Raúl Castro's Big Gamble

As predicted by many observers of the Cuban scene, including Brian Latell, author of "After Fidel," and this writer, the island's new president, Raúl Castro, has hit the ground running—sort of. During his first weeks in office, though not necessarily in power, he has either implemented or announced important changes in the everyday lives of ordinary Cubans, while simultaneously retaining, and even strengthening, the limitations on political dissent. For instance, he cracked down on a demonstration in Havana last week of the Damas de Blanco, the spouses of the 75 political prisoners arrested in 2003.

This suggests Raúl is applying the so-called Vietnamese solution: initiating promising economic reforms without offering an inkling of political change. It is also similar to what Mexicans back in the 1990s called perestroika without glasnost, when their country experienced significant economic changes under President Carlos Salinas but continued to face the same one-party political system that had ruled since the 1920s. Raúl Castro is allowing Cubans, for the first time, to own cell phones, DVDs and computers (so long as they're not connected to the Internet), as well as access to hotels previously restricted to foreign tourists. Perhaps he will soon also allow them to leave the country without exit permits. True, it is something of an exaggeration to compare this even to Mexico's modest political liberalization of the '90s. Cuba's reforms hardly represent a major opening of the island's society, and scarcely resemble the type of transformations Mikhail Gorbachev initiated in the former Soviet Union. In fact, many argue that Raúl's reforms are merely cosmetic, because they are limited to "exotic" consumer goods, and because the typical Cuban on the street lacks the resources to take advantage of them.

Nonetheless, the reforms should not be dismissed out of hand. No one really knows how much convertible currency average Cubans have stashed away under their mattresses, whether in dollars, euros or CUCs (freely exchangeable Cuban pesos, which are different from regular pesos). The long queues of people lining up to purchase cell phones on the first days the stores opened suggest that there may be far more money circulating in the island's underground economy than many, including the authorities, may have imagined. Whether this money comes from tips earned in the tourism industry, gifts brought or sent from Miami to family members on the island outside traceable channels or through Cubans moonlighting for foreign residents as drivers, housekeepers or other older but less respected professions in exchange for hard currency, Cubans' pent-up demands for these types of consumer goodies could well surpass expectations, as well as the authorities' capacity to satisfy or manage them.

Authorities may also struggle with the consequences of loosening restrictions on travel abroad. Cubans today need a "white card" to leave, as well as an invitation from a foreign country, together with an entry visa to that foreign country (if that other state requires it). Eliminating the first two requirements—even if the reform didn't apply to doctors, teachers, people who have not completed their military service or who serve in the armed forces or the security apparatus—could unleash an exodus like those Cuba experienced in the '60s, '80s and '90s, or that took place in Eastern Europe in 1989. Already Cubans are leaving their country at a breakneck pace: 15,000 of them, without papers, left for Mexico last year, and the number traveling one way or another to the United States, Spain, the Dominican Republic and Central America is growing. Opening up the floodgates could unleash a whole new wave of emigrants, leaving the country without many of its best minds, and with many frustrated Cubans left behind.

Therein lies the danger of the younger Castro's gamble. He is betting he can more or less at the same time satisfy Cuban citizens with these gestures, improve their living standards somewhat by freeing up agricultural production and allowing wages to rise in the "foreign" sector of the economy, while keeping the lid on political dissent, exile and a slew of imponderables, including, crucially, Hugo Chávez and his increasingly precarious position in Venezuela. All of Castro's plans would be dashed if Cuba were forced to suddenly start importing the roughly 80,000 barrels of oil per day it consumes at a market price of $118 per barrel, without Caracas's subsidies. But the Venezuelan president's fate is not in Havana's hands. Nor can Havana prevent Cubans from using their new cell phones to conspire against the regime, or set up makeshift Internet connections to communicate with the world. Foreign travel will lead many Cubans to finally understand how dramatically they have been deceived by their government.

Either Raúl shares his brother's luck and immense political acumen or he's so worried about the current situation that he feels the risk of fiddling with it and losing control is smaller than that of doing nothing. He may well lose control regardless, however—particularly if the rest of the world is willing to help in the right ways, namely by removing sanctions and embargos that have only kept the authoritarian regime in place, but demanding that any Cuban return to the Latin American concert implies playing by its rules: free elections, free media, free labor unions and respect for human rights.