05:43 GMT +313 November 2018
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    Cuba: a short-term political forecast

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    MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Pyotr Romanov) - Making political forecasts is not unlike trying to predict the weather or earthquakes-it is easier to guess what will happen in two years than tomorrow morning, so I will not aspire to absolute precision. I am merely reasoning on what is likely to happen to Cuba after Fidel Castro vanishes from the political arena.

    I left Havana a few days ago having listened to many Cubans' private opinions. Every forecast I heard was sufficiently grounded but, at the same time, open to doubt. Indicatively, only one of my Cuban acquaintances did not expect any big changes after Fidel quitting. "Raul [Castro] has planted his army chums everywhere. Many hold key economic posts. So we shall stay quiet and docile," he said, half joking.

    His words offer an interpretation contrasting to what he evidently meant. To quote another forecaster, "Raul's army buddies are sitting pretty in corporations with overseas capital and foreign managers. They saw at once which side their bread was buttered on, and are corrupt. So instead of being the pillars of the present regime they could become the United States' fifth column. They may yet prove the White House's helpers-much more efficient than loud-mouthed Cuban immigrants in Miami."

    I found it hard to raise any objections to either opinion-after all, I was a foreigner, and my informants both lived in Havana.

    As I arranged all forecasts I had heard according to the degree of plausibility, I came up with the following. Cuba is evidently ready for change. It is equally clear that a transitional period will precede far-reaching reforms, and Raul Castro will, most probably, come into the limelight during that time. But then, he is an ailing old man, and does not have his elder brother's public support. I talked to many Cuban taxi drivers, and almost all of them turned out to be ardent Fidelistas. No one had a kind word to say about Raul Castro, who was their former commander as Cuban defense minister-the majority of government-employed Cuban taxi drivers are retired soldiers. My conclusion is then that Cubans will not remain "quiet and docile" during the transitional period, which can turn out to be much shorter than expected, and may have unpleasant surprises in store for Raul Castro.

    It is not hard to guess that, in the final analysis, the national destiny will depend on people ranking second, third and even fourth in the present-day Cuban political and military hierarchy. They will have to meet pressing challenges presented by time, the United States and their own people.

    Cubans understand the challenge of time-they are a clever, enterprising lot, and many of them have a knack for business. Just look at Cuban immigrants in the United States. Unlike other Latin Americans, most of them are firmly established in the host country's middle class, though they reached its coast fairly recently with no possessions but the clothes on their backs. There are people of Cuban origin in the U.S. Administration and Congress. Next, the majority of Cubans are well educated thanks to Fidel Castro's domestic policy-another feature that makes them different from the average Latin American. Cuban children might be undernourished in Fidel's time, but they are never short of books.

    The challenges presented by the United States are no less evident to Cubans. If we cast high-sounding words aside, we see its desire to make Cuba a satellite, which it once was. There is only one difference. Americans previously regarded Cuba as a luxury resort full of five-star hotels, cabarets, casinos, and prostitutes. Now, it is no longer just a high class tropical beach but a tasty morsel for big business, with sizeable nickel deposits and recently prospected oilfields just a stone's throw from Miami. Nickel is essential for arms manufacture, while gasoline is necessary for cars, every American's favorite toy. So there is every reason for the United States to stubbornly interfere in Cuban affairs.

    Opposition to the U.S. is possibly the only thing that brings Cubans together today. The U.S. Administration enhances their prejudice with its irrational policies. "If Yankees were clever enough, they would long have stifled us Cubans in their embrace. Instead, they have chosen to demonstrate enmity to Havana. I think Fidel ought to thank the States for that. Americans have been acting foolishly for several decades now-under Republican and Democratic administrations alike," a Cuban acquaintance of mine ironically remarked. He is opposed to the regime, mind you.

    The Cuban political elite of the approaching transitional period will find it much harder to respond to the challenges that come from their own nation. Poverty and lack of political freedoms, the worst problems for today, are closely intertwined. Some Cuban officials dream of the Chinese pattern re-enacted in Cuba, with the free market thriving under intact political organization. That is sheer wishful thinking, with an utterly different historical and geopolitical background plus the Latin American temperament and many other factors.

    Future Cuban leaders are facing a dilemma. On the one hand, the country will never put an end to mass poverty unless it gets a full-fledged market and unbridled private enterprise. Past and present government social welfare programs are no cure-all. They merely help Cubans to keep body and soul together. On the other hand, an open market and economic liberty will inevitably crush the regime, considering the Cuban national character.

    Fidel Castro coped with only one part of a twofold task posed by Jose Marti, his ideological inspirer. He led his country to genuine sovereignty but did not give it democracy. The pillars of democracy-free elections, freedom of speech and the press, and a multi-partisan system-are absent in Cuba. As I see Cuban patriotism, it should follow Jose Marti's behests to the end. Cubans deserve respect for, and confidence in their choice. To make it a real free choice, the present political system must go.

    Things can take the worst possible turn, too. We cannot rule out the option. As a political analyst was discussing Cuba's prospects with me, he said any country might make whatever U-turns on the road of history-but it would inevitably come back to the way destined it by supreme powers, whether you call them Providence or geopolitics. Cuba has come through the temptations of industrialization, socialism and others, and will eventually get back to its old ways on a new historical stage, the analyst predicted, meaning the "beach version" of the economy and dependence on its mighty northern neighbor. Not that it was the expert's cherished dream-rather he saw it as inevitable doom.

    That, too, was a private opinion, and a very subjective one. Why, then, should Cuba shrug off the benefits God gave it with a climate and landscapes that make it paradise on earth? The tourist industry as a generous source of revenues does not necessarily mean a return to the vices for which pre-revolutionary Cuba was notorious.

    The danger is close at hand, however. Even today, Cuba offers holidaymakers more than just sunbathing and sightseeing. Many told me about sex tourists from Italy and elsewhere. I talked to a Spanish priest in a church in Havana. The padre appeared worried. "You cannot imagine the extent to which it hurts Cubans' feelings. Poverty is the main reason for the thriving prostitution. No wonder a girl is happy to find a room attendant's job at ten dollars a month in the best of Havana hotels-she looks forward to making some money on the side. She soon begins to feel unhappy, and comes to confession in tears. Poverty is degrading. We must put an end to it. Local authorities contentedly speak about welfare programs-but no program will cure the ill," he said. True, prostitution is a problem in many countries, but that does not make the priest's words less true.

    Conclusions come as follows. First, we can expect a transitional period relatively soon in Cuba. Second, the Cuban economic future lies certainly not with socialism but a free market in a socially oriented state. Third, Cuba needs democracy. Jose Marti formulated the national idea as anti-imperialism, firm sovereignty, fighting poverty, and a democratic system that will treat the nation with due respect not in word but in deed.

    If Cuba is to peacefully shift to a new system, it should, to my mind, totally reject two things-shock therapy on the liberal economic prescription and foreign interference, as either will inevitably meet a harsh response from the public: Cubans are accustomed to anti-Americanism and a socially oriented economy.

    We can name even today the closest allies of the future Cuba. Those are, above all, Latin American countries that have embarked, or appear soon to embark, on the road Bolivar and Marti chartered in their time-Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua. These are all capitalist countries with a market economy, social-oriented statehood, and transition-period democracy. The list may eventually extend or shrink but Cuba will certainly join it.

    Serious political and economic change is necessarily painful. If Cubans are left alone to mind their own business, the reform overload will be tolerable and the transition quick. After all, Cuba is nothing like Russia or China.

    Now, if foreign interference is strong and insistent, and Washington doggedly tries to impose on Cuba what its people are certain to reject, the same developments will take a much more tortuous and dramatic road. Let us hope this does not happen.
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