We must stanch Cuba's coming crisis

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Saturday, September 18, 2010

Is this the beginning of the end for the Castro brothers in Cuba, and if so, what should Washington do?

The announcement Monday that, over the next six months, Cuba will fire more than 500,000 workers -- or fully 10 percent of the workforce in a country of 11 million people -- is a far more radical change than any of the island's past free-market flirtations and an extraordinary admission of failure.

The firings have already begun, and the question is whether Raul Castro, the plan's champion, can control an unraveling of this perestroika any better than Mikhail Gorbachev did in the Soviet Union.

Personally, I doubt it. Raul is an admirer of the Chinese model of economic freedom and political dictatorship, but Cuba isn't China. Fidel is 84, Raul is 79, and they haven't allowed anyone to be groomed to replace them. The Cuban government represses its people, but the country's revolutionary fervor is long gone. There is no national, unifying sense of mission to replace it.

The iconic Fidel still enjoys some popular fondness, and there has been much speculation over just what he meant when he recently told an Atlantic magazine reporter that "the Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore." He told students at the University of Havana on Friday that he was merely musing. But the firings are hard evidence either that he agrees with the change or that he is irrelevant.

The latter is unlikely, though since Fidel fell ill four years ago and turned over direct control to his brother, the relationship between the two has been murky.

And no one in the American government, unfortunately, cares enough to figure it out. The CIA, burned by Cuban moles and disinformation, has arrived at the understandable conclusion that impoverished Cuba is hardly a threat to the United States -- or anyone else -- and thus not worth the effort.

This has left much of government policy to overheated exiles and political charlatans, some in Congress, who seek only to punish the Castros. To be sure, reasonable arguments are made by the likes of Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida that pressure might force freedom, particularly now that the Cuban economy is on the ropes.

The Obama administration, in typical wonkish fashion, calibrates. It has made it easier for Cuban Americans to visit the island and send money to relatives there, and soon may expand outreach to cultural, sports and other "people-to-people" exchanges as Cuba reciprocates with such measures as the recent freeing of 26 political prisoners and the promised freeing of 26 more.

But the punishment principle is the same and has failed for 50 years. Even most dissidents inside Cuba oppose the trade embargo and travel restrictions. The Castros use it to drum up internal support. They especially campaign on the fear that Cuban Americans will come back and, with U.S. government backing, reclaim houses from people living in them now, as the 1996 Helms-Burton Act stipulates. The embargo should be unilaterally lifted as a way to kick out the last remaining struts supporting the dictatorship. We should flood the island with American tourists and money at a time when the Castros will have difficulty rejecting or controlling it. Short of that, Congress should overturn the reclamation provision of Helms-Burton, which is unprecedented in American law.

Cuba is indeed in crisis. It so lacks hard currency that it has cut needed agricultural and industrial imports, has frozen supplier accounts, and suffers shortages from toothpaste to potatoes. Tourism is flat, nickel prices are low and an estimated $5 billion in annual subsidies from Venezuela's Hugo Chávez are iffy.

The firings are a breathtaking gamble. About 85 percent of Cubans work for the state, and it is unclear whether the tiny private sector can absorb a half-million workers. Internal Cuban documents forecast turmoil. The average monthly salary is only $20, but most necessities are covered under a social contract in which Cubans give up political freedom in return for a guaranteed job and minimal security.

That contract is being broken. Unless we want those half-million workers taking inner tubes and small boats to Florida, we need to respond wisely.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is edward.schumachermatos@yahoo.com.

More Post Opinions on Cuba: Cuban writer Yoani Sánchez on Fidel Castro, past and present, and Post columnist Jackson Diehl on Raul Castro's plans to modernize Cuba.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company