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.

I returned again to Havana in October 1994, just after the crisis of the ‘boat people’. There could no longer be any doubt now that the old structures of social control had weakened as the state provision of jobs and rations had contracted, and as the regime’s legitimising myths had begun to fail. Many of those formerly engaged in what the CIA labelled ‘surveillance and repression’ were now so busy struggling to cope with the task of daily survival that their capacity to discipline others was blunted. Informal market-related practices were more tolerated, to some extent explicitly authorised, and (at least in Havana) there was widespread recognition that competition and incentives were needed to overcome the sclerosis of the state allocation system. Overt expressions of political opposition were still quite muted, more, I suspect, out of inertia and nostalgia than because of outright censorship or fear. Of course, active opponents still faced intimidation, but my tentative impression was that the regime was most anxious not to slip into a cycle of repression followed by mounting popular resistance. The young, the discontented and the insecure seemed to prefer to avoid politics altogether, rather than embark on the perilous and unfamiliar path of explicit dissent. The possibilities of social protest were far greater than before, but there was still a strong psychological barrier against its conversion into political opposition. The ‘good king, bad advisers’ idea retained a surprising currency. This view is broadly confirmed by Marifeli Pérez-Stable, who, in The Cuban Revolution, concludes that

the Cuban Government retained an undetermined level of popular support. For many citizens, breaking with the Government meant breaking with their lives: they had grown up or were young adults during the Sixties, when the social revolution engulfed Cuban society, and they had committed themselves to the new Cuba. Many others – particularly poor and non-white Cubans – remembered their plight before the revolution and feared a post-socialist Cuba that would disregard their welfare. Moreover, a majority of the citizenry – even if unsupportive of the Government – would rally to its side in the event of a US intervention.

Since the first days of the Revolution a recurring theme in orthodox US attempts to explain what was happening in Cuba has been that Fidel Castro must be in some sense unbalanced. The last US Ambassador to Havana (the liberal-minded diplomat Philip Bonsal) concluded that Castro was ‘power mad’ and lacked normal human sociability. In the most florid passage of his memoirs, referring to the period just before the final break in diplomatic relations in 1960, Bonsal invokes ‘the magnetic extremist’ and ‘unbalanced dictatorship of Fidel Castro’. Similarly, Ernesto Betancourt (now director of the Radio Martí section of the Voice of America, which broadcasts to Cuba from Florida, in Spanish) tells us that in 1959, at a board of directors’ meeting of Cuba’s Banco Nacional, he read out lengthy descriptions from a textbook on manic depressive disease, only to be interrupted by his co-director, who said: ‘Why are you reading out this description of Castro’s personality? This could get us into trouble.’ So it is hardly surprising that the Miami Herald journalist, Andrés Oppenheimer (in his generally well-documented piece of investigative journalism) refers on more than one occasion to Castro’s ‘chronic megalomania’. Oppenheimer spoils the intended effect, however, by acknowledging that although Castro’s guerrilla operation in the Sierra Maestra was ‘by any reasonable standards a monumentally demented enterprise’ (a phrase taken from Tad Szulc’s standard biography of Fidel), ‘yet Fidel prevailed.’ For all that US commentators such as these have for years been predicting Castro’s ‘final hour’, he stubbornly fails to fulfil their expectations.

When the island’s socialist constitution was revised in 1992, references to the former socialist bloc were eliminated. Marx, Engels and Lenin remained in the pantheon, but they were joined there by José Martí. As Fidel told the National Assembly, ‘we haven’t made the slightest concession in these difficult times, in which we’ve practically been left alone defending socialism in the world.’ To the surprise of many observers, three years later the Communist Party remains in power, and there is now a distinct possibility that Castro’s Presidency will outlast Clinton’s. The official line in Havana is that when the incumbent’s current five-year term is up, in 1998, he may pass his official duties on to younger successors. He would then have ruled Cuba for forty years, retiring at the age of 71. (Joaquín Balaguer, in the adjoining Dominican Republic, though blind, was last year re-elected President for the sixth time, at the age of 87.) However, nothing in Fidel’s life so far supports the idea that he could willingly retire from the scene, or that those who would replace him could take up his mantle. One could equally argue that the readers of the Miami Herald should be preparing themselves for Castro’s final decade, rather than his final hour. A sadder (and wiser?) Castro may yet have the opportunity to spring further surprises. A third of a century in absolute power, this particular autocrat is probably saner, and certainly more responsible (more disposed even to tolerate a range of alternative viewpoints), than he was at the outset.

The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was long seen as a rational two-actor game, in which the US called the Soviet bluff by imposing a naval blockade against warships seeking to introduce offensive nuclear weapons into Cuba – that is to say, behind the main US defence perimeter. Since there were only two actors, and each was seeking to develop its potentialities at the other’s expense, a ‘rational-choice’ perspective suggests that the best outcome for the US was one that maximised the cost of Soviet escalation, and minimised the cost to Moscow of backing down. Hence the naval blockade, rather than the hardline alternative of a direct US invasion of the island, or the weak response of merely protesting without blocking the missiles.

A few years after the crisis, in his classic Essence of Decision (1971), Graham Allison expounded this thesis and probed its limitations. Now, in an Introduction to the volume of Documents, and in the light of the new evidence that has become available through tripartite collaboration on the 30th anniversary, he underscores the imperfections of the rational interpretation. There weren’t two actors in the crisis, but three; and, as usual, Castro’s behaviour did not correspond to that of a ‘rational actor’ as prescribed in the most fashionable textbooks. On 27 October 1962 he evidently threw Khrushchev into a panic by appearing to advocate a pre-emptive first strike on the USA. Cuba on the Brink contains the transcript of the tripartite conference in Havana in January 1992. The three North American authors responded to the Cuban side of the story by asking themselves: ‘how is it possible with millions of lives hanging in the balance – not only American and Soviet lives, but Cuban lives – Fidel Castro would fatalistically accept annihilation rather than strive to do whatever he could to save his country and the world? ... Is Fidel Castro insane? ... [or] a suicide, a martyr or a fanatic?’ They generously conclude that ‘Castro was not insane in 1962, he was merely mistaken.’ Allison’s assessment is surely wiser: it is ‘no accident’, he notes, ‘that the concepts of rationality, rationale and rationalisation have a common root ... after a decision that produces successful results it becomes harder to visualise real, reasonable alternatives. The certainty of what was chosen and what occurred thus overwhelms the uncertainties the actors faced when making decisions.’

Most writers on revolutionary Cuba have felt obliged to focus on one or more of three overworked themes: how Castro made the Revolution; how he leads it; and how it may (or may never) end. What ordinary Cuban citizens think and how they adapt (or resist) is much less studied, in part because both the regime and its enemies speak up so stridently in their place. Andrés Oppenheimer’s journalistic account is commendable, despite its occasional stridency, for what it conveys about popular attitudes, and particularly for what it tells us about the young, and about Afro-Cuban religion and culture. As we know from all post-Communist societies, in the end the blare of propaganda will fade, and people will try to speak for themselves. What they will then have to say is unlikely to fit the preconceived schemas. What, for example, will Cubans say to Debra Evenson, whose generally informative study of the justice system startlingly concludes that ‘although there is still room for improvement, there are few examples in Latin America where the criminal justice system is as fair and efficient as it is today in Cuba’? Will they confirm Carollee Bengelsdorf’s view that they ‘remain committed to the social project of the revolution, they watch with pain as it erodes, and they have no illusions about what Miami and Washington plan for a post-Castro era ... the people of the Third World, they understand, have no place in the New World Order’? Or will they go along with Oppenheimer’s claim that ‘Cubans have no sympathy left for Communism’ (though ‘most still felt strongly nationalistic’) and that therefore it is ‘only a matter of time before massive lay-offs, further reductions in unemployment benefits, and a workers’ exodus to the growing pockets of capitalism’ will ‘create a critical mass of Cubans with nothing to fear from openly defying the regime’?

Or again, they may endorse Susan Eckstein’s carefully argued halfway position. According to her, Cuban Communism increasingly became a formal shell under which an essentially nationalist political system took form. But democratisation initiatives failed, in the main, to contain discontent. Instead, people of all walks of life defied government authority, most typically in covert and ostensibly non-political ways, which eroded the Government’s capacity to maintain moral and political order. Even regime loyalists contributed indirectly to the erosion by attempting to avert the downward mobility that ‘equality of sacrifice’ entailed.

Although Eckstein attempts to provide an interpretation of the entire revolutionary process, her focus is very much on the growing crisis of the past decade. She makes good use of the notion of ‘fiscal crisis’ as a key determinant of policy, but this is not an adequate explanation in the Cuban case. It seems unlikely that the leadership was ever in much of a position to evaluate fiscal issues as normally understood. Given the virtual absence of a price system, the central planners were bound to keep blundering into the unintended consequences of their allocation policies, and in the absence of independent criticism and evaluation, there was almost no way for them to learn from the errors of the past. Fidel’s speeches became the only permitted source of self-criticism or policy revision, and he was a past master at covering up inconsistencies with rhetoric. However dazzling his argument, however deeply his listeners wished to help him build his utopia, the structures were never in place to enable him to do so. For many years this profound failure in his system could be disguised by calls for greater loyalty and sacrifice, by further infusions of Soviet subsidy, and by all-encompassing, though by no means exclusively repressive, systems of social control. But this was never a system which could achieve self-sufficiency in food, let alone adapt and innovate enough to keep Cuba abreast of developments in the outside world. It was not a system, therefore, which had the potential to outlive its charismatic founder and proprietor.

The failings of Castroism are indissolubly linked to its strengths, both of which are inherent in the Jefe Máximo’s style of rule. Thomas Paterson’s vivid account of the 1955-8 insurrection properly focuses on the ‘hegemonic presumption’ of US policy-makers, and on Castro’s skill at mobilising anti-yanqui feeling to cement his regime. The clash of these two nationalisms, which can be traced back well before Castro’s emergence, does much to explain the Cuban Revolution’s international impact, and to account for its persistence after the Soviet collapse. Washington may have lifted its embargo on Vietnam, and forgiven the Chinese Communist Party for the crimes of Tiananmen Square, but national pride still seems to require much fuller recantation from the Cubans. On the other side, Castro may remain set on defending his life’s work (and his place in world history), regardless of the price to be paid by the Cuban people. The US embargo is an appalling burden for them – far crueller, indeed, for surviving under the liberal, but short-sighted, Clinton. But equally burdensome are the costs of economic mismanagement under Castro’s guerrilla style of leadership. Time and again he has gambled the store on a risky intuition. A less reckless pattern of decision-making might have circumvented some of the island’s worst hardships and might even have turned external sanctions to advantage by forcing productive reform. It remains an open question whether Castro will be that ‘pragmatic’ even now.

Robert Quirk’s new biography devotes only 34 pages to the Eighties and Nineties. Otherwise, the topics covered by earlier biographies are exhaustively recapitulated, at the expense of the subsequent developments that invite reappraisal of Castro’s whole career – the resistance to Gorbachev, and perestroika, the orderly withdrawal from Angola (followed by the execution of that war’s most popular general), and the so far successful efforts to persist in power. Final judgment on Castro’s career will inevitably be coloured by the manner of its ending. There are the makings of a classical tragedy here – as Anton Arrufat pointed out long ago. The authors of Cuba on the Brink allege that the same idea runs through García Márquez’s novel about the last days of Simón Bolívar, The General in his Labyrinth. Certain issues will remain essential to any definitive assessment. For example, how to account for the enduring power of Castro’s vision, which has captivated so many, both on the island and off, independently of its achievement or even its feasibility? Julie Feinsilver’s study of Cuban health policies helps to explain why the aspirations, and to some extent the actual achievements, of the regime have touched such a chord. Again, how was it that Batista could be toppled so easily, and his legacy after twenty-five years of power be obliterated, despite the benefits of record sugar harvests, flourishing tourism, surging foreign investment and the tacit or even explicit protection of his US sponsors, whereas now, after 36 years, the Castro regime remains unchallenged domestically notwithstanding economic bankruptcy and the near-cannibalisation of the island’s physical and human resources? Why is Washington-funded and Miami-based Radio Martí still virtually impotent, whereas the Sierra-based Radio Rebelde once created an unstoppable fervour for change? Those who say the secret lies in Castro’s jails must explain why Batista’s massive use of repression served more to destroy than to bolster his power.

Virtually all the criticisms now to be heard of the Castro regime were already apparent by the time of my first visit in October 1968. To understand what has happened to the people of the island in the intervening years – and therefore what kind of a society Cuba can achieve in the next thirty – we need studies of health, of housing, of justice, more than we need further analyses of the Gran Señor, the predicador and his courtiers.