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Cuba’s Revolution: Survival, Loyalty, Change


This article is distributed under the Creative Commons Licence (full details below). by Antoni Kapcia from The commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban revolution is an appropriate moment to pose two questions: what exactly is Cuba celebrating – and are Cuban citizens themselves joining in? The answer to the first is easy: what is especially being celebrated, fifty years after the triumphant entry into Havana on 1 January 1959, is the fact of sheer survival, against all the odds. The extent of the challenges the revolution has managed to withstand over five decades should be recalled: a United States-backed invasion (1961); the longest sanctions in history (partially since 1960 and fully since 1963); the sustained hostility of the world’s greatest military and economic power; successive economic crises, especially the drastic collapse in 1989-94; the disappearance of the whole edifice of economic, political and military protection afforded by the socialist bloc and Soviet Union; and, most recently, the retirement of Fidel Castro. In the light of all this, survival is no mean achievement. The underlying assumption in US policy-making circles since 1961 is that political repression is solely responsible for this survival. But other reasons can be cited that also provide cause for at least some Cubans to celebrate. For, fundamentally, the Cuban revolution’s longevity is attributable to a series of factors that have consistently affected enough Cubans for enough years to ensure either active loyalty (in some) or passive acceptance (in perhaps more), requiring the use of coercion less widely or less systematically than might often be expected. The ingredients of loyalty The first explanation of that loyalty lies in the social benefits that the system has brought. By the 1970s, it was clear that the considerable achievements in social provision, equality, land distribution and employment security (all comparing well with contemporary Latin America) had sufficed to guarantee the continuing loyalty of most Cubans, whatever their doubts about the political system. When the 1989-91 collapse of communism generated a frightening economic collapse in Cuba (a 35 percent fall in GDP by 1994, an 80 percent fall in trade, desperate shortages of everything from energy to food), the decision to protect spending levels on health and education paid off: loyalty was seriously damaged (witnessed in serious unrest in 1994 and a growing number of illegal refugees) but sufficient loyalty was secured for the coming years of greater austerity – the so-called “special period”. While that austerity has continued (albeit lessening substantially), it is still probably true that the reservoirs of loyalty over three decades have continued to play a major part (see Richard Gott, “Fidel remembered: a view of the Cuban revolution“, 20 February 2008). The second clue to loyalty lies in the array of mechanisms for political participation, most dating from 1960-61 (thus predating the single-party system, established in 1965). Participation has, however, taken two forms: mobilisatory and institutional. The former was most characteristic of the 1960s (e.g. the 1961 literacy campaign), but has remained visible in the repeated campaigns to organise voluntary labour, hurricane relief, defence, construction, and so on, and in the more ritual parades (May Day and 26 July). However, the more stable institutions have been as important, especially the “mass organisations”. These, involving as they do the whole population regularly and formally – and which cover women, workers, private farmers, schoolchildren, students, veterans and neighbourhood residents (the latter in the characteristic Committees for the Defence of the Revolution) – have long provided the main means by which effort, enthusiasm, complaints and communication between leaders and led are channelled and in which all Cubans connect with “the revolution”. Indeed, they have long filled a gap, since membership of the Communist Party and its youth wing (Union of Young Communists) is selective and since they long predated the post-1976 electoral system. In fact, their extensive scope had no equivalent in the pre-1989 socialist-bloc systems; this helps to explain why Cuba did not become the last domino to fall in 1989. The third clue is the continuing cohesive power of the revolution’s ideology. Here, however, a note of caution is needed for those wont to measure Cuba against templates established in that bloc; although the revolution’s admitted ideology has, since 1961, been communism, this has always been rooted in and shaped by the radical nationalism which drove the original rebellion. This was true in the heretical 1960s (when Cuba’s socialism challenged Soviet definitions), remained true throughout the apparently “Sovietised” years (1970-86), and has continued to be true since 1989-94, as crisis forced reappraisal of “the revolution” and reaffirmed its Cuban roots. Indeed, the revolution itself should be seen as a process of revolutionary nation-building: revolutionary because of its long commitment to egalitarianism (at least until the special period) and collectivism, and nation-building because it took up a process postponed since 1902. For independence (from Spain) was seriously undermined by United States military occupation in 1898-1902 (repeated three times subsequently), by thirty-two years of open US neo-colonialism and by a half-century of economic dependence on the giant to the north. Hence, one can see nation-building in the many new national institutions after 1959, but also in the national pride emanating since 1959 from sporting triumph, cultural achievements, third-world aid and military success in Angola. The sources of survival Until 1991, the most simple and available explanation for survival was Soviet and socialist-bloc support, helping to underwrite the social revolution and diversify the economy. However, survival beyond 1991 undermined that argument, returning attention to the United States. For a further consistent explanation has long been the impact of US opposition, usually seen outside the United States as counterproductive, strengthening the Cuban government’s legitimacy. This was certainly true of the Bay of Pigs events of April 1961 and by the following years of “siege”; equally, the United States’ decisions to increase active hostility after 1992 by tightening the embargo during the crisis (repeated in 1996 and 2004) has almost certainly restored a siege mentality, rallying enough Cubans behind the leadership. Indeed, Cuban reactions to US hostility have been permanently institutionalised by three factors. The first is the continuing embargo, invariably interpreted inside Cuba, legally and popularly, as an act of war. Economically, after years when socialist- bloc aid and trade cushioned its impact, making it a costly nuisance, after 1991 it again became critical; politically, it has always served as living proof of the “siege” and provided an alibi for economic problems. The second factor is continuing US support for émigré forces seeking to overthrow the revolution; after 1961, Operation Mongoose sought to sabotage and foment rebellion, thereafter followed by a close link between the Cuban-American lobby and US policy, helping to unite opinion on the island. Equally, active and open US support for Cuba’s divided domestic dissidents (especially since 2002) has contributed to isolating and undermining the credibility of the latter. The third factor is the continuing US occupation of Guantánamo Bay, the permanent visible reminder of the old neo-colonialism and the post-1960 siege and a powerful weapon for the government. The final major explanation lies in the substantial emigration since 1959, occasionally leaving in waves (e.g. 1965-71, 1980 and 1994) but mostly continuous. Since much of this emigration was initially politically-motivated, this has siphoned off much potential opposition; indeed, it has often been used for that purpose by the government, thereby weakening the development of any significant organised dissidence and, by associating this opposition with the exile lobby and the United States, weakening their political legitimacy in Cuba. A question of generation What, however, of the future? Can survival suffice to ensure continuing loyalty? The answer is almost certainly that it cannot and that the revolution is at something of a crossroads. True, this has frequently been the case since 1959; but the current condition is now somewhat different in character from previous dilemmas facing Cuba’s leaders. Most obviously this comes from the impending absence of Fidel Castro. There is a reason why the explanations given above have so far not included the “Fidel question”. That is because the familiar US and journalistic focus on Fidel has often distorted understanding of what is, necessarily, a complex process; the greater the focus on Fidel, the less understood the wider system. However, to ignore Fidel would be foolish. Apart from the periods, moments or specific areas of policy where his decision-making has been critical, there has always been a close association between “the revolution” and “Fidel” for millions of Cubans, creating a commanding personal loyalty and popularity or affection. For those who saw and appreciated the changes after 1959, that identification has been positive, but for many of the young it can also negative: Fidel is easily blamed for all the problems, austerity and frustrations. Although most Cubans have operated since 2007 on the assumption that Fidel is no longer actively involved in decision-making, the fact is that he is still alive, is still consulted (even if only out of respect) and still expounds in his almost daily press “reflections”. Therefore, the Cuban system is still partly in an interregnum rather than a post-Fidel state, unwilling to contemplate changes from policies, institutions or attitudes formerly associated with Fidel. However, his death would undoubtedly remove a cornerstone of popular loyalty and legitimacy. While Raúl Castro (as one the three leaders of the rebellion) shares some of Fidel’s historical legitimacy, and benefits from association with the popular armed forces and the idea of reform, the fact is that he is not Fidel – he does not have Fidel’s personal loyalty and is reluctant to try to captivate with long rhetorical speeches. Instead, he knows that he must earn support in other ways, not least by delivering rapid material improvements. The frustrations building at the continuing austerity and the exhaustion following the mobilisations of 1999-2006 mean that many Cubans are evidently eager to improve their economic circumstances: in particular, by ending rationing and the humiliating dependence on a divisive two-currency system and by having greater access to cheap, good-quality food and consumer goods. Cuba’s leaders assume, probably correctly, that as yet not enough Cubans actively demand a multi-party democracy; too many recall the fate of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1984-90, and too many fear the east-central European experience of the loss of social provision and employment, or a return of émigrés (to reclaim their property). Hence, material improvement is most Cubans’ more urgent demand; at the same time, Raúl also knows that failure to deliver on that could be politically damaging. The implication is that what has become a cliché in journalistic reports of contemporary Cuba is nonetheless true: that many young Cubans need to be actively won over to “the revolution” in ways not necessary for their predecessors. In his four remaining years in office, Raúl knows that he must send signals to the under-30s that Cuba is not, as some fear, a gerontocracy, and must continue to offer spaces for the younger generation. Therefore the much-postponed party congress now scheduled for late 2009, which will give Raúl the political ammunition for controlled reform programme, should be watched closely. A vital year Two further elements make 2009 especially critical. The first is that Cuba’s economic expectations have been severely hit by three major hurricanes (Gustav, Ike, and Paloma) which caused $10 billion of damage; and by the developing world recession, which threatens to reduce tourism, foreign investment and markets. The second is that the Barack Obama administration offers a different United States. True, no one seriously expects the embargo to be lifted over the short-term (given the constitutional, political and electoral obstacles). But Obama is bound to reduce the levels of active hostility; and the near-certain repeal of the measures imposed in 2004 which restricted Cuban-American remittances and visits will help to offset some of the expected decline in capital and tourist inflows. However, the most that can be expected is a steady deterioration of the embargo, for its sudden end would be in neither country’s interests: the effects on expectations, stability and emigration would be destabilising, for Cuba and Florida alike. Meanwhile, Cubans’ expectations will inevitably rise, with each month of Obama, with each month of Raúl, and with each month of no or slow economic change. Those expectations have to be met in some form or other. If Raúl can deliver sufficiently, then all the reservoirs of support or acceptance will work; if he cannot, then the situation may be as serious as Cuba’s leaders have warned. That said, survivability has repeatedly proved to be one of the revolution’s underlying strengths. This resilience should never be underestimated. Antoni Kapcia is professor and head of the Centre for Research on Cuba, University of Nottingham, England This article is published by Antoni Kapcia and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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