Is Raúl Castro simply a clone of his elder brother Fidel? Answering that question is a step toward ending what may be the most prolonged and divisive dispute in the history of modern U.S. foreign policy.
During the Cold War, trying to isolate Cuba served American security interests since Cuba was an ally of the Soviet bloc. But since the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. policy toward Cuba has focused on "nation building" and mild agitation to eliminate the Castros. Analysts who reject these as adequate grounds for foreign policy can also critique the current policy on its own terms. In other words, has it been successful in nation building? And more importantly now, have Raúl's reforms since taking the top office in 2006 really begun to change conditions in the country?
Distinguished analysts differ on the merits of Raúl's reforms. Economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago calls them "the most extensive and profound" changes on the island in decades, though still inadequate, while Carlos Alberto Montaner calls them "token gestures." In May, I made a two-week visit to Cuba, my sixth since 1983 as a journalist and lecturer, to see what I could learn on the ground. I found the prospects for meaningful reforms were encouraging but preliminary.
Conditions and Changes
I surveyed Raúl's specific responses to Cuba's challenges last January in an essay titled "Cuba's Tortured Transition," so here I will focus on the individual, cultural, and institutional factors that now complicate substantive reform on the island.
Raúl and the Cuban Communist Party speak of "updating the economic model," which is either a feel-good phrase devised to mask criticism of Fidel's economic failures while changes are slipped through, or an admission that those in charge are not serious reformers. Changes are explicitly made in the service of "socialism," which begs the question: Despite some promising new policies, will change still be inhibited by Cuba's official ideology and ideologues?
Former high-level Cuban officials who worked closely with Raúl and coauthored articles with me note his early interest in serious, systematic, long-term economic reforms like those that have been undertaken under authoritarian regimes in China and Vietnam. If Cuban leaders were free to think outside the socialist box, their best reform model would be Taiwan, which is a democratic market economy. Realistically, however, Cuba will not now move toward democracy and thus it's more likely China and Vietnam are models for its future. Raúl's current presumptive heir apparent, Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, visited both China and Vietnam in June.
The Castros have never respected individual rights, though they claim to do so with education and preventive health programs for all. But in these and other socio-economic fields, Cuba ranked high among the Latin American nations before the Castros hit the scene, and this was despite an imbalance between urban and rural sectors. Since then, Cuba has fallen in the rankings. The United Nations Development Programme's 2013 Human Development Index rates Cuba fifty-ninth in the world and sixth in Latin America, a respectable but not stunning record. The 2013 Human Rights Watch World Report concluded that Cuba "represses virtually all forms of political dissent." Economic freedoms are just beginning to sprout.