BUENOS AIRES — Fifty-eight years after the communist rebel Fidel Castro toppled Batista's corrupt government in Cuba, his brother, President Raúl Castro, is now recognizing, partially and reluctantly, the reality of the market economy. This is not unrelated to the recent process of détente begun between Cuba and the United States, and represents the end of a cycle and start of another, whose future remains to be written.

The complex changes that have begun inside the Cuban Communist party are also an open-ended process, initiated by an economic crisis it has failed to resolve, as well as its own ideological crises. More widely, the changes are the fruit of decades of U.S.-imposed sanctions, Cuba's previous economic dependence on the Soviet Union and the Communist leadership's own rigidity of thought, which restricted the country's development and economic options.

Carefully selecting its words, the Communist Party (PC) voiced on Aug. 16 its recognition of "the objective existence of market relations." We're talking relations here, not market economy — this difference can feed an ongoing theoretical, though not truly political, debate. Perhaps this is just as party leaders want.

Central idea

This effectively gives the signal for a shift toward models of vigorous political centralization complemented by economic liberalization, in the manner of Vietnam.

Rolling Stones concert in Cuba in March — Photo: Michael Paul Franklin/ZUMA

It is very difficult to say whether communist countries that have accepted market rules are capitalist now or not. We can only be certain that they stopped being altogether communist, by choice or force of circumstances.

What Cuba is doing is broadening the horizon for its reforms without ditching its central idea, as it seeks to emulate similar regimes elsewhere. The PC recognized the market principle in its April congress, though within "the functioning of the socialist economy," and the regime looks set to follow the principle of most other systems of its ilk (bar North Korea), which firmly maintain single party rule. We know that while the free market can increase political liberties to some extent, this, as Russia shows, is not inevitable.

Indeed as the economy is liberalized, the political regime retains control as it supervises and fine-tunes its version of the re-conversion process. The top-down system becomes a necessary complement to more open economic policymaking.

Another excuse for keeping the grip it seems is to manage corruption, which is a possibility in any regime. China has the highest rate of executions for crimes involving corruption. Expect then, the coming contradiction in Cuba: Economic liberalization will wind up riding roughshod over other, less lucrative, liberties.