The Wall Street Journal
Does a Cuban with the right to own a cellphone and go to a local resort have a brighter future than two months ago, when such "privileges" were illegal? Many Cuba watchers seem to think so. They're celebrating these changes – and a few others – recently introduced by the country's newly inaugurated dictator, Raúl Castro.
The optimism is misplaced, or at best premature. Raúl's "reforms" haven't been introduced as a way to begin any kind of transition toward a Cuba libre.
|A Cuban woman looks at newly available cellphones, April 14, 2008.|
Yes, it is possible that legalizing the purchase of electronic goods will help democratic dissidents. But Raúl's objective is to placate a restless population, while the regime tightens its grip on economic power. The regime warned democracy advocates last week not to interpret the reforms as a weakening of its resolve to preserve socialism.
Raúl has also not abandoned the stick. Last month marked the fifth anniversary of Cuba's "black spring," when the regime unleashed a wave of repression against the nation's fledgling free-speech movement. State-security swept into the homes of poets, journalists and human-rights advocates. Fifty-five individuals arrested on March 18, 2003 – and found guilty of using typewriters and fax machines – remain in rodent-infested dungeons. Cuba has more than 300 political prisoners.
Amnesty International recently highlighted the plight of Marcelo Cano Rodríguez, a medical doctor and human-rights defender. Amnesty says his crime was "visiting prisoners and their families as part of his work with the Cuban Human Rights Commission and maintaining ties to . . . Doctors without Borders."
Still, Raúl has to face the fact that dissent is spreading. Young Cubans are questioning and even mocking the government. Last month, Cuba's third highest ranking comandante, Ricardo Alarcón, spoke to students at Havana's University for Computer Sciences. No doubt he expected deference. Instead, members of the audience went to the microphone and challenged him.
Student Eliécer Ávila got most of the international attention with a line of inquiry he read from a notebook. He wanted to know why workers are paid in a worthless local currency, while things they want to buy, like shampoo, are priced in "convertible" pesos, which have the value of dollars. Why are hotels and resorts off limits to locals? Why can't Cubans travel to Bolivia to see where Che Guevara died?
Alarcón seemed stunned. In a rambling, 30-minute response, he defended the hotel ban by saying that as a Hispanic he had been barred from hotels in New York City. He also gave a bizarre explanation for the travel ban: "If all the world, some six billion people, could travel whenever they wanted, the jam in the skies would be enormous."
Mr. Ávila was detained after the incident. Later he showed up on TV, claiming that world media had manipulated his views. But the damage was done, and the regime understands that the student's remarks are the unspoken thoughts of so many Cubans. The Cuban Movement for Democracy has collected 5,000 signatures in favor of an autonomous university. Rock bands, such as "Porno Para Ricardo," are multiplying, pushing the limits of political correctness with shocking disrespect, even for Fidel.
Internet access is not easy, but blogger Yoani Sánchez evaded censors for nearly a year before her site, Generación Y, was blocked last month. The 32-year-old wife and mother chronicles daily island life, including political repression or economic hardship.
The regime has long counted on fear as the principal tool to keep the proletariat in line. It was too risky to share thoughts contrary to the revolution with others when neighbors are paid to report on anyone doubting Fidel. But now the bearded one is gone, and a generation of the irreverent young has no respect for the mess he wrought.
The geezers running Cuba aren't sure how to deal with so many audacious upstarts. Some outsiders have speculated that they will allow some criticism. But in a March 17 essay, José Azel, a senior research associate at the Cuba Transition Project in Miami, argued that the regime may be planning to follow the postcommunist path of Russia. In that case, the little guy won limited economic gains but the big prizes went to the ruling bosses. The model differs from China in that foreign investors wouldn't play a key role as owners. "The military managerial elite control, by some estimates, over sixty percent of the economy," Mr. Azel notes. "As a matter of survival not ideology," Raúl may introduce tentative economic reforms, but at the same time he will turn "his officers into businessmen."
Observes Mr. Azel: "In this disheartening end game scenario Cuban communism will have come to an end, leaving the generals and their heirs as the nouveau riche devoid of a democratic culture." This needn't be Cuba's destiny. But it is not an unlikely objective for Raúl, and would explain why the regime feels it can allow cellphones and resort holidays and still run the show.
Write to O'Grady@wsj.com