When John Kerry came to Cuba to preside over the reopening of the US embassy, he called for democracy:
“[T]he people of Cuba would be best served by genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas, practice their faith; where the commitment to economic and social justice is realized more fully; where institutions are answerable to those they serve; and where civil society is independent and allowed to flourish.”
In the Cuba of yesteryear, such a statement would have been suppressed by the government-controlled media. In the Cuba of today, however, Kerry’s speech was broadcast over state television and published – in full – in Granma, the official organ of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.
In the past, ordinary Cubans would have been afraid to voice their opinions freely, wary of the ubiquitous political police – the “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution” resident in every neighborhood – who keep a close watch on suspected “counterrevolutionary elements” springing up in their midst. Yet the Cuban man on the street was amazingly open to Western reporters’ questions about their reaction to the warming of official US-Cuban ties. Previously unwilling to give their names when asked about political subjects, Cubans were quite open about their enthusiasm for Kerry’s words:
“In a series of interviews across Havana, Cubans told The Associated Press that they also welcomed Kerry’s call, openly discussing their desire for more democracy without the requests for anonymity or slow measuring of words that once were nearly universal when discussing political change.
“Stopping as he strolled Friday night through Old Havana, not far from where Alejandra spoke, 50-year-old nurse Esbaldo Rodriguez shared his name and occupation before confidently saying ‘I think it’s logical that Kerry talks about those ideas, democracy, etc. For us it’s a drop of hope, it’s something we weren’t expecting.’ Rodriguez said. ‘It’s logical and for me it’s like a dream, what happened today and on Dec. 17, and now we have to wait to see it become reality.’
“Sofia Granda, a 62-year-old retired state worker, agreed: ‘Everything he said about liberty, human rights, democracy, didn’t surprise me and I like it,’ she said after watching Kerry walk through Old Havana Friday afternoon.
Retired Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray said Friday’s events ‘had a great impact on people, who became enthused and started talking much more easily about those themes,’ of democracy and liberty.”
The willingness of ordinary Cubans to speak so openly about the benefits of liberty and democracy has everything to do with the Cuban government’s apparent willingness to not only tolerate it, but to explicitly encourage it. Why else would Granma be publishing Kerry’s speech?
Cuba has been on this trajectory since Fidel Castro retired and left the reins of government to brother Raul, the “provisional” leader. As Julia E. Sweig and Michael Bustamante pointed out in two years ago in Foreign Affairs:
“From the moment he assumed provisional power in 2006, Raúl Castro has spoken bluntly about Cuba’s predicament. ‘We reform, or we sink,’ he declared in a characteristically short and pointed 2010 national address. Even as Havana sticks to its central political conviction – namely, that the Communist Party remains the nation’s best defense against more than a century of U.S. interference – terms such as "decentralization," "accountability," and "institutionalization" have become buzzwords, not taboos. Whereas in the 1990s, Havana was willing to permit only limited private enterprise as an emergency measure, the government now talks openly of ensuring that 50 percent of Cuba’s GDP be in private hands within five years. Realistic or not, such ambitious goals would have been sacrilege less than ten years ago. Already, the representation of Cuban small-business owners in the country’s National Assembly and their participation in the annual May Day parade offer evidence of changes under way.”
This kind of economic liberalization isn’t exactly unprecedented under one-party Communist rule. Lenin instituted the so-called New Economic Policy after “war communism” failed, and the Soviet regime and its satellites regularly veered between ultra-centralist and more relaxed policies, according to which way the wind was blowing. In China we have seen that country go from the “politics in command” fanaticism of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward to the de facto state capitalist system that exists today – all without the relaxation of one-party rule. The Chinese have assiduously avoided the fate of the Soviet Union by instituting perestroika – economic restructuring – without accompanying it with even a hint glasnost, the Russian word for “openness.”
The Cubans appear to be taking a different road – one that could end with the peaceful overthrow of Cuba’s one-party state, as happened in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. We could very well be witnessing the swansong of Fidelismo.
Not that the Cuban Communist Party is going to institute multiparty elections and dismantle the apparatus of oppression built up over many years – at least, not immediately. No doubt they are looking for a “soft landing.” And yet they realize what the US opponents of normalization refuse to grasp: that the reopening of economic and political ties represents a mortal threat to the Communist Party’s hold on absolute power, and it’s only a matter of time before that monopoly is broken. Although this may be putting too stark a spin on it, given a choice between the fate of, say, Nicolae Ceausescu and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Cuban leadership has chosen the latter.
The Cuban Communists have wisely chosen to stop the inevitable alienation of the Party from the people before it reaches crisis proportions, and there is every indication that the Cuban glasnost will go much further than merely allowing for dissident opinions to be published on the front page of Granma and broadcast over state television. My guess is that they will follow the example of their Nicaraguan comrades, the Sandinistas, who wound up ditching orthodox Marxist-Leninist dogma and transformed themselves into a left-social democratic party that regularly participates in elections – and wins.
Not that the Cuban Communist Party is going to preside over the transformation of their country into a Jeffersonian republic, but all trends point to a gradual – and radical – loosening of state controls.
Don’t’ forget that Cuba has tried the other path, and it didn’t work. In the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union, marked by the reduction and eventual ending of Soviet subsidies that had kept the faltering Cuban economy afloat, Fidel Castro declared the inauguration of a “Rectification” campaign – which, in communist parlance, means a brutal crackdown on every front.
This was a blast from the past. After the death of Che Guevara, in 1968, Castro initiated what he called the “Revolutionary Offensive,” a top-down “mass movement” similar to China’s “Cultural Revolution.” A campaign to infuse the population with “socialist consciousness,” as opposed to a desire for material incentives, was launched. The militarization of every aspect of life proceeded apace, and the economy was further centralized, with a purge of “bourgeois elements” and other “social deviants.”
It didn’t work. Far from it, the effort backfired: the black market grew, noncompliance with official edicts increased, and production plummeted. The regime’s solution was to increase repression while loosening up on the economic front enough to offer some material incentives. Castro’s commissars gave up on their earlier goal of transforming Cuban society and creating a new Socialist Man: instead, they retreated to a “carrot and stick” approach, punishing recalcitrant elements with harsh retaliation while rewarding productive work. In short, rather than raising consciousness they focused on raising cash.
It worked, to some extent, but the problems afflicting Castro’s Cuba were systemic and not so easily solved: while economic efficiency increased, the economy was still heavily dependent on Soviet subsidies. And when those were reduced to a trickle, and then finally ended with the Soviet implosion, popular discontent and “social deviancy” skyrocketed. Cuban Communism was in crisis.
Castro reacted with his crazed “Rectification” campaign, a set of new policies that had three prongs. The first prong was an economic belt-tightening: imports were curbed along with consumption, and a strict rationing system was introduced.
Secondly, the private market that had cautiously yet steadily grown up around the margins of the state-controlled economy was viciously assaulted and shut down: farmers’ markets were closed, small traders and other micro-scale businesses were outlawed, and even street vendors were swept off the sidewalks and alleyways of Cuba’s cities.
The third prong of the “Rectification” crackdown was a renewed effort to instill Leninist dogmatism in every aspect of Cuban society. The Soviet reforms of the Gorbachev era were denounced as a “betrayal”: “It is disgusting,” fumed Castro, “that many in the Soviet Union are dedicating themselves to denying and destroying the historic feats and extraordinary merits of that heroic people.” The stern figure of Che Guevara was restored as the epitome of “socialist consciousness,” and the militarization of labor, coupled with fierce repression of the slightest ideological “deviancy,” was reintroduced. Moral hectoring replaced material incentives: Cubans must work for the glory of the Communist state without “selfish” desires for physical comforts.
The reason for this was because the regime had no material comforts or rewards to offer: the Cuban economy was collapsing. Yet Castro persisted, driving the country into penury, otherwise known as the “special period.” It wasn’t until his illness and retirement, and the assumption of de facto power by brother Raul, that economic reform was instituted and the economy slowly improved. Since that time, the Cubans repeatedly tried to establish relations with the United States, only to be repeatedly rebuffed: the power of the “Cuba lobby” in Florida – a politically important “swing state” in US presidential elections – was still far too influential.
It wasn’t until the tail end of Obama’s second term that chances for a rapprochement began to improve, culminating in the restoration of diplomatic relations and what looks to be the beginning of a new era in Cuba.
Opponents of normalization, such as the neocons’ favorite son Marco Rubio, don’t have a leg to stand on. The idea that the embargo does anything but reinforce the totalitarian rule of the Communist Party is now completely discredited. Bereft of the excuse that the “Yankee imperialists” are responsible for Cuba’s parlous condition, the regime is now being forced to move in the same direction that Gorbachev did – and the results will be quite similar, insofar as the Communist Party will be forced to give up its dictatorship. While they won’t go quietly – indeed, their accommodation of the need for political and economic change is an attempt to forestall the loss of their power – the Leninist project in Cuban is doomed, and they know it. What they are counting on is the possibility that decades of ideological indoctrination and nationalist sentiment will give them the edge when the one-party system finally gives way before the tides of history.
If I were them, I wouldn’t count on it.
Their only hope is that the Marco Rubios of this world will prevail, and the US embargo remains in place. Then they can point to external factors, rather than the abject failure of socialism, as the source of Cuba’s problems. This was Castro’s strategy, and they’ll fall back on it if they have to. However, the question is – why are the alleged anti-communists of the Rubio persuasion giving the Cuban communists this out?
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.