Castro's arrogance blocks aid
By Marifeli Perez-Stable
McClatchy Newspapers
Page 6
2008-09-28 01:23 AM
Hurricanes Gustav and Ike devastated Cuba. Preliminary estimates put damages at more than US$5 billion. The United Nations and more than 20 countries have already sent planeloads of humanitarian aid. Many Cuban exiles, too, are sending donations in cash, clothes and food.

On the question of U.S. aid, the United States and Cuba engaged in shameful posturing. In the end, Washington offered help unconditionally but did not issue a temporary suspension of the embargo, which Havana demanded.

Why the United States didn't offer aid without strings attached from the get-go is beyond me. Cuba would have said "No" anyway. Still, the Bush administration is speeding up licenses to nonprofit organizations for up to US$10 million in humanitarian aid each.

In one of his columns, Fidel Castro explained that "the dignity of a people has no price" and chastised "those in our country who are upset" with the decision not to accept U.S. help. Is the dignity so flaunted by Cuban leaders more important than helping ordinary Cubans when they most need it? The answer is a disgraceful "Yes."

What else can we conclude given Havana's "No" to donations from the European Union? Welcoming aid from countries that have yet to sign cooperation agreements is also an affront to dignity. In the European Union, only Spain and Belgium qualify to help the Cuban people. All the same, Cuba recently accepted an ongoing dialogue with the EU.

Playing politics

Cuban leaders are playing politics. With the EU, they hope to get cooperation agreements on their terms while sustaining a dialogue that isn't overly emphatic on human rights.

With or without strings, U.S. aid is noxious for official Cuba, which needs the United States as an enemy to bolster its David-Goliath image before the international community and as a scapegoat for its economic failures at home.

Though the damages from Gustav and Ike may yet prove overwhelming, the Cuban government knows how to respond to natural disasters. Havana's problems lie elsewhere, in governance. While patently insufficient, Raul Castro's economic reforms aim to ease the harshness of daily life.

Agriculture - devastated by pigheaded policies - is most in need. After a long decline, agricultural output grew in 2007 at the first inkling of more reasonable policies. On Sept. 15, the government finally started leasing peasants land that had lain fallow in state hands. More than 16,000 applied in the first three days.

Learning from others

In the early '90s, Cuban leaders learned from the strategic errors made by three friends:

n No economic and political openings as Mikhail Gorbachev had done.

n No hundreds of thousands gathering in protest in the country's premier public square as happened in China.

n No elections without a victory guarantee as the Sandinista defeat in Nicaragua indicated.

Power and arrogance are soul mates. The former Soviet Union, Deng Xiaoping and Daniel Ortega thought they could pull it off but didn't. Before the hurricanes, Cuba was already facing dire economic straits.

Faint-hearted reforms

The government responded by stalling the faint-hearted reforms. Maybe Fidel vetoed broadening them; he'd done it before in the 1990s. Albeit, Cuban leaders are profoundly averse to change, prize caution above all and, in any case, don't really know what to do.

Cuba's gerontocracy had hoped to set things minimally right before passing the torch to younger generations. Let them be audacious and live with consequences. But nature has thrown a big wrench in their works. Without meaningful economic openings, forget about a recovery from Gustav and Ike that meets the most urgent needs.

That's why caution is more risky than audacity. Cuba's old men - some quite brave in the battle long ago - hesitate rather than muster the courage to do the right thing from the heights of power.

If at the end of the day caution wins, the Castro brothers and their colleagues could well fall victims to a strategic error of their own making.

Marifeli Perez-Stable is vice president for democratic governance at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, a professor at Florida International University and a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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