Should Cuba democratise?

2 March 2008

Rob Wilkinson

In many ways, when Fidel Castro retired last week after 49 years in power and 600 or so attempts on his life, the immediate consequences were, to the sensationalists of the press at least, anticlimactic.

For the last decade or so, political commentators in the West, notably those on the right of the political spectrum, have predicted a political crisis in Cuba upon Castro’s departure a sudden uprising and a violent desire for change, similar to that seen when Marshal Tito died in Yugoslavia.

Of course, these predictions are extremely unrealistic as Cuba is a relatively stable nation-state compared to the artificially created Yugoslavia, but we are nevertheless likely to see some soul-searching in the Cuban zeitgeist in this post-Castro age, and one of the political hot potatoes will surely be the question of whether to adopt democracy.

The US has of course demanded democratisation, shouting the usual neo-liberal platitudes and rhetoric about ‘freedom’ and democracy’s inherent superiority as a system, while at the same time tempering it with some good old 50s style rhetoric about the red menace, just so the rednecks don’t think they’re going soft on the “commies”.

Tone apart, you might ask, what do you have against democracy? My direct answer is nothing, I think government by the people and the principle of free and frequent elections is a fine thing, and I think Cuba would benefit from democratisation if we are talking about the purely institutional aspects (separation of powers, free press, free political association etc).

The trouble is that this is not what America means by democracy. To America, democratisation invariably also means economic liberalisation, and that would be extremely bad for Cuba.

As a communist state (however imperfect it may be), living in Cuba offers its citizens many advantages, with wide ranging welfare programmes, great social equality and one of the best healthcare systems in the world (far better than the corrupt and avaricious system present in America).

Liberalisation would threaten all these things as services would be sold off and privatised, workers would be laid off and the country would be forced into entering the free market.

I can see why this would be attractive to some Cubans as it would lead to the end of the hated trade embargo that America absurdly insists on imposing on Cuba, and the economy may indeed benefit as a result of this, but the question we must ask is “at what cost?”

Democratising Cuba on the US’s terms would lead to Cuba no longer being the symbol of anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism that it has come to be but rather just another market state for America to impose its own version of a gelatinous homogenised society upon. I would advise Cuba not to take this course, and to instead continue to trade with South American states such as Venezuela and Bolivia.

Having said that, I do acknowledge that some institutional democratisation would be extremely beneficial to Cuba as, reinforcing the separation of powers and holding elections more often would create the necessary checks and balances to guard against potential tyranny from the state, without having to abandon the commitment to a left wing agenda as well.

Essentially it is a choice not up to America, or the world, or me, but rather the Cuban people. As it happens, Castro is still very popular in Cuba, but there is a new agitation for reform, especially given the economic situation, and as a result, when and if democracy is instituted Cuba shall have to be careful that the negative liberty that accompanies it (free press etc) will be gained without losing the positive liberty of a protective and socially conscious state.

Robert Wilkinson is a 2nd year SPS student.