Cuba's chance to clear socialism's name
The world's first communist state, the Soviet Union, was born in Europe in 1917 and disintegrated in 1991 at the age of 74. Meanwhile, the communist countries it spawned in eastern Europe also rapidly transformed into democracies, bringing an end to communism in most of the world.
Yet, traditional communism continued in other parts of the world, especially Asia, where China, Vietnam, North Korea and Laos are all listed as communist states in the CIA World Factbook. And, as we have just been reminded, so, too, is Cuba; the only communist country in the western hemisphere, which until this month was ruled by Fidel Castro, who was both head of state and head of government.
But the winds of change are blowing through the world's remaining communist states, as witnessed by Dr Castro's decision to step down in favour of his brother, Raul, after 49 years in power.
This makes Dr Castro something of an enlightened communist leader, since his Asian counterparts, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam and North Korea's Kim Il-sung all clung to office until the day they died. Kim started a dynasty by naming his son, Kim Jong-il, his successor.
They were simply following in the footsteps of their 'elder brother', the Soviet Union, which practised lifetime tenure in power beginning with Lenin and Stalin. Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was ousted in a coup in 1964 but, after that, successive Soviet leaders served until death - Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko - until Mikhail Gorbachev came along - and he served until the Soviet Union was no more.
Of course, Dr Castro is also being followed by another member of his family, his 76-year-old younger brother. But, given the younger Castro's age, he is to be a caretaker rather than a link in a Castro dynasty.
Yet, even though Dr Castro has given up all his titles, it appears that he still wields considerable power. He has acknowledged that the appointment of two generals was his idea rather than that of his brother.
In this, he may be borrowing a page from China, where Deng Xiaoping was acknowledged as paramount leader long after he had given up all his titles, except for being the honorary chairman of the China Bridge Association. However, whereas Dr Castro has openly acknowledged his role in the appointment of the generals, in China the fact that Deng still called the shots in retirement was a state secret.
The situation in China at that time was extremely abnormal; the man who had the title did not have the power, and the man who wielded the power did not need titles. This was strongman rule, not rule according to laws and the constitution.
But Cuba may turn out to be something different. For one thing, one of the first things Raul Castro did was to sign the two main UN human rights covenants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These were signed by Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque on Thursday, four days after Raul Castro formally became Cuba's leader. The question now is how soon will the Cuban parliament ratify the two covenants so that they actually come into effect. China signed the ICCPR 10 years ago and still has not ratified it.
While China talks about socialism with Chinese characteristics, perhaps Cuba under Raul Castro will develop socialism with Cuban characteristics. Socialist philosophy is compatible with democracy and human rights, as well as economic prosperity. It is unfortunate that the founding fathers of communism, starting with Lenin, took the wrong road and gave socialism a bad name. China has shown that a socialist country doesn't have to be poor. Cuba has an opportunity to show the world that a socialist country can also enjoy human rights.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator firstname.lastname@example.org