steadfast belief in his infallibility with the stark reality of his nation being reduced to a country of paupers. The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent deprivation of trading partners created an economic collapse in Cuba, the so-called “Periodo Especial.” Fidel Castro had nothing but contempt for Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, and when Russia ended its lavish subsidies to Cuba, Fidel felt betrayed. Raul Castro, on the other hand, was more dispassionate in this assessment of the situation: whereas Fidel would give hours-long speeches that were more like rants, gesticulating wildly, spitting saliva, Raul analyzed reports of how other nations were making “adjustments.”

When Russia withdrew its troops and technicians in 1991, Cuba’s economy came to a virtual standstill: without fuel, transportation came to a virtual halt, electricity became scarce, and for the first time in its history, the word famine was spoken by officials. It was in this context that Raul Castro encouraged the first reforms: allowing farmers to sell “surplus” produce on their own, introducing the “convertible peso” for foreign visitors to circulate parallel to the Cuban pesos used exclusively by Cubans.

Fidel was “shocked” by the success of this experiment, the ease with which Cubans were prepared to sacrifice selflessness for the relentless pursuit of self-interest. He pulled the plug on Raul’s reforms. It was too late, however. Cubans, Communist officials and beggars alike, saw the goods that could be bought with “convertible pesos” – from disposable razors and aspirin to television sets and sirloin steaks. Possession of the U.S. dollar was decriminalized, and as the 1990s ended, a parallel economy emerged. Raul Castro saw this as a positive development, one that would allow more foreign investment in Cuba and facilitate establishing relations with the nations of Eastern Europe. Cuba’s isolation ended; Fidel orchestrated state visits throughout Europe courting former Communists and eager capitalists alike. Within a few years, new hotels in the resort of Varadero were going up, and Italian charter flights were arriving. The influx of dollars was like an oxygen mask.

All the while, Fidel was wary of unleashing forces that could destroy his revolution; Gorbachev had made that mistake. Fidel feared the reintroduction of a class system: Cubans with dollars, and Cubans without dollars. More pragmatic than Fidel, Raul has used his older brother’s absence from day-to-day participation to solidify certain “reforms:” stores selling all manner of consumer goods have opened up – but everything is priced in “convertible pesos.” What Fidel feared most, two classes of Cubans, is now a reality.

The word for it is “resolver.” Cubans speak of “resolving” their problem, meaning that they will do what they have to in order to get the “convertible pesos” they need. It’s impossible for a foreign visitor to walk a few steps from a hotel without being offered rum, or cigars, or a very good time – at a great price. Cubans “resolve” their material needs by stealing from the state, or trafficking in sex, if that’s what it takes.

His health precarious, Fidel cannot prevent the inevitable change from arriving. Raul, on the other hand, is pragmatic. Raul is not now and has never been a “reformer” to accept Beijing’s offer: Capitalist prosperity without liberal democracy.

The illiberal democracy inherent in Command Capitalism is Raul’s vision for Cuba. China offers the promise of flooding the economies of the developed world with 99-cent sandals, $500 flat-screen TVs, adulterated pet food, all the lead your children can lick off their toy cars, and all these without the untidiness of elections, political opposition parties or a meddlesome press. China also offers Cuba what has eluded the Castro brothers for almost half a century: the emergence of a prosperous middle class that can be rendered docile and compliant through the prospect of change, delivered in just the right dosage, with just the right material rewards.

Raul is very much aware of this. Everyone in Cuba is well aware of this: That’s what the Spanish-language voiceover said in the television show beamed from Beijing last night.

China, quite simply, is Raul’s last chance to save his revolution, with the Chinese language subtitles a multicultural bonus.

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