Power and authority are not necessarily synonymous. Force is not authority, and can even indicate weakness. The philosopher Max Weber observed that dominance is only legitimate when people recognize and accept authority. In some democracies, rulers have compensated the fading of legitimacy with higher doses of authoritarianism. The pandemic has exacerbated this distortion.
This is the conjuncture facing several experiments in governance that are imperfect, populist or downright dictatorial. Cuba, Venezuela, China, Russia, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey all fit these labels to a greater or lesser extent.
In some of those cases, what's helped that big-stick-style authoritarianism survive is a setting where income distribution is at least consistent. China, fore example, breathed new life into its authoritarian system with the capitalist experiment begun by the late leader Deng Xiaoping. Its brand of modernization may have left the Chinese indifferent to the concept of communism, but not to the social mobility the system assures them.
Today, the People's Republic has the world's biggest middle class, with a per capita income that keeps growing. Vietnam has a broadly similar situation, while Saudi Arabia has spent big chunks of its oil fortune to bolster wages, pay subsidies and keep the peace.
Regimes without economic success can only rely on coercion.
Regimes without economic success can only rely on coercion, which has shown stark limitations. In Paraguay, the regime of General Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989) fell with the end of the generous funds spent on the Itaipú dam. With no more "sweeteners" for his cronies, Stroessner was sent packing when another soldier, Colonel Lino Oviedo, marched into the presidential office holding a hand grenade.
With North Africa during the Arab Spring, rising food prices pushed people onto the streets to challenge the authority of their rulers. Anyone who claims ideology can make up for such pedestrian needs as food and personal fulfillment should listen to speeches made by Cuba's Raúl Castro when he took over the presidency from his late brother, Fidel. The revolutionary veteran who announced his retirement days ago, aged almost 90 years, admitted in the middle of the last decade that the communist island's "insignificant wages" had cut through its youth's "revolutionary conscience."
The Cuban case confirms you can do a lot with history, except negate its dynamics. A section of Cuba's gerontocracy seems to have understood that history is not static, and understands what it means to fall into an abyss. The younger of the Castros warned his peers in the nomenklatura that unless things changed in Cuba, the communist polity would fall.
When Venezuela stopped sending it money, Cuba sought out historic negotiations with the administration of President Barack Obama, to break decades of isolation and attract vital investments. This détente, later dashed by Donald Trump's erratic geopolitics, is now back on the table.
Castro's retirement and the handover of powers to his political godson Miguel Díaz-Canel point in that direction. Castro has also taken with him some old party hands opposed to any glasnost. One is Ramiro Valdés, who designed Venezuela's repressive apparatus of recent years.
Raúl Castro took over the presidency from his late brother, Fidel — Photo: Ernesto Mastrascusa/EFE via ZUMA Press
Castro and Díaz-Canel made similar sounds at the recent Eighth Party Congress. Both spoke in favor of normalized ties with the United States, like those it maintains with other states including Vietnam, whose capitalist economy and communist political control is a model that Castro wants Cuba to follow.
Vietnam's economy has grown in leaps since the 1980s, when it dropped its opposition to the free market. It even grew 2.9% in the pandemic year of 2020, when Cuba's economy shrank 11%. Interestingly, Castro has admitted that 50 years of U.S. blockades were not the only reason for Cuba's economic failures.
Today, Cuba's "Fatherland or Death" motto may well morph into "Open Up or Die," as a columnist in the Spanish paper El País recently observed. Like Venezuela, the island nation is suffering an aggravation of inflationary trends that is fueling discontent, protests and repression. In 2020, the price of clothes and foodstuffs doubled or even tripled, while services like electricity quadrupled. The decision last January to have a single exchange rate contributed to this inflation.
For now, Cuba must wait before the seeds it has thrown at the U.S. germinate. The administration of President Joe Biden won't do anything with Cuba until after congressional elections of 2022. It must boost its legislative power and cannot afford to lose Florida, as it did in last year's presidential elections.
Florida's Hispanic, anti-communist voters don't want anything to do with Cuba — whatever the subtleties. If the Democrats stumble in mid-term polls there, it means Trump could return. That might be good news for China in its race to become the world's paramount power, but would not in any case halt changes on the island.
Cuba's ally and pupil Venezuela might open the oil sector to private investments.
Cuba's ally and pupil Venezuela is also shifting its positions, beginning with its economy. Last year, on the advice of the Russian Economy ministry, a state commission discussed opening the oil sector to private investments.
The government of President Nicolás Maduro is preparing legislation to end the state's monopoly on oil through the firm PDVSA. And in January, the state began talking to concessionary firms on how to broaden participation in exploiting the country's pharaonic crude reserves. With output having dropped below 500,000 barrels a day, Venezuela needs investments that can match their scale to revive a crucial source of revenues.
While U.S. sanctions are an immediate obstacle, there are ways private firms could take over Venezuelan assets without falling afoul of laws. The U.S. forbids any business with PDVSA, the Venezuelan regime and its helpers. In theory, independent firms could take over businesses no longer controlled by PDVSA. Bloomberg is already reporting anti-sanctions lobbying by big oil and financial firms in the U.S., concerned about losing Venezuela to competitors.
Washington might initially allow U.S. firms to swap fuel for Venezuelan crude, which Trump blocked. This might be done before the midterm elections, using humanitarian pretexts.
Many in the northern hemisphere think a process of détente opens a straight path to regime change in Venezuela, while parts of Venezuela's middle class are already banking on a gradual transformation. And if Cuba begins heading in another direction and loosens its grip, Venezuela's regime may also do what it must, to survive.
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