BOGOTÁ After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez told Cuba's communist ruler Fidel Castro that his island nation was now the only, truly free country. Fidel did not much like the comment as it meant admitting his country's dependence on the Soviet Union, but he ended up agreeing.

Clearly Cuba has had to pay a very dear price for its independence, just as Venezuela is doing now, amid a situation that is becoming less tenable by the day. President Nicolás Maduro has said that if attacked with "blood and fire," he will respond in kind, which effectively means heading toward a civil war. The situation there is tragic.

Cuba and Venezuela are popular but imperfect regimes, besieged by an implacable enemy: global neoliberalism that opposes state intervention in the economy and demands that the citizen's welfare become subordinate to the laws of the market. In countries run by neoliberal systems, healthcare, education and social security are private and highly profitable businesses that are nevertheless deficient, and costly for the citizen. In Cuba and Venezuela, the state truly concerns itself with health, education and pensions, but private enterprise is seriously restricted.

Real socialism, which in truth is an alliance of distributive justice and individual freedoms alongside what the writer Jorge Luis Borges called "a strict minimum of government," has yet to be invented. Current, authoritarian versions of socialism will not last, though under the pressure of current circumstances, plutocratic and heartless states will likely face an equally short future. Meanwhile, the only way to avoid local wars, which resolve nothing, is to have freely competing democracies. It is a global issue and its resolution will be global: through a showdown between cruel and predatory neoliberalism and the general interest.

The Argentine example might be of some use. Since the time when General Juan Domingo Perón fueled the idea that the Argentine people also had the right to own their country's riches and after a violent series of guerrilla fighting and military regimes, the country has seen radically different ideas alternate in power. Thanks to education and a vigorously politicized society, everyone there knows that clinging to power is useless, and rather it is the people who must lift you to high office even as you accept the existence of an outspoken, active opposition.

Our countries have so many problems that strong opposition to policies is inevitable. But not everything has to be done through the state. The political plans of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, Chavismo, form a lucid and generous project that runs the risk of deviating into an authoritarian and exclusive regime, just when all Latin American states should be moving toward systems of complex, diverse democracies. The problem is that power is inebriating and feeds vain illusions. The state starts to be perceived as an end in itself not a means, and that is poison to the lofty ideals of civilization, because anyone who idealizes the state and falls in love with power, has abandoned the spirit of creative adventure that healthy politics require.

Why such fear of the infection of capitalism?

In one of the opportunities I had to converse with Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader told me, "The thing is, our institutions have grown old." So "renovate them," I replied, "with your famous youth." He asked me what I meant. I responded, sincerely, saying "as far as I am concerned, you're still very young." I know now what I should have said: that there was a real youth in Cuba that sympathized with the revolution but wanted new opportunities, and which had to be allowed to reinvent the model.

Perón in 1946 — Photo: Wikipedia

Why such fear of the infection of capitalism, with its televisions and internet, when nobody has alternatives to these things? Many of us who grew up with television, consumerism and the constant enticement to become rich, are as critical as socialists, if not more, of capitalism's predatory inhumanity and irrationality.

Recently I said to President Maduro that he should free political prisoners, revoke the service ban on opposition leaders and call fresh elections: the same ones the Bolivarian regime liked so much when it could win them easily. I also suggested he should not fear losing at the polls, as a loss is more likely than not, provisional. An honorable defeat is worth much more than a victory deemed unworthy in the eyes of an electorate that knows what is going on. In Venezuela, many know that the present crisis is due much less to the socialist system itself as the unfortunate manipulation of oil prices and a programed restriction of supplies blamed on the system, which really has nothing to gain from such a move.

The opposition leader Leopoldo López has now been moved from prison to house arrest, but it would have been more intelligent to simply free him, as it would all other political detainees. An opponent in jail is a martyr, and it is time to understand that prison resolves nothing, and can never be an instrument of good governance.

I know Cuba needs Venezuela, but for that Venezuela must first exist. Cuba can today negotiate improvements to its economic situation allowing the rise of new community initiatives, without ever negotiating away its social protections or universal education. Let a new generation of Cubans, many of whom are grateful to the revolution, have their own agenda, and let the Bolivarian system in Venezuela learn from the Peronists the democratic art of leaving power to come back another day. The alternative is leaving in a way that means never coming back.

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