Cuba: The Struggle Continues
Cuba: The Struggle Continues
Saul Landau | May 7, 2008
Editor: John Feffer
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cubans have lived
through a "special period." This euphemism stood not only for a drastic
decline in the standard of living, but for a sharp alteration of social
values as well. Soviet aid vanished along with the advantageous trade
with the Soviet bloc. As Cuba's economy went south, the state broke its
part of the social contract: it no longer provided Cubans with their
material needs of sufficient food and clothing. Basic health care and
education remained, albeit cut back. But the government cut rations by
more than half and cheap food disappeared. To survive, each Cuban felt
himself morphed from the values of communism (sharing) to the values of
individualism (dog eat dog).
In the early 1990s, U.S. government experts and prestigious pundits
predicted the imminent fall of the Fidel Castro government. Office
parties in Washington's national security bureaucracy held lotteries
(which day or week would Castro fall?). Pulitzer Prize winner Andres
Oppenheimer penned a 1992 book called Castro's Final Hour (giving new
meaning to the words "final" and "hour").
Seventeen years after the USSR vanished Cuba remains the world's only
socialist state. Its critics call it a "failed state" or "a basket
case," but over the last decade Cubans' standard of living has risen
steadily. Bookies have stopped taking bets on the date of its demise.
Cuban leaders admit in private it's a miracle they survived. The answer
might lie in Castro's Machiavellian policy of exporting his enemies to
the United States (almost 1 million). He even got his most militant
detractors to regularly send money to their relatives on the island,
thereby replenishing his nearly empty treasury to the tune of $1 billion
a year in remittances.
Castro's political agility, however, has not helped realize his more
quixotic vision of making Cuba into a magnetic model for other third
world countries looking for proper paths to development. Indeed, Cubans
continue to leave their island perilously in rafts or smugglers' boats
to seek more opportunity in Florida. Engineers, scientists and PhDs in
literature choose not to spend their work lives making pizzas or paper
boxes, or teaching grade school.
Cubans also want to earn enough money to survive. During the "special
period" adults found "hustles" to make enough for family survival. This
meant breaking the law, buying or selling illegally, or turning an
occasional trick. It meant theft of state property and thriving black
By 2006, however, China and Venezuela had begun to pour hundreds of
millions of investment dollars into the island's mineral and oil
resources. In addition, the discovery of off-shore oil brought other
investors to Cuba. With the new money, Cuba began to rebuild its
decaying infrastructure. In the mid-1990s, summer blackouts lasted up to
20 hours on bad days. In 2008, the refurbished electrical grid allowed
the government to sell appliances to the public and gradually raise the
standard of living.
Rejecting Other Models
By 2007, Cuban leaders began a public debate to address some of the
problems that developed in the post-Soviet period. Some of these
problems had roots in the Soviet model itself. The leadership, however,
had no intention of going capitalist. Those who have pushed the Chinese
or Vietnamese models did not prevail when, last July 26, Raul Castro
spoke of solving the pressing issues like daily adversity, shortage of
food and low agricultural productivity, within a socialist model.
The government has responded to popular discontent, alienation, and
downright cynicism and over the last two years imported 35% more food.
Raul also admitted that "wages are clearly insufficient to meet people's
needs." This statement does not mean what U.S. journalists report or
sneer at when they report that the average Cuban wage comes to $20 a
month. They don't factor in free health care and education from nursery
school to PhD; no rent or taxes; practically free transportation,
entertainment, and subsidized food. But it is still a long way from the
cradle-to grave security Cubans experienced before the Soviet demise.
Most foreign reporters also omit the obvious fact: Cuban leaders make
choices on the basis of needs of the 11-plus million people, underlining
health and education as basics. Reporters hold as axiomatic the values
of their consumer societies, one with supermarkets and department stores
stocked with multiple brand names. If Cubans wish to maintain equality
as a value, such a model will not appear on the island. Although Cuban
trade has increased, especially with Venezuela and China, it remains a
far cry from competitive. Its work force has remained low on the
productivity scale for production, partly as a result of labor laws that
make it difficult to fire or even discipline workers.
Allowing more goods for sale will not mean a mass rush of sales because
most Cubans do not possess excess foreign cash. Cubans will have to
choose between the new items available – including stays at posh hotels.
Cubans who receive remittances from family members abroad or get paid in
hard currency continue to enjoy buying privileges – institutionalized
inequality – that grate at much of the population. But freedom to shop
cannot sustain a socialist country – especially a third world nation
built on the twin themes of justice and equality.
Cuba's new investment has also gone into public transportation –
especially urban and long-hop buses and trains. The reforms also allowed
more freedoms for small farmers who had done better than the massive
state operations. More food, better transport, and no more costly
blackouts mean a lot in the life of Cubans.
Revolution in Trouble
The new mood has extended beyond the material. The artists and
intellectuals declared they would not tolerate censorship. The
leadership agreed. All of the openings and reforms spelled progress. But
all the positive steps aside, the revolution is in trouble. In the first
months of this year, several thousand Cubans fled the island for
Florida. They didn't leave because of lack of freedom of speech, but
rather for freedom to practice their professions and envision more
possibilities for their and their children's futures.
Fidel Castro warned that although the Cuban revolution had successfully
defied imperialism, Cubans could lose their own revolution. In his April
3, 2008 letter to Artists and Writers Union President Miguel Barnet
Castro wrote: "everything that ethically fortifies the Revolution is
good; everything that weakens it is bad." He said something similar in
1961 to Cuba's intellectuals: "Inside the revolution, everything;
outside the revolution; nothing." The revolution meant sovereignty and
independence, social justice and equality. If one agrees and
sympathizes, one had to wince when Cuban leaders acted in ways that
contradict or ignore this starting point.
Some recent events are especially disturbing. In early April 2003, Cuban
state security officials arrested three men who had tried to hijack a
passenger ferry and killed a resisting pilot. The court then imposed the
death penalty and gave the men only several days to appeal. Cuba's
Supreme Tribunal and the governing Council of State upheld the
sentences, and on April 11 the three were executed.
Cuban officials claimed that the speed of the process "set an example"
for other potential hijackers. A spate of boat and plane thefts
previously allowed Cubans to go to the United States, where officials
neither punished the men nor returned the crafts. But the death penalty
with virtually no time to appeal bespoke of panic rather than the
usually reasoned response Cuban leaders presented to crises.
A month before, in March, Cuba arrested 75 dissidents, which shocked
much of the world and saddened some of Cuba's supporters. At the
subsequent trial, witnesses testified that the accused dissidents
received goods and services from U.S. diplomats in Havana. Twelve
witnesses were putative dissidents, including some of the most
articulate members like journalist Nestor Baguer, who presented
documents describing the transactions, which were a violation of a Cuban
law designed to retaliate against the Helms Burton Act that punished Cuba.
In 1998, Baguer led the Independent Press Agency of Cuba. With a few
other journalists he faxed reports to Reporters Sans Frontiers and to
the U.S. government funded Radio Martí. In the April 2003 trial, Baguer
emerged as one of 12 moles planted by state security. The convincing
evidence they presented to the court did not dissuade critics who
believed that Cuba should not have punished people for holding
dissenting views even if they took money from representatives of an
Why retreat to the death penalty and arrest people whom they had
neutralized by planting police agents inside their groups? And why
expose the agents?
Cuban officials, some of them in semi-apologetic tones, told me they had
to show the United States it could not act impulsively against Cuba as
it had done in Afghanistan and Iraq. By executing hijackers and
arresting dissidents, the government showed its determination: it would
be tough – and bloody – against U.S. provocations. I felt unsatisfied,
although I believed the Cuban officials had told the truth.
"The Cuban revolution was born to be different," the Uruguayan writer
Eduardo Galeano once wrote. "Assailed by the incessant hounding from the
empire to the north, it survived as it could and not as it wished. The
people, valiant and generous, sacrificed a great deal to stay on their
feet in a world of rampant servility. But as year after year of trials
buffeted the island, the revolution began to lose the spontaneity and
freshness that marked its beginning."
No kidding. In 1960, I watched creative chaos dominate everyday life.
And like Galeano, I have seen, over 48 years, "revolutionary virtue"
turned into "obedience to orders from above."
That's what happens, almost as a law of political nature when the United
States wages a half-century-long war of aggression. Cuba's crime:
disobedience. By punishing this upstart, Galeano wrote, the United
States effectively blocked "the development of democracy in Cuba,
feeding the militarization of power and providing alibis for
Galeano continued. "The revolution which was capable of surviving the
fury of 10 American presidents and 20 CIA directors," he wrote, "needs
the energy that comes from participation and diversity to face the dark
times that surely lie ahead. I say with sadness: Cuba hurts."
Could I or anyone I know have done better? Fidel claims the CIA tried to
assassinate him 638 times. The CIA says this is slightly exaggerated.
The Agency admits it launched thousands of terrorist attacks against
Cuba and Cubans. For half a century, the United States attacked with an
economic blockade, psychological and quite possibly biological and
chemical warfare. It attempted to isolate Cuba diplomatically and
continues to wage an aggressive propaganda assault with Radio and TV Marti.
Cuba resisted and survived – but was wounded in the process. In March
2008, however, the democratic opening Galeano and other long-time
sympathizers waited for, had begun. Above and beyond the trumpeted
freedom of Cubans to buy electronic appliances and cell phones and own
their own houses free and clear, Cuba has signed the UN covenants on
human rights and labor, which binds it to the terms of those accords.
This means that unions cannot be part of government and that free
speech, press, and politics must be respected. We shall see how this
A citizen told Vice President Carlos Lage at a conference that the
government lacked sensitivity to people's social needs and psychological
problems, stuff money can't fix. Lage apologized. Cubans watched it on
TV. Earlier this year, in Juventud Rebelde, an official newspaper, the
government was ripped for fudging statistics on unemployment. Changes
have begun, but the smugglers remain. The boats remain full as well.
Look at the Cuban revolution historically. It has been a success. It
achieved independence and sovereignty, educated and made healthy its
population, provided them with basic needs and educated its people to
dance on the stage of world history. Cubans altered the destiny of
southern Africa when its troops helped defeat the apartheid South
African armies at Cuito Cuanavale in 1987-8. Mandela hugged Fidel at his
inauguration. "You made this possible," he said for the world to hear.
Cubans played a vital role in helping Angola maintain her independence
and for Namibia to get hers. They played roles in the Vietnam War, the
Yom Kippur war, and led the charge to slay the Monroe Doctrine.
Fifty years ago, Washington controlled Latin America; not one leader
dared challenge its hegemony or its economic policies. Today, four of
Fidel's ideological sons run countries (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and
Nicaragua) and several of his cousins direct others (Brazil, Chile,
Argentina, and Panama).
Cuban doctors and scientists, artists and dancers, writers and
filmmakers have etched their names in the honor rolls of countless
countries through their sterling performances. The Cuban revolution
All those triumphs belong to the past. The question now is: can Cuba
overcome the legacy of the special period, when individualism eroded the
collective spirit, and can she transcend the three decades of the Soviet
model that she had to adopt for survival? Her leaders have lived in and
for the revolution and imparted its values to the population. Will
Cubans respond and grab the initiative to maintain the enormous gains or
succumb to the shiny lure of mass consumerism? We shall see.
Saul Landau, an internationally known scholar, author, commentator, and
filmmaker on foreign and domestic policy issues, has been a fellow at
the Institute for Policy Studies since 1972. He has written 13 books,
thousands of newspaper and magazine articles and reviews, and made more
than 40 films and TV programs on social, political, economic and
historical issues. He is professor emeritus at Cal Poly Pomona
University and a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus (www.fpif.org).