Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos 
by Louis Pérez.
North Carolina, 333 pp., £32.95, August 2008, 978 0 8078 3216 5
Show More
Cuba in Revolution: A History since the 1950s 
by Antoni Kapcia.
Reaktion, 208 pp., £15.95, September 2008, 978 1 86189 402 1
Show More
Show More

Colin Powell’s service to the cause of regime change wasn’t confined to Iraq. George W. Bush got him to chair his Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which in 2004 produced a report suggesting ways to undermine the Cuban government and replace it with a system of ‘open market’ capitalism and multi-party elections. Citing the Eastern Bloc as a precedent, the commission proposed a series of initiatives aimed at destabilising Cuba’s ‘totalitarian’ government with a view to ‘rebuilding’ the country’s institutions afterwards. The report even called for the vaccination of children and other basic health services, as if these were not already available to all Cubans, and demanded the restitution of property formerly owned by Cubans living in the US – and if not outright restitution then at least compensation. The report ‘envisioned’ and ‘welcomed’ the contributions of these Cuban Americans to the transformation of Cuba, praising their ‘business acumen and capital’ as well as their ‘entrepreneurial spirit and patriotism’.

The tone and substance of the report can’t have surprised anyone interested in US-Cuba relations: overt and covert plots to subvert the revolutionary regime have been a constant of American policy since Eisenhower. Indeed, the conviction that the United States has a right to dictate what happens in Cuba can be traced as far back as the presidency of John Quincy Adams, when conventional wisdom held that Spain’s dominion over Cuba would inevitably give way to the island’s incorporation into the United States.

‘It’s in the neighbourhood’s interest that Cuba be free,’ Bush said when he introduced the Powell commission’s report. As Louis Pérez notes, American politicians and pundits have been speaking this way since the 1830s. Cuba is a ‘neighbour’, but like any good neighbour it is expected to behave itself and tend its garden properly. Such remarks presuppose a population of children. The objective of American policy, the Powell commission proclaimed, should be to ‘support the Cuban people as they … work to transform themselves’ and to ‘enable the Cuban people to develop a democratic and civic culture … and the values and habits essential to both’. On top of that, Cubans are expected to express their gratitude for American tutelage; indeed, American journalists were appalled by their failure to be grateful when the US intervened in what the Cubans saw as their war of independence from Spain – which Americans christened the ‘Spanish American War’.

Pérez draws on politicians’ speeches, newspaper editorials and comic strips published over the century and a half before the revolution to show that Cubans were consistently represented not as agents of their own destiny but as innocent victims of the diabolical Spaniards. It’s true that not everyone in the US who argued in favour of intervention in Cuba’s war of independence did so in order to advance an imperial project. Spanish rule was brutal, Spanish conduct of the war even more so, and there was often a humanitarian impulse behind the support for intervention. In 1898 the Teller Amendment resiled from any plans to annex the island and supported the idea of an independent Cuba. But as Pérez shows, the amendment was greeted with disdain by the McKinley administration, by many members of Congress and by the media, and was soon replaced by the 1901 Platt Amendment, which authorised the US intervention. Cartoons showed a benevolent Uncle Sam teaching an infant Cuba how to ride a bike: a symbol of ‘freedom and liberty, self-possession and self-control’.

The US military occupation of Cuba began on 1 January 1899, 60 years to the day before Che Guevara led a ragtag band of guerrillas into the streets of Havana. The decades in between saw an ignominious sequence of American interventions and puppet governments, finally brought to an end by a revolution as daring as it was unlikely.

Fidel Castro’s legacy inside Cuba includes the creation of a powerful set of institutions, through which Raúl continues to rule, though he has chosen, for the most part, to bypass the neighbourhood-based committees for the defence of the revolution (CDRs) and sidelined the batalla de las ideas designed by his older brother to rekindle ideological fervour. Despite Antoni Kapcia’s claim that the revolution avoided personality cults, Havana is full of billboards showing Che, Hugo Chávez and, above all, El Comandante – my favourite has him dressed in full olive drab regalia, gazing out benevolently, saying ‘vamos bien.’ But is Cuba doing well? Kapcia is right to say that the ‘sheer fact of survival’ is a remarkable achievement, but is that enough?

Kapcia claims that ‘social reform constituted the new revolution’s most immediate priority and first platform.’ In fact, the recovery of national sovereignty was the central objective, and the revolutionary government took immediate and highly effective measures to achieve it, to the consternation of Washington. US businesses were confiscated, the country ceased being an American playground, and a strategic alliance was forged with the Soviet Union. Whenever the regime has been faced with a trade-off between national sovereignty and social welfare, the former has consistently taken precedence. As Kapcia points out, the ideology of Cubanía, and more specifically a Cubanía rebelde, lies at the heart of the revolutionary project. ‘The revolution was always as much about achieving and defending real independence as about social change,’ he claims, and ‘continuing commitment to social development (the mainstay of the revolution’s support)’.

It’s important to bear in mind that Cuba was not a Soviet client state: tension with the Soviet Union was constant, as Kapcia documents. Moscow tended to frown on Cuba’s interventions on behalf of national liberation struggles in southern African and Central America, but was unable to put a brake on them. Today, Cuba’s relationship with Venezuela is important to its economy, and provides an outlet for doctors and other professionals who have little chance of finding reasonably paid work on the island. Yet it amounts to a mere fraction of the $5 billion annual subsidy Cuba received from the Soviet Union. And the Venezuelans have not tried to tell the Cubans how to govern. If anything the influence has been the other way round: the Venezuelans are experimenting with novel approaches to social policy, founding community-based organisations to consolidate their revolution, and pursuing an assertive foreign policy to aid like-minded regimes elsewhere in Latin America.

The supreme importance for Cubans of national identity has countless manifestations. Anyone who has booked a hotel room in Cuba will be familiar with the routine: state your name at the check-in desk, and the receptionist will ask you: ‘Nacionalidad?’ In Cuba your nationality, not your name, is what enables staff to find your reservation. Yet nationalism alone cannot ensure the revolution’s survival. Public expenditure on health and education has been sustained throughout the ‘Special Period (in times of Peace)’ announced after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the economy has been badly weakened. Industrial and agricultural production are far below the levels of the 1980s. Manufacturing has almost come to a halt; it is more expensive to keep factories running than to allow them to shut. Sugar production, which Cuba has depended on since colonial times, is no longer a significant source of revenue or employment. Cuba spends nearly $2 billion a year importing food while more than half the land on state farms lies fallow. What economic recovery there has been over the past decade, and especially over the past five years, has come mostly from the vertiginous increase in tourism, although increasing revenue from natural resources such as nickel and the export of medical services have played their part.

The Cuban leadership knows that the greatest problem its system faces is the widespread malaise induced by the lack of material progress, and of any prospect of it. The country has a woefully inadequate transport system, housing stock that is decaying and in short supply, limited access to basic goods and growing inequality. The first 25 years or so of the revolution saw reasonable levels of economic growth, which in turn allowed gradual improvements in consumption, but these gains have since been reversed. The implications are not lost on those in charge.

When ill health compelled Fidel first to cede his responsibilities provisionally to his 77-year-old younger brother in July 2006, and then to give up the presidency in February 2008, Cuba once again appeared to American policymakers and commentators as a fruit ripe for the picking. Fidel, conventional wisdom had it, was the glue that held the decrepit revolutionary order together, and his exit was sure to provoke popular unrest, particularly among disaffected youth, if not a collapse of the entire system, opening the way for a renewal of American engagement. There was nothing new in that: a State Department official, speaking in October 1992 as the devastating impact of the end of the Soviet Union was becoming clear, had predicted that change would soon follow in Cuba. ‘It may not be days or weeks or months but it is coming.’ That same year a leading Cuban American journalist, Andres Oppenheimer, published a book entitled Castro’s Final Hour.

But the Cuban revolution is both highly institutionalised and considerably more flexible than its detractors care to admit. As Kapcia shows, there have been distinct cycles of crisis, debate and resolution, with relatively open discussion allowed in ruling circles. ‘Within the revolution, anything,’ was Fidel’s famous slogan, first articulated in the 1960s in regard to the role of intellectuals. This attitude fostered the revolution’s capacity for renewal, but also asserted the party’s incontestable supremacy. Any activity that could be construed as anti-revolutionary was in effect proscribed, particularly if it could be attributed to external forces or the Miami exiles: ‘Outside the revolution, nothing,’ was the second half of the slogan. Hundreds of political prisoners, not to mention many thousands of political exiles, can attest to the seriousness with which the regime has taken this principle.

Raul’s decision to bypass younger candidates when forming the National Assembly in February 2008 – the 78-year-old military leader José Ramón Machado Ventura was made first vice president – was greeted with dismay by reformers. Like other appointments announced at the time, it was seen as a sign that the old guard was circling the wagons. The aim seemed to be to ensure the continued primacy of the Communist Party and the armed forces, while pursuing cautious economic reforms – designed to generate revenue that could be used to buttress the teetering social welfare system – and introducing symbolic liberalising measures to address the frustrations of the young in particular. In March 2008, for example, the government decided to legalise the use of mobile phones (in fact they were already available to the small minority able to pay for them), and decreed that Cubans could stay in hotels which until then had been restricted to foreigners – an empty gesture, since a night’s stay costs the hard currency equivalent of several months’ earnings. Today the buzz among graduate students in Havana is that it will no longer be necessary to get authorisation before travelling abroad: all one will need is a passport and a visa. Of course, few Cubans will be able to get either.

Perhaps the most important change is that, thanks to timid reforms in the pricing of agricultural inputs and products over the past year and a half, farmers are bringing more food to market and it is being sold more cheaply. New regulations allow peasants to cultivate unused land on state farms. This might have had a significant impact on food production, but the benefits evaporated following a series of devastating hurricanes last autumn: the ensuing crackdown on private agricultural markets, rationalised as an effort to clamp down on speculators, has once again limited access to reasonably priced foodstuffs. ‘The government is good at putting people in jail,’ a friend told me, ‘but not good at putting food on the table.’ A rumoured revaluation of the peso would boost consumer purchasing power. There have also been improvements in public transport, thanks to the delivery of nearly a thousand buses from China, and efforts to speed up construction of new housing and the renovation of decayed housing stock. But these measures, like the agricultural reforms, were set back dramatically by the hurricanes: the housing situation, one Cuban colleague told me, has since gone from potentially soluble to simply hopeless.

The first sign that Raúl may bring about change came with the recent reshuffling of the cabinet, and the demotions of José Luis Rodríguez, the economics minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, the foreign minister, and, most significant, Carlos Lage, long described as Cuba’s de facto prime minister. Shortly after Fidel charged these men with having been ‘seduced by the honey of power’, Lage and Pérez Roque publicly confessed to having committed ‘errors’ and resigned from all positions of authority.

Kapcia suggests, quite plausibly, that public opinion can be divided into three camps: between a fifth and a third of the population are fervent supporters of the revolution; around the same number see themselves as not ‘within the revolution’; and most people are somewhere in between, sharing the regime’s nationalism and fearing a return of the Miami Cubans, but battered by economic hardship and frustrated by the country’s isolation. The supporters of the revolution tend to be old and those worried by the economy and isolation younger. Raúl is aiming to appeal to the people in the middle, whose loyalties may still be available for purchase – but he isn’t in a position to offer them much.

It’s still unclear how much the Obama administration will offer him. There were modest overtures in April before the Summit of the Americas: Washington lifted the ban on travel to Cuba by Cuban Americans – though not the restrictions that apply to other US citizens – and abolished limits on the cash remittances that Cuban Americans can send to relatives on the island. Predictably, these measures were condemned by the hardliners in South Florida: Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, the brothers who represent Miami in the House of Representatives, described them as a ‘serious mistake’. But voters in Miami are becoming less obsessed with regime change: Obama did better there than Kerry or Gore, even though, unlike them, he had made it clear that he wanted to improve relations with Cuba. A poll by Florida International University in December 2008 found that for the first time a majority of Cuban Americans in Miami opposed the embargo, and two-thirds supported restoring diplomatic relations.

Congress is due to consider further legislation allowing unrestricted trade, tourist travel and academic exchanges, and these seem likely to be approved. Obama’s people say that they are waiting for concrete measures by the Cubans before making any more changes, and the president himself has cautioned that the relationship ‘won’t thaw overnight’. He has asked Havana to free political prisoners and reduce the high tax rate that the government imposes on cash remittances.

When he met a delegation of left-leaning Congressional representatives before the April summit, Raúl told them that ‘everything is on the table,’ including human rights and political prisoners. This was a striking concession, yet Fidel quickly counterclaimed, in a statement on the Cuban government’s website, that the Americans had ‘misinterpreted Raúl’s declarations’. ‘Of the blockade, which is the cruellest of measures, not a word was uttered,’ he said.

The secretary general of the Organisation of American States, José Miguel Insulza, had said before the summit that he wanted Cuba to rejoin the group, from which it was expelled at the behest of the US in 1962, as long as it agreed to adhere to the OAS Democratic Charter. Fidel quickly replied that Cuba had no desire to do this and did not want to ‘hear the vile name of that institution’, which has a ‘history that collects all the trash of 60 years of betrayal of the people of Latin America’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 31 No. 12 · 25 June 2009

Eric Hershberg writes that whenever Cuba ‘has been faced with a trade-off between national sovereignty and social welfare, the former has consistently taken precedence’ (LRB, 28 May). Prostitution, however, is an exception to the rule. Banned in 1959 by Fidel, who viewed it as a symptom of Cuba’s neo-colonial subordination, prostitution has become one of the island’s liveliest industries, attracting tourists from Europe and North America. As the website informs us, ‘Cuba is the place to get laid … man, woman, straight or gay! There may not be freedom of speech but there certainly is freedom of sex.’ Go to any nightclub in Havana at midnight and you’ll find entire queues composed of middle-aged white men arm in arm with Cuban women known as jineteras (jockeys), many of them barely out of their teens. If a jinetera is lucky, she’ll land a man who will send her care packages from abroad, or, even better, take her out of Cuba. There have been crackdowns on the horizontal trade, but mainly the government has looked the other way, occasionally consoling itself with the thought that the jineteras are independent contractors, rather than proletarian employees of brothels. After all, sex is a major source of revenue. Revolutionary Cuba has indeed proved ‘more flexible than its detractors care to admit’, as Hershberg says, but this flexibility has come at a price.

Peter Ward
Bloomington, Indiana

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences