In Cuba This Summer, The Carrot and The Stick

Uh oh, I thought, reading today's Miami Herald front-pager entitled "Wave of Arrests Targets Cuban Activists." Word has gotten out that over this past Fourth of July weekend, 200 dissidents and opposition activists were rounded up -- for a few hours or a day -- on their way to an Independence Day party at the United States interests section in Havana. Part of an increase in harrassment after the European Union lifted five-year-old sanctions in June, so far this year these annoying catch-and-releases have added up to some 700.

Yet interestingly, at the same time another dispatch has come out of Havana, this time from the regime, announcing the island's first major land reform since the 1960s. As reported by the BBC and in the Communist Party newspaper Granma, a Council of State decree essentially admits that the state's takeover of farmland has been a bust (Cuba has to import more than half its food -- and please don't anybody tell me this is the fault of the U.S. embargo, especially since much of the grub they're importing is from Archer Daniels Midland and its ilk), and so now some acreage that's been going unused will be turned over to private individuals and cooperatives. Holy Carlos Marx, Batman!

Now, I've argued several times on this site that since Fidel Castro stepped aside last February, there has in fact been real change afoot down here -- and far more than allowing the public to buy cellphones or visit formerly off-limits resorts, this development is the clearest proof yet that what's going on is more than cosmetic: it's a matter of survival for the ruling class.

One of the dissidents recently hauled in scoffed, "Raúl Castro's strategy is to create a mirage of change for the international community to mask the fact that acts of repression are increasing." That may well be true, but one thing doesn't negate the other. To me it's a clear sign that the régime is in fact aiming for the authoritarian China model, the one that has created unprecedented economic opportunity for its people (while, incidentally, becoming the main feeder of the ravenous consumerist maw that is the U.S.) while keeping the lid on its social control. The Castro gang is in effect saying, "we're trying to raise your standard of living, but keep your damn noses out of politics, or else."

Frankly, most Cubans would be more than happy with that bargain (and they're far from alone -- after all, even many Americans these days aren't all that fussy about our Constitution, but let the price of gas go up, and watch out). But still, the right to political and social freedom is crucial to human development and dignity, and we can never let up the pressure on that front (even with our massively damaged credibility). Political freedom can flow from economic freedom, as has happened in South Korea and elsewhere -- that's why it's all the more important that we get rid of much of this joke of an embargo that's ironically helped the Castroites stay in power all these years. Especially the ban on most personal travel -- instead, flood the streets of Havana and Santiago de Cuba and Camaguey and Pinar del Río with living, breathing examples of freedom and (more or less) democracy. In a gargantuan country like China, this influx would be a drop in the bucket, but in a small country like Cuba, it can make a real and tangible difference. What in the world are we afraid of?