Cuba Down at Heel

Laurence Whitehead

  • The Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Documents
    Brassey (US), 376 pp, £15.95, March 1994, ISBN 0 02 881083 X
  • The Cuban Revolution: Origin, Course and Legacy by Marifeli Pérez-Stable
    Oxford, 252 pp, £16.95, April 1994, ISBN 0 19 508406 3
  • Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis and the Soviet Collapse by James Blight, Bruce Allyn and David Welch
    Pantheon, 509 pp, $27.50, November 1993, ISBN 0 679 42149 1
  • Castro’s Final Hour: The Secret Story Behind the Coming Downfall of Communist Cuba by Andrés Oppenheimer
    Simon and Schuster, 474 pp, $25.00, July 1992, ISBN 0 671 72873 3
  • Revolution in the Balance: Law and Society in Contemporary Cuba by Debra Evenson
    Westview, 235 pp, £48.50, June 1994, ISBN 0 8133 8466 4
  • The Problem of Democracy in Cuba: Between Vision and Reality by Carollee Bengelsdorf
    Oxford, 238 pp, £32.50, July 1994, ISBN 0 19 505826 7
  • Back from the Future: Cuba under Castro by Susan Eva Eckstein
    Princeton, 286 pp, £25.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 691 03445 1
  • Fidel Castro by Robert Quirk
    Norton, 898 pp, £25.00, March 1994, ISBN 0 393 03485 2
  • Healing the Masses: Cuban Health Politics at Home and Abroad by Julie Feinsilver
    California, 307 pp, £35.00, November 1993, ISBN 0 520 08218 4
  • Contesting Castro: The United States and the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution by Thomas Paterson
    Oxford, 364 pp, £22.50, July 1994, ISBN 0 19 508630 9

Even after 35 years, the simplest questions about Cuban politics remain almost beyond the reach of objective analysis. Is the Castro regime a tyranny which can only perpetuate itself by resort to repression, as the Cuban-American community in Miami and elsewhere insists? Or does it persist, despite the disintegration of the Soviet bloc and the deepening economic crisis, essentially because it incarnates a national identity struggling for survival against the engulfing pressure of US political, economic and cultural expansionism? Is the regime doomed to collapse, with only the ruthlessness of the Jefe Máximo to delay the inevitable? Or has it so transformed Cuban society that the next generation are bound to construct their future largely on the foundations laid down by the Revolution?

In 1962, we now learn from The Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Documents, the CIA answered such questions in the following terms:

The Castro regime retains the positive support of about 20 per cent of the population, but dissent is increasing. This trend is manifested in growing passive resistance and in occasional open demonstrations of resentment. Few, however, dare to accept the risks of organised active resistance in present circumstances, for fear of the regime’s massive apparatus for surveillance and repression.

Six years later, when I visited Cuba for the first time, I spent five weeks travelling from one end of the island to the other, searching for answers to the same questions. My conclusion (no more scientific than that of the CIA – by what process did they arrive at that figure of ‘about 20 per cent’? – but perhaps less constrained by the need to tell my paymasters what they expected to hear) was that one-third of the population appeared to echo the official line more or less faithfully, and that an equal number perhaps were in ‘internal exile’, silently rejecting everything said by the regime and mouthing the words from Miami. The remaining third were trying to survive by keeping their heads down.

When I returned to Cuba, in October 1989, it seemed that the numbers of both the unconditional supporters and the Miami-minded opponents had dwindled since 1968. It was startling now to observe how, in the cinema, everyone would carry on chatting during the newsreel of Castro’s latest speech. And it was clear that whereas, in 1968, the young had been the most politicised sector of the population, in 1989 no one under thirty-five, except the out-and-out careerists, would spout the official orthodoxies. The most revealing insights came when I answered questions about British politics, explaining that after a decade in power Mrs Thatcher’s magic had lost its effect ‘After only one decade?’ my Cuban friends enquired. (Not long afterwards Thatcher’s TINA resurfaced as the title of Castro’s latest rallying call.) In an almost empty Havana cinema I saw La Vida en Rosa, a movie which had just been panned in the official media for its counter-revolutionary connotations. It traced the friendship of four idealistic young students, each of whom found himself being pestered by an old man with a furtive secret to impart to him. In each case the secret turned out to be an act of hypocrisy, betrayal or shameful compromise that they would at some point in the future be guilty of and which would invalidate their youthful hopes. It was not a particularly good movie, but it was made in the official Studios, denounced in the official media and screened in a state-owned cinema, all in ‘totalitarian’ Cuba. (Imagine seeing Arturo Ui in Hitler’s Berlin!) One other clue was an aside by the hardline general secretary of the Communist Party in one of the provinces who, having admitted that his daughter had insisted on a Catholic marriage, told me of his undying gratitude to Fidel. ‘If I die tomorrow, I shall have led a happy and fulfilled life,’ he concluded, in a tone that tacitly admitted all his hopes were in the past. It was the week before the Berlin Wall came down.

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