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Economic Change Is Coming to Cuba--But How Radical?

October 30, 1994|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Mifflin). He is working on a book about U.S. foreign policy

HAVANA — Beside the pools of Havana's new hotels, the ice cubes tinkle in exotic cocktails; beggars follow foreign tourists in the streets outside.

Thirty-five years after Fidel Cas tro came to power, Cuba is coming out of the deep freeze. For now, the changes are small, but like the first faint breezes of an approaching hurricane, they are the harbingers of a storm that will reshape Cuba's political and social realities and create a major foreign-policy crisis for the United States.

The big news isn't that the Cuban government has announced some economic changes--reopening the free farmers' markets and moving toward free markets in certain other goods. These are baby steps on the road to reform.

The real news is who is behind these changes--and why. Well-informed Cubans with personal ties to the highest levels of the island's leadership agree: Fidel's powerful brother, Raul, is behind these latest reforms and, behind him, stand the Cuban armed forces.

Badly shaken by the unrest last summer--the raft exodus and the riots in downtown Havana--and hurt by the economic crisis that has forced a 50% cut in military salaries, Raul and the top army brass want to solve the crisis and save the system peacefully. Cuba's armed forces are increasingly impatient with the blundering political bureaucracy of the civilian government and they dread one thing above all: a situation in which the army will be used to suppress civil unrest.

The fears are not unrealistic. Cuba's gross domestic product has plunged 45% since 1989, and basic foods are in short supply. "Why is Castro like an onion?" runs a popular joke in Havana. Answer: "They both make you cry in the kitchen."

The army's idea is to steer Cuba toward the China model of reform-- perestroika without glasnost. A combination of market reforms and enhanced political discipline will, the Army hopes, allow the Cuban economy to recover its dynamism without threatening the Communist Party and the Castro brothers.

It's a forlorn hope beyond a few officers and technocrats. Few informed Cubans think this can succeed. The U.S. embargo is only part of the reason. As most Cuban economists know, the Cuban market isn't big enough, and Cuban producers nowhere near competitive enough, for Cuba to take the Chinese road to development.

Even as the armed forces move to implement limited reforms, another group of Cubans is pushing more radical changes. This group--based in think tanks, certain ministries and in Cuba's small but important group of independent non-party, non-governmental organizations--is still loyal to what they call "social goals of the revolutionary process" but their vision of a reformed Cuba looks like a West European social democracy.

This group of reformers--most too young to remember Castro's revolution--recognizes that Cuba must adjust to the international capitalist economy. But in a series of conversations with a half-dozen leading members of this new breed of reformers, one message came through: These Cubans don't worry so much about whether Cuba has a capitalist future as they do about what kind of capitalism Cuba will develop.

Will Cuba develop a European style of capitalism--with an extensive social safety net and a strong economic role for the government? Many leading Cubans, including well-known members of the Communist Party, would be happy to settle for this.

Will Cuba develop a Korean-style capitalism with less individual freedom, and fewer social benefits than in the European model, but with rapid economic growth? This possibility is less attractive to the more democratically minded of Cuban intellectuals, but is acceptable.

What virtually nobody in Cuba wants is a return to the Latin American form of capitalism they experienced in the past. Cubans do not want to import the drug problems, violence and crime that plague so much of Latin America; nor do they want to recreate the immense gulf between rich and poor found in societies like Brazil and the Dominican Republic.

As they try to imagine a new future for Cuba, the new generation of economists and intellectuals is dropping old taboos. Some make the case for a "big bang" market reform on the Polish model. Others are working out plans to compensate corporations and individuals whose property was confiscated by the Castro government. Public discussion of these radical ideas remains limited, but the continuing economic crisis forces even conservatives to study alternative ideas.

None of this means that Cuba is about to turn into a Caribbean Sweden. The old revolutionaries, and especially the Castro brothers, still control political life.

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