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‘Spring’ delayed as Cuba follows China's model

Pope Benedict XVI’s call for 'authentic freedom' during his recent visit to Cuba is unlikely to spur democracy. But other factors suggest economic changes are under way, patterned after the Chinese example, namely creating a market economy under an authoritarian, communist political system.

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Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega celebrates Good Friday Mass during Holy Week in the cathedral in Havana, Cuba, April 6. Cuba's Communist government declared Good Friday a holiday to honor a request that Pope Benedict XVI made during his recent visit. Columnist John Hughes argues the pope's recent visit won't inspire democratic reform, but economic changes are afoot, modeled after China.

Javier Galeano/AP

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Pope Benedict XVI’s call for “authentic freedom” during his recent visit to Cuba is unlikely to result in any early conversion to democracy. Communism will remain an excuse for authoritarian, one-party rule in that benighted island. A Cuban “spring,” modeled on events in the Arab world, is not about to blossom.

But if party rulers were quick to rule out any prospect of political reform, other factors suggest economic changes are under way. They are patterned after the Chinese example, namely creating a market economy under a communist political system. The Cuban regime has been closely following China’s course. 

Raúl Castro, who succeeded his ailing brother Fidel in the presidency, announced last year that half a million government workers would be laid off and that the creation of small private businesses would be encouraged.

That has not happened as speedily as projected, but there is substantial progress in shifting from an all-government-employed workforce to a newly created private sector of small businesses.

Cuba’s many small farmers now can lease unused state lands for up to 25 years to expand their production. For the first time, Cubans can now buy and sell cars and houses. They can own mobile phones and computers, although the government continues to restrict their access to information from outside Cuba. Access to the Internet is difficult and expensive.

This is a far cry from turning a tattered and forlorn state-run economy, which Raúl Castro himself deplored for its absenteeism and corruption and work-shirking, into a thriving free-enterprise one, but it moves in the right direction. 

It is also a welcome change for many Cubans from declining social services in such areas as health care and education, and a new emphasis on production and even exports.

A critical question is who will succeed Cuba’s aging leadership. Raúl Castro is 80. Fidel Castro is 85, and although he no longer takes an active role in governing, he remains an influential oracle of the Cuban revolution. The worst scenario would be the emergence of an Army strongman who plunges the country into martial rule.

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