July 26 is Cuba’s equivalent of our July 4th. Today was the 59th anniversary of a failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, which ended the first attempt at a revolution to overthrow Fulgencio Batista. There were 82 exiled revolutionaries who met in Mexico two years later and named their group “The 26th of July Movement.” It was this group, led by Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and Huber Matos, who put together the 1959 revolution which established the Castro communist regime.
Today, at the end of the Revolution Day ceremony, First Secretary Raul Castro departed from the usual revolutionary rhetoric to say that early diplomatic moves have been made to open discussions with the United States. “Any day they want, the table is set…If they want to talk, we will talk.” Castro did make it clear that the United States would have to be willing to listen, not just talk. “We are nobody’s colony, nobody’s puppet.”
Cuba’s issues involve our embargo, which only we are honoring, and our continued presence at Guantanamo Bay. We signed the Cuban-American treaty in 1903 to lease the area where we have a naval base. The base was used to house both Haitian and Cuban refugees, but is now a military prison for terrorists at a cost to the American taxpayer of over $1 million a day. President Obama wants to close the military prison and transfer the prisoners to a high security prison in America. The Cubans want us to get out because they believe we are violating the terms of the lease by not using Gitmo as a refueling and naval base.
The right wing in America is clinging to the idea that the embargo cannot be lifted until Cuba has democratic reform and improvements in human rights. They don’t understand the nature of the relationship between the jailing of dissidents and our embargo.
A dictator needs an outside enemy to unite the people he is oppressing. Economic sanctions such as the trade and travel embargo are useful as scapegoats for any failure of the regime to improve the lives of the people. If the enemy is defeated, expelled or lifts the sanctions, the regime is in danger of having their failures put on their heads and the people will revolt. This is what happened to Juan Peron in Argentina, and the Cuban revolutionaries learned the lesson. So, every time someone in American suggesting easing relations, Fidel Castro would throw someone in jail or do something to aggravate the U. S. and the embargo would go on.
But Raul Castro doesn’t need to continue that pattern. Other countries have invested in Cuba. He has started transitioning the country to a capitalist economy. He does not need to blame anyone else for the country’s problems because he has taken responsibility for them and is changing things.
The first phase of the economic changes involved the government quietly allowing the employees of small businesses to “lease” the government-owned business and run it as a private enterprise. After a certain period of time, the government would transfer ownership to the employees, with the lease payments acting as the purchase price. They have targeted specific types of businesses in specific towns and the programs have, so far, been very popular and successful, with the employee-owners showing ingenuity and creativity. For example, the restaurants that are participating are expanding their menus and experimenting with new cuisines.
This week, the government entered phase two. They adapted a new tax code, loosened regulations on some state companies, and expanded the employee ownership program, moving some state companies into co-operatives.
Few details were released about the code, but Marino Murillo, head the communist party commission putting together the economic reforms, explained to the General Assembly that the government will cut small business taxes between 3% and 7%, eliminate the labor tax for companies with less than five employees, and the new taxes will benefit small farmers as well.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, chaos ensued. Without the communist government, there was no entity to pay workers. People went without paychecks for months. The army didn’t get paid. The first capitalists to take advantage of the chaos were criminals, the Russian mob. What could and should have been a transition to democracy turned into a nightmare and eventually the Russian people elected Vladimir Putin to clean up the mess and restore order. He has done that, and made it clear that he plans to restore single-party rule and dictatorship as well. China and Cuba watched the mess and decided to avoid it by changing their economies before someone threw a revolution and overthrew the government.
Cuba is probably more than a decade away from allowing the formation of opposition parties. Castro made a point in his Revolutionary Day speech to say that he would not allow a small group of dissidents to do unto him what was done to Moammar Qaddafi or is being done to Bashar al-Assad. But for all the bellicose oratory, our government needs to understand that encouraging the economic transition will aid the political transition. For that reason, it really is time to sit down and talk with the Cuban government and get over ourselves. It is their country and we don’t have any valid reason for continuing to treat them like a naughty child.