May 21 is Cuba Solidarity Day. The day seeks to remind Americans
that 90 miles away from the United States is an island nation
controlled by a government that remains by all objective
definitions a Communist, totalitarian regime.
In the globalizing, market-based world and more democratic
hemisphere of 2008, Cuba is governed by a Communist one-party
regime installed in 1959. At the helm is an ailing Fidel Castro,
his 75-year-old brother Raul Castro, now officially head of state,
and a handful of hardened Communists-an elite whose authority is
limited only by the meager resources of the country's obsolete
economy. In Cuba's Orwellian dystopia, control over all aspects of
political, economic, legal, artistic, educational, and cultural
life remains in the hands of Communist officials.
Because Cuba is not run by a Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot, because
there are no show trials or cultural revolutions, the world has
grown accustomed to Cuba's lesser but omnipresent tyranny.
The number of citizens thrown into Cuba's gulags runs in the
hundreds, not millions. Canadians and Europeans visit picturesque
old Havana and enjoy the attractions of Cuban sun, surf, and sex
without incident. Heads of state visit Havana hoping for a last
nostalgic glimpse of Fidel or to meet with the new power
With the passage of time, the evils of Cuban Communism have become
more banal, a dull ache rather than a throbbing pain. Cuba is no
longer a giant aircraft carrier for the defunct Soviet Union.
Missiles that once threatened to rain nuclear annihilation on the
U.S. were long ago scrapped. Cuba's interventionist military has
returned from wars of national liberation in Latin America and
Africa to take up safe jobs in the tourist sector and enjoy life as
pensioned war veterans.
Cuba slips increasingly into the twilight zone of illiberal,
anti-democratic regimes as diverse as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia,
and Vietnam with which the U.S. maintains correct if not always
friendly diplomatic and trade relations.
Modest Improvements under Raul's Regime
The transition from Fidel to Raul occurred with few signs of
instability and turmoil. Since February 24, 2008, Raul Castro has
launched modest economic changes. Cubans can now aspire, although
few can afford, to own cell phones, DVD players, and computers
(without access to the Internet). A few hated restrictions, such as
the ban on patronizing tourist hotels, have been lifted. Small
farmers and the self-employed will have more latitude to operate
and more productive workers may receive higher wages.
Such are the baby steps toward a less draconian future. Raul
Castro hints at lifting travel restrictions and ending the
dual-currency divide that separates Cubans into haves with dollars
and have-nots with Cuban pesos. Perhaps at the back of his mind is
a game plan for following the Chinese or Vietnamese development
model without rocking the political boat.
Cuban reforms are not undertaken with any sense of altruism or
love for the Cuban people, but out of a calculated desire to profit
from sales of goods in state-owned stores and to enable Communism
The Cuban economy has grown in recent years with the generous
assistance of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and from
tourist dollars and euros and higher commodity prices. The U.S.
plays its part as a prime supplier of licensed food and medical
sales. American agricultural and business representatives urge
easier access to and credits for the Cuba market.
Yet, the state still controls 93 percent of the economy. The
average income of the ordinary Cuban working under "socialist
distribution" is less than $20 per month. Foreign investments allow
the regime to profit heavily on the labor of a docile, poorly
compensated labor force.
The youth of the island, referred to as Generation Y, have known
only the hardship of the 1990s and 2000s. Cuba's best and brightest
have become politically apathetic. They either seek to emigrate or
are forced to hustle for service jobs in the dollar sector.
Sadly, as May 21 reminds us, the political climate in Cuba remains
stagnant and stifling. Raul Castro commands a legion of security
agents believed to exceed 20,000, skilled in surveillance,
infiltration, and the use of agents provocateurs.
Gatherings of more than three are prohibited; individuals are
subject to arrest and imprisonment for "dangerousness." Anyone
expressing inconformity with official views becomes fair game for a
visit by a mob and "acts of repudiation."
An estimated 240 political prisoners languish under the most
deplorable conditions that include solitary confinement, and often
beatings. Among the prisoners are many whose offenses were to
demand respect for universal human rights or to call for freedom of
ideas and press.
The Cuban regime demands acceptance of its legitimacy and rule
without external criticism or scrutiny. Yet, when 10 Damas en
Blanca ("Women in White") gathered in a central Havana square,
as they did on April 21, seeking freedom for kin jailed unjustly,
they were met by a caravan of police officials and branded "agents
of U.S. imperialism." This is not change.
May 21 is a day for sober consideration. As citizens of a great
democracy that has opposed tyranny and stood for consent of the
governed and liberty and rights for individuals, we must not forget
that a Communist totalitarian regime lies uncomfortably close to
Ray Walser, Ph.D., is
Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah
Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.