Well, nobody saw that coming. Yesterday’s announcement of the major thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations was both surprising and a major step forward in establishing good relations between states in the Americas. By establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, the U.S. has lanced a boil which has plagued the two nations for fifty years. And both our Prime Minister and the Pope deserve reams of credit for facilitating this. In fact, the U.S. political magazine Vox went so far as to call both Canada and Pope Francis “the two secret heroes” of the deal.
The deal has, of course, teed up a lot of inane discussion on both the left and the right, including particularly idiotic missives from would be tourists who prefer the romantic squalor of tyranny to the clean but characterless restaurants produced by capitalism. But it’s also raised a lot of important questions: will the easing of the relationship actually lead to the introduction of free markets in Cuba? And will those lead to democracy?
Let’s just say that while the first is certainly plausible, the second is unlikely. It’s entirely possible, likely even, that Cuba will embrace the markets as a means to raise its GDP. In fact, it’s already done so, albeit in a limited way. Canadian companies—including hospitality and resource companies—have worked in Cuba for years, and the government, looking to China as an example, has allowed limited market activity in order to drive state revenues. The thawing of relations with the U.S. will likely see incremental increases to this limited market activity until it becomes the norm rather than the exception. Why? Because governments—especially corrupt ones—need revenue, and markets do a great job of that.
But do markets produce civil society and democracy? No. Allan Gregory, professor of economics at Queen’s university, noted in conversation last night, “Free markets bring wealth, not democracy.” There is a persistent belief that markets will bring democracy, but believers are kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting ... In the end, you’re likely to find yourself in a pair of Gucci shoes, sipping a latte, waiting for Rousseau.
What is needed for democracy in Cuba are the ingredients brought by the two heroes of this story: institutions, and a cultural—religious might be the better term here—source of sustenance for those institutions. If anything, Canada and the Vatican are not only heroes for facilitating the opening of relations between Cuba and the U.S., but examples for Cuba to follow. Canada’s ability to provide an institutional context for the beginnings of reconciliation for two enemies paints a picture of what might be possible within Cuba itself. Cuba is a deeply divided country, and a Cuba needs reconciliation before it can be free. And the Vatican is such a key player here not only because the Argentinean shepherd thinks that there is a still a sheep underneath the wolf’s clothing worn by Fidel Castro and his brother. It is important because it provides one of the few manifestations of an institution in Cuba that operates on principles which cannot be sustained by the revenue brought by the markets. A few years ago, Fidel’s daughter noted that he was “more interested in the fate of his soul than the future of Cuba.” The Vatican’s involvement in the rapprochement between two enemies shows, at least in part, that those interested in the future of Cuba should also be interested in its soul. Viva Cuba Libre!