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Cuba: With or Without Castro

Fidel Castro, 2011 (AP Photo/Javier Galeano; courtesy of The Havana Times)

Cuba: With or without Castro

 Fidel Castro’s death on 25 November 2016 provoked a predictable storm of polarised and partisan commentary about his leadership of the Cuban Revolution, the longest and most audacious in Latin American history. Whether you see him as a totalitarian ruler of the Cuban people or a champion of the oppressed, his legacy in terms of radical social and economic revolution in the most populous island in the Caribbean is unmatched in the twentieth century. The Cuban Revolution created unprecedented social mobility for the poor of 1950s Cuba through redistribution of wealth, universal access to housing, free health care and education. This social transformation, achieved through the confiscation and nationalisation of property from wealthier Cubans and Americans, and the subsequent flight of people and capital to the United States, has left a lasting scar on the Cuban diaspora and on US Cuban relations. Castro was admired and maligned in equal measure.

 Unsurprisingly, exiled Miami Cubans danced in the street, celebrating the death of a ‘brutal dictator’ who quashed any opposition by denying freedom of speech during nearly half a century in power. In contrast, the president of the UN General Assembly described the controversial leader as one of the 20th Century’s most iconic and influential leaders, a symbol of resistance in the global south. Thirty international speakers at the UN paid tribute to Castro, but none were from Western nations. Castro won respect and influence on the global stage for his support of decolonisation and independence in Africa, peasant revolutions in Latin America and his defiance of American imperialism in the Western Hemisphere. His support for Soviet imperialism secured billions of dollars in aid and subsidies for the Cuban revolution.

 At home, Castro won loyalty through resistance to secret US-backed plots to overthrow his regime beginning with the the Bay of Pigs (1961) and the longest sanctions in history. Despite the negative impact of the embargo on economic, social and cultural rights, in 2014 the World Bank declared Cuba to have the best education system in Latin America and the Caribbean. The cost of this is a denial of civil and political rights under an authoritarian and conservative communist party state.

 Antoni Kapcia, historian of the Cuban revolution, argues that the Revolution’s survival is powered by nationalism, a cultural and political force, used by Fidel Castro to great effect. By cultivating pride in cubanía he was able to adapt more hard line socialist policies to accommodate his political project of egalitarian social revolution. There was little to separaterevolución and patria (nation) in the process of Cuban nationalism with the history of struggle inevitably shaped by Spanish colonialism and the legacy of plantation slavery. A radical tradition of authoritarian nationalism did not begin with Castro, according to Cuban-Dominican political scientist, Haroldo Dilla, it existed before and will continue to exist as an inevitable ‘challenge for Cuban society’.

 The history of independence and the neo-colonial era is central to Cuban memory, consciousness and identity. The new Republic, declared in 1902, was beset by unresolved tensions of racial inequality and economic and political dependence on the United States. Coming seventy-two years later than other countries in Latin America, independence in Cuba was delayed by creole elites in exchange for Spain turning a blind eye to the slave trade. Slavery was not abolished completely until 1886. Growing discontent among creole plantation owners, excluded from politics and subjected to higher taxes, finally erupted in rebellion in 1868 leading to a bloody Ten Years’ War. White independence leaders began to enlist slaves in the rebel army. Over a series of three anticolonial rebellions, historians estimate that 40 percent of the officer class of the insurgent forces were Cubans of African descent with 60 percent of the mambíses (rebel forces) of black or mixed race. Armed blacks and whites fought for a Cuba Libre (Free Cuba), seeing in the rebellion a struggle for racial equality and political sovereignty in a new nation where there were ‘no whites nor blacks, but only Cubans’. Leading Cuban nationalist, José Martí, powerfully transformed ideas of Cuban nationality as raceless and, as argued by Cuban-born historian, Ada Ferrer, in her study of race, nation and Cuban independenceInsurgent Cuba, anti-racism had a solid foundation in nineteenth-century Cuban nationalism. However, overshadowed by American intervention in the last four months of the war, power transferred from Spain to the United States in 1898, making Cuba a protectorate of the occupying forces.

 Over the next four years, Cuban society and politics were reordered along North American lines and the Platt Amendment, inserted into the Cuban constitution, established the right of the US to intervene in Cuban affairs. Platt also secured the right in perpetuity to a naval base in Guantanamo. US Cuban relations entered a neo-colonial era bolstered by occasional military intervention (in 1906-1909; 1912; 1917-23). Early on race-based organising was outlawed and in 1912, when the Independent Party of Color organised to protest racial inequality, violence resulted in the massacre of three thousand blacks. Corrupt governance by pliant leaders ensured a path of social and racial inequality under repressive regimes in a fragile Cuban nation moulded a highly politicised Republic.

 In 1959 the Revolution led by Castro began a process of radical land reform and the nationalisation of US-owned businesses. The subsequent US blockade and active hostilities easily justified Cuban state policy of prioritising the defence system. Over fifty-five years, Cuban intelligence, State Security and the FAR (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias) have grown apace with perceived levels of external threat and internal dissent. These measures have resulted in a well-honed siege mentality in Cuba, one that would allow Castro to defy eleven successive US governments. The cost of defence has never been disclosed, but since his brother Raúl Castro, head of the armed forces and Minister for Defence, took over as President in 2008, the share of the economy, including tourism, run by the FAR has reached 40 percent.

 History may well absolve Fidel Castro if a commitment to global justice and human development is the yardstick, but how will his legacy be judged in Cuba? A half-century of Soviet style economic policies has resulted in disastrous economic outcomes, blamed by Fidel on the bloqueo (US blockade). At least three generations of Cubans know the lived reality of progressive social reform in a one-party state; a society cut-off through international isolation; dependence on the USSR and its collapse. The subsequent austerity of the Special Period (1989-1994) forced Cuba to open up to tourism resulting in a process of deeper questioning of the system and disaffection by a younger generation. Venezuelan aid through oil rescued the state-economy from collapse but now, down to a trickle, new austerity measures are forecast for 2017. In 2016, a record 4 million tourists visited the island and at year’s end the government announced neo-liberal style austerity measures.

 Cuba is a tropical island with large swathes of fallow land and state-controlled farming co-operatives, but still over half of all food consumed is imported. The ordinary business of government and commerce is stymied by the inertia and corruption of a bewildering state bureaucracy and centralised distribution, resulting in wasted opportunity, corruption and constant shortages. Daily life is shaped by la lucha (the struggle) in a stagnant ailing economy on government salaries of $25-50 a month - meaningless in the “real” economy of today’s Cuba. The black market thrives in a system that pushes workers to steal from the state and benefit from corruption. The risk of government sanctions and sometimes prison, if caught, is commonplace. Mobile phone and internet usage are the lowest in Latin America, with the cost of a text amounting to a day’s wages.

Attempts to revitalise the Cuban economy include reforms along the lines of the Sino-Vietnamese model – state capitalism with a monopoly on political power by the communist party. The so-called “updating” to a mixed economy has meant massive lay-offs of state workers, encouragement of cuenta propistas (private entrepreneurs), foreign investment and expansion of tourism, along with steep cuts in social spending. People rely on remittances from abroad, guaranteed through different waves of emigration to the US, Latin America and Europe. Consequently, stark new levels of inequality are emerging, sharpening in more recent times along a racial divide. Cubans of African descent (estimated at 30-60 percent of the population) have less access to transnational capital, and are not well positioned to take advantage of recent reforms.

 The first exodus in 1960 was predominantly white and, since 2008, Cubans of Spanish descent are entitled to EU passports. The social cost of migration, complicated by political estrangement from the United States with travel and everyday communication made difficult or impossible, is not fully accounted for. Postal services and direct flights between Cuba and the United States only resumed in the past six months. Between 1960 and 1962 the Peter Pan Operation airlifted 14,000 unaccompanied minors to Florida to protect against communist indoctrination. The so-called “Freedom Flights”, and the Cuban Refugee Children’s Program, overseen by Irish priest, Monsignor Bryan Walsh, dispersed one of the largest exoduses of children (mainly from affluent Catholic families) in the history of the Americas across 30 states. Fractured families divided by cold war politics faced a lifetime of personal trauma and loss, and some have not lived to realise the chance to reunite. The social and racial composition of Cuban migration became more mixed with the infamous Mariel boatlift in 1980, when 125,000 poorer people left for Miami, including people released by Castro from prisons and psychiatric hospitals. Diverse cohorts of economic migrants continued to leave in the balsero crisis in the 1990s.

Cuba’s economic problems are so severe that emigration to the United States spiked in 2016. Figures from the Pew Research Centre show that last year alone 46,635 Cuban migrants made the perilous and costly journey across the Florida Straits in makeshift rafts or travelled the equally dangerous route through South and Central America and Mexico. The “wet foot, dry foot” policy under the Cuban Adjustment Act 1996 meant that Cubans who “flee” are entitled to residency on landing on US soil, but those intercepted at sea are returned. With the renewal of diplomatic relations, this special status for Cubans emigrants was overturned in the last week of the Obama presidency. No one knows yet how they will be received under a Trump administration.

It is impossible to predict beyond Fidel Castro whether the Cuban people will continue to defend a revolution that has survived against all the odds. That Castro has been fundamental to this process is indisputable, but as Kapcia argues in his recent study of Leadership in the Cuban Revolution, ‘Fidel-centrism’ obscures the complexity of decision making in Cuban society. No one wants the shock of an Eastern-bloc style change to capitalism; however, the need for change is widely agreed. Criticism of the economy and society by a more liberal communist camp circulates from time to time. One platform for criticism is the social science journal Temas, edited by Rafael Hernández who engages in public discussion and criticism within a discourse tolerated by the regime. For example, mass organisations, claimed to be democratic by the state, such as Poder Popular (Popular Power), or local councils, operated by elected officials, are not openly critiqued. It is widely held that grass roots organisations, such as La Federación de Mujeres Cubanas or the Committees for Defence of the Revolution (CDRs), are undemocratic and participation is controlled from the top. The government continues to fear active and critical citizenship that could ultimately transform for the better the institutions of Cuban socialism.

Communist critic and academic, Esteban Morales Dominguez, recently protested against corruption in circles of power and argued that this posed more of a threat than internal dissidence. He openly accused state administrators of positioning themselves to transfer state property into their own hands, if and when the regime collapsed. As a black professor, Morales also wrote about race relations, blaming the lack of political will to end racial discrimination on institutional racism. In 2013, Roberto Zurbano, Afro-Cuban editor in a major publishing house, Casa de Las Americas, wrote in the New York Times about the absence of racial consciousness in Cuba.  His criticism of the lack of progress by the Revolution lost him his job as editor. Opposition is punished and publicly discredited as dissident. Many of those who dare are accused of being in the pay of American-backed regime changers. Other independent left wing groups with ecological, Afro-Cuban, women’s and LGBT agendas are slowly attempting to build alliances and claim political space outside the party and the state.

Raúl Castro will retire as President in 2018, handing over the reins to a new generation of socialists, as the last of the ‘históricos’ leaves the stage. Though reforms are evident, it is difficult to predict the course of Cuba post- the Castro brothers. This year Cubans living abroad can choose to repatriate and to hold a Cuban identity card with entitlement to the services of the state (previously denied to anyone who left). The Cuban government has moved from a policy of treating emigrants as disloyal revolutionaries to a policy of actively cultivating a relationship with the diaspora. Reconciliation is on the agenda since the first Latin America Pontiff, Pope Francis, visited the island in 2015. With the resumption of fragile diplomatic relations, high expectations of reform have turned to uncertainty, with tweets from President Elect Trump pledging American support for a ‘journey of prosperity and liberty in Cuba’.

In the changing political landscape of neo-liberalism and austerity, the Cuban government has developed relationships with powerful one-party authoritarian states such as China and Russia. In Cuba, where there is a strong belief that the state has a role in protecting the vulnerable, the populace may be more easily convinced to find their own political system less troubling than governments in multi-party states who support austerity, leaving large sectors of the population without social protection and disaffected with the processes of democracy. It remains to be seen to what extent a libertarian or egalitarian tradition will continue in progressing an ‘unfinished’ revolution or indeed in post-revolutionary Cuba, still firmly in government hands and inseparable from the Communist party.

Margaret Brehony


Published: 03 Feb 2017  Categories: Cultural Studies, History, Politics

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Margaret Brehony is president of the Society for Irish Latin American Studies (, and has taught in Latin American Studies and Irish Studies at NUIG. Her research interests lie in migration, refugee rights and digital humanities. She has published on Irish migration to Cuba in the nineteenth century and is the curator of an exhibition entitled ‘The Irish in Latin America’, currently touring in Latin America and Ireland. She has lived and worked in Central America and has visited Cuba every year since 1994.