By Abraham F. Lowenthal, professor of international relations, University of Southern California
This opinion article appeared in the Los Angeles Times on April 13, 2000
The heart-wrenching drama surrounding Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year old Cuban boy whose mother drowned as they tried to reach Florida, highlights that Cuba is widely perceived as a forbidding world of its own, entirely different from its Caribbean Basin neighbors.
Although wrenched for 40 years from its regional context by Fidel Castro and his commitment to communism, Cuba today is actually in many ways remarkably similar to its neighbors.
Even after four decades of vigorously asserting its national sovereignty and autonomy, Cuba remains extremely vulnerable, like its neighbors, both to adverse international developments and to the weather. Whatever their political, social, and economic systems, the Caribbean and Central American countries are all highly subject to external forces, whether trends in the international capitalist economy, changes in geopolitics, or events in the world of meteorology.
In terms of economic performance, Cuba is also like other Caribbean and Central American countries, many of which have caught up with Cuba's previously superior rate of growth, infrastructure, and productivity. Once one of Latin America's richest countries, Cuba has fallen to the mid-range on most indicators, and closely resembles other Caribbean Basin nations in the structure and level of its economy.
The most striking similarity between Cuba and the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean is that Cuba, too, is struggling to balance the requirements of capital, including foreign investment, with those of social programs and equity. After a generation of building "socialism," Cuba has been turning by fits and starts toward capitalist instruments and market mechanisms, just as other Latin American and Caribbean nations are groping to combine market instruments with greater attention to the grave social problems that markets by themselves do not resolve. The difficult trade-offs and balances that must be faced are somewhat different for Cuba than for the rest of Latin America, but the underlying issue is the same.
Most Latin American and Caribbean nations face three main challenges: equity, education, and governance. Cuba, by comparison with most, has done relatively well at the first two tasks. It has greater social and economic equity, and a better-educated labor force, than most of Latin America. It boasts high rates of literacy, low levels of infant mortality and malnutrition, and decent levels of health care and other social services - despite severe economic shortfalls, the loss of former Soviet subsidies and markets, and the U.S. embargo.
Cuba's critical challenge without question is governance. Castro is a distinctly authoritarian ruler. His prolonged reign has stifled political institutions, repressed political and civil rights, destroyed the independent media, undermined rule of law, and weakened accountability to any standard but his own approval. One way or another, Cuba will need to construct viable political institutions that can replace the grip of one man.
An interesting question for the next few years is whether Cuba will continue to escape the general trend of our other neighbors around the Caribbean Basin, which are becoming ever more integrated with the United States. Because of the U.S.-Cuba hostility, Cuba has resisted the powerful forces bonding other Caribbean islands more closely with the U.S. economically, socially, demographically, culturally, and politically.
During the next 25 years, Caribbean and Central American nations are likely to become even more fully absorbed in the U.S. orbit: using the U.S. dollar as their currencies; sending almost all their exports to the United States; relying largely on U.S. tourists, investment, imports, and technology; absorbing U.S. popular culture and fashions; sending migrants northward; and perhaps fielding major league baseball teams. All these statements will probably apply to Cuba in time.
Castro's legendary will notwithstanding, Cuba is likely to become close to the United States once again. No one, not even the Cuban exiles in Miami, really wants to revert to the virtually colonial U.S. domination of Cuba that prevailed before Castro's revolution. The challenge of building a new U.S.-Cuba relationship, based on acceptance of both Cuba's national identity and the powerful realities of economic and demographic interdependence, will have to be faced. To do so, we must begin to understand and deal with Cuba as it is, not with the myths advanced by either Castro or his enemies.