You can’t build socialism in one country, chanted revolutionaries throughout much of Europe as the Bolsheviks took power in 1917. In four years, under Lenin’s leadership, the audacious insurrection had extended to the far reaching corners of the Tsarist Empire. But attempts to duplicate the first overthrow of capitalism failed in other European countries. By 1921, socialism began to develop in one country, the largest land mass in the world. The Soviet Union endured as a painfully inefficient state-directed economy and repressive society for some 70 years before it imploded.
By the mid 1980s, the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions had already begun to morph into capitalist economies run by Communist Parties claiming adherence to socialism.
Cuban socialism remained unique, however, refusing to compromise with what its leaders defined as basic principles: not allowing capitalist institutions. Now, nearing its fifty year mark, aging revolutionaries celebrate their having survived the unflagging hostility of the world’s most dangerous and most capitalist neighbor. After the Soviet sugar daddy collapsed in 1991, Cuba seemed doomed. Washington’s national security celebrated.
At office parties, “experts” bet on how many weeks — or months at most — Castro could last. As years dragged by and no internal opposition threatened the Communist leadership, despite passage of two bills aimed at tightening the already tight embargo — Torricelli (1992) and Helms-Burton (1996) – Washington simply continued frothing at the mouth, and engaging in petty harassment.
Like his predecessors, W Bush promised he would free Cuba. Indeed, he owed a huge debt to the militant exiles who both contributed to his campaign and helped stop vote counting in Florida. Bush blustered, and then made silly new rules to “punish Fidel” – like limiting remittances and tightening the travel ban on US-based Cuban exiles. He even announced he would control Cuba’s transition – one that would occur without Fidel, Raul and socialism.
Bush’s transition plans remained both unread and unapplied. Fidel went to the hospital in July 2006, ceding temporary power to Raul; then, he resigned as President in February, 2008, after 49 plus years as maximo jefe. As highly-paid – by the US government — academics published tomes on how the transition had to occur, Cuba underwent a smooth transition. In February 2008, predictably, Cuba’s Assembly chose Raul as the new President.
Cuba’s socialism survived, but its problems grew, both as a result of Soviet disappearance and the acute contradictions that arose in the “special period” that followed that demise. Cubans had to violate basic ethical tenets in order to survive. “Each person for himself” replaced collective sharing. Social morale, already weakening in the 1980s from inflexible bureaucracy and hideous economic inefficiency, grew starkly thinner. In 1991, the state was forced to retracted major clauses in its social contract with the people: it could not longer guarantee all an adequate diet, real employment or many of the multiple perks that Cubans alone enjoyed: free rent remained, but the amount of subsidized food per person shrunk drastically.
As Cuban foreign trade plunged by almost 30% and standards of living fell coincidentally, Cubans began to adopt “survival hustles.” Buying and selling illegally to get certain goods became daily behavior patterns, hardly a stimulant for maintaining high socialist morale.
In addition, Cuba legalized the dollar and adopted foreign tourism as its dubious money earner. As it did so, the gang of exiles that had plotted violence in previous decades, returned with ever fiercer armed attacks. By 1997, hotel and tourist site bombings became frequent. In one bombing, an Italian tourist-businessman died. Violence against tourist locations, reasoned the Miami-based financiers of the attacks, would threaten the fragile basis of Cuba’s main revenue source.
The US government responded to the terrorist attacks against Cuba by doing nothing. Indeed, in 1998, Cuba gave the FBI ample material to arrest the perps, but the Bureau arrested the sources of the information: five agents of Cuban intelligence who had infiltrated the violent gangs. In Miami, where a fair trial was as likely as pigs flying, the men were convicted and sentenced to long terms.
Washington’s keepers of the imperial flame – in Cuba’s case they pre-dated the Monroe Doctrine – do not abide disobedience. Only one man had earned himself a slot in the Guinness book of records for his half century of resistance to US dictates. For all the talk of the powerful anti-Castro lobby, the super elite do not forgive the man who in fifty years of Cuban Revolution led the fight to resist in Latin America, an area that most of the world assumed axiomatically “belonged” permanently in the US sphere. Today, the ideological sons of Fidel govern countries; some of his more distant cousins run others
As the White House spent some time “hating” Cuba’s Monroe Doctrine slaying leader, it did little to learn about its enemy. The tiny US left spent endless hours discussing the facts and meaning of the Cuban revolution, but the US government followed the Bourbon Kings of France model: they neither learned nor forget anything.
From 1959 on, for example, the United States willingly imported Fidel’s opposition. This policy continues. As Nelson Valdes presciently points out, US policy continues to direct its officials to cultivate dissidents in Cuba for the purpose of destabilizing the regime. Then, Washington grants these supposed troublemakers visas to come permanently to the United States to join the exile ranks.
Similarly, Washington shares with the violent exiles a common obsession with Fidel – which makes it difficult to think clearly. Note how the language promoting anti-Cuba laws has centered on “punishing Castro,” who didn’t miss a meal or a conjugal opportunity as a result.
Facts rarely entered policy discussions. Thus, US behavior did not develop reality symptoms. Studied ignorance, never greater than over the last eight years, contributed to vociferous rhetoric – scream at the top of your lungs and carry no stick — and policies that make little sense, except for the small hard line Cuban exile gang in south Florida.
US ineptitude, however, does not solve Cuba’s problems. Aging Cuban revolutionaries, no matter how frustrated by the vicissitudes of daily life, can boast about accomplishing their goals. Cuban won independence after numerous wars and uprisings since the 1860s. Cuba defended its revolution over fifty years against constant US aggression. Cuba established a system of social justice and rights – the right to eat, have housing, medical care, education, etc… As a kind of gravy over the meat of success, Cubans danced – and still mambo — on the world stage, as liberators of parts of Africa, slayers of the Monroe Doctrine, purveyors of emergency medical teams that saved Pakistanis, Hondurans and many others from the aftereffects of natural disaster. Cuban doctors rescued the vision of countless third world people. Cuban artists, athletes and scientists have etched their names on the honor roles of talent throughout the world.
A good sector of younger Cubans, however, do rate their present lives with past glories. Possessing good education, high skill levels and good health, they feel they deserve good jobs. But those jobs are scarce on the island and a typical Cuban youth will shrug and claim: “I don’t see much future for myself here.”
Aside from sagging moral among a significant sector, Cuba faces a dramatic shortage of teachers – 8,000 officially – an agricultural system that forces the government to import more than 70% of its food last year, a wage structure that makes little sense when measured against productivity or fairness and a parasitic Havana of 2 million people who produce little and consume a lot, albeit not as much as they want.
Under Raul, and with Fidel’s literary support, Cuba’s Communist Party has begun to face these challenges. To offer younger generations that sense of optimism that frames the future as bright opportunity rather than dark uncertainty, Raúl Castro initiated a reform process, including democratizing the Party itself – including the need to reflect diverse opinions. “In 1994,” he said on tk, “the most critical moment of the Special Period, considerable adjustments were made leading to the reduction and merging of institutions as well as to the redistribution of the tasks previously entrusted to some of them. However, these changes were undertaken with the rush imposed by the necessity to quickly adapt to a radically different, very hostile and extremely dangerous scenario.”
On July 11, he made a speech offering specific plans to begin to address the multiple issues that have gone unattended on the island. Those who have watched Cuba and seen some of its inspiring programs will wish him the best of democratic and socialist luck. He will need it, and the revenues that come from the recently discovered oil reserves off Cuba’s coast.