Cuba and the difficult change ahead

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

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Before it opens up to the world and becomes like other countries, I desired to see Cuba, the country which almost caused a third world war.

Cuba and North Korea are currently the last two communist closed countries. During my recent visit there, Cuba has reminded me of two Arab experiences of isolation of which I witnessed: Egypt during the era of late president Anwar al-Sadat and Syria at the beginning of President Bashar al-Assad’s seizure of power after his father passed away.

Sadat was an experienced politician who lived through the governance of the socialist union and its doctrine which ruled Egypt since 1962 and which failed at running the state and destroyed many sectors of production in favor of state domination.

Sadat’s awareness of the problem and his honest enthusiasm to achieve political and economic change was not enough, as he lacked the culture of development and the skill of civil management. His experience at making Egypt open thus failed as a result of the domination of the state’s old structure and philosophy prevailed as a result of his own incapability to present a better alternative plan.

Promises of change

Leftist and Baathist Syria also tried to open up as Bashar al-Assad rose to power, as he made promises of change towards achieving political and economic openness.

During my recent visit there, Cuba has reminded me of two Arab experiences of isolation of which I witnessed

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

However, Assad tried to alter the system from a socialist and partisan regime into a familial one. Changes were limited to formalities, as old Russian and American cars disappeared from the streets of Damascus and were replaced with new German and Japanese ones. The old economy thus remained a monopoly of some under the sponsorship of security apparatuses.

During our trip a few days ago to Cuba with Sheikh Walid al-Ibrahim and other friends, we’ve noticed that despite the massive propaganda, there were no signs of change. Our suspicions were further confirmed by a Cuban immigrant who was in the country to visit his wife, who’s banned from travelling like most of the country’s 11 million citizens. He said: “I won’t believe [there will be] change until I see it, and I don’t expect it will happen.”

Despite that, everyone is now talking about an upcoming change in which Cuba will change from a closed communist country to an open country, from a state which is an enemy to its American neighbor into a country that’s a favorite destination for investors and tourists. On the ground, there’s nothing of the sort despite the rapprochement which President Barack Obama led with President Raul Castro who’s been governing for seven years now instead of his sick brother.

A question of ability

We’ve noticed that Cuba is a closed country that officially rejects change. The remains of the Cold War rules continue to exist there as the American government still bans its citizens from travelling to the Caribbean nation – except for certain investors, journalists and few commercial charter jets. It’s also allowed its citizens to buy up to $100 of Cuban cigars, the importing of which is still banned.

Even if the Americans are serious about ending this estrangement which lasted for 45 years with their neighbor, the ability of the Cuban regime to rehabilitate itself and abandon its philosophy which is based on complete control is in doubt. The Cuban regime has suffered on the economic level ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990’s.

Cuba was one of the last countries to allow cellular phones and their spread is still limited. Internet is only available in cafes run by the government who controls everything and which spends a little as its annual budget is only $1 billion.

It was a short visit to a country where time has stopped since 1959 and where - as you travel in its old cars - you feel you’re part of a 1950s movie set.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on May 3, 2015

Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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