By Humberto Fontova

When Fidel Castro’s brother Raul assumed the reigns of power from Cuba’s ailing dictator nearly two years ago, hopes ran high that the transition would usher in a new era of political reform inside the communist country. But recent reports suggest that so far from improving the lot of the Cuban people, Raul’s government has introduced new forms of repression and corruption. As the new year begins, Cuba is facing its worst economic crisis in 20 years, even as political repression persists and the promised “structural” reforms have never materialized. For most Cubans, another difficult year looms.

Perhaps the best guide to understanding what has happened in Cuba since Raul’s takeover, and what lies ahead, comes from a November report from Human Rights Watch. Titled “New Castro, Same Cuba,” the 123-page report examines the conditions inside Cuba since Raúl Castro took power.

The report was difficult to produce. The Cuban regime, though it sat for years on the U.N.’s “Human Rights Commission,” prohibits any human rights agency, including HRW and even the International Red Cross, from visiting any of Cuba’s 200 plus prisons (under the Batista government deposed by Fidel Castro, Cuba had 12 prisons). So the HRW’s Nik Steinberg visited Cuba and conducted his study secretly, interviewing Cubans in 7 of the island’s 14 provinces. “We wanted to put on the table where Cuba stands on human rights,” he said in a recent interview with the Miami Herald.

“In July 2006, Fidel Castro handed control of the Cuban government over to his brother Raúl Castro” summarizes the HRW report:

“As the new head of state, Raúl Castro inherited a system of abusive laws and institutions, as well as responsibility for hundreds of political prisoners arrested during his brother’s rule. Raúl Castro’s government has used draconian laws and sham trials to incarcerate scores more who have dared to exercise their fundamental freedoms. Scores of political prisoners arrested under Fidel Castro continue to languish in Cuba’s prisons. Rather than dismantle this repressive machinery, Raúl Castro has kept it firmly in place and fully active. ”

Particularly alarming to Human Rights Watch is the “judicial process” employed by Raul’s regime for the continued repression. HRW reports:

“Raúl Castro’s government has relied in particular on a provision of the Cuban Criminal Code that allows the state to imprison individuals before they have committed a crime. This ‘dangerousness’ provision is overtly political, defining as “dangerous” any behavior that contradicts socialist norms.”

Cuban dissidents have corroborated accounts of this new repression. “The wave of repression we witnessed on Dec. 10th is the worst we’ve seen in this country in decades.” reported Elizardo Sanchez, President of the (dissident) Cuban Commission on Human Rights, this December. In a smuggled report, Cuban dissident González Leiva adds that during an attempted march commemorating “Universal Human Rights Day,” on December 19, hundreds of Cubans were arrested and beaten by regime goons.

The HRW report fully backs the findings of two polls conducted secretly in Cuba recently by dissident groups. One poll was by El Centro de Información sobre Democracia and the other by Alianza Nueva Nación. The groups interviewed 1000 Cubans in 9 of the nation’s 14 provinces and found that 70 percent not only report that their (precious few) freedoms have diminished under Raul, but that life in general has become harsher: there is less food available; more regime corruption; and more economic hardships in general.

It’s not just political freedom that has worsened under Raul rule. The economy has also suffered. In 2009’s Index of Economic Freedom, the Heritage Foundation had already found Cuba as more economically repressive under Raul than under Fidel. Under Raul’s rule, Cuba slipped down 1.1 notches to number 155, where it runs almost neck-and-neck with North Korea. For many Cuba watchers, the HRW report and the dissident appeals are no surprise.

If the HRW report has a weakness, it is that it fails to recognize that many of the repressive features now seen under Raul have existed in some form since it fell under communist control For instance, the Stalinist detention provision HRW sees employed in today’s Cuba in fact dates back almost half a century to Che Guevara’s stint as the “brains of the Cuban Revolution” (as Time magazine crowned him in a 1960 cover story). As Cuba’s chief prosecutor and executioner, Guevara had instructed his judicial subalterns that “judicial evidence is an archaic bourgeois detail. We execute from revolutionary conviction.” And indeed they did. “We send to Guanahacabibes people who have committed crimes against revolutionary norms,” explained Guevara. Guanahacabibes was a forced-labor camp in extreme western Cuba. “It is hard labor” said Guevara, “the working conditions are harsh.”

Likewise, the HRW report notes that “fear is a central part of the Cuban government’s strategy.” True enough, but again, this dates back not just to recent pre-Raul rule, but to the initial days of Castroism, half a century ago. “Terror is an essential political instrument,” instructed Che Guevara to his “revolutionary tribunals.” “Only hypocrites refuse to acknowledge this. We must establish the pedagogy of the paredon (firing squad)” Televised firing-squad executions were one element of this “pedagogy.” Even earlier, during the guerrilla skirmishing in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra, Che had written in his diaries, “Now comes a period when terror will be exercised against the peasants.”

A more serious error in the HRW report is its condemnation of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. This embargo has long been a talking point of the regime, distracting attention from its role in brutalizing the Cuban people and destroying the country’s economy. But when it comes to the “U.S. bloqueo,” the vast majority of Cubans part ways with Human Rights Watch. They know full well who runs Cuba, and how, and that that is the real reason for their persistent penury.

Cuba is a military dictatorship in the most genuine sense of the term. Raul Castro and his military cronies have been running Cuba for over a decade and doing quite well in the process. Of the nineteen members of Cuba’s politburo, nine are military men. This is more than the typical Soviet-bloc state had, or the Soviet Union itself. One Raul Castro crony, General Julio Casas Regueiro, does much of this running, controlling 300 different “companies” (state agencies often in partnership with foreign investors) in Cuba under a holding company named GAESA.

Another typical company is the Corporacion Gaviota, headed by Raul Military crony General Luis Perez Rospide. Gaviota started operating in 1990. The Cuban military’s Gaviota tourism group, is a corporate umbrella encompassing, Aerogaviota SA, (airlines) Almest SA Hoteles Gaviota,(hotels) Gaviota Tour, (bus touring company), Marinas Gaviota, (marinas), Tiendas Gaviota, (tourist souvenir stores, restaurants) Parques Naturales Gaviota, (national parks, museums). Thanks to this monopoly, the government and its allies prosper, while the Cuban people are no better off.

In a presentation on November 18 at a hearing by the House Foreign Affairs Committee debating travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Simmons, a recently retired Defense Intelligence Agency Cuba specialist, explained the issue in detail. He showed how Raul Castro’s military owns virtually every corporation involved in Cuba’s tourism industry, the regime’s top money-maker.

The presentation also revealed something that goes a long way towards explaining the Raul Castro regime’s confident entrenchment. Last year Cuba enjoyed record tourism revenues: 2.35 million tourists leaving $2.7 billion in military-regime coffers, and precious little else due to the regime’s tourist apartheid, where Cubans (especially darker-skinned ones) are strictly segregated at billy-club and gun-point from tourist areas, except as waiters, maids, bellhops, shoe-shine boys, foot masseuses, etc.

With this tourist revenue windfall, ongoing for over a decade, Cuba’s ruling military robber barons are making a killing. Why would they voluntarily upset their own apple carts by democratizing the system and opening it to competitors? Given that they’re the only ones in Cuba with guns, who’s going to challenge them? On this question, neither the HRW, which misguidedly recommends an end to the U.S. travel ban, nor the legion of foreign experts on Cuba, can provide a clue. The more things change in Raul Castro’s Cuba, the more they remain the same.