Monday, February 25, 2008

Dialog with the left about supporting reform in Cuba

My letter to the New York Times has discomforted some on the left who are uncomfortable with the concept that US policy should be shaped to support reform. Following is my response.

Fundamentally the need for Cuba and other similar nations is to get big countries to respect the sovereignty and right to be different of smaller neighbors. While that feels like an issue of imperialism from the inside of the imperium, communist Vietnam has the same problem with communist China.

The reality is that smaller neighbors will always be influenced and shaped by bigger neighbors, for better or for worse, especially when size, wealth and power are so unequal. They need to find ways to protect their independence and identity within that reality.

Vietnam has done it by being strong, building up countervailing regional and international relationships but also by flattering China's assumption of its natural preeminence. Cuba has used the first and second means to deal with the US, but has not been very good at the last.

It is not surprising that aware people in the big bullying country sometimes overcompensate and uncritically identify with the perspective of the smaller country. Some folks go to Cuba and see nothing but problems, or overstate them. Others go and see courage and righteousness. Any problems are blamed on the US.

I have noted that official Cuban interlocutors have increasingly adopted the stance that Cuba is neither heaven nor hell. They convey both approach and avoidance to the older pattern of un-(or barely) critical solidarity.

I don't see any downside to acknowledging that there are serious problems within Cuba and not all of them can be blamed on the US--just as Raul Castro does; and that there is a serious effort underway to frankly describe and solve these problems, a.k.a. reform.

The more a country is under threat and feels vulnerable, the less likely it is to take risks which are seen as exposing itself to outside interference and to acknowledge its vulnerability. For example one reason that has been advanced by Cubans who oppose more entrepreneurial activity has been that success promotes self rather than collective interest, leads to internal differences and undermines the presumed bulwark of solidarity.

From my experience in Vietnam, I think the solidarity of impoverishment is not nearly as motivational as a sense of opportunity to succeed personally and as a family, and to escape the bureaucracy that is intrinsically intrusive when a government tries to assure equity.

Those who have power in any system always have the best of reasons to make their lives more comfortable than the average and become resented by those who do not have such power, even if the system also gives them unparalleled social benefits. This is true in Cuba today and moral lectures or policing are unlikely to reverse it.

One way to balance official/party privilege is to open ways for people to improve their lot through alternative means of private endeavors. Obviously that can get out of control too, creating its own set of conflicts as private wealth and comparative poverty accelerates. That process is well advanced in China and Vietnam faces some of the same risks.

Never-the-less, I know no Vietnamese who wants to go back to the past even though appalled by aspects of the present.

I think the extraordinary accomplishments of Cuba's revolution are more at risk if they are not able to achieve significant reform so I think it is actually an act of friendship and not of intervention to say explicitly that a different US policy will help reforms to happen.

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