If foreign investment were all you needed to jumpstart sweeping economic reform, Cuba would look much more like China. Over the past two decades, it has received ample investment — and tourism — from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere in Latin America. But this has done very little (if anything) to promote liberalization. In fact, it has propped up the Castro regime during tough economic times and thereby reduced the government’s incentive to reform.
In the 2012 Index of Economic Freedom, China’s score is 45 percent higher than Cuba’s. That’s not because of foreign investment. It’s because the Chinese government long ago made a conscious decision to allow more economic freedom. While China is still a dictatorial country that practices a perverted form of state-run capitalism, it is much freer, economically, than Cuba.
So far, Raúl Castro’s economic reforms have mostly amounted to firing state workers, expanding the number of legally permissible self-employment activities, and letting Cubans sell their used vehicles and homes (despite the fact that all homes are technically government property). Writing in the British Guardian last April, Yale historian Carlos Eire put the Castro reforms in perspective: “What the government-controlled Cuban press won’t say, and what most foreign correspondents on Cuban soil don’t dare say,” he wrote, “is that these so-called reforms are illusory, and a desperate, ridiculous attempt to camouflage repression and maintain the current status quo.”
The government has certainly stepped up its harassment of opposition figures and peaceful demonstrators. Witness the tragic death last week of imprisoned Cuban dissident Wilman Villar Mendoza, whose hunger strike ended tragically on January 19. “The responsibility for Wilman Villar Mendoza’s death in custody lies squarely with the Cuban authorities, who summarily judged and jailed him for exercising his right to freedom of expression,” said Amnesty International official Javier Zúñiga. “Villar Mendoza’s case shows how the Cuban government punishes dissent,” declared José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch. “Arbitrary arrests, sham trials, inhumane imprisonment, and harassment of dissidents’ families — these are the tactics used to silence critics.”
Villar Mendoza’s widow is active with the Ladies in White, a group of women related to jailed Cuban dissidents. The leader of that group, Berta Soler, spoke out strongly after his death. “The government killed him,” she said. “It’s one more murder in the Cuban government’s account.”
As long as Havana is jailing and brutalizing men like Wilman Villar Mendoza, it will be very difficult for U.S.-Cuban relations to experience a significant improvement, regardless of how much oil Cuba finds in the Gulf of Mexico. Remember: When the Obama administration relaxed U.S. sanctions against Cuba, the Castro regime responded by arresting USAID contractor Alan Gross, who was subsequently sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison. If Havana truly wanted better relations with Washington, it would have released Gross a long time ago.
Cuba will change — for real — when its government decides to embrace political and economic freedom. Until then, oil revenue will merely entrench one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships.
Read this article in Spanish here.