As Havana and Miami wait for further news about the health of Fidel Castro, his long-serving deputy, younger brother Raul Castro, has emerged from the shadows. The Bush administration may believe that Raul, lacking his brother's charisma, will be only a placeholder as Cuba transitions to democracy; the administration has boosted its financial outlay on efforts to promote regime change there. As Wayne Smith, a former U.S. diplomat in Havana, told The New York Times last week, the White House's policy has changed from trying to undermine Fidel to stopping him from being replaced by Raul.
But Raul could prove more powerful than Washington expects, primarily because he enjoys closer ties than Fidel with an important patron: China. The independent-minded Fidel long suffered rocky relations with Beijing, once describing revered former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping as a “numbskull.” Today, Chinese officials still do not trust the more mercurial Comandante.
Not so with Raul. Since the beginning of the 1990s, after Cuba lost its former patron, the Soviet Union, China has built closer ties to the island. Today China is Cuba's second-largest trading partner. Growing links between the two nations culminated in a 2004 deal committing China to $500 million in investment in Cuba, and new promises to restructure Cuba's debts and offer Cuba substantial new loans.
During this warming of relations, Chinese officials have targeted Raul and his peers in the Cuban defense establishment. In 1989, Raul made his first-ever overseas trip to China, and in 1997 China hosted Raul on another grand, high-profile visit. Fidel's brother has traveled to China on numerous other occasions, and has received informal lessons in China's model of growth by touring areas like Chongqing, a booming megacity in central China stoked by massive state subsidies.
In 1997, Raul reportedly spent long periods at the side of China's then-premier Zhu Rongji, considered one of the most committed economic reformers in Chinese history. According to Cuba expert William Ratliff, Raul then invited one of Zhu's top advisors back to Cuba, where he gave lectures to hundreds of top Cuban officials and executives. The only Cuban official hostile to Zhu's advisor, Ratliff notes, was Fidel himself.
China's wooing of Cuba is only part of a broader strategy in Latin America -- a region increasingly alienated from a Bush administration that has largely ignored its own hemisphere. Seeking better ties with Latin America, which contains valuable resources China needs (Cuba provides much of China's nickel), Chinese leaders have begun to present their countery as a model for the region – a model, that is, of state-directed economic development sans political liberalization. Such a model doesn't only resonate in Cuba. After all, the neoliberal economic model touted to the region by international financial institutions failed to deliver broad economic growth in the region during the 1990s, leaving many Latin Americans searching for other answers.
China has backed up its charm offensive in America's backyard. China's aid to Latin America, almost nonexistent ten years ago, now tops $700 million per year, according to an analysis by the National Defense University. Beijing adds to its aid by forgiving or rolling over Latin American debts and helping build infrastructure in the region, which suffers from aging, crumbling roads, rails, and ports.
Raul and other Latin leaders may take important lessons from China. While gradual economic reforms would be far from perfect in Cuba, and might not please many Miami exiles, they could bring some relief to Cuba's suffering poor, providing a genuine outlet for entrepreneurial energy. Reforms also might convince some Cuban exiles to reinvest in their country, just as Beijing's economic reforms allowed overseas Chinese to plow capital into China. That influx provided the initial spark for China's growth and demonstrated conclusively to Western multinationals that China was open for investment again. (To be sure, the hardest-line Cuban exiles, like the most anti-communist overseas Chinese, will not invest until regime change occurs in their homeland.) Moreover, as was the case when China began its economic reforms, Cuba's military dominates sectors of the economy. Beijing has enjoyed some success in getting the generals out of business, leveling the playing field somewhat in industries like communications.
But the China model also could have dangerous consequences for Cuba. China's unwillingness to build solid, open political and legal institutions has left average Chinese with nowhere to address grievances, leading to a rising cycle of protests and violence across the country -- violence that could be repeated in Cuba. In an economic reform process controlled by the state, China has enriched Communist Party insiders, leading to graft and self-dealing on a massive scale, and potentially causing a meltdown of China's financial sector -- the kind of corruption that could easily dominate post-Castro economic reforms in Cuba.
Most important, for years, foreign pundits have been predicting that China's economic reforms will lead to political opening, yet Beijing has managed the near-impossible trick of opening the economy for three decades without the Communist regime relinquishing power. For a Cuban citizenry that has spent five decades under one man, three more decades could be a very long time indeed.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior correspondent at The American Prospect and a special correspondent at The New Republic.
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