Not even the Chinese model can save Castroism
Clinging to the most retrograde Soviet tradition, the Communist Party of Cuba decided to hold its VII Congress without even having allowed any debate on the documents distributed for approval at the event. This secrecy sparked criticism, as surprising as it was unusual, amongst Party members. The State newspaper Gramma was quick to dismiss the "concerns", arguing that debate was not necessary because this Congress was only the continuation of the preceding one, held in April of 2011 to approve the "updates" to the guidelines enacted by President Raúl Castro.
The aim of those famous "updates" was none other than injecting a homeopathic dose of the market economy into Cuba, in an attempt to ensure the regime's survival. The shift is all the more necessary given that "21st-century socialism" has economically ruined Chavez's Venezuela, a country whose petrodollars had been keeping Havana afloat.
Turning to the market as a means of political survival evokes what the Chinese Communist Party did, with references to "market socialism" in order to retain power after the economic debacle engendered by Mao Tse-Tung.
In fact, in his opening speech at the Seventh Congress Raúl Castro referred to China, and to Vietnam, as examples demonstrating that the "controlling role of the Party, the Government and mass organizations" (read that: the single-party dictatorship) and the rules of supply and demand can coexist.”
A freer market, plus political repression, then, is the formula that Castroism plans to apply as it looks out on the horizon.
The difference in this regard is that, unfortunately for the Castro regime, Cuba is not China.
To begin with, the Castro regime has not given up on the discredited dogmas and axioms of Marxism-Leninism. The contrast is clear between Raul's unbending language, denouncing "the unscrupulous attitudes of those who only think about earning more" and the aphorism "getting rich is glorious," uttered by Deng Xiaoping in 1992.
In Cuba only the members of the ruling class are and will be able to live comfortably. All the Cubans will have to continue making do with their ration cards and educational and medical services, highly lauded by officials with the regime and their allies, but in reality in a crumbling state.
But let's look beyond the VII Congress, when Castroism is truly in a geriatric state, and let us suppose that, forced by the deteriorating economic situation and the shortcomings of its "updates", the regime decides (perhaps when generational change begins to shake up the upper echelons) to significantly expand private initiative's range of action and to tolerate the profit motive. In such a scenario, not even by copying every aspect of the Chinese model could the Cuban dictatorship remain standing. Let's take a look at why.
Chinese economic growth has been based on the export of manufactured goods, and the employees involved in the production of those goods work in factories with little or no contact with the outside world.
In Cuba the country’s rather small workforce and, particularly, its geographical and cultural proximity to the United States mean that it is not in manufacturing, but in the service sector, particularly in tourism, where the most profitable activities are found, at least at the beginning of a process of a significant opening up to market forces.
The expansion of this sector will entail personal contacts between Cuban and foreign customers, particularly tourists, as well as an expanded use of the Internet.
Under such circumstances the Cuban population's exposure to the outside world, and with it the allure of democracy and freedom of expression, will be significant, and popular demands for the establishment of democracy can only increase.
The regime, of course, will strive hard to suppress its people's democratic yearnings, but here the recent diplomatic and economic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States may come into play.
Indeed, for an economically anemic regime like Castro's, forging commercial and financial ties with the most powerful economy in the world could lead to addiction. In other words, it could make Cuba dependent on foreign currency flowing in from trade with the United States.
As soon as economic ties with the United States have reached a critical mass, what would the regime do if the Congress of that country, or a future president of it, decided to make the pace, extent, or even the continuation of economic relations with Cuba contingent on concrete progress in Cuba with regards to human rights and the freedom of expression? Would the Cuban regime be willing to refuse to implement political liberalization in Cuba even if its refusal endangered this important source of foreign revenue?
An additional factor functions in favor of the Cuba's democratic opening: the Castro regime's plans to borrow on the world's capital markets.
After having been able to do without these markets (thanks to Soviet aid, first, followed by Chavez's petrodollars) since 2011 Cuba has been struggling to re-establish links to them.
The interest rates that the Cuban Government will have to pay for its loans will depend on the assessments in these markets of the island's economic prospects; the more promising the outlook, the lower the interest rates that international investors will request.
Under these circumstances, if Cuba starts to squabble with the United States, refusing to implement political liberalization, potential investors will get wary about the continuity of commercial and financial exchanges between the two countries and, consequently, apply higher interest rates.
In this case, will it be worth it to go after and arrest the Ladies in White every Sunday, or periodically arrest Guillermo Fariñas and Antonio Rodiles, or prevent José Daniel Ferrer from moving freely throughout the country, or keep dozens of prisoners of conscience in prison ... if these petty and heinous acts of repression create tensions with their trading partner and spoil the island's economic outlook? And this could involve increasing the interest rates that Cuba must pay on its loans?
Thus, through a simple cost-benefit analysis it would behoove the Cuban regime to embrace democratic reform in order to minimize its debt burden.
Economic considerations, particularly the need for integration into the European market, played a key role in convincing the political heirs of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco to accept the political liberalization of his country after the caudillo's passing. And it should not be ruled out, for the reasons stated above, that the same type of economic considerations may play a decisive role in Cuba in the near future.
Criticism of the lack of debate at the Seventh Congress, leveled by some of its participants, could be signs of an embryonic awareness within the Party's ranks of the counterproductivity, and even the impossibility, of maintaining the political repression inherent to Castroism.