Can Raul Castro modernize and stabilize Cuba?

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, August 9, 2010

Cardinal Jaime Ortega's role as a broker of human rights in Cuba began with the Ladies in White. In April the archbishop of Havana was outraged when, for two successive Sundays, thugs of the Castro regime besieged the weekly march of women protesting on behalf of relatives who are political prisoners. Ortega dispatched a letter to President Raúl Castro saying that "for the church to tolerate this in silence would be an act of cowardice," he told me last week.

Ortega and other church leaders had sent many such letters to Raúl Castro and his brother Fidel over the years. What was different about this one, the cardinal says, is that he got an answer. Within a week, Raúl let him know that the Ladies in White would be allowed to continue their marches unmolested. Within a month, Ortega was at his first meeting with Raúl Castro, who began by telling him that he intended to release all of Cuba's political prisoners.

Since then the 73-year-old cardinal has met three more times with the 79-year-old president to talk about the prisoner releases and the possibility of change in Cuba. Not "reform," mind you, and certainly not "democracy" -- Raúl Castro does not like those words. Ortega has nevertheless come away convinced that "this is something new," as he put it to me in an interview. Castro's prisoner releases, he contends, "open possibilities."

What is possible? That has become an important question as Raúl Castro's not-reform creeps forward and as Congress considers legislation that would shred what remains of the U.S. trade "embargo" by lifting all restrictions on travel to Cuba and further liberalizing food exports. So far, two dozen imprisoned dissidents have been released into exile in Spain, the United States and Chile; the regime has publicly committed to free 28 others of the more than 100 who remain. On Aug. 1 Raúl Castro announced that the government would allow more private businesses and self-employment activity, in part as a way to occupy the 1 million workers -- 20 percent of the state labor force -- whom the government plans to lay off.

One view is that this is a replay of the standard Castro strategy for extracting the regime from a bind. The Cuban economy is even worse off than usual: Food production fell 7.5 percent in the first half of the year, and the last sugar harvest was the worst in a century. The last time the island faced such a severe economic crisis, in the early 1990s, Fidel Castro also loosened controls on private enterprise. As soon as the economy recovered, he shut down many of the businesses he had allowed. Releases of political prisoners are also not new: Fidel Castro did it in 1969, 1979 and 1998.

Still, some in and out of Cuba argue that Raúl Castro is up to something different. He understands, they say, that the Stalinist regime cannot survive in its present form, and he wants to modernize and stabilize it before he and his brother pass away. He faces stiff resistance from Fidel Castro -- who, after a four-year absence, began popping up in public within days of the first prisoner release. But Raúl, it is said, is nevertheless determined to methodically press forward with a program of change that will extend for years, rather than months.

Cardinal Ortega seems to subscribe to the rosier view. He was in Washington last week to collect an award from the Knights of Columbus; but it was his second visit in two months, and he has been meeting with officials in the Obama administration and Congress. He suggests that a big part of Raúl Castro's agenda is improving relations with the United States so that Cuba's economy can be revived by U.S. trade and investment. "He has a desire for an opening with the U.S. government," Ortega said. "He repeated to me on several occasions that he is ready to talk to the United States government directly, about every issue."

Does that include the democratic reforms the Obama administration has demanded as a condition for improved relations? "Everything should be step by step," Ortega said. "It's not realistic to begin at the end. This is a process. The most important thing is to take steps in the process."

I don't doubt the cardinal's sincerity. But I also find it hard to believe that Raúl Castro is Cuba's Mikhail Gorbachev. If anything, he resembles Yuri Andropov, one of Gorbachev's aged and ailing predecessors, who knew the Soviet system was unsustainable but lacked the will or the political clout to change it. Ortega may be right that his dialogue with Raúl Castro is something new in Cuba. But the time for real change -- and for deeper engagement by the United States -- has not yet arrived.

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