As we see so many home-grown revolutions taking place in the Middle East, Cuban dissidents and Cuban-American leaders have started to ask why Cubans haven’t followed the lead of oppressed populations in Egypt and Tunisia in overthrowing long-entrenched regimes. But political scientists don't expect to see demonstrations for democracy in the streets of Havana anytime soon.
If Cuba reforms, it will probably adopt the slow and steady Chinese model. Political and economic conditions in Cuba are more similar to North Korea than Egypt or even Libya. Researcher Peter Siavelis says, "The level of repression is much more systemic and substantial than in Egypt." The Communist government's security apparatus is pervasive and quick to shut down any opposition or protests before they have a chance to grow, he says. Fidel and Raul Castro still have the support of the military and secret police. And, because the government controls the media and only the Communist Party elite has Internet access, many Cubans might not even know about the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.
Siavelis says, "Cuba is a small, insular place. The government maintains a vice grip over any exchange of information. There is a real sense of isolation among the people, which has limited their ability to build any social capacity for change." But there are some similarities between Cuba and Egypt, including a long-standing oppressive regime, high unemployment, an increasingly younger population, and a lack of opportunities for even the well educated. However, unlike Egypt, Cuba lacks any significant organized opposition, any private enterprise beyond a small number of self-employed people, and a free flow of information, both within the country and in news coming from other countries, he said. One of the main problems is that few Cubans--only Communist Party leaders-- have access to a computer, and there are tight controls on the internet.
Cuba is one of the last centrally controlled economies in the world. The government employs about 85% of the population. President Raul Castro has made some economic reforms, such as allowing more workers to be self-employed, since he succeeded his brother Fidel in 2008. But Castro may be feeling the heat from revolutions around the world: He announced last year that about 20% of government workers--around one million people-- would be laid off beginning this month. But he recently announced that the layoffs have been postponed, in order to avoid any protests like the ones that sparked the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.
Siavelis expects Cuba to follow the model of Vietnam and China: slowly embracing limited economic reforms, while maintaining tight political control. "But economic reform does unleash a demand for political reform, and then the question becomes, is the government able to repress that," he says. "In Vietnam and China, because of the tremendous economic success, the government has been able to do that. But I don't see Cuba being able to replicate that economic success." In the US, we're in the position of South Korea--we see an incredibly repressive regime right on our border but we can't do anything about it. But change is in the air--in all kinds of ways--maybe some you never thought of before.
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