09/22/13 - Wall Street Journal - Cuba Studies 'Putinismo' for Survival Tips
Vladimir Putins op-ed in the New York Times wasnt a big hit with
Americans. But the Russian president does have admirers elsewhere. Some
are in the Cuban military, which is rumored to be studying . Would-be
foreign investors, take note.
Ever since Fidel Castros glorious revolution triumphed in 1959, Cuba has
been in need of a benefactor. The Soviet Union played that role until it
collapsed in the early 1990s. Cuba got another lifeline when Venezuelas
Hugo Chávez, elected in 1998, began a state policy of providing it with
Even so, Cubans still live lives of privation. Venezuelas own fiscal woes
are on the rise, which means that the oil subsidies are in jeopardy.
Revolutionary poverty is nothing new. But regime bigwigs in Havana fear
that Raúl Castro, who is now in charge, could face serious social unrest
when the ailing 87-year-old Fidel passes on. Their challenge is to find
ways to feed the island without letting go of power, which might prove
fatal for some of them.
The Putin model offers a way out. It permits nominal elections in which
the opposition gets some seats in the parliament. On the economic front,
Mr. Putin has created a loyal cadre of oligarchs who do business with
The former KGB operative can say that Russia is no longer shaped by
communist ideology. But behind the scenes, blends authoritarian political
control and crony capitalism to produce a lock on power.
Writing from Russia in April 2012, development economist Deepak Lal
described this mix of profits for the politically correct and repression
for everybody else. His essay, in the Indian daily Business Standard,
explained that ordinary profit making has been criminalized. Citing the
work of Russian lawyer Vladimir Radchenko, Mr. Lal wrote that there are
three million small and medium-scale business entrepreneurs in jail for
Mr. Putin is reportedly planning on forming his own personal national
guard, Mr. Lal wrote. The Federal Security Service is more interested in
running businesses than putting down dissidents and the hoodlums hired to
do the job are unreliable. Mr. Lal also briefly described the states
renewed alliance with the Orthodox Church.
I was reminded of the parallels between Mr. Putins Russia and Castros
promises of reform when former Cuban political prisoner Jorge Luis García
Pérez Antúnez visited the Journals New York offices this month. The
48-year-old Cuban, who spent 17 years in Castros jails, calls claims of
political and economic reform there fraud.
Mr. Antúnez describes opposition to the regime as widespread and growing.
It is not more visible, he says, because the culture of fear remains
intense. Independent reports from the island say that detentions and
violent assaults on opposition groups have been increasing.
As in Russia, Cuba can no longer rely on the armed forces to control
government critics. They are busy running lucrative businesses in tourism,
retail, cigar manufacturing and air travel. The Castros also seem to have
a Putin-style relationship with the Church. Pope Benedict met with the
Castros during his 2012 visit to the island while dissidents were carted
off to jail for asking to see the pontiff.
Mr. Antúnez says that allowing Cubans to run microenterprises isnt
reducing poverty. Perhaps thats because when entrepreneurs have succeeded
during prior so-called liberalization periods, the regime has accused them
of the crime of illicit enrichment.
Foreign investors sometimes dont seem to fare much better. In an Aug. 13
letter to the Economist magazine, British businessman Stephen Purvis, a
former business partner of the regime, described the circumstances
surrounding his incarceration in a Cuban jail for 15 months between 2011
Mr. Purvis says he was accused of many things, starting with revelations
of state secrets but was eventually sentenced for breaches of financial
regulations, even though Cubas central bank had specifically approved
the transactions in question for 12 years.
He was in prison with a handful of other foreign businessmen and says
there are many more in the system than is widely known. A few are
charged with corruption, he wrote, but many face charges of sabotage,
damage to the economy, tax avoidance and illegal economic activity.
What he didnt see in prison were his island business peers from Brazil,
Venezuela and China. Mr. Purvis asks: Why is the representative of
Ericsson in jail for exactly the same activities as [its] Chinese
competitor who is not? Foreigners doing business in Russia have described
a similarly risky playing field.
In May, Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas, who claims to have contact with
a number of Cuban military officers from his high school days, told the
Miami Herald that they are studying in order to prepare for a
transition. They dont want to suffer the same fate as the followers of
[Libya's] Kaddafi, he said.
The Putin model may be the way to avoid that fate. But its a far cry from
a plan to liberate the nation.
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