Do economic reforms lead to democratization, or does democratization lead to economic progress? This is the fundamental question surrounding the debate over the new U.S.-Cuba policy. President Obama and his supporters believe that economic reforms will empower the population to demand political reforms, whereas critics point out that General Castro has been perfectly clear that Cuba will not undertake any political reforms.
Let’s put aside, for present purposes, the ethical problems of a U.S. foreign policy that embraces despots and establishes a moral equivalence between oppressors and the oppressed. The focus here is on the “what should come first” aspect of reforms. The transition experience of East European countries provides the answer to the question. Fredo Arias King, an expert with encyclopedic knowledge of post-Soviet democratization, classifies the East European end-game experiences into eight groups:
Overthrow– Where communism ended when dissidents were able to overthrow an obstinate communist party and form a new government made up primarily of dissidents (Czechoslovakia-1989, East Germany, Yugoslavia, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia)
Substitution– Where communist parties were more flexible and willing to negotiate a transition (Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Slovenia).
Transformation-Where the principal communist leaders took the initiative toward regime change without the presence of great social pressures (Soviet Union-1985, Hungary-1956, and Czechoslovakia-1968)
Reappearance– Where former high-level government officials, who had been removed from power, used the nascent democratic movement to return to power (Russia, Romania, and Croatia)
Replacement– Where mid-level officials took up the flag of democratic or nationalistic reform to undermine the regime they served (Hungary-1989, Serbia-1989, and Bulgaria)
Reincarnation– Where the state parties felt great social pressure to fake a brake with communism in order to survive (Ukraine, Moldova, Albania, Mongolia, Macedonia, and Latvia)
Continuity– Where the communist leaders unexpectedly turned into the leaders of independent nations, but retained the principal structures of repression and the command economy (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Belarus)
Violence– Where leaders used state violence to provoke civil wars and retain power (Tajikistan, Serbia, Armenia and Azerbaijan)
Regardless of the typology, Arias King’s measurements, fifteen years after the transitions, show that those Eastern European countries that instituted political change prior to, or hand in hand with, economic changes were the most successful in becoming both free and prosperous; e.g., Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, East Germany. Those countries that decided to begin with economic reforms and postponed political changes were mostly unsuccessful in both areas; e.g., Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan)
Historical evidence shows economic reforms do not necessarily lead to democratization, and that democratization most likely leads to economic progress. Democratization is the horse that must lead the cart of economic progress. Putting the cart before the horse means that neither economic nor political reforms will go far.
Yes, Cuba’s history is not that of Eastern Europe and its transition experience will be distinctly Cuban. I leave it up to the reader to divine Cuba’s most likely scenario, but my bet is on processes led by the Cuban Armed Forces evoking continuity disguised as change. This is Cuba’s Gordian knot. Continuity disguised as change does not remove the institutional impediments to individual freedoms and empowerment.
What is not understood by the President and his supporters is that political rights and civil liberties are not superfluous luxuries to be appended at the end of a program of economic reforms. Political rights and civil liberties are what allow an empowered citizenry to correct mistakes, voice discontent and bring about changes in leadership. Democracy requires a relationship between the state and its citizens fundamentally different from the relationship model of an absolutist state.
Economic reforms not anchored on individual political freedoms condemn Cuban society to live a provisional existence without a recognizable end. Living such a provisional existence wounds the human spirit and does not promote the development of democratic sociopolitical values. Peoples that experience only an existence without a future cannot become the citizens that will sustain a democratic state. Freedom is not an extravagance that can wait until the arrival of prosperity.