Wednesday, February 20, 2008

An Ill Fidel Leaves -- Now Cuba Can Recover

After almost 50 years in power, communist dictator Fidel Castro is near death. He has stepped down and revealed that his failed rule is over. For us, that means hope. But hope, like Fidel, springs eternal, and there can be no mistaking that the news of his pending death has many believing his vision will die with him. The end of Fidelism is near. But the end of Fidel is not enough to free Cubans. That will take may more changes.

When an intestinal illness required surgery in July 2006, the dictator ceded "temporary" power to his second in command, younger brother Raúl. That alone was monumental for Fidel, who hadn't ceded an inch of power in his life. Nineteen months later, in the online version of the state-owned newspaper Granma, a piece signed by the 81-year-old Fidel broke the news yesterday that he won't be coming back to run the place. How long before Fidel is displayed in a glass case in the middle of Havana?

Fidel was a ruthless oppressor, but less widely understood is that he was also an economic incompetent. In January 1959, Cuba had the third highest per-capita GDP in Latin America. Today the island is a malnourished backwater where dietary staples like milk, sugar and eggs are rationed, severe shortages exist in the medical system and electricity is a luxury. In the past Cuba had been dependent on the Soviet Union. Now the country begs from Venezuela, which gives it as much as $2 billion in aid annually. The nation nonetheless struggles to get by, and young Cubans routinely take their chances with the security police and shark-infested waters rather than face life under the Castro brothers.

Raúl wears bad glasses, seems charmless and missed out on the family charisma gene, so any hope of holding things together will depend on his ability to make Cubans better off. He can be as brutal as his brother. But many believe Raúl will move the country toward a more competitive economic system, on the China model, something he has supported in the past. He has even publicly contemplated the use of "incentives" to increase productivity. There is also widespread speculation that while Raúl will remain in charge of the military, the new Cuban president could be a civilian.

Raúl may be betting that all this would somehow soften the U.S. view of Cuban repression and provide an impetus to lift the U.S. embargo. In fact, Cuba is already able to buy as much food and medicine as it wants from the U.S. What Raúl wants are American tourists, financing from U.S. banks and World Bank aid. All of that requires Washington's blessing. He shouldn't hold his breath. Florida and its exile community are not likely to favor any plan that's good for either of the Castro brothers. Things are made touchier by our pending elections.


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