Mon | Jan 21, 2019

Martin Henry | Cuba’s Gorbachev?

Published:Sunday | May 6, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry
Cuba's new president Miguel Diaz-Canel (left) and immediate predecessor Raul Castro raise their arms after Diaz-Canel was elected head of state in Havana on April 19.

With the elevation of Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Bermudez to the presidency, communist Cuba has started to enter the post-Castro era.

In 2008, Fidel handed control of the Cuban state to his younger brother Ra?l, at the time already a septuagenarian, as president, general secretary of the Communist Party, and commander of the Armed Forces. Ra?l has only relinquished the presidency to the youthful Diaz-Canel, 57. He has retained until 2021 leadership of the Communist Party, the real power centre of Cuban political life, and of the armed forces.

Diaz-Canel, born two years after the Revolution and a comprehensively indoctrinated communist who has steadily risen through the ranks as a trusted comrade and now handed the presidency, has vowed in his inaugural address to preserve the system he has inherited while gradually reforming the economy and making the government more responsive to the people.

The reforms are to follow a 12-year plan formulated by the National Assembly, which unanimously voted for the sole nominee for the presidency, and by the Communist Party. "The people have given this Assembly the mandate to provide continuity to the Cuban Revolution during a crucial historic moment that will be defined by all that we achieve in the advance of the modernisation of our social and economic model," the new president told the nation in his inaugural address. The reforms are to allow moderate growth of private enterprise while maintaining the important sectors of the economy in the hands of the State.


No eternity


Nothing lasts forever in human political systems. Adolf Hitler's Third Reich was to have lasted a thousand years. Systems come and go, but communism is particularly unstable and inevitably transient because of its profound misunderstanding of the human acquisitive and ownership nature. The Soviet Union staggered on for just over 70 years. The Eastern European countries upon which it had forced communism following World War II lasted for only 45 years as communist regimes, with uprisings like Hungary in 1956 and the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Only Cuba and North Korea now remain as committed communist regimes, staggering to their inevitable demise. China and Vietnam are roaring free-market, capitalist economies clinging to the veneer of a communist political system. The market will shortly strip away that political faÁade. These clever states are seeking to ride two horses going in opposite directions. And the market, in which are embedded some of the strongest and most ineradicable human instincts, will inevitably win.

When the Russian Revolution, the first of the Marxism-driven revolutions, was only five years old, Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, in 1922, published his masterpiece, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, on the weaknesses of socialism as an economic and political system. An 'Invisible Hand' is set against the communist system.

The Cuban Revolution has survived the predicted collapse of Soviet communism and the Soviet state and its Eastern European satellites and of communism in much of the rest of the word. It will not survive for long the end of the Castro era. In a world now dominated by more open societies, politically and economically repressive regimes will have an increasingly hard time surviving.

But could Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Bermudez be Cuba's Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev?

At 54, a little younger than Diaz-Canel, Gorbachev was 'elected' general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) mere hours after the death of the aged and derelict Konstantin Chernenko as the first leader of the party to have been born after the Revolution. Gorbachev was solidly communist, having risen through the ranks of the CPSU, but he quickly realised that the system he had inherited had no future without deep reforms. Diaz-Canel is promising reform with continuity, an explosive mix for a communist regime.


Insightful story


The Associated Press filed a very insightful story on the day Diaz-Canel was elevated to the presidency: 'Cuba after the Castros: Ra?l leaves new freedoms, deep problems'. "In 2008, Ra?l Castro took over a country where most people couldn't own computers or mobile phones, leave without permission, run most types of private businesses, or enter resort hotels," the story said. "Castro set about re-engineering the system he had helped create and Cuba opened dramatically over his decade in office."

But the AP story noted that "Cuba's Soviet-style command economy still employs three of every four Cuban workers but produces little. Private-sector growth has been largely frozen. The average monthly state salary is US$31, so low that workers often live on stolen goods and handouts from relatives overseas. Foreign investment remains anaemic. The island's infrastructure is falling deeper into disrepair."

And "Castro's inability or unwillingness to fix Cuba's structural problems with deep and wide-ranging reforms has many wondering how a successor without Castro's founding father credentials will manage the country over the next five or 10 years."

The single-party communist government controls virtually all forms of expression and organisation, with near-zero tolerance of public criticism or dissent. And never mind the one million strong corking Revolution Square on May Day last Tuesday, the mood on the street is pessimistic, with few expecting a better future anytime soon.


Biggest challenge


The biggest challenge confronting post-Castro leadership on the economic front is sorting out the cumbersome, distorted, and increasingly unworkable two-currency system, with one peso worth only four US cents and another valued at close to one US dollar. The system was created to insulate a state-run, egalitarian internal market using 'national money' from trade with the outside world using the 'convertible pesos'.

Communists have always felt that they can rewrite economic rules by fiat.

The contrived buffers between the two currencies are collapsing, and the system has generated massive economic distortions.

Eliminating the dual currency system is widely seen as necessary for Cuba's economy to grow, but it carries risks of inflation and major disruption for inefficient state businesses.

Cuba's new president must find a way to make the country's economy grow while maintaining social stability and satisfying the millions of Cubans who depend on the State and a shrinking list of subsidised essentials sold in Cuban pesos for their survival. The country is now heavily dependent on emigres and exiles once seen by the communist government as a threat to its survival.

Comparison with the last days of the Soviet Union is uncanny.

When Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985, he launched his nation on a dramatic new course of reform, with no intention of abandoning communism. His dual programme of Perestroika ('restructuring') and Glasnost ('openness') introduced profound changes in economic practice, internal affairs, and in international relations. Within five years, Gorbachev's revolutionary programme swept from power communist governments throughout Eastern Europe and brought an end to the Cold War.

Gorbachev's reforms also inadvertently set the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Union itself in 1991, which dissolved into 15 individual republics.

Perestroika and Glasnost had monumental unintended consequences. Gorbachev had hoped that his reforms would revitalise and modernise the Soviet Union. Instead, they unleashed social forces that brought about the dissolution of the USSR.

Will Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Bermudez be Cuba's Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev as he pursues reform with continuity?

- Martin Henry is a university administrator.

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