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Inklings of Change in Cuba

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
December 1, 2006

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Fidel Castro missed the kickoff of his belated eightieth birthday celebration in Havana this week, the latest sign he likely will not return to office. The “maximum leader” has not appeared in public since July, when intestinal surgery prompted him to hand over power to his brother Raul. Raul has been running the country since, making few public speeches—a subdued approach analysts expect will continue until Fidel dies (Miami Herald).

The seamless transition dashed the hopes of many Americans who predicted revolt on the streets of Havana. Actually, Cuba today looks much as it did under Fidel. But some see subtle changes afoot to address the population’s deep economic dissatisfaction. In late October, a Cuban newspaper announced that a team of Cuban academics will study the economic system for flaws that fuel corruption (Miami Herald). The government is “putting people on notice that they are looking for a policy solution,” says Philip Peters of the Lexington Institute. In the Latin Business Chronicle, he suggests the proposals go “beyond the predictable” and that current moves in Havana recall the reforms of the early-1990s when, under Raul’s leadership of enterprises run by the armed forces, Cuba allowed limited market activities in response to an economic collapse precipitated by the end of Soviet aid. But others remain skeptical (CSMonitor) any market reforms will take place.

Surprisingly, the Communist party itself has joined the fray, pondering changes to the economy, the press, and the political system. “There's not a huge amount of space between what the official dissidents, dubbed so by outside powers, are talking about and what the regime critics” within the party are talking about, says CFR Senior Fellow Julia E. Sweig. This helps explain why Cuba’s dissident movement, described as fragmented and disorganized despite significant U.S. financial support, has not coalesced. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has questioned what the $76 million appropriated between 1996 and 2005 to support these dissidents actually paid for. None of those funds were paid directly to Cubans, and 95 percent of the grants were issued without competitive bids. GAO found the funds were used (PDF) to buy items such as cashmere sweaters and Sony PlayStations.

The GAO report provides grist for some American lawmakers who argue for a policy change on Cuba. Yet even in the new Democratic-led Congress, changing course after over four decades of isolation may prove impossible. The Cuban-American community—and its importance in U.S. electoral politics by virtue of its numbers in Florida—has seen off one effort after another to review the United States’ hard-line policy toward the island. In a new Foreign Affairs article, Sweig writes that Cuban-Americans are increasingly divided, with many calling for “reconciliation rather than revenge.” Arguing that Washington holds little leverage to encourage a democratic transition in Cuba, Sweig recommends breaking the “siege mentality” of its citizens by ending the travel ban and economic sanctions. She also proposes bilateral talks on security, drugs, and off-shore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet Stephen Johnson of the Heritage Foundation claims maintaining economic sanctions is now “more important than ever as a negotiating tool.” As highlighted in this CFR.org Online Debate, Cuba’s leadership may have changed, but U.S.-Cuban policy remains contentious.

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