Cuba libre?

While the Cuban economy has developed into an odd socialist/capitalist hybrid that is stretching its limits, its complex political system has seen no comparable evolution.

It is not, at least on paper, a classic one-party system in the Chinese or Soviet mold.  According to its loyalists, the Communist Party does not choose candidates or exercise executive authority.  Its role is supposedly to “oversee” the government, with concern about corruption or other abuse of power avowedly its top priority.  Certainly it keeps an eye on things and brooks no organized political opposition at the national level.  Public political discourse is about continuing, perfecting, improving, enhancing and polishing the Revolution, not reversing or even modifying it.

The system does provide for complaint and criticism, especially at the local level.  Cubans elect neighborhood representatives, supposedly without reference to membership in the Communist party, who in turn elect municipal representatives, who in turn elect provincial representatives, who in turn elect the national parliament and the council of state, which elects the president.  All the elections are purportedly non-party contests.  This elaborate system of cascading indirect elections obviously allows for a good deal of centralized control.  But it also allows a measure of initiative.  Loyalists believe it provides ample opportunity for citizens to express themselves and argue their cases.  Dissidents would laugh at that proposition.

No one expects any major political change before the Castro brothers are gone from the scene.  Neither Fidel nor Raul is seen much in public these days.  Nor does the visible cult of personality focus mainly on them.  Pictures of the eternally youthful Che Guevara and the equally immortal Camilo Cienfuegos, admired for his humility, are more common.  Jose Marti, the nineteenth century leader who fought the Spanish, is omnipresent.  Still, the Castros cast a long but no longer loquacious shadow from behind the walls and hedges of their estates in Miramar.

Once they are gone, no one has much idea what might happen. In our stay in Cuba last week, we observed no sign of organized political opposition, but I confess we didn’t seek it out either.  I didn’t want to put anyone in danger, including myself, by ill-considered contact.  Many Cubans, including the security services, will have seen “Bringing Down a Dictator,” a documentary about the fall of Milosevic in which I appear repeatedly as a commentator.  The closest we came to hearing the voice of dissent was a woman who said both her well-educated children had left for Europe and did not want to return despite the recession there.  “We have hope,” she said, “but that’s all we’ve had for 55 years.”

She did not say what she had hope for.  That seemed a common phenomenon.  A Cuban painting observed in a private collection expressed the feeling well:  it showed a massive demonstration surrounded by high walls.  The demonstrators held signs with nothing written on them.

Cubans know how the rest of the world lives, despite the loyalist media.  We listened to Miami FM radio in a car outside Havana, and a loyalist told us 80% of the music young Cubans listen to is American.  They are not shy about expressing dissatisfaction in private. Like Mario Comte, the detective anti-hero of Leonardo Padura’s masterful Havana series, they see the seamier side of things and want to hold miscreants responsible, but they  see no viable proposition for systemic political change.  Asked about a multi-party system and more direct election of political representatives, many Cubans shrug indifferently.  They like the opening of economic opportunity they have seen in recent years, but don’t know what might open up their political system.

One wise loyalist told us Cubans would certainly want to keep the goals of social justice and security.  He thought only slow change likely.  No one wants to propose an end to free education and health care.  I’ll regret the passing of the day when a tourist can walk day and night in poor neighborhoods of Havana without fear of anything more than restaurant hawkers flashing menus.  But the decline of the Cuban peso relative to the convertible peso (CUC) is doing something Marx talked about, but in reverse.  The state is withering away, not to some communist utopia but rather under pressure from the capitalist sector of the economy.

It may not be long before Cuba, like Vietnam or China, is socialist in name only, authoritarian but weirdly disconnected from a society defined mainly by the unrestricted capitalism of its energetically entrepreneurial citizens. The internet–available to Cubans and tourists only at high prices and rare outlets today–is supposed to arrive within weeks on Cuban cell phones.  The crowds lined up outside the telecommunications company are at least partly due to people signing up.

Still, Vietnam and China, both of which are connected to the internet, maintain one-party control over political power.  That’s what the Castros will never give up.  But they have the advantage of their revolutionary mantle, broad social consent and decades of instilling fear, which is declining markedly.  Both brothers are in their 80s.  Who knows what their successors will be able, willing, or compelled to do?

On my way back into the US, a Customs officer in Miami asked about the purpose of my visit to Cuba.  I replied that I was studying the prospects for peaceful democratic transition.  He smiled broadly and said that was great.  “I’m Cuban,” he said with the lilt so common in Miami, and waved me in without a peek at the paperwork American visitors to Cuba have to fill out to satisfy US government regulations.

More on that in a next post on Cuba’s international situation.

Cuba’s economic hybrid stretches the limits

I have been wanting for years to see Cuba before the end of its Castro-style communism, so wife Jackie and I went last week to internet-deprived Havana.  We were almost too late.  However closed and oppressive Cuba was in the first 40 years after its 1959 revolution, the period since has wrought big, though still controlled, changes.  A slow transition is already under way.

I’m someone who reads the Ten Commandments as a description of what my ancestors were up to at the time of their composition.  So I read the billboards on the way in from the airport as reflecting the Communist party’s anxieties:

The changes in Cuba are always towards more socialism

The Revolution is strong and going forward

We never forget our history and traditions

The Revolution is a beautiful and indestructible reality

The author of these billboards is clearly worried that someone might misunderstand what is going on as a rejection of the revolution, Cuba’s history and traditions and its socialist system.

Well they might.  Cuba’s socialism is like Havana’s decrepit and decaying buildings.  There is so little left, it’s a wonder how they remain standing.  The society still has its points of socialist pride:  free, universal education resulting in very low illiteracy and (sort of) free health care resulting in a life expectancy of more than 79 years (above Mexico’s and even, by a hair, Puerto Rico’s).  And its points of shame:  I met no one who likes the rationing of 10 or so staples, for sale at subsidized prices when they happen to be available, or the exorbitant taxation of (necessarily imported) motor vehicles.  Budget constraints and efficiency will require changes to both the health and education systems sooner rather than later.  And something needs to be done about the 2800 money-losing state-owned companies.

But these socialist virtues and defects are atavisms.  The past few years have seen the development of a second, market economy.  This is most apparent in the tourism sector, which is an important source of foreign exchange and employment, but we stumbled into it also in the agricultural sector, publishing, taxis, music and art.  It is even creeping into the health system, where doctors expect gifts from patients in addition to their government salaries.  In education, tutors are becoming commonplace in preparation for exams.  Sometimes it is associated with cooperatives (in agriculture and publishing, for example) and at other times with individual entrepreneurs (taxis, music and art).  At the government-owned Abdala recording studio in Havana, I was assured the very capable technicians producing the recordings do not have to depend on their government salaries to survive.  The musicians wouldn’t allow that.  Though I doubt it is literally true, we were repeatedly assured that every Cuban has,  in addition to official, government employment, a second, private-sector hustle.  Certainly on the streets of Havana there is ample evidence that the private sector is generating a significant portion of the locally produced income.

This second, market economy is associated with a second currency.  The convertible peso (CUC), originally created for use by foreigners, has replaced the peso in as many as 80% of the island’s financial transactions.  The vastly overvalued CUC (it is sold in official exchange houses at more than $1) has virtually driven the Cuban peso, adorned with the famous portrait of Che Guevara, out of circulation.  This Cuban variation on Gresham’s law has left government salaries, paid in pesos, at between 15 and 35 CUCs per month.  You might not starve on that if you can find rationed supplies, but an even half-decent lifestyle requires more like 300 CUCS per month.  A cab driver gets 25 CUCs for a single drive in from José Martí airport, a guide 5 CUCs per day in tips for each client, so 125 CUCs per day for a quire of tourists.

There is no lack of awareness in Cuba of this grotesque incongruence.  Raoul Castro has referred to it explicitly in one of his few public appearances and promised to unify the currencies this year.  The whole country is holding its breath to see how this will be done, as there will necessarily be winners and losers.  Cubans keep some money in banks, but a lot is kept in their homes (stuffed in their mattresses, figuratively or literally).  Increasingly, people are investing in property.  Seventy per cent of the country’s real estate is said to be in private hands already.  But there are limits:  you are supposed to own no more than one home and one car.  There is a lot to be gained or lost from a hybrid economic model that has clearly stretched to its limits and will change, in one direction or another, in the next year or so.

Next up:  politics


Egypt: new voices, untold stories

Tuesday morning the Atlantic Council hosted an event discussing the major issues facing Egypt today. The featured speakers were Sarah El-Sirgany (Nonresident fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and freelance journalist), Mohammad Tolba (Founder, Salafyo Costa), Basil Dabh (Journalist, Daliy News Egypt), and Mosa’ab El Shamy (Photojournalist). Mirette Mabrouk, Deputy Director for Regional Programs at the Atlantic Council Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, moderated.

Sarah El-Sirgany said the current population in Egypt is about 90 million people. It is a diverse demographic. Looking at public polls, if presidential elections were held tomorrow, 51% of the population says it would vote for Al-Sisi and 45% is undecided. The fact that such a large percentage is undecided challenges the idea that public opinion is unified. Outside Cairo, politics is a lot less relevant. Egyptians living in rural areas are undecided. Generally they do not care as much about politics. When the Egyptian uprising began, the protestors’ slogan was, “The people want to bring down the regime.” Today, the people’s wants have been appropriated by government parties claiming to represent the Egyptian people.

Mohammad Tolba spoke about how those in power have disappointed and failed the Egyptian people in the past three years. Rural communities lack basic services and cannot meet their daily needs. In his opinion, going to the streets and protesting is no longer the way to bring about meaningful change. It is time to translate slogans and chants into concrete actions. The “real” Egypt needs to be empowered, not just the elite.

Mohammad founded Salafyo Costa in response to discrimination and negative stereotypes of Salafis. Currently there are 30,000 members. Salafyo Costa uses unorthodox methods to encourage interfaith dialogue. For example, through soccer matches between Salafis and Christians, Salafyo Costa promotes coexistence and mutual respect. The organization also sends teams of doctors with different religious backgrounds to provide humanitarian aid to marginalized communities.

Mibrette Mabrouk asked, what are the troubles photojournalists face today?

Mosa’ab El Shamy replied that the biggest challenge has been the rise in violence and imprisonment of journalists since June 2013. Since then, at least five photojournalists have been killed and two have been detained. Photojournalists are particularly at risk because they have to be at the forefront of events. They must always be braced for arrests. The challenges journalists face are not always limited to violence from the state. Violence is multifaceted and does not come from one side. Journalists spared by the police are likely to be targeted by protesters. Due to the level of violence and tension on the street, civilians are becoming more suspicious of photojournalists. In addition, Mosa’ab gets the sense that Egypt is no longer a hot topic. The international community has lost interest in the Egyptian uprising.

Nevertheless, Mosa’ab wants to document and increase awareness of events in Egypt. As an independent photojournalist, he feels like he can direct news through his photos.

Basil said that since 2011, there have been unprecedented crackdowns on journalists. Since Morsi’s overthrow, pro-Morsi media outlets have been shut down and have not returned. The past three years have been a constant battle of narratives. The mainstream media has generally fallen in line with the current government narrative. It is bolstered by conspiracy theories. Independent journalists do not fact-check. They accept what the government tells them. This is either because there is no way to verify the information or because it is too dangerous to do so.

Sarah pointed out that there is a growing movement of social media and citizen journalism. However, there are many issues concerning objectivity and fact checking. Many people are driven by personal beliefs and objectives rather than the truth.

Peace Picks March 17 -21

There were a few cancellations and postponements today due to the weather. Nevertheless, here are our picks for DC events this week:

1. Peace and Stability in the Central African Republic

Tuesday, March 18 | 9:30 – 11am

Brookings Institution, Falk Auditorium; 1775 Massachusetts Avenue NW

Register for the live webcast

The Central African Republic has become one of the most challenging humanitarian, security and political crises on the African continent since the coup that unseated President Francois Bozizé one year ago. Violence along community and religious lines has claimed thousands of lives, and more than one million people remain displaced. Strong domestic and international efforts are needed to address the humanitarian and security crisis as well as restore state authority and consolidate peace in the country.

On March 18th, the Africa Growth Initiative (AGI) at the Brookings Institution will host a conversation with Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga, Imam Omar Kabine Layama and Reverend Nicolas Guérékoyamé Gbangou, the Central African Republic’s highest-ranking Catholic, Muslim and Protestant leaders, respectively. Their work to prevent violence and promote interreligious tolerance has won national and international praise. AGI Senior Fellow Amadou Sy will moderate the discussion, which will include questions from the audience.

Read more…

Lebanon’s neutrality in Syria

The Atlantic Council hosted a discussion on Friday about Lebanon’s neutrality toward the Syrian conflict. Is it hot air or realistic promise? The guest speakers were Paul Salem, Vice President for Policy and Research from the Middle East Institute and Bilal Saab, Resident Senior Fellow on International Security at the Atlantic Council. Faysal Itani, Fellow at the Atlantic Council Center for the Middle East, moderated.

Paul Salem said there is always an issue of neutrality in divided societies. For Lebanon, this has been a challenge for decades. Beirut is trying to survive in a turbulent environment. Figuring out how divided societies should manage foreign policy has been a challenge more recently for Syria and Iraq as well. One option is to reduce the load on the central government and have a foreign policy of neutrality, as it reduces the chances of division in a society.

One of the dangers of this tactic is that local parties will seek foreign alliances. Similarly, regional parties ally with local groups. We have seen this in the Levant and Ukraine. The dangers become particularly acute when the central government is weak. The Middle East today is in the midst of an intense proxy conflict between Iran and the Gulf countries. This has torn apart Syria and Lebanon and it is digging into Iraq. Often these divided societies are very small. Consequently, achieving neutrality requires domestic and external commitment. If the region or world does not respect neutrality, it is difficult for divided societies to maintain it. Machiavelli said that the most dangerous decision a polarized state can make is to try to remain neutral because it will have no regional allies. It is safer to pick a side. Lebanon has tried both. It faces challenges concerning its foreign relations in a turbulent region. On one hand, local players have sought alliances in the region and world to support their domestic positions. On the other hand, outside players have sought local alliances for proxy wars.

For now, the recently formed government is cohesive, with both the March 14 and March 8 alliances involved. However, the government only has until this week to announce its policy statement. Otherwise, it cannot be a full functioning government and will become a caretaker. In addition, the president’s term expires in May.

Deciding on its foreign policy is critical for Lebanon. This is an external and internal problem. Externally the fight between two elephants, Iran and Saudi Arabia, will continue to devastate the Levant. The region cannot survive this level of proxy conflict.

Bilal Saab tried to answer the question, is Lebanon’s neutrality hot air or a realistic promise? In his opinion it is hot air unless a specific scenario takes place. The scenario is as follows: Hezbollah would draw or greatly reduce its military involvement in Syria.

Hezbollah sees the Syrian conflict as an existential struggle. However, there have been several moments of crisis in its history when top leaders proclaimed the death of the organization, but it never happened. For example, after Abbas al-Musawi was assassinated, after the 1993, 1996, and 2006 high-intensity conflicts with Israel, and after the tribunal accusing Hezbollah of killing Rafic Hariri, the organization weathered the storms.

The reason it has overcome all of these crises is because Hezbollah has always maintained a strong relationship with the Shia community. Today there is no rupture in this bond, but we are starting to see a few cracks. In Bilal’s opinion, these cracks are key to forcing Hezbollah to change its approach to the Syrian civil war and focus on the Lebanese internal politics.

For now, Hezbollah is nowhere near reducing its involvement in Syria. It has suffered many losses and several bombings, but Hezbollah is willing to tolerate this. The more challenging the situation becomes in Syria, the more the relationship between Hezbollah and its constituency will become tenuous. Out of its own self-interest, Hezbollah will be forced to come up with a compromise where neutrality will again become an option. In this situation, involvement in regional struggles will not be an option anymore.

Another scenario is one in which the intensifying struggle in Syria creates a rally ‘round the flag effect and strengthens the bond between the Shia community and Hezbollah. Bilal does not believe this is the direction the Shia community will take. Greater cracks will force Hezbollah to make some big concessions. Today they may have a tight grip over the community, but older aspirations of the Shias that tended to be more secular and less in line with perpetual conflict will come back to the fore. It is hard to make the case to explain why Shia are dying in Syria. This is the only scenario Bilal thinks could bring about Lebanese neutrality. Otherwise he sees it only as hot air.

Faysal Itani asked, in light of the divide in Lebanon, what are US interests here? What should they be?

Paul Salem: Look at Lebanon in the context of the Levant; it is part of a broader dynamic. When the Syrian uprising started and became increasingly violent, another US administration would have seen a potential to impact of balance of power in the Levant. There was a brief period when the Assad regime would have been vulnerable. That moment has passed mainly because of US reluctance to engage in the Syrian conflict. In the past there was an opportunity to roll back Iranian reach in Syria and Lebanon, which is a potentially major US interest. It might have also brought about a quicker resolution to the Syrian crisis.

By inaction, we have arrived at a bloody balance of power that has destroyed the Syria that used to exist. The war will likely go on for years. It is now the biggest humanitarian crisis of our generation and hugely destabilizes the whole region. From today’s perspective, the attempt to reach a negotiated ending with Assad’s departure and the creation of some sort of transition has collapsed.

The Ukraine issue has collapsed any chance of US-Russian cooperation. The main challenge for Lebanon is to survive the Syrian war. It is not clear if it will survive if the situation continues. The only way to reach a political resolution is by looking at the Geneva I framework. Assad has to leave. For Assad to leave, he must be forced to leave. This means the United States leading allies to raise pressure. The Assad regime is one that governs by force and will only relinquish its power by force. A resolution will not happen until the U.S. puts pressure first, diplomacy second.

Any post-conflict Syria must be more neutral. The united Syria of tomorrow cannot be closely aligned with Iran or it would not be united. To survive the Syrian war, Lebanon could benefit from a strong government and aid from the US to deal with the refugee crisis. Lebanon might otherwise be sunk by the refugee situation. If the refugees become more desperate and armed, Lebanon will not be able to survive. It will collapse and once again become a failed state.

All deliberate speed, please

UN Secretary General Ban is marking the third anniversary of the Syrian uprising, which by my reckoning is March 15, by appealing to Russia and the US to revive peace talks.  That’s his job, but prospects are not good.

The Asad regime continues to make slow progress on the battlefield.  The opposition continues to insist that he step down to initiate a transition to democracy.  There is no “zone of possible agreement.”  Asad is preparing to conduct what he will call an election this spring to reconfirm his hold on power.  The conditions in regime-controlled areas will not permit the election to be anything like free or fair.  The conditions in liberated and contested areas won’t allow an election to occur at all.  But Asad will claim legitimacy.  Russia will concur.

In the US, consciousness of the horrors occurring in Syria is growing.  The recent reports of the Save the Children and UNICEF boosted the case for humanitarian relief.  The US has already been generous, even to a fault, as it appears to be buying tolerance for the failure to bring about a political resolution of the conflict.  Russia, more committed to realpolitik, continues to arm, finance and provide political support to the regime.  The crisis in Crimea leaves little oxygen in Washington for Syria.  There is an argument for replying to Putin’s moves in Ukraine by strengthening opposition efforts in Syria, but I am not seeing signs that it is winning the day.

Some key members of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (Etilaf) will be in DC next week making the case for more support, including to the more moderate fighters.  What Etilaf needs to do is convince the Obama Administration that vital American interests are at risk in Syria.  The two most striking are the risk of extremism putting down deep roots in Syria and the risk of state collapse, both of which would affect not only Syria but its neighbors, especially Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.  Perhaps eventually also Turkey and even Israel, whose boundary with Syria in occupied Golan could become hotter than it has been for many years.

Etilaf has not yet convinced Washington that it can be an effective bulwark against these threats.  The Coalition has precious little control over even the relative moderates among the fighters.  It has little to no capacity to counter Jabhat al Nusra or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the former the official al Qaeda franchisee and the latter its Iraq-based competitor.  Etilaf favors preservation of the Syrian state, but with every passing day that becomes less likely.  Nor has Etilaf demonstrated a lot of traction with the ad hoc administrative councils that pop up in liberated areas.

Where Etilaf showed itself to best advantage was at the Geneva 2 talks, where it outmaneuvered the Asad regime and scored lots of good points in favor of a managed transition and against the horrors of what Asad is doing.  There is irony then in Etilaf emphasizing the limits of diplomacy, which is the arena in which it has done best.

That is not however a good reason to revive the talks, which really went nowhere.  Nor can they be expected to, given what is happening on the battlefield.  Until Iran and Russia are convinced that they risk more by continuing to support Asad rather than abandoning him, Tehran and Moscow will provide the edge he needs to continue to gain ground, albeit slowly.  This is a formula for more war, not less.

A couple of weeks ago, the Obama Administration was thought to be looking at new options for Syria.  There is no sign they have emerged from the “interagency” labyrinth.  That’s not surprising.  It took 3.5 years for something meaningful to emerge from the National Security Council in Bosnia, and depending on how you count at least that long in Kosovo.  Only in Afghanistan and in Iraq have such decisions proved quick, mistakenly and disastrously so in Iraq.

Deliberation is wise.  But if it takes too long, vital American interests in blocking extremists and maintaining the states of the Levant may suffer irreparable damage.  Not to mention the harm to Syrians, who deserve better.  All deliberate speed, please.

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