Cuba's Gordian Knot

General Raúl Castro, in his one-minute announcement on Cuban television disclosing the death of his brother, referred to Fidel Castro as the “Founder of the Cuban Revolution” and ended his brief declaration with the standard exhortation: “Until Victory Always!”

The label of “Founder” reveals the regime’s unshaken belief in its continuity. Fidel Castro, while a background presence, had been effectively out of power for a decade. In that time, Raúl has orchestrated a seamless succession, with himself as First Secretary of the Communist Party and the next generation of communist leadership made of men of his choosing. What Fidel Castro really leaves as a legacy is misfortune for the island’s 12 million people for the foreseeable future.

This is the bittersweet reality for freedom-loving Cubans, who had often believed in the saying, “No Castro, no problem.” El lider máximo may be gone, but structurally the regime remains intact. Fidel Castro’s death does not come with freedom for the Cuban people.

His legacy: thousands of executions by firing squad, brutal repression, concentration camps, and every possible violation of human rights. He transformed what, in 1958, was one of the most prosperous countries in Latin America into an impoverished, dysfunctional state from which 20 percent of the population has fled.

By any objective socioeconomic measure, pre-Castro Cuba was a relatively advanced country. In the 1950s, Cuba’s infant mortality rate was the best in Latin America and the 13th lowest in the world. Cuba ranked third per capita in the region in food consumption, fourth in literacy, and first in television sets per capita. Pre-Castro Cuba had 58 daily newspapers of different political hues and ranked eighth in the world in number of radio stations.

In 1957, Cuba’s 128 physicians per 100,000 inhabitants ranked third in Latin America and ahead of the United Kingdom and Finland. In 1958, Japan, with four cars per 1,000 inhabitants, was far behind Cuba’s 24. Japan’s rate rose to 453 passenger cars per 1,000 people today, while Cuba’s rate dropped to 21. In 1957, the average wage of the Cuban worker was higher than that of workers in Belgium, Denmark, France, or Germany. After five decades of Fidel and one decade of Raúl Castro, Cuba has been transformed from a flourishing country to one that is extremely poor, with average yearly earnings below $250.

Moreover, according to the “Freedom in the World” report by Freedom House, Cuba remains the only country in the Americas deemed “Not Free,” with scores in the worst-of-the-worst categories of governmental respect for political rights and civil liberties. Of the 47 countries designated as “Not Free,” only nine have scores slightly worse than Cuba (North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Somalia).

Yet the Castro brothers, as the architects of this tragedy, are not disgraced but honored by the sycophancy of many world leaders. This sycophancy, which was on full display at the funeral last week, is perhaps best explained as a petulant form of anti-Americanism. A revolution that has not accomplished much for Cubans is lauded only because the Castros have stuck it to the goliath of the North. That seems to be enough for some people to make them value—or at least say they value—the disastrous Cuban experiment.

Cuba is now a nation with a discredited ideology, a dwindling, elderly leadership, and a bankrupt economy. Some will point to Fidel Castro’s death, to the minimalist economic changes introduced by his younger brother, and to a new U.S.-Cuba policy advanced by the Obama administration to argue that Cuba is now on track to become a democracy.

There are roadblocks. Let’s begin by examining what I call a culture of acquiescence.

A “meme” is the neologism coined by British scientist Richard Dawkins to explain the way in which ideas and behaviors are transmitted in society by non-genetic means. A child, for  instance, who is constantly exposed to violence in the home may come to accept violence as natural. For the social media generation, memes take the form of images, videos, hashtags, and the like, which “go viral” and spread from person to person in these social networks. In political science, I think of memes as sociocultural genes that help explain how, in totalitarian societies, the presumption of power deposes the presumption of liberty.

Why do peoples not instinctively rebel against tyranny? The answer transcends repression. Usually the exercise of power alone is not sufficient to preserve an oppressive regime. At some level there has to be a tacit acceptance, by the ruled and the rulers alike, that the ruling class possesses some legitimate right to lord it over the rest of the populace. In China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba, the revolutionary mysticism attached to Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il-sung, and Fidel Castro, respectively, have served to confer legitimacy.

Over time, this legitimacy replaces the presumption of liberty with the acceptance of tyrannical powers as lawful powers. Contrary to the belief of some, this legitimacy is not undermined by economic or diplomatic engagement with democratic governments and societies.

China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba are regimes with an enormous concentration of coercive power in the hands of the ruling class. This coercive power has engendered the generalized presumption that the rulers are born with the right to command and the people are born with the obligation to obey. In these societies, a long history of physical and intellectual coercion has fostered memes of acquiescence. This, too, is part of Fidel Castro’s legacy.

The willingness of Washington to unconditionally change its policy toward this regime is therefore doubly disconcerting. The rapprochement 1) bestows U.S. legitimacy on an oppressive regime, and 2) abandons historical U.S. pressure for Cubans to be granted more political and economic freedom.

On the most generous reading, supporters of reconciliation with Havana believe that economic reforms lead to democratization. That is, they trust that economic reforms will empower the population to demand political reforms. This view underlies and justifies U.S. policies setting aside demands for political reform in favor of encouragement of economic reform.

When thinking about post-Fidel Cuba, it is essential to keep in mind that 60 years of the Castros’ authoritarianism has engendered a symbiotic relationship in which the rulers’ governing ways are ontologically inseparable from their ideology. Authoritarianism engenders a corrupt oligarchy, and that oligarchy profits from the continuation of corrupt authoritarianism. Raúl Castro’s inner circle, in other words, is not made up of closet democrats waiting for an opportune moment to put into practice their long-suppressed Jeffersonian ideals.

And the role of the Cuban military in the economy is pervasive. The military managerial elite controls over 60 percent of the economy. Therefore, from a longer-term strategic perspective, the critical question is: What follows when the Raúl era comes to an end, leaving the generals in control of both the Politburo and the economy?

It may be helpful in this regard to examine the empirical evidence of the transition experience of the Central and Eastern European countries when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and to try to discern possible commonalities with the Cuban situation. Fredo Arias-King, an expert with encyclopedic knowledge of post-Soviet democratization, classifies the East European end-game experiences into eight groups:

Overthrow. Where communism ended when dissidents were able to depose an obstinate Communist Party ruling the country and form a new government made up primarily of dissidents. This characterizes then-Czechoslovakia, then-East Germany, Yugoslavia, Kyrgyzstan, and Georgia. For Cuba: very unlikely.

Substitution. Where a country’s Communist Party was more flexible and willing to negotiate a transition. This characterizes Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Slovenia. For Cuba: very unlikely.

Transformation. Where the principal communist leaders took the initiative toward regime change without the presence of great popular pressures. This characterizes Soviet Union (1985), Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1968). For Cuba: very unlikely.

Reappearance. Where former high-level government officials, who had been removed from power, used a nascent democratic movement in the country to return to power. This characterizes Russia, Romania, and Croatia. For Cuba: very unlikely.

Replacement. Where mid-level officials took up the flag of democratic or nationalistic reform to undermine the regime they served. This characterizes Hungary (1989), Serbia (1989), and Bulgaria. For Cuba: very unlikely.

Violence. Where leaders used military force to provoke civil wars and retain power. This characterizes Tajikistan, Serbia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. For Cuba: very unlikely.

Reincarnation. Where the ruling party felt great popular pressure to fake a break with communism in order to survive. This characterizes Ukraine, Moldova, Albania, Mongolia, Macedonia, and Latvia. For Cuba: more likely.

Continuity. Where the communist leaders unexpectedly turned into the leaders of independent nations, but retained the principal structures of repression and a command economy. This characterizes Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Belarus. For Cuba: more likely.

Arias-King’s measurements, taken 15 years after the transitions, show that those formerly Soviet countries that instituted political change prior to, or hand in hand with, economic changes were the most successful in becoming both free and prosperous—the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, and the former East Germany.

Those countries that decided to begin with economic reforms and to postpone political changes were mostly unsuccessful in both areas—Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan.

Granted, Cuba’s history is not that of the former East bloc, and its transition experience will be distinctly Cuban. I leave it up to the reader to divine Cuba’s most likely scenario, but my bet is on processes led by the Cuban armed forces evoking continuity disguised as change.

This is Cuba’s Gordian knot. If we posit that change will not come about as a result of some U.S. or international intervention (outside-in change), nor will it come about as a result of some bottom-up event as in the Arab Spring, then we are left with top-down change. That is, change that originates within the Cuban leadership.

But the Cuban leadership, as I said, distinctly lacks a democratic culture. The Cuban ruling class, moreover, has a built-in incentive to resist democratic reforms. In any genuine transition, the nomenklatura fears its institutional extinction and the disappearance or dilution of its privileges. All of this, I hasten to add, is not equivalent to forecasting that nothing will change in Cuba. There will be change, but a competitive, pluralistic democratic process appears very unlikely.

Economic reforms not anchored on individual political freedoms condemn Cuban society to live a provisional existence without a recognizable end. Living such a provisional existence wounds the human spirit and does not promote the development of democratic sociopolitical values. Freedom is not an extravagance that can wait until the arrival of prosperity.

Of course, the unpredictable—the chance that there could occur an improbable “black swan” event—is never to be ruled out. One such event could be a heretofore unknown Václav Havel or Boris Yeltsin emerging from the ranks of the Cuban military who is able to consolidate power as a true reformer. But at this juncture, it is hard to visualize a likely path to a liberal democracy, or how Cuba’s future may break out of its Gordian knot. This is Fidel Castro’s infamous legacy.