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Cuban President Raul Castro is Latin America's last dictator. (Photo: Agecom Bahia)
USAID contractor Alan Gross has spent more than 1,000 days in jail in Cuba for providing Cuban groups with Internet equipment.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cuba: The Last Dictatorship

Despite recent reforms, Cuba remains Latin America's most politically and economically repressed country.


Last week, the Cuban government announced that it was planning to lift travel restrictions in January for most people. The restrictions have been in place since 1961 and led to thousands of Cubans leaving illegally -- taking to the dangerous straights between the island and Miami on old boats and even rafts. Many died along the way.

Yet, for all the reforms from President Raul Castro, Cuba remains Latin America’s last dictatorship after the fall of General Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay in 1989, the transfer of power in Chile from General Augusto Pinochet to an elected president in 1990 and the brief Haitian military rule from 1991 to 1994.

While other Latin American leaders have tried to emulate the Cuban model, most notably Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, no other country on the continent has the same level of political and economic repression as Cuba.

Freedom House gives Cuba a score of 7 in political rights and 6 in civil liberties compared with 5 in Venezuela in both categories and 1 in Chile, Costa Rica, Panama and Uruguay -- the freest countries in Latin America.


Unlike Venezuela under Chavez, Cuba hasn’t even bothered with presidential elections since the 1959 revolution that toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista.

For years, Castro’s brother Fidel argued that the revolution gave the new government enough of a mandate. In 1988 he ignored calls by prominent intellectuals to follow the lead of Pinochet and hold a referendum on whether or not he should continue in power. (Pinochet lost and handed over power to the winner of the 1989 presidential elections, Patricio Aylwin).

While Venezuela has a beleaguered opposition (with various new and old political parties) that is constantly fighting against Chavez and his followers, Cuba doesn’t have one single opposition party. All candidates that ran in elections for 14,537 municipal posts on Sunday belong to the same party, Cuba’s Communist Party.

The country’s vocal opposition is instead concentrated in a limited and relatively small group of dissidents that are more known outside of the island than in the Caribbean country thanks to the extensive restrictions on freedom of expression.

“The economic changes have created significant expectations which have now turned into disillusionment,” says Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS) at the University of Miami “There are increasing pressure for change, politically as well as a new phenomenon, racial tension. All of these movements are small, disorganized and yet not very effective.”

Yet, some observers see new grassroots movements such as the Women in White (Damas en Blanco) as having some impact. The Women in White consist of wives, daughters, mothers and other female relatives of political prisoners. They dress up in white and have frequent public protests (until they are carried off by the police). “The pressures to open up politically are the result of civic mobilization by the mothers and relatives of political prisoners, and the growing Cuban prodemocracy movement,” says Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.

While Venezuela still has several daily newspapers (including El Nacional, El Universal and Tal Cual) that frequently report on negative trends in the country, Cuba has no independent newspaper. Instead Cubans have to get their daily news from Granma (the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party), Juventud Rebelde (official organ of the Young Communists), Trabajadores (official organ of the state union) and Tribuna de la Habana. While some Venezuelans with cable can watch Globovision’s critical coverage of Chavez, no Cubans can watch any Cuban TV station with critical coverage of the government since the state controls all broadcast media.

When it comes to press freedom, Cuba gets the worst score in Latin America from  Reporters without Borders. Globally, it ranks among the 13 worst countries worldwide (of 179 nations).


While Chavez opponents have been unjustly arrested and jailed, political prisoners are the exception not the rule in Venezuela. That’s not the case in Cuba, where there are several hundred political prisoners.

Cuba also has jailed foreign citizens, most notably USAID contractor Alan Gross, who has now spent more than 1,000 days imprisoned since December 2009 on charges of espionage after he provided Internet equipment to Jewish groups.  His wife is concerned Gross may die in jail as he suffers from health problems, including
degenerative arthritis and other ailments. 44 U.S. Senators have asked Raul Castro to release Gross (see Letter to Raul Castro)

Another prominent foreign prisoner is Angel Carromero, member of Spain’s Young Conservatives (Nuevas Generaciones). He was arrested when the car he drove crashed into a tree and killed dissident Oswaldo Paya and Harold Cepero on July 22. Last week, Carromero was convicted to four years in prison. However, relatives of Paya – considered Cuba’s most prominent dissident when he died -- say they doubt the official version, which they have only heard of through official media. Instead they are asking for an independent investigation into Paya’s death, including the possibility that the crashed car was forced off the road by another automobile. The relatives also criticized the trial against Carromeno, including the fact that they weren’t allowed access and that a fourth passenger in the car, Swedish politician Jens Aron Modig, wasn’t present. (Cuban authorities had let him travel to Sweden on July 31).


Since coming to power six years ago, Raul Castro has introduced some reforms that allow a greater private role in the economy such as easing of some restrictions on private enterprise and private property rights.

“Raul’s changes were intended to release some of the pressure internally in Cuba, not to bring Cuba into a market economy,” Suchlicki warns. “I don’t think that we will see any more changes or opening ups in the economy.”

Cuba still has the most repressed economy in Latin America, according to the Heritage Foundation. Its economy is only 28.3 percent free, it says. That means Cuba’s economy is the third-most repressed in the world, ranking in 177th place out of 179 nations on the foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom for 2012. Only Zimbabwe and North Korea are worse.

In fact, Cuba’s situation is now worse than in 2005 -- the year before Raul become president. Then Heritage deemed the economy 35.5 percent free.

“Cuba’s inefficient state-run economy performs very poorly in the Index, with component scores far below world averages in many categories,” Heritage says. “The agriculture sector is in shambles, mining is depressed, and tourism revenue has been falling.”

Although Cuba has allowed some foreign investment, international firms find Cuba a difficult destination, with constant changes to rules (especially affecting currency issues), widespread corruption and significant restrictions.

As a result, foreign direct investment is a pittance compared to Cuba’s potential. Meanwhile, the continued restrictions on local private enterprise are impeding any real economic growth of the country.

Cuban officials like to blame the U.S. embargo for the island’s problems, but the restrictions on local and foreign investments and the widespread corruption are homemade.

While there was much speculation that Raul would implement China or Vietnam-style changes (economic freedom, political repression) when he assumed power in 2006, that has simply not happened.  According to the Heritage Foundation, China’s economy is 51.2 percent free, while that of Vietnam is 51.3 percent free – or nearly twice as free as Cuba’s under Raul Castro.

The result of 53 years of socialist policies in Cuba is a crumbling economy, with buildings throughout the country literally falling to pieces. Instead of looking like the Dominican Republic, Cuba looks more like Haiti these days. In some areas, Haiti even beats Cuba.

That’s the case of technology. Cuba remains the wireless laggard of Latin America, with the smallest market and lowest penetration rate, according to the Latinvex analysis.
It only has 1.3 million wireless subscriptions, or three times less than much-poorer Haiti. Its penetration rate of 11.7 percent is nearly ten times less than the Latin American average and ranks as the world’s fifth-lowest after countries like Myanmar, Korea, Eritrea and Somalia.

The only lifelines Cuba has are Venezuela, which is providing economic help, and remittances from Cubans in the United States.


The only clear way for Cuba to get out of its misery is to allow political and economic freedom. But, is there any hope for change? Yes, argue observers like Calzon. A combination of internal and external pressure can lead to a free Cuba, he argues.

“The internal opposition continues to grow, and every day is more courageous,” Calzon says, citing the examples of recent hunger strikes and have been able to obtain a positive response from the regime about specific cases of political prisoners.

Less than two weeks ago – on October 11 – Cuban authorities freed Jorge Vazquez Chaviano, whose case had been brought up by an eight-day hunger strike by Martha Beatriz Roque and other dissidents last month.

“Despite what the regime and the Cuban Cardinal said, the group of 75 was released due to internal mobilization and outside pressure,” Calzon says, pointing to the arrest in 2003 by a group of opponents of the regime that were released in 2010 and last year.

Externally, both NGOs and governments can put the necessary pressure as well. “The growing support from free Cubans around the world and international human rights organizations is another factor,” Calzon says. “If that support grows, despite government efforts to frighten and intimidate those who are willing to provide help to Cuba's nascent civil society, the day of Cuba's liberation will come sooner.”

Then there are the policies of governments in the United States and Europe. “To the degree that the Europeans -- now that the socialist Spanish government has been voted out of office and is no longer carrying water for Havana -- will stand firm in support of the European’s Common Position [of] insisting on economic and political reforms in Cuba, Cubans will achieve freedom,” Calzon says.

As for U.S. policy on Cuba, he argues for a change. “Mr. Obama’s soft policy in regard to Cuba has failed,” he says. “The Cuban authorities remain stuck in a Cold War mentality, and … providing them with any benefits without insisting on something in return of benefit to the Cuban people strengthens the dictatorship. When Mr. Obama came to office, he extended a hand of friendship to governments hostile to the United States, including Cuba. He said that he expected them to open their clenched fists. No one could argue that the accommodating policy of the President, as far as North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Cuba, has obtained the desired results. The opposite has occurred. The level of anti-Americanism remains -- look at the case of American hostage Alan Gross -- despite Havana's benefiting from millions of dollars in remittances, tourist travel to the island, visas for the relatives of the ruling elite to come to the United States to campaign against U.S. policies.”

Independent of any policy changes from Washington or Brussels, it is unclear how long the government can continue with limited reforms while Cuba continues to crumble.

While Cuba will continue receiving aid from Venezuela, that may start falling as the South American country faces growing economic problems of its own. Meanwhile, there is widespread speculation that Chavez – the main foreign ally of the Cuban government – won’t be able to fully serve his new six-year mandate due to his cancer.

In the end, Raul Castro will have to recognize that a few reforms here and there simply are not enough. The whole economic system needs to be replaced with a market-driven system (even a European-style social democracy would do), while the time to end the Castro family dynasty is long overdue.

“The Castro brothers are stalling,” Calzon says. “Like Hitler in late 1944, they know they lost the war. Hitler knew it, but despite the many deaths and terrible German suffering, he chose to stall. Just like the Castro brothers today, every week, every month that he remained in power was, for him, a success. Just like in Nazi Germany, there are men in the armed forces that understand the criminal behavior and disregard for the welfare of the Cubans, which is the result of the Castros’ unwillingness to confront reality.”

In the meantime, Cubans must endure Latin America’s last dictatorship.

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