Babalú Exclusive: Carbon Copy Communism
The following is an exclusive Op-Ed you will only find here at Babalú. History professor Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, Ph.D., who holds the Kosciuszko Chair in Polish Studies at The Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC.
Carbon Copy Communism
The Politburo and the Central Committee concur that there is room for a mixed economy and reforms are announced at the Communist Party congress. Some market mechanisms and a nod to the private sector should solve the problems of central planning. Minor private enterprise should be permitted in the agriculture, commerce, and service sectors.
It makes sense and sounds pragmatic. The dogmatism has softened. The reforms signal a liberalization that goes hand in glove with human rights - often a prerequisite for economic aid and engagement with hostile Western governments. Domestic reforms should pave the way for foreign aid and investment. Exiles, in particular, are wooed by the regime. The parting between exiles and the homeland was bitter, but that was years ago. Let bygones be bygones. They are welcome to invest and keep some of the profits. They hold foreign passports and naturally are given preferential treatment. They can come and go at will, unlike the rest of the population.
Exiles are a fantastic asset abroad: they can help change the perception of the homeland that is no longer a totalitarian dictatorship. They can influence their community to embrace the changes. This will translate into political pressure to open relations between their adopted home and the old country. The most progressive exiles will become public diplomacy ambassadors.
This sounds like Cuba, doesn’t it? But I am talking about Communist Poland in the 1970s and 1980s. After 1989, we gained access to the State Security archives that revealed the modus operandi of the Party and its intentions behind so-called liberalization. First and foremost, all reforms, real and imagined, aimed at strengthening the regime. Second, economic reforms, in particular those presented as economic liberalization, intended to buy Communism some breathing space while duping the natives, foreigners, and exiles. Third, they were all modeled after Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP): the Party allows capitalism to shore up Communism but it never relinquishes power. Fourth, the secret police managed perceptions and manipulated the participants in this game, including the exiles.
The Polish version of the NEP commenced under Edward Gierek and continued under the junta of General Jaruzelski. Gierek’s improved human rights record (dissidents were rarely killed anymore, but merely beaten or briefly detained) led to Western credit, investments, and economic aid. Special hard currency stores were established which sold Western goods to foreigners, exiles, and their Polish relatives. Exiles were further wooed to establish so-called firmy polonijne (diaspora companies) that enjoyed favorable taxation and lax labor laws. They could repatriate some of the money. Anyone with a foreign passport lived like a king in a country where the average monthly salary hovered around US$20.00 per citizen.A Polish-Danish uncle of mine started a profitable sweatshop sewing jeans in Poland later sold abroad under a Western label. He intervened often with the Danish authorities to ease restrictions on Polish imports. My uncle was constantly under the watchful eye of the secret policemen who referred to him as “that Jew.” He did not enjoy his NEP ride forever. The government reneged on his tax deal and he went bankrupt.
Other exiles had great success, particularly those who collaborated with the secret police. After the fall these exiles secured good jobs for the families and cronies of their Communist contacts. This was evident during "privatization" which involved shady deals, credit scams, and state property embezzlement. Post-Communist crony capitalism was born, sometimes with exile participation.
Cuba and its exiles should prepare for the future. If the Castros or their successors opt for a “transformation” the outcome in Cuba will at best be similar to post-Communist Poland. If the regime remains intransigent Cuba will hover between China and North Korea. Some of the Cuban exiles will continue to prop the regime with their money, connections, and public diplomacy. Either way, the result will be a victory for the bad guys.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, Ph.D.
Professor of History
The Kosciuszko Chair in Polish Studies
The Institute of World Politics