Thursday, May 7, 2009

Cuba: ready to exit its evolutionary cul-de-sac? — a TIMN perspective

I haven’t worked on Cuban issues for over ten years. But I still discuss Cuba and Castro with former co-authors. And I perked up when I saw that the Obama administration was offering to hold new talks with Cuban officials. I also recalled that I had once drafted a few paragraphs about Cuba’s system and Castro’s worldview from a TIMN perspective. As a result, I’ve gone and revisited my old notes, done a bit of new reading, and written the following little essay.

It may seem rather hard on the Castro regime and Fidel’s views, but that is not my main intent. I think Cuba is an interesting case for illuminating some theoretical principles that may be important for building the TIMN framework and understanding its implications for how to achieve social evolution. Fidel represents violations and departures from many of those principles:
  • Castro is about centralization and control, whereas TIMN is also about decentralization and decontrol.
  • Castro is about the fusion of two forms (T and I) and the rejection of a third (M). TIMN is about the balanced, separated, regulated growth of each and all forms.
  • Castro is about the bright sides of two forms (T and I) and only the dark side of the third (M). TIMN involves recognizing that all the forms have both bright and dark sides — and dealing with them.
I plan to be clear about all that and more in a new theoretical post before long. For now, I mention it as background for showing where I’m headed — and to hope that this post is of interest to readers other than maybe a few Castro/Cuba specialists.

* * * * *

One aim of the TIMN framework is to provide clarity as to why systems like Cuba’s are so limited — in fact, self-limiting. The framework also shows how to think about Cuba’s future from an evolutionary standpoint.

Briefly stated: In the name of revolution, Fidel Castro committed a strategic error of devolutionary proportions. He rejected developing Cuba in T+I+M directions, and fell back to construct a hyper T+I system. If this could have served to prepare Cuba for an eventual new transition to a +M system, the outlook for post-Castro Cuba might be promising. But his regime’s practices have not assured that Cuba will get a +M transition right, even though it is the inevitable next phase. Meanwhile, +N forces are even more suborned and restricted, especially among civil-society NGOs.

The current hoopla about U.S.–Cuban relations provides an opportunity for elaborating on this theme.

The current policy juncture

It is sensible for the Obama administration to alter U.S. policy in order to increase information and communications flows to Cuba, as it did in a recent memorandum. We — Cuba expert Edward Gonzalez and I — have long advised going in this direction:
[T]he present policy should be sustained but augmented with a parallel policy to increase information flows and build communication bridges to Cuba. . . This seems to be the best prescription for continuing to deal with a Fidel Castro who cannot change with the times, while preparing for a post-Castro Cuba that is bound to go through profound changes, requiring yet another U.S. policy. (Gonzalez and Ronfeldt, 1992, p. xii)
We recognized early on that the information revolution does not necessarily favor democratic forces, and that authoritarian systems can exploit it too. The Cuban regime will continue to do its utmost to guard and manipulate Internet access and other telecommunications. Nonetheless, expanded information flows and communications links should help strengthen some civil-society elements in Cuba, and provide U.S. policy with some benefits in the event of an opening-up or a major crisis on the island.

At the same time, it is sensible for the Obama administration to maintain the U.S. economic embargo, pending further developments. Simply lifting it remains inadvisable; conditions are still such that doing so would reward and strengthen the Castro regime and its hardliners, more than it would free up the Cuban people or induce evolution toward a +M system. Indeed, the recent expansions of Canadian, European, and other countries’ economic relations and commercial ventures in Cuba provide no confirmation that such expansions will induce democratic change, a market economy, or increased respect for human rights in Cuba.

Better to wait, maneuver, and negotiate a while before easing the embargo. Perhaps it is archaic, and perhaps it imposes only marginal constraints on the regime’s intentions and capabilities. After all, Castro’s own policy choices have placed the major constraints on Cuba’s potential for economic growth. Yet, lifting the embargo will be such a big deal, with so many ramifications, that it should be linked to when Cuba finally opts to exit its evolutionary cul-de-sac and turn in +M directions.

Cuba in TIMN perspective: past, present, and future

In the decades before Castro, Cuba represented a flawed, halting, muddled effort to evolve a democratic T+I+M society. Cuba’s political system was supposed to be based on political parties and democratic elections. But by the early 1950s, the government was again in the hands of a dictatorship, backed by the military (and U.S. government) and fraught with cronyism. Meanwhile, the economy appeared to be based on the capitalist market system. But in fact, it was rigged to favor corrupt government officials and oligarchic families. Moreover, it was dominated by foreign-owned sugar mills and gambling casinos.

Indeed, these foreign-owned enterprises often did more to reinforce local T+I practices that reflected Cuba’s colonial heritage, than to help instill a true +M system. As often happens in Latin America, Cuba had a kind of distorted, corrupt, oligarchic, crony capitalism that was not leading to an open, fair market system. Nor was it doing much to spread wealth and strengthen democracy.

Thus, when Fidel Castro seized power, he had plenty of grievances and distortions to deal with. He also had an opportunity to direct the Cuban Revolution to foster a liberal, democratic T+I+M society — and initially it looked as though he and the revolution’s moderate leaders might do so. But instead, in the name of what he claimed were forward-looking communist ideals, Castro reverted Cuba’s government, economy, and society back to a T+I system — and of a type that was more centralized and fused than ever. He installed a totalitarian single-party government, eliminated the private sector, suborned the cultural (T) realm to the state, and used his charisma to arouse a fervent, worshipful nationalism. Nothing — no TIMN realm or any individual — would be allowed to develop on its own. He demanded tribal solidarity and institutional solidity. He said this would end poverty and inequity, foster immense growth, and assure a home-grown culture, while also enabling Cuba to eradicate foreign influence and resist U.S. imperialism.

Thus, it is often said, Castro chose communism over democracy. My own view, at this point, is that he never really faced such a choice; his choice was mainly between fascism (a type of fused T+I+M system that he had long admired) or communism (an I-centric system). He opted for the latter partly because, from a TIMN perspective, he knew how to promote a nationalistic tribalism (T) and hierarchical institutions (+I), but not how to develop and rule over the kind of market system and private sector (+M) that fascism involves. Besides, he had a patron — the Soviet Union — to underwrite his turn to communism and his ambition to become a major actor on the world stage, the superclient of a superpower.

Fidel represents a supreme contemporary expression of the fusion of T+I ideals and principles. Accordingly, he has believed that if people would just behave like one big family under his chieftaincy, then everything would work fine. He did not see that the organizational forms on which his ideals rested — the tribal and institutional forms — have performance capabilities that are self-limiting, especially with regard to economic growth. Indeed, Cuba’s low level of development today reflects the inherent incapacity of T+I designs to promote and manage increasing levels of economic complexity. As with the feudal and absolutist systems of long ago, as well as recent Soviet systems based on central planning and social exhortation, this design can produce a strong, aggressive state and military, but not an advanced, multi-purpose economy and society.

By seeing only capitalism’s dark side, Fidel not only rejected adding the market form to Cuba’s capabilities, he also ignored that all four TIMN forms have both bright and dark sides. It is already becoming evident that his T+I regime is far from clean of the clannish cronyism, nepotism, arbitrariness, venality, crime and corruption that often infest the obscure echelons of such regimes. Meanwhile, the degeneration (or at least, stagnation) of Cuba’s economy and society is causing a return of many of the vices and distortions that Fidel denounced in the 1950s — e.g., prostitution, apartheid tourism. Is he blind to this? Or does he, through a self-serving logic, secretly want vices and distortions to return if Cuba abandons communism for capitalism?

Led by Raul Castro and the military, some regime elites realized years ago — especially after Soviet subsidies ended, and consumer shortages mounted — that the island’s inefficient, malfunctioning economy required reform. They initially supposed, in line with Fidel’s exaltation of institutional ideals, that all they had to do was “modernize” the regime’s administrative systems; surely then the economy and its state enterprises would finally work well. But administrative modernization did not succeed in revitalizing the economy, and some reformists recognized anew a need to experiment with selected +M practices.

Shifting to a market system was not an option, given Fidel’s antipathy to capitalism. Yet, selected liberalizing measures have been allowed since the 1990s, with his reluctant approval. These include peasant markets for foodstuffs; small, mostly home-based businesses (microenterprises) for restaurants, repair services, room rentals, and taxis; and large hotels and resorts for tourism that operate as joint enterprises with foreign investors.

All are productive, to a degree. But all exist under tight restrictions — most microenterprises can employ only family members, the resorts amount to tourism enclaves where most ordinary Cubans cannot go, and Cubans must submit to a dual-currency system. Moreover, all these enterprises must serve the state; their purpose is to strengthen institutions, not individuals. Indeed, the joint enterprises operate as army franchises — favored officers are assigned to run them, earning good salaries.

Meanwhile, Cuba has long had trade deals with foreign companies, lately expanded to include U.S. agricultural companies. These provide Cuba with access to world markets, but without marketizing its internal economy. (The U.S. embargo has constrained but never blocked Cuba’s access to non-U.S. markets and companies.)

The result is an anomalous political economy that remains statist — socialist if not communist — with allowances for limited market-like endeavors in a few selected areas. Some Cuban leaders may sense the limitations, if not obsolescence, of this T+I (or T+I+m?) system and desire further liberalization. Some may prefer to move to a kind of market socialism, even a market socialist economy like China’s or Vietnam’s where key sectors and enterprises remain in state hands but the economic system as a whole is becoming +M. But Fidel is determined to sustain his fused, collectivist, centrally-run T+I regime as the only true and trustworthy expression of the Cuban Revolution. There will be no +M for Cuba’s evolution on his watch.

U.S. policy and strategy: able to induce Cuba’s evolution to +M?

From a TIMN perspective — my view of it, anyway — a challenge for U.S. policy and strategy is to ameliorate Cuba’s hard-line T+I behaviors while nudging its evolution toward a +M system.

Washington has endeavored to do that for decades (though not in TIMN terms, of course), and nothing it has done has worked well. Some measures have proven worthwhile for specific goals (e.g., to enable remittances to needy family members). But Fidel has remained resolute; his worldview has not budged. For him, Cuba already represents the vanguard of social evolution. He does not understand or believe in +M (not to mention +N). Moreover, no cracks or other weaknesses have arisen in his regime that might open doors for promoting economic or any other kind of liberalization.

Today, Cuba does not pose a military threat to U.S interests, by itself or as an ally of a foreign power. Nor does it pose a criminal threat, though the island could serve as a base for some transnational smuggling operations. It is also doubtful that Cuba is offering much support to insurgent or terrorist movements anywhere. Thus, with Cuba’s external threat potential lower than ever and its internal economic needs higher than ever, the environment is riper than ever for calling into question the centerpiece of U.S. policy: the economic embargo.

I have no desire to review all the pros and cons, ins and outs, of U.S. policy or alternative options for dealing with Castro’s Cuba or preparing for a post-Castro Cuba. Others have done that. But I do want to comment on notions that relate to TIMN.

Idealistic notions are sprouting anew — here and here, for example — that ending the embargo would ameliorate Cuba’s hard-line T+I behaviors and induce +M effects: Thus, it is said, lifting the embargo would deprive the regime of an anti-American rationale — a scapegoat — for maintaining its tyranny and explaining away Cuba’s economic woes. It would generate maneuvering room for reformers who want political and social as well as economic liberalization. It would encourage free-market reforms, and a more open, pluralistic civil society.

Yet, there is no evidence — only speculation — that ending the embargo unilaterally would have such positive effects under current circumstances. More likely, it would reinforce Fidel’s sense that he is winning and provide him with extra resources and rationales for staying his course. And there is evidence for this contrary prospect.

The infusion of foreign investments and tourists from Canada, Europe, and elsewhere since the mid-1990s, by providing new income for the regime, actually enabled Fidel to slow or reverse the modest liberalizations he had grudgingly permitted in order to ease the economic shortages following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Little new liberalization has occurred since then. Moreover, European governments that have increased their trade and investment with Cuba have been rebuffed when they have pressed for even modest shifts in the regime’s human-rights behavior.

And then there’s this recent development: Fidel is aged and ailing, and he has passed the mantle of rule to his brother, Raul. But the way he barked back at Obama’s overtures for talks with Raul last month confirm that Fidel still has a grip on Cuba’s direction and is not about to alter course because of any shift in U.S. policy.

In a bit of a contrast to the idealistic views about lifting the embargo, a more nuanced, pragmatic U.S. view has surfaced in a U.S. congressional staff trip report. It recognizes that lifting the embargo may not have grand effects, but supposes it may be advisable to countenance anyway. In this view, the Cuban regime is so institutionalized and accepted among the Cuban people that it will probably endure without democratizing, even if the embargo were to be lifted. Yet, Washington should begin to hold talks about specific matters of mutual interest. The prospect of eventually lifting the embargo might give us some bargaining leverage. Besides, it would please U.S. commercial interests who stand to benefit from new trade and investment opportunities. It may also gratify some U.S. political sectors.

I have less to say about this pragmatic view. I see no reason to object to talking with Cubans along the lines the report suggests, for it makes few claims about inducing change in Cuba and some of its points (e.g., about improving the U.S. image abroad) have little to do with TIMN. But the report still contains a notion, partly modulated, that the prospect of easing the embargo may give U.S. officials leverage for negotiating some economic and political liberalization, through a process of “sequenced engagement.”

Again, this notion of leverage seems illusory. It is doubtful that the current regime would negotiate any kind of liberalization in exchange for easing the embargo. And easing it for any reason while Fidel still holds sway would mainly reinforce his and his fidelista cohorts’ efforts to preserve his T+I system, while preventing a transition to +M.

That said, the report’s proposal for increased dialogue with Cuban officials is a good idea. So is it’s proposal for a bipartisan U.S. commission to forge a future U.S. policy and strategy (echoing a 2007 proposal by Ed Gonzalez). The two initiatives could lay groundwork for an eventual propitious situation when Cuba may decide, on its own and in its own ways, that evolving in +M directions is advisable.

In sum, Fidel Castro remains committed to a theory of social evolution that is fundamentally erroneous. He is not entirely wrong to rail against the evils of capitalism — it can have detrimental effects, and what’s happening in the United States today provides new evidence. But by failing to see that the market system is essential for continued social evolution, and by not figuring out how to make it apply in a balanced, positive way in Cuba — even so that it deserves a name other than capitalism — he keeps Cuba’s potential arrested in an evolutionary cul-de-sac of his own fabrication.

Eventually a breakout will occur. Odds are, a multitude of U.S. actors will then rush ahead with their usual patterns about promoting democracy and freedom, including free enterprise. But if the objective is to see Cuba turn into a balanced T+I+M system, new kinds of advice and assistance may be needed. The United States has policies and strategies for promoting capitalism — basically saying, open your markets, and we will come. But do we really have adequate policies and strategies for building a properly free, fair market system? I gather not, for that’s never been as major a goal as promoting capitalism. It’s time to rethink. Otherwise, assuming that the post-Fidel regime endures, the model it prefers next may be a mild kind of fascism rather than a potential liberal democracy.

[Many thanks to Ed Gonzalez for sharing his knowledge and providing edits on an earlier draft.]

[UPDATE — May 8, 2009: The original version of this post, yesterday, indicated I would do a second, follow-up post on Cuba, but of a much more theoretical bent. I've changed my mind. I'll be doing a more theoretical post before long, but it won't be focused just on the case of Cuba. So I've edited this post to remove references to its being the first of two. It's now a stand-alone post.]

[UPDATE — July 7, 2015: While I’ve refrained these past six years from updating this post, two recent articles in The Wall Street Journal are worth noting, because they track with my TIMN analysis above: Dr. Jose Azel, “Cuba after the Castros: The likely scenario” (June 15, 2015, The Wall Street Journal, as re-posted here), warns that Cuba’s military will benefit more than democracy from future U.S.-Cuban relations. Mauricio Claver-Carone, “When helping ‘the Cuban people’ means bankrolling Cuba’s Castro dictatorship” (June 24, 2015, The Wall Street Journal, as re-posted here) warns that improved economic relations will benefit the regime more than the people.]

[UPDATE: September 20, 2015 — Former RAND colleague and co-author Edward Gonzalez makes a valuable point when he writes, in a letter to the NYT editor, that “As an academic and policy consultant specializing in Cuba, I came to the conclusion several years ago that the United States faced a moral and political conundrum in its Cuba policy: how to help the Cuban people without helping the Castro regime.” (source)]

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