Endgame in Cuba

Published June 1, 1995


GW: Let’s wind up with Cuba. Describe the best endgame and best outcome there, and what the United States could do to facilitate that.


EA: I suppose the best endgame would be if Fidel Castro dropped dead this morning, before lunch. Castro is a man of very firm beliefs; in this respect, I’d put him in the camp of people like Mao. Castro isn’t an apparatchik, and he isn’t a second-generation communist. He’s a founding father, a true believer, and a deeply wicked man. There won’t be any serious political reform under Castro.

That there’s some economic reform today is the product of necessity: the Soviet crack-up ended the subsidies. So it seems to me that keeping the pressure on Castro will produce more economic change. We know, from a case like Saudi Arabia, that money can be used as a substitute for economic reform. You can buy off the need for reform. If Castro came into money, or if oil were discovered near Cuba, Castro would use the revenue in place of reform. Similarly, if the American embargo ended, he’d use the inflow of money to avoid reform.

And economic reform is very, very important, because, in Cuba as elsewhere, it has inevitable social and political impact. When people in Cuba can get money from their relatives in Miami, that helps the regime a bit, it’s true, because there’s more money flowing around. But it does something else: for the first time, your ability to get goods doesn’t depend on how you stand with the communist party; it depends on whether you have relatives who, in Cuban communist terms, are “worms living in Miami.” That’s a profound social change.

We know from places like Poland that the post-communist transition is easier if you’ve already had some economic reform. And that’s what’s just beginning in Cuba. If the embargo is maintained, you’ll see more and more farmers’ markets, more private agricultural production. All of that is very helpful.

The embargo is a tool, though; it’s not a matter of first principles. If we can use the embargo to buy political change, we ought to. If even a “partial” successor who assumes power when Castro becomes ill or starts to lose control is willing to negotiate real political change—release all political prisoners, legalize free trade unions, a free press, and freedom of speech—then I would make that negotiation; I’d trade parts of the embargo for some real political reforms. But until then, I’d maintain the embargo.

The best we can hope for is that that kind of political change will help prepare a softer landing for a post-Castro Cuba. But that will also depend on the strength of the Cuban opposition, as well as on Castro’s health. What really is a grave error is to abandon the cause of liberty in Cuba after thirty years, which is precisely what we’re doing by returning refugees to Cuba.


GW: Are you concerned about Castro constructing a Wagnerian finish for himself?


EA: I think it’s less likely as time goes by. What senior Cuban military official, today, would carry out an order to do something drastic to Florida? In the last few years, the regime has been relying more and more on the secret police and less and less on the military, which tells us something. If Castro gave an order to attack Florida, I can readily imagine Cuban air force officers saying, “This guy is completely nuts, arrest him.” The Cuban military, like the military in other communist countries, wants to have a future. So I’m less concerned about a Wagnerian ending than I was five years ago.

What really worry me are the very real problems that Cuba faces even if Castro dies tomorrow. There will be a lot of vengeance issues: “You denounced my brother to the secret police in 1981, and I’m going to get you now.” The property issues are going to be terribly difficult: would a returnee be able to dispossess the widow who had been living in his house for thirty years? Then there are the tort issues: “What do I get for being in Castro’s prisons for thirty years? Don’t I get a pension or something?”

The race issue is also going to be tough. Cuba is less white, more black, than it was in 1960, because it was primarily middle-class whites who fled. The revolution really hasn’t done anything for Cuban blacks; the upper level of the communist party has always been all-white. But the regime has sown fear among Cuban blacks by telling them, “Look, if these Miami people come back, you’re going to be a busboy again.”

Then there’s the question of the security forces, the army and the Cuban equivalent of the KGB. A situation like Nicaragua, where there’s a new civilian government but the security forces remain in old communist hands, must be avoided. The military is perforce playing a larger role in the economy now, but Castro doesn’t seem to trust it fully. We saw this when he executed the very popular General Arnaldo Ochoa a few years ago for the crime of being just the kind of leader people might turn to instead of Fidel. In any event, who controls the guns is a critical issue today, as Castro seeks to remain in power, and it will also be a critical issue when—some day—a transition government tries to take over.

Finally there’s the question of the Cuban diaspora, not only in Miami but also in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Spain. What is their place? How much influence and power will they have in a post-Castro Cuba?

These issues, plus some regional questions within Cuba, plus the lack of democratic experience, portend a harder rather than softer landing after Castro. I’m not expecting a kind of Velvet Revolution in which, after eight months, you slide easily into democracy and economic progress.


GW: Didn’t you have a proposal for making creative use of Guantanamo?


EA: Guantanamo is a base we’re either going to have to rent from, or give back to, a free Cuba. Given the nationalist sentiments involved, they’re probably going to want it back. And I’m not so sure we need it; we’ve got Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico. So my suggestion is that, beginning now, we ought to turn Guantanamo into a free port and a free trade zone.

Now that would be something of real value we could give to a free Cuba: a wonderful international port, the beginnings of a Caribbean Hong Kong. It might be difficult to do, because our lease on Guantanamo specifies that it can be used only for military, not commercial, purposes. But that’s what you hire lawyers for: to figure out ways to do things you ought to do.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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