Shadow Government

A death in Cuba exposes business as usual

Sadly, the tragic death of another Cuban dissident hunger striker will not change conditions in that island-prison nor provoke governments to reassess their historical indulgence of the Castro regime's crimes. Business as usual will continue.

In fact, this week, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is in Cuba promoting business opportunities for Brazilian companies. She plans no meetings with Cuban dissidents.

But the Jan19 death of 31-year-old dissident Wilman Villar Mendoza will not be in vain. Indeed, when decent people arrive in Cuba to pick through the rubble left by the most oppressive regime this hemisphere has ever seen, his sacrifice -- and that of thousands of Cuban martyrs before him -- will be rightly honored on Cuban soil.

But if there is one immediate purpose that the tragic death of Wilman Villar can serve, it is to put the definitive lie to the currently fashionable meme that Cuba, under Raúl Castro, "is changing."

For example, according to the Associated Press, Cuba just wrapped up a "dramatic year of economic change." The BBC informs us, "Cuba expands free-market reforms," while Reuters adds, "Cuba to free 2,900 in sweeping amnesty."

Frankly, the only thing sweeping Cuba these days -- besides the ongoing state repression -- is the hyperbole in foreign correspondents' dispatches.

I have dealt with Cuba's smoke-and-mirrors reforms in this space before, but to briefly summarize, all interested observers need to know about Cuban "reforms" are two things:

They signify no new recognition of the inalienable rights of the Cuban people by the regime. "Allowing" a few new bits of heavily circumscribed individual economic freedoms is hardly indicative of fundamental change. The relationship between state and citizen remains the same -- although instead of controlling 100 percent of the economy, the regime will now control 99.5 percent.

Secondly, recent changes are not meant to reform the system but to save the system. Allowing Cubans to repair children's dolls outside the purview of the state does not mean Cuba is on the road to a free market; it means the regime is looking for new ways to generate revenue through confiscatory taxes of limited private economic activity.

Raul Castro himself serves as the best spokesman that the regime is not contemplating any kind of fundamental reform. Speaking recently at a party conference, he said, "There has been no shortage of criticism and exhortations by those who have confused their intimate desires with reality, deluding themselves that this conference would consecrate the beginning of the dismantling of the political and social system the revolution has fought for more than half a century."

To be sure, the hyperbole surrounding recent changes in Cuba has an ulterior motive. It is meant to apply pressure on U.S. policymakers to make unilateral changes in U.S. policy, because Cuba is ostensibly "reforming." Thankfully, the Obama administration so far hasn't taken the bait. In fact, last September, the President took the matter head-on, saying, "They [the Castro regime] certainly have not been aggressive enough when it comes to liberating political prisoners and giving people the opportunity to speak their minds."

Indeed, at a time when no quarter is being given to undemocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, the suggestion that the U.S. should lessen pressure on an undemocratic regime ninety miles from our shores strikes a wholly discordant note and is unlikely to be entertained by any serious policymaker. The Cuban people deserve no less than what the peoples of those regions deserve: the freedom to live their lives as they see fit. Clearly, that concept was as alien to Muammar al-Qaddafi as it is to the Castro brothers -- which is why they deserve the same fate.

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Shadow Government

The implausibilities of Panetta’s budget

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced last week the main outlines of the Pentagon's 2013 budget that will implement the $487 billion reduction in spending eventuated by spending limits in the law passed by Congress last summer. Secretary Panetta's budget represents a sensible set of choices in an environment of budget constraint likely to be of extended duration. Unfortunately, the budget does not constitute a program that carries out the law: DOD has produced a budget that cannot be implemented should any reductions beyond the 2013 topline occur. As Secretary Panetta himself has said, not only the budget choices, but the entire strategy collapses with any further cuts.

Panetta essentially flipped his predecessor's priorities, accepting risk in the near-term to preserve procurement of systems considered central to long-term risk management (i.e., preserving our technological and innovation edge as China rises). The programmatic choices consist of three main elements: decreasing the size of the force, improving long-range strike capabilities and relying on them to carry the burden of combat, and shifting to special operations the mission of training friendly forces.

However, DOD's plans contain several elements unlikely to survive contact with reality. First, as the Pentagon not only admits but trumpets, this strategic guidance is unexecutable if further defense cuts occur. On what possible basis does Secretary Panetta believe the law outlining sequestration cuts of an additional $600-800 billion to national security will not be enacted? Congress passed the Budget Control Act by large margins (269-161 in the House, 74-26 in the Senate). The Select Committee proved incapable of reaching a deal that would prevent sequestration. The president has threatened to veto any changes to the distribution of sequestration cuts in the existing law. Secretary Panetta himself has supported the president's veto threat. Where is the basis for believing the law will not come into effect?

Yet Secretary Panetta produced a budget willfully ignorant of the continuum of reductions, a budget that will be irrelevant before it even becomes law. It is irresponsible for DOD to plan on this basis. At a minimum, during the authorization and appropriations process, Congress should require the Pentagon to incorporate excursions into the Future Years Defense Program that indicate how DOD will adapt this budget to the additional cuts in current law. If this budget cannot accommodate spending levels Congress has established, the Pentagon ought to have to explain how it plans to bring itself into compliance.

Moreover, Congress should seriously question the math of Panetta's budget submission in two areas: the $60 billion it relies on from cutting waste, and the reductions in personnel expenses. Secretary Panetta's budget balances only with $60 billion additionally wrung out of DOD by "cutting waste." In a budget of roughly $535 billion a year, this is little more than 1 percent a year, which doesn't sound like much. But if the Pentagon hasn't already eliminated waste in the $400 billion in cuts undertaken by Secretary Gates, the inclusion of a sloppy category suggests there is a greater margin for reductions that belies the Secretary's hyperbole about any further cuts.

Personnel costs account for 30 percent of the defense budget. That is unexceptional: we have the world's finest military largely because we have the world's most adaptive soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. They deserve to be well-compensated not only because they put themselves in harm's way for us all, but also because we need to keep innovative people in the force.

But military pay has climbed significantly in the past decade as the wars revealed our Army and Marine Corps were too small for the demands of counter-insurgency. The need to recruit an additional 80,000 combatants in wartime understandably put upward pressure on salaries and benefits. Reducing the force ought to generate possibilities for reductions, and the Panetta budget evidently plans to include modest changes in these areas. Any such cuts will be bruisingly difficult to enact, requiring a major effort by both the White House and the Pentagon to build a political coalition that protects lawmakers from pressure by military retirees' and veterans groups. Yet how will a president who advocates caregiver leave for deploying service members stake out this territory in an election year?

The Obama administration's reluctance to undertake the defense planning and political lifting that will make Secretary Panetta's budget a blueprint for enacting legislation means the Pentagon will be scrambling next summer to produce a wholly new strategy and a wholly new budget that conform to spending limits the Congress has already passed.

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