I recently visited Cuba, as I wanted to see this country—one that almost caused a third world war, and which along with North Korea is the world’s last remaining insular communist nation—before it finally begins to open up to the world and become like other countries.
While I was there, the country actually reminded me of two Arab experiences of isolation which I witnessed: Egypt during the era of late president Anwar Sadat and Syria at the time when President Bashar Al-Assad came to power after the death of his father Hafez Al-Assad.
Sadat was an experienced politician who lived through the era of the Socialist Union and its one-party doctrine which ruled Egypt since 1962. But this system failed miserably and ruined many of the country’s industrial sectors due to its unbridled domination.
Sadat’s awareness of the problem and his honest enthusiasm to achieve political and economic change was not enough, as he lacked a nous for development and the necessary skills to manage this transition. His experience of “opening up” Egypt to the global free market economy thus failed as a result of the domination of the state’s old structure and philosophy, which prevailed as a result of his own inability to present a better alternative plan.
Leftist and Ba’athist Syria also attempted similar economic and political liberalization measures as Bashar Al-Assad rose to power in 2000, and he made many promises back then in this regard.
However, Assad tried to alter the system from a socialist and nationalist regime into one based on family loyalties. 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 economy thus remained a monopoly under the control of high-ranking members of Assad’s feared security establishment.
During our trip a few days ago to Cuba with Sheikh Walid Al-Ibrahim and other friends, we noticed that despite the massive propaganda, there were no signs of change. Our suspicions were further confirmed by a Cuban immigrant who had returned to the country to visit his wife (he, like most of the country’s 11 million citizens, is banned from traveling outside Cuba). “I won’t believe [there will be] change until I see it, and I don’t expect it will happen,” he told us.
Everyone is now talking about an upcoming change in which Cuba will transform itself from an insular communist country into an open one, a bona fide member of the international community; from a state which is an enemy to its American neighbor to a favorite destination for US investors and tourists. On the ground, however, one can see nothing of this, despite the landmark rapprochement efforts led by Barack Obama with President Raul Castro, who has now been in power for seven years in place of his elderly and frail brother, Fidel.
What we noticed was that Cuba remains a closed country that officially rejects any kind of change. The vestiges of the Cold War continue to exist there, while the US government continues to ban its citizens from traveling to the Caribbean nation—except for certain investors, journalists, and few commercial charter jets (it has also now allowed its citizens to buy up to 100 US dollars’ worth of Cuban cigars).
Even if the Americans are serious about ending this 45-year frosty relationship with their neighbor, the Cuban regime’s capacity to rehabilitate itself and abandon its philosophy, which is based on complete state control, remains in doubt. The Cuban regime has suffered on the economic level ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s.
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 a government—which still controls everything in the country and whose annual spending barely racks up 1 billion US dollars.
It was a short visit to a country where time has stopped since 1959 and where, as you travel in its old, vintage vehicles, you almost feel as if you are part of a 1950s movie set.