A friend e-mailed me this morning wondering what I thought about the announcement of Fidel Castro's resignation. Many people assume that the future of Cuba is a zero-sum affair: either the Cuban Communist Party continues in power, or a dramatic and rapid (and hopefully "velvet") revolution sweeps it aside. The East German model, I think, influences this perception, as well as messianic rhetoric from the Miami crowd. When we take a closer look at political history in formally communist states what we find is a more nuanced picture. The descendants of the old Soviet parties elsewhere in Europe (Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland) have varying degrees of power, in Romania they are a major player. They are today small-c conservative forces in their societies. In the Far East communist parties in Vietnam and most notably China have been, I think, surprisingly successful at holding on to centralized political power while cultivating market-driven economies (a true Marxist would have to regard this as the worst of both worlds). However I still suspect that economic development in China leads to class formation leads to political pluralism in the long run. Nicaragua is a closer model of course and there we see a Sandinista Party that continues to be one of the biggest parties after any number of electoral ups and downs. Like the Sandinistas, the Cuban communists will still be a force in the bureaucracy, the labor unions and the military for years to come after a change in regime. This is the reality that is clouded by radical rhetoric from Florida.
What does this all mean for Cuba? The exile fantasy of a Berlin Wall-style overnight transformation is possible but I think unlikely. A partial liberalization from within is to be expected for financial reasons more than political ones. But the biggest question for Cuba is not what happens when the Castro brothers are gone. The biggest question is what happens when the United States normalizes relations and lifts the embargo, as I think it should. If there is anything that might spark a rapid velvet revolution and bring down Cuban communism, that would be it. The failure of centralized planning to produce wealth or provide opportunity would then be completely exposed. How ironic that the exile community, and their influence on US policy, is today the main pillar holding up the Cuban Communist Party!