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Cuba Isn't Ready for a Revolution

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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It’s the eve of the U.S. invasion of Havana -- and it’s legal to bring back cigars now. But souvenirs aside, is anything changing in Cuba after the U.S.'s diplomatic opening and Cuba's release of 53 political prisoners? I spent the last four days in Havana, fortuitously arriving the day the new U.S. regulations kicked in. On the basis of thoroughly unsystematic conversations with Cuban-Americans who do business there, government officials and artists, the answer is: not yet.

Sure, the anti-American propaganda billboards, ubiquitous a decade ago, have been replaced by pictures of smiling children and in one case, a celebration of repatriated Cuban spies. But if change is coming, it will arrive gradually. And that, surprisingly enough, may be a good thing.

Cuba-U.S. Reboot

Begin with the most important fact about the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement: It isn’t based on any commitment by Cuban President Raul Castro to change the country's distinctive political system. Americans who pay casual attention to the Cuba question might assume that President Barack Obama's initiative resulted from some signal that the Castro government is ready to loosen its commitment to state-owned enterprise and single party governance.

Yet that isn’t the case, at least not publicly. The release of political prisoners is a good thing in itself, and it provides some cover for the Obama administration's relaxation of those aspects of the U.S. embargo that the executive branch can control. But releasing political prisoners isn’t inconsistent with continuing state socialism. The Obama initiative was driven by a realist foreign policy assessment that U.S. interests would be served by relaxing and eventually repealing the embargo -- not by liberal internationalism.

A further optimistic thought that needs cold water thrown on it is the idea that American tourists and investments will swamp traditional socialist opposition and bring Cuba into the capitalist fold. Cuba is nowhere near ready for an influx of U.S. tourism -- and won’t be anytime soon. Compared with a decade ago, there are more paladares -- privately owned restaurants that cater to foreigners. A number of them, such as El Cocinero and Rio Mar, would be elegant standouts in any city on earth. But the infrastructure for major tourism is lacking. Perhaps in time Cuba might experiment with out-of-town beachfront hotels, but no one is talking about them with any specificity quite yet. For now, the downtown hotels remain few, and many visitors stay in rented rooms -- charming yet inadequate for scaled tourism.

As for investments, even if the U.S. embargo were to be withdrawn by Congress, American investors would have to navigate the arcane, opaque politics of the Cuban government to obtain necessary licenses and permissions. To survive for more than half a century, the Cuban system evolved a complex political ecosystem that is exceedingly difficult for outsiders to negotiate. Those who administer it haven’t manifested the will or desire to give up their influence. Rationally, one would expect Cuban leaders to seek profitable opportunities for their people and perhaps themselves. But this would entail the risk of giving up influence -- and the Cuban leadership certainly knows it.

All this may sound gloomy -- and it’s certainly no fun to be pessimistic about such a unique country. But the story isn’t all depressing. In fact, gradualism rather than revolution may be exactly what Cuba needs.

Of course human rights abuses should be reversed and free expression expanded. That’s why the freeing of political prisoners is a positive step. But when it comes to Cuba's economic development, slow progress is preferable to radical transformation. The same is true of political evolution: moving too fast might not produce greater freedom, but actually the opposite.

Consider the structural economic problems that have plagued other Caribbean nations. Agricultural exports can be an important economic driver, but too great a dependence renders an economy subservient to fluctuating commodity prices -- and can stand in the way of value-added exports. Tourism can bring foreign capital and improve trade balances. But the jobs it generates are mostly menial. It can also drive neo-imperial or neocolonial attitudes on the part of richer countries as local populations come to be seen primarily in terms of their ability to serve. What’s more, tourism is highly dependent on economic forces outside a nation’s own control. Going slow may enable Cuba to target its tourism industry at higher value, cultural tourism rather than beachfront holiday packages -- which would probably be much better for Cuba in the long run.

One positive effect of the socialist revolution has been Cuba's investment in human capital. Its education system is better than that of comparable countries, and it boasts that it’s a net exporter of physicians and nurses. It may not be realistic for Cuba to generate millions of high-paying jobs quickly. But selective foreign investors could identify and take advantage of the skilled parts of Cuba’s workforce -- thereby generating better jobs than are characteristic of most island economies.

In politics, Russia and Egypt serve to remind us that rapid change can produce radical instability and lead back to a barely updated version of the old regime. If the Cuban government were to announce free and fair elections tomorrow, there would be no political infrastructure to accommodate the development -- and political disaster could well follow. Democracy remains as important a desideratum as ever. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it’s still the worst form of government, except for all the others. But getting to democracy is a process, not an event. Cuba may well get there eventually. But by taking its time, it may be able to avoid some of the flaws that democracy is known to bring -- and to make the best of Cuba’s socialist legacy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net