It is past time to change our policy toward Cuba. For over 50 years, the United States has been obsessed with the Cuba of Fidel Castro's time. So much so that many of the circumstances that animate our conversations and views of Cuba today seem to be drawn from the 20th century. They are a throwback to the days when Cuba was a menacing outpost of an aggressive Soviet Union. Admittedly, it's hard to forget the days of the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis. We forced the removal of those missiles, then sought to punish and bring down the Castro regime by a trade embargo (and some madcap covert schemes).
For over 49 years those policies have failed. And they are inappropriate for the Cuba of today. About 70 percent of Cubans were born after the original revolution. They are pressuring the state to get out of their way.
Since a chance meeting with Fidel Castro many years ago, I have had hours of conversation with him over many visits, including one a few weeks ago. Castro has overcome several bouts of serious illness. As he put it, "Nobody thought I would get through my illness, but here I am at work." And so he is, but he is playing a different role. The most critical change is that his brother, Raúl Castro, has succeeded him as president in a transition marked by a noteworthy degree of stability.
Fidel is certainly at work and active and still an inspiration for Cubans. They respect and admire him for establishing an excellent system of free healthcare; an improved educational system; and a relatively colorblind, multiracial society in which most of the institutionalized racism against blacks and mulattoes has been eliminated. They also take pride in the way he stood up to America.
He was teased a number of years ago that if he had been a slightly better baseball pitcher and made it to the major leagues, Cuba and the United States would not have had years of conflict. Castro's response was, "I was a good pitcher, but I am a great revolutionary." He is still involved, for as he has said, "Revolutionaries do not retire." But Fidel's role today is that of the senior statesman concentrating on the international stage, long a key interest for him, rather than the head of state on the domestic stage.
The driver for change in Cuba now is Raúl Castro. The pace of change will be, as he puts it, "without pause, but without haste." To implement his judgment that structural reforms are needed to revitalize Cuba's stagnant economy, he has become the principal architect in abandoning the all-pervasive role of the state and shifting a good part of economic activity to the private sector. Speech is freer. He has called on Cubans to openly air their opinions in the form of numerous town hall-style meetings. He has listened. Policies he announced have ultimately been refined and changed by the process.
He has eliminated excessive bans and regulations, encouraged productivity, and sought to make the government smaller and more efficient. This is a major change from Fidel's totally planned economy to a more market-oriented one, despite the forces of bureaucratic inertia and resistance. For the first time in over five decades, there are new rules that support the legitimization of the private sector. Free-market mechanisms have been embraced, such as self-employment, a new tax code, and liberalized rules on such things as home and auto ownership. Hundreds of thousands of licenses have been granted to Cubans to operate private businesses. A financing mechanism provides credit to would-be entrepreneurs.
Cubans finally have the right to sell and buy their homes. Many Cuban-Americans have been encouraged enough to accelerate the process by sending money to relatives. Cubans are now also allowed to purchase cellphones, DVDs, and other items that were once restricted. All these reforms are helping to change public attitudes; fewer young people want to leave. Not bad for a government that heretofore had followed a centralized communist economic model.