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Cuba's Changing Government Examines Asia Model

Audio for this story from Morning Edition will be available at approx. 9:00 a.m. ET
August 21, 2012
Cuba is one of the world's last remaining communist states. Cuba's allies in China and Vietnam also maintain firm one-party rule, but have prospered by introducing market principles to their economic models. With Cuban President Raul Castro easing government controls on property rights and private enterprise, many are wondering if the struggling island is looking to Asia for a way forward.
The intersection of 23rd Street and 12th Avenue in Havana's Vedado District is a Cuban landmark in Cold War history. It was here during the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 that Fidel Castro dropped his democratic assurances and declared at the peak of a fiery speech that Cuba "had carried out a socialist revolution right under the United States' nose." It was the first time he'd openly used the S word to describe his leftward plans for the island.
What Cubans ended up with was a tropical version of Soviet economics, defined by centralized planning and the elimination of most private property. Even Cuba's ice cream vendors had their Popsicle carts seized by the state in the name of ending inequality.
That the same Havana intersection is changing. The dreary state-run businesses that were long ago nationalized now compete with private restaurants, snack bars and newly licensed entrepreneurs like Yoel Gonzalez, 31, who sells Puma and Adidas sneakers where Castro once rallied the crowds of Cuban militiamen.
"You have to work a little harder when you have your own business, but you get to see the benefits," Gonzalez says. "When you work for the state, your salary is guaranteed, but it's not enough to survive on."
To advocates for change, Gonzalez is precisely what's wrong with Cuba's current model. Gonzalez was trained as a computer programmer but quit his government job to make ends meet by selling shoes.
Starting a software company or working as a private computer engineer isn't among the 181 occupations that have been permitted so far by Cuban authorities. Licenses are available for stone cutters, horse cart drivers and birthday clowns, but not architects, scientists or other educated professionals.
And unless that changes, the mentality of Cuba's Communist Party will remain decades behind China and Vietnam, says University of Havana economist Julio Diaz Vazquez.
"Cuba's model continues to be for the State to own and distribute everything. That has nothing to do with Marx. It's not possible to have socialism if you don't have a productive economy to sustain it," he says.
On the scale of liberalism, Cuba is still closer to North Korea than China, a country that looks relatively open to Diaz Vazquez. Chinese citizens have access to the Internet, he notes, and can publicly criticize corruption or pollution.
But economic changes are bringing subtle political shifts, according to Rafael Hernandez, editor of the Cuban journal Temas. He says a new model for Cuba is still taking shape, but it would be foolish for the island to try copying China or Vietnam.
"These are Asian societies with their own cultural traditions and history. So I don't think that economic policy is something you can develop like a vaccine, this is not about a lab test that you can apply elsewhere. The social, historic and cultural circumstances in which you are going to develop an economic and political model is fundamental," Hernandez says.
Raul Castro, 81, made a rare trip abroad to visit China and Vietnam in July, promising closer ties. But while those countries churn out iPhones, textiles, cars and nearly anything else the world economy wants, Cuba still struggles to make its own laundry detergent and grow enough food.
Opponents of the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba point out that Asia's communists have been transformed by business ties to the U.S. market. But the embargo's backers insist the Cuban model won't really change until the Castros are gone.

US-Cuba ties unlikely to change after elections

Testy relations between Cuba and the United States are unlikely to change regardless of who wins the November 6 US presidential election, Cuban analysts say.
There are a mere 90 miles between Cuba and the tip of Florida, a key battleground state that is home to a sizable Cuban-American community. But Washington and Havana have not had full diplomatic relations since 1961, and the island has been under a US trade embargo for half a century.
This year, Cuba is barely a blip in the re-election campaign of Democratic President Barack Obama or the White House bid of his Republican rival, Mitt Romney.
"In previous US presidential campaigns the candidates competed to see who could take a tougher and more bellicose stance" towards Cuba, said Carlos Alzugaray of the Center of Hemispheric Studies at the University of Havana.
"That doesn't happen any more," he told AFP.
The once-influential anti-Castro activists in Florida were expecting Romney to choose conservative Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio as his running mate, which would have brought Cuba into the campaign and made it an important issue if he were to be elected, said Cuban analyst Arturo Lopez-Levy at the University of Denver.
Romney however chose Paul Ryan, a free-trade advocate who "is one of the Republican politicians most consistent in voting against the US embargo on Cuba," Lopez-Levy wrote in a recent article.
But once picked, Ryan backtracked and, on the campaign trail, said he and Romney would maintain the tough sanctions.
In January, Romney promised to tighten sanctions on the communist regime, but did not raise the issue again at a campaign rally in Miami last week, although most participants were Cuban-American.
Romney "believes that he already has the majority of the Cuban-American electorate on his side," so he can risk alienating some voters over the issue, according to Lopez-Levy.
Under Obama, it has become easier to travel to Cuba and for Cubans in the United States to send money to relatives on the island. Restrictions on sports, cultural and religious travel have also been relaxed.
If Obama is re-elected, he may decide "other changes that go beyond what has been done up to now," but this would not imply "seriously modifying" US policy towards Cuba, Alzugaray said.
The Obama changes have benefited Cubans both in Florida and on the island, said Esteban Morales of the University of Havana.
Cuban-Americans themselves oppose the tough restrictions to visit the island or send funds to relatives.
Still, "bothering Cuban people with the goal of affecting Fidel Castro's regime to earn a massive number of votes in Florida no longer works," Morales told AFP. "That tactic is history."
"If the embargo has survived" this long, said Lopez-Levy, "it is precisely because Cuba is not a priority among voters or ... the powerful interests."

Republican platform doesn't abandon Cuba after all

TAMPA, Fla. -- Cuban Americans can relax. The 2012 Republican platform will continue the party’s hard-line rhetoric toward the Communist regime in Cuba, though it does not call for reversing President Obama’s decision to relax restrictions on travel and financial assistance to residents of the island.
An earlier Politics Now post stated incorrectly that the GOP platform was silent on Cuba. A delegate on the party platform’s foreign policy and defense subcommittee, who had a copy of the pertinent language, expressed surprise during a drafting session on the plank Monday that Cuba wasn’t mentioned. A GOP aide with access to the platform confirmed that the foreign policy portion section did not mention Cuba.
The actual text of this year’s GOP platform draft is a closely held document, crafted under the control of the Mitt Romney campaign.
The draft planks were distributed to the platform delegates -- on paper only, not digitally -- making it much more difficult for copies to circulate surreptitiously to reporters or to interest groups that might want to criticize.
But after the Politics Now post stirred up a swarm of concern, particularly in south Florida, the campaign agreed to provide the platform language about Cuba, some of it directly lifted from the 2008 document.
Four years ago, the platform stated that the Republicans “support restrictions on trade with, and travel to, Cuba.”  The 2012 version also contains language that points in that direction.
But there is no specific call to tighten the president’s loosening of restrictions, which made it easier for Cuban Americans to visit relatives on the island and send them money, and has been popular with some Latino voters.
Here is the language on Cuba, as released Monday night by the Romney campaign:
"Alternatively, we will stand with the true democracies of the region against both Marxist subversion and the drug lords, helping them to become prosperous alternatives to the collapsing model of Venezuela and Cuba.
"We affirm our friendship with the people of Cuba and look toward their reunion with the rest of our hemispheric family. The anachronistic regime in Havana which rules them is a mummified relic of the age of totalitarianism, a state-sponsor of terrorism. We reject any dynastic succession of power within the Castro family and affirm the principles codified in U.S. law as conditions for the lifting of trade, travel, and financial sanctions: the legalization of political parties, an independent media, and free and fair internationally-supervised elections. We renew our commitment to Cuba’s courageous pro-democracy movement as the protagonists of Cuba’s inevitable liberation and democratic future. We call for a dedicated platform for the transmission of Radio and TV Marti and for the promotion of Internet access and circumvention technology as tools to strengthen the pro-democracy movement. We support the work of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba and affirm the principles of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, recognizing the rights of Cubans fleeing Communism."
paul.west@latimes.comTwitter: @paulwestdc

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