18:30 GMT +322 October 2017

    Cuba on the eve of change

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    MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Pyotr Romanov) - Having spent two weeks in Havana, I saw for myself what seemed quite obvious: after Fidel's departure Cuba is in for a serious change.

    The Cubans themselves are well aware of this. The official slogan about the monolithic unity of Cuban society is no more than a propaganda myth. Some Cubans are looking forward to change and are already thinking of how they will adapt to the future reality, while others are sticking to their old positions and getting ready to resist change. Still others are somewhere in between. They are trying to be flexible and combine the accomplishments of the Castro era (which do exist whatever his enemies may say) with efforts to develop a fully-fledged democracy and an effective economy oriented to social values.

    Only a few people I talked to voiced a different opinion. While acknowledging Castro's prestige, they argued that the loss of a leader of such caliber does not mean the end of an era. "We are closely studying Vietnam's experience, where the party managed to fully preserve its power after Ho Chi Minh's death," said one of them.

    I'm not sure that such a parallel is justified. It sounds more like a dream. The Cubans and the Vietnamese have little in common, and the geopolitical positions of their countries are different. But I've decided to quote this view since it exists among some members of the Cuban political elite.

    Before making political forecasts, let's determine our point of departure. In other words, let's sum up what Fidel Castro has given to Cubans, and where he has let them down.

    In 1959, the Barbudos brought victory to one of Cuba's three traditional movements, the radical trend, which considered Jose Marti its apostle. A Cuban thinker and poet, Marti persistently fought against imperialism and for Cuba's sovereignty. The two other movements were the moderate centrists, who merely bargained with the United States for a little more independence for Cuba, and the annexationists, who wanted Cuba to join the land of "great American democracy." At that time, both of these movements lost, but their remnants are still there.

    It is possible that these trends will gain momentum after Fidel's death. According to some sources, about 500 clandestine opposition groups are operating in Cuba today. So far, they are small and scattered, and do not exert serious influence on the domestic situation. Their members do not dispute this fact themselves - I had a chance to talk with some of them. But this is how the matter stands today. I wouldn't underestimate the Cuban domestic opposition of tomorrow.

    Cuba's sovereignty is one of Castro's major achievements. This was the main goal that Jose Marti, Fidel's ideological teacher, set before Cuban society. There is no doubt that Cuba has gained genuine independence even in the face of permanent confrontation with the U.S. Moreover, Cuba has managed to protect its sovereignty not only against American hostility, but also against Soviet friendship. Cuba simply put on a socialist mask in gratitude for Soviet help, but in reality, Marxist-Leninist ideas have never had any deep influence on Castro or his associates, and Cuba's policy has always been independent of Moscow.

    Today, it is particularly clear that socialism was just a mask. Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban communist party, mentions this word only on rare occasions, to say nothing of Marxist-Leninist classics. In the two weeks I was there, I did not see a single portrait of Lenin or Marx, although I didn't set myself the special task of finding one. But there were many monuments to Jose Marti all around. Even the pre-revolutionary monument to his mother, put up by Cuba's great Masonic lodge in 1956, is in excellent shape.

    After the Soviet Union's disintegration, Cuba turned to China. However, Chinese influence on its ideology is no more serious than the Soviet one was in the past. At any rate, it is limited exclusively to the economy, and Havana's conspicuous politeness towards Beijing by no means implies ideological proximity.

    In other words, in Cuba Jose Marti has consistently defeated Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Deng Xiaoping. I'm sure that in the future he will "usurp" Castro as well because the 1959 revolution has failed to reach his other goal - bring genuine democracy to the Freedom Island.

    In this respect, Havana has every reason for despair. Cuba achievements in education and medicine are indisputable, but it has obviously failed to build a free and democratic society and an effective economy that ensures a decent life for its population. Rank-and-file Cubans have remained poor despite the government's broad social support.

    The Cubans are always blaming their economic hardships on the American blockade. They have some grounds for that. It is very difficult to survive in such conditions. Washington is the only capital that fails to understand that its blockade is absolutely immoral and irrational. The recent vote in the UN on a resolution urging an end to the blockade made this particularly clear. Out of 188 countries only four voted against it: the U.S. itself, Israel, which had no other choice because of its heavy dependence on the American seat on the UN Security Council, and two more "influential" states: the Seychelles and Palau.

    However, this does not mean that the Cuban economy does not require sweeping reforms. Whether the state wants it or not, it will have to allow private enterprise if it wants to improve its economic performance. There is simply no other option.

    The Cuban leaders are aware of this, at least to some extent. This is why the Cuban economy is a mixture of seemingly incompatible archaic and modern elements. Judge for yourselves.

    The Cuban government's approach to exchange rates has nothing to do with economic considerations. It has recently invented a so-called convertible peso, a currency for all foreigners arriving in Cuba. (When dollars are exchanged for these absolutely unsecured slips of paper, the visitors are charged an extra 20%). Those who have lived under socialism will easily grasp the idea. The Cubans are countering imperialist aggression - the U.S. blockade - with an undisguised revolutionary racket.

    But this is just one side of the coin. The other is made of a different metal. The Cuban economy is already closer to being a market than was the U.S.S.R.'s before its disintegration. Many corporations and plants are joint stock companies with foreign participation. Here is just one example: Bucanero has a monopoly on beer production in Cuba. The government shares the brewery with mixed foreign capital fifty-fifty. Bucanero's CEO is Belgian, its financial director Brazilian, commercial director Italian, production manager Czech, and master brewer German.

    Modern Cuba abounds in such contrasts. Old and shabby Havana is falling to pieces under the gusts of wind, but one of its districts - Miramar - is an oasis of modern living with five star hotels and an up-to-date business center, where foreign management runs absolutely everything.

    To sum up, at the dusk of Castro's era, Cuba has largely given up its socialist principles in the economy (at least in their Soviet version). Ideologically, it is drifting back to Jose Marti's principles, and to the traditional Latin American Bolivarian ideas of fighting for independence.

    It is hard to say which part of this policy is intentional, and which was forced by circumstances, but today's Cuba is moving in the direction of those countries that are placing their bets not so much on the socialist economy as on the socially oriented capitalist model. Brazil, Venezuela (for all the radical rhetoric of the extravagant Hugo Chavez), Bolivia, and now Nicaragua (after Daniel Ortega's victory) are following this road.

    This is Cuba today. I'll provide a forecast for its future in my next article.

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