The Heritage Foundation

Executive Memorandum #929 on Latin America

May 4, 2004

May 4, 2004 | Executive Memorandum on Latin America

How to Support Cuba's Democracy-in-Waiting

Prospects for a free Cuba still hinge on a deathwatch over dictator Fidel Castro and hopes of influencing reforms under his successor. But that assumption could change. In May 2002, Cuban human rights advocate Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas presented Cuba's National Assembly with a petition--signed by more than 11,000 citizens--calling for a referendum on Cuban socialism. In 2003, Payá's activists collaborated on a new proposal: a referendum for a dialogue leading to a political transition. It is probably Cuba's first viable, indigenous plan for the peaceful departure from a totalitarian dictatorship to a market-oriented democracy.

While avoiding a close embrace that could endanger Cuban reformers, Washington should call greater attention to the cause of Cuban civil liberties; increase purposeful people-to-people contact; develop principles for normalizing relations with a free Cuba; help to contain the current regime; and improve intelligence analysis. To do so, the United States should quietly encourage the Cuban military--the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, or FAR--to provide the stability needed to allow reformers to replace Cuba's obsolete communist leadership.

Potential for Transition
Although scenarios for a post-Fidel Cuba are endless, a transition seems more likely than a succession. When this may occur is hard to tell. Although the 77-year-old autocrat maintains a rigorous speaking schedule and travels abroad, he also suffers from fainting spells and recently had trouble speaking.

The outcome will probably depend on personality and group dominance, even though Fidel once said that his 73-year-old brother Raúl--Council of State First Vice President and Armed Forces Minister--would succeed him. However, Raúl and some FAR subordinates reportedly admire China's gradual adoption of capitalism, while Castro himself does not. Also, Raúl's age and health could prevent a sibling takeover.

While National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón, Council of State Vice President Carlos Lage, and Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque are other possible successors, a U.S. survey of recent Cuban exiles found that they blamed the Communist Party and the civilian bureaucracy for Cuba's shortage of goods and poor quality of life--despite Castro's attempts to scapegoat the U.S. trade embargo.

In charge of external defense and some of Cuba's most successful enterprises, the FAR has little of that baggage. Though corrupt, it is more popular than the repressive police or party security organs. Additionally, according to foreign officials who have dealt with it, the FAR has more discipline, training, and planning capability than civilian institutions.

Between Diatribe and Dialogue
In 2002, President Castro tried to crush reformer Oswaldo Payá's referendum petition (named the Varela Project after a Cuban priest and educator) by mounting a sham drive to declare socialism unchangeable in Cuba. A year later, the regime imprisoned 75 independent journalists, human rights activists, and Varela Project organizers. Yet, activists still collected 14,000 additional signatures.

Payá and his colleagues are now pressing for a more ambitious petition called the Transition Program--an agenda to replace Cuba's current constitution and build a social democracy by mixing guarantees of liberties (e.g., freedom of speech) with socialist privileges (e.g., jobs and free housing).

Despite misguided entitlements, the Transition Program lays the foundation for a national debate and suggests a framework for a new social contract. More important, it encourages inputs from ordinary Cuban citizens and envisions the constitution as a work in progress--not a bulwark against change.

Incentives and Pressure
Fortunately, both momentum for reform and an anchor for stability exist on the island. Cuba's various dissident groups are quietly advocating institutional change, while the FAR holds the keys to gradual economic evolution. Only the nomenklatura and Communist Party leaders stand for what must be discarded: blind obedience to authoritarian leadership, rampant corruption, and contempt for common citizens.

Given these circumstances, the United States should encourage Cuba's reformers and seek quiet contacts within the military to promote systemic change. Measures to isolate the old regime should run parallel with these efforts. To achieve this delicate balance, the Bush Administration should:

  • Help Cuban democrats. The U.S. should encourage foreign governments, political parties, human rights groups, and civic associations to support and keep watch over Cuba's democrats. Such entities should even be represented in the Bush Administration's Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. Funding should continue through international organizations to support local human rights monitoring, independent journalism, and private libraries.
  • Increase purposeful contact and information exchanges. While preserving current U.S. tourism restrictions, meetings between academics, professionals, and artists should increase. In addition to existing low-level collaboration with U.S. forces, FAR officials should be invited to talk with U.S. officials, business leaders, and prominent Cuban-Americans about democracy and free markets. America should also increase Radio Martí and Voice of America programming on democratic governance and market economics.
  • Develop principles for normalizing relations with a free Cuba. The Bush Administration should create incentives for Cuba to permit private enterprise, introduce private ownership of state businesses through stock offerings, end monopolies, allow Cuban citizens to travel abroad, and legalize trade unions.
  • Contain the old regime. Washington should turn U.S. trade sanctions into a global credit embargo, thereby reflecting an approach that other countries are adopting. While U.S. businesses should be permitted to sell goods to Castro, he should be forced to play by market rules through current cash-and-carry policies. Simultaneously, America should do more to counter Cuban espionage and the regime's support for international terrorism.
  • Improve intelligence analysis. U.S. officials need to know more about who operates Castro's organs of repression. During a transition, Castro loyalists could cause trouble elsewhere, much as they are currently doing by advising Venezuela's autocratic president Hugo Chávez.

Conclusion
Little by little, Cuban democrats are gaining clout, and the United States and its allies should be ready to help. While normal ties with Cuba rightly depend on an end to dictatorship and a respect for basic rights, encouraging reformers and purposeful relations with citizens--including elements of the military--could facilitate meaningful change.

Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Stephen Johnson Senior Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy