The Cuba saga is far from over
Political responses to President Obama’s Cuba opening have been predictably partisan: most Democrats support it, most Republicans oppose it. Democrats are right that the embargo hasn’t worked, but Republicans are right that this opening will bestow some political legitimacy on an authoritarian regime. All of that is well rehearsed.
Politically, the President is likely to win this round on points. Attitudes in the Cuban American community, and in the general population, have been tilting his way for some time. Marco Rubio may nevertheless gain prominence and conservative support from blocking key aspects of the opening–like the naming of an ambassador and dismantling of the embargo–in Congress. It won’t help in Congress that Cuba continues to harbor American fugitives.
There is still a lot of uncertainty about the political impact of what the President is doing inside Cuba. My own visit there last spring suggested that Cubans are really not sure what they want politically. Most treasure their socialist education and health systems and would like their economic plight eased, but beyond that their aspirations are far from well-articulated. That’s no surprise: they have lived in a tightly controlled one-party system for a long time. Thinking about alternatives has not been encouraged.
The President’s Republican critics are correct when they say it is not clear how his diplomatic and economic opening will lead to political change in Cuba. The Castros have demonstrated that they are not fools. They wouldn’t be doing this if they thought it would bring regime change. The dissident community, which has been unable for more than 50 years to take advantage of the economic pressure the American embargo brought to bear on the Castro regime, wants Western-style human rights and democracy. While they will try to exploit the opportunity, they are not overjoyed with what President Obama has done.
How things turn out will depend on the Cuban people. The dissidents do not seem to have deep roots there, but the regime doesn’t either. The state-controlled part of Cuba’s economy is on its last legs. Government employees are paid a pittance. Lots of people already have second jobs in the more or less private sector, from which they earn 10 times and more than from their nominal government employment. The state is withering away. Its capacity to maintain the health and education systems that Cuban citizens treasure is in doubt.
The government also faces a difficult immediate issue: how to unify the two currencies the country uses. Raul Castro has promised to do this before the end of 2014. The Cuban peso, in which most government salaries are paid, is all but worthless. The CUC, a convertible currency in which most transactions are now conducted, dominates the economy. Presumably the Cuban regime hopes the opening with the US will help it garner hard currency and smooth the transition to a single currency, which will have to be called “Cuban peso” but be valued closer to the CUC. If that process goes awry, Cubans could get very unhappy with their political system very quickly.
It is not only the Cuban regime that would be at risk. The United States can ill afford an economic and political collapse in Cuba that brings another million or more Cubans to Florida. It is in our interest that the transition to democracy happen, but also that it be smooth and not disruptive. President Obama has opened a new chapter, but the saga is far from over.