Sunday, February 9, 2014

Cuba and the democratic dilemma


The irony of communist-run Cuba holding the presidency of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations (Celac), and staging the second annual summit of the group in Havana, was not lost on many. One of the aims of Celac is to promote democracy in the region, and in the final communiqué member nations pledged to "strengthen our democracies and human rights for all."

Celac was set up at the behest of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez as a means of countering the influence of the United States in Latin America. It is therefore perhaps surprising, to some at least, that so many of the countries that have not been traditional allies of Chávez-Maduro's Venezuela have been so keen to get involved. On the other hand, that may reflect the new reality of Latin America, that across the political spectrum the region looks increasingly less to Washington. Whatever the case, Celac has emerged as yet another attempt at regional integration.

Cuba, meanwhile, has also changed in the seven years since Raúl Castro took over from his brother Fidel. Small businesses have sprung up across the island, travel restrictions have been partly lifted (it's high time the US did the same for its citizens wanting to visit Cuba), and Cubans can buy mobile phones and even imported cars, albeit at exorbitant prices, to name a few of the reforms implemented. Even the country's baseball players are now allowed to ply their trade abroad without the need to defect. While major political changes have yet to be seen, and probably won't be for as long as the octogenarian Castro brothers are around, the modest opening up of the economy is welcome news,

From Havana's point of view, of course, there's nothing ironic about Cuba promoting democracy. The official line is that Cuba is a bastion of democracy, just not of the western liberal-bourgeois variety, which it doesn't regard as true democracy at all. But while democracy does indeed come in all shapes and sizes, by any reasonable yardstick Cuba cannot be considered democratic. It has indirect elections to the legislature, but the candidates are vetted and there's only one political party allowed. There's no free press, no independent judiciary and political arrests are commonplace.

There are, nevertheless, plenty of examples of dictatorships far worse than Cuba's. North Korea, which also regards itself as a democratic country, is one case that springs to mind. And as Havana has clearly set out on the road to reform, the process of bringing Cuba back into the international community, even through talking shops like Celac, is to be encouraged. Economic and other reforms offer the hope that the country may undergo a smooth transition when the time eventually comes, rather than descend into chaos. One of the most effective ways to give momentum to this process would be to end the five-decades old US embargo on the island, which apart from benefiting both countries' economies, would take away the regime's favorite excuse for whatever goes wrong. Perhaps the Burma/Myanmar model of opening up and reforming, or even what's currently happening in Iran, could offer some valuable lessons for Cuba and the outside world.

February 06, 2014

BN americas