Do economic reforms lead to democratization, or does democratization lead to economic progress? This is the fundamental question surrounding the debate over the Obama administration’s U.S.-Cuba policy. President Obama and his supporters believe that economic reforms will empower the population to demand political reforms, whereas critics point out that General Castro has been perfectly clear that Cuba will not undertake any political reforms.
Let’s put aside, for present purposes, the ethical problems of a U.S. foreign policy that embraces despots and establishes a moral equivalence between oppressors and oppressed. The focus here is on the ‘what should come first’ aspect of reforms. The transition experience of the East European countries, provides the answer to the sequencing a question. Fredo Arias King, an expert with encyclopedic knowledge of post-Soviet democratization, classifies the East European end-game experiences into eight groups:
Overthrow- Where communism ended when dissidents were able to overthrow an obstinate communist party and form a new government made up primarily of dissidents (Czechoslovakia-1989, East Germany, Yugoslavia, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia)
Substitution- Where communist parties were more flexible and willing to negotiate a transition (Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Slovenia).
Transformation-Where the principal communist leaders took the initiative toward regime change without the presence of great social pressures (Soviet Union-1985, Hungary-1956, and Czechoslovakia-1968)
Reappearance- Where former high-level government officials, who had been removed from power, used the nascent democratic movement to return to power (Russia, Romania, and Croatia)
Replacement- Where mid-level officials took up the flag of democratic or nationalistic reform to undermine the regime they served (Hungary-1989, Serbia-1989, and Bulgaria)
Reincarnation- Where the state parties felt great social pressure to fake a brake with communism in order to survive (Ukraine, Moldova, Albania, Mongolia, Macedonia, and Latvia)
Continuity- Where the communist leaders unexpectedly turned into the leaders of independent nations, but retained the principal structures of repression and the command economy (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Belarus)
Violence- Where leaders used state violence to provoke civil wars and retain power (Tajikistan, Serbia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan)
Regardless of the typology, Arias King’s measurements, fifteen years after the transitions, show that those Eastern European countries that instituted political change prior to, or hand in hand with, economic changes were the most successful in becoming both free and prosperous, e.g., Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, East Germany. Those countries that decided to begin with economic reforms and postponed political changes were mostly unsuccessful in both areas, e.g., Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan)
The historical evidence answers the question that economic reforms do not necessarily lead to democratization, and shows that democratization is most likely to lead to economic progress. Democratization is the horse that must lead the cart of economic progress. Putting the cart before the horse means that neither economic nor political reforms will go far.
Yes, Cuba’s history is not that of Eastern Europe and its transition experience will be distinctly Cuban. I leave it up to the reader to divine Cuba’s most likely scenario, but my bet is on processes led by the Cuban Armed Forces evoking continuity disguised as change. This is Cuba’s Gordian knot. Continuity disguised as change does not remove the institutional impediments to individual freedoms and empowerment.
What was not understood by President Obama and his supporters is that political rights and civil liberties are not superfluous luxuries to be appended at the end of a program of economic reforms. Political rights and civil liberties are what allow an empowered citizenry to correct mistakes, voice discontent, and bring about changes in leadership. Democracy requires a relationship between the state and its citizens fundamentally different from the relationship model of an absolutist state.
Economic reforms not anchored on individual political freedoms condemn Cuban society to live a provisional existence without a recognizable end. Living such a provisional existence wounds the human spirit and does not promote the development of democratic sociopolitical values. Peoples that experience only an existence without a future cannot become the citizens that will sustain a democratic state. Freedom is not an extravagance that can wait until the arrival of prosperity.
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This article was originally published in English in the PanAm Post and in Spanish in El Nuevo Herald.
José Azel, Ph.D.
José Azel left Cuba in 1961 as a 13 year-old political exile in what has been dubbed Operation Pedro Pan - the largest unaccompanied child refugee movement in the history of the Western Hemisphere.
He is currently dedicated to the in-depth analyses of Cuba's economic, social and political state, with a keen interest in post-Castro-Cuba strategies as a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS) at the University of Miami and has published extensively on Cuba related topics.
In 2012 and 2015, Dr. Azel testified in the U.S. Congress on U.S.-Cuba Policy, and U.S. National Security. He is a frequent speaker and commentator on these and related topics on local, national and international media. He holds undergraduate and masters degrees in business administration and a Ph.D. in International Affairs from the University of Miami.
Dr. Azel is author ofMañana in Cuba: The Legacy of Castroism and Transitional Challenges for Cuba, published in March 2010 and of Pedazos y Vacios, a collection of poems he wrote as a young exile in the 1960's.
José along with his wife Lily are avid skiers and adventure travelers. In recent years they have climbed Grand Teton in Wyoming, trekked Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Machu Pichu in Peru. They have also hiked in Tibet and in the Himalayas to Mt. Everest Base Camp.
They cycled St. James Way (El Camino de Santiago de Compostela) and cycled alongside the Danube from Germany to Hungary. They have scuba dived in the Bay Islands off the Honduran coast.
Their adventurers are normally dedicated to raise funds for causes that are dear to them.