Cuban History Made to Order: Analyzing Diaz-Canel’s Words

History as a moral campaign and promise of victory has become a sort of reminder that the official discourse uses with greater urgency in each period of crisis.

By Laura Roque Valero (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – Appeals to history – to a patriotic and victorious past – have habitually been used by the representatives of power in Cuba as a strategy to legitimize themselves. They invoke the nation’s most eminent figures, like Jose Marti, or milestones like the Baraqua Protests [1878 order from general Antonio Maceo to defy the peace pact and continue the armed struggle for independence]. Such references represent an interpretation of our past that lacks nuances, and also presents a model of heroism and triumph that – according to their speeches – today’s Cubans should emulate and follow to the letter.

This analysis involved examining three recent speeches by president Miguel Diaz-Canel: one pronounced before the Communist Party’s Provincial Assembly in Havana on April 9, 2022; the speech Diaz-Canel gave at the closing ceremony of the National Assembly’s Special Session on May 16, 2022; and his speech on July 26, commemorating the Day of National Rebellion in Cienfuegos. The analysis also includes some of his declarations following the August explosion at the Super-Tanker Base in Matanzas.

While reconstructing of the Cuban past as one solid movement, they highlight only the aspects that serve to illustrate heroism and victory. Hence, the speeches embrace a fallacious interpretation, based on showing the characteristics of one part as the characteristics of the whole, an error that can lead to false assumptions.

The renowned Cuban historian Oscar Zanetti Lecuona has explained that, beginning with its first years, the Cuban Revolution constructed a history aimed at forming a revolutionary conscience in the population. With the abject failure of the harvest of the 10 million tons (1970), and the dogmatism and closed mindedness that took place during the five grey years [epoch of extensive censorship and ostracization in Cuba, from 1971 – 1976] “[Cubans] suffered a period of ideologizing the interpretation of the historical processes, a tendency to package the national history for political ends. The scars of that are still being felt today,” Zanetti argued in a 2016 interview.

That same model for presenting history is repeated in the discourses of Cuba’s powerful figures today. In addition, they associate the ideal they’ve constructed with an image of the “Cuban people” linked to that heroism, and the idea of triumph.

For example, President Miguel Diaz-Canel affirmed “victory generates victory” after the country finally extinguished the largest fire that had ever been registered in a Cuban industrial zone. His phrase confirms how deeply rooted in past events the official focus is, and how this has become a resource for evading the gravity of the occurrences that comprise our current history.

History serves three purposes in the official Cuban discourse: to legitimize those in power; to attempt to inspire certain attitudes in the face of certain events; and to indoctrinate in values such as loyalty, discipline and consecration of the Revolution. History is utilized to demonstrate a “natural” compatibility between the Cuban people and Fidel Castro’s vision for the country.

In analyzing the historic construction of the Cuban people in the official media, Sara Garcia Santamaria affirmed: “the historic continuity or equivalence between different periods, heroes and peoples is built rhetorically through a series of fallacious arguments. One of the most common is the hypothetical syllogism. According to this logic, if the Cubans beat their ‘enemy’ in preceding eras – for example in the wars for independence, and in the Sierra Maestra, – then support for the values, attitudes and functions that the historic struggles inspired should assure future victories.”

In this process of nationalizing history, the Cuban government has weighed the different versions, pondering which is the most convenient for their aims. In recent speeches, the Cuban president draws on passages from history and on the leading figures of the era. It’s clear that the passages are invoked to validate or legitimize an ideological posture, and the values it transmits.

In the closing ceremonies of the Havana’s Provincial Party Assembly on April 9, 2022, Diaz-Canel assured that the spirit of service to the homeland and the Revolution “has been present in all the generations that have defended our independence and sovereignty. Precisely from that political culture comes the concept of unity and continuity.”

In this speech, the President conveniently melds the concepts of homeland and Revolution, as if it weren’t possible to be a patriot without also being in favor of the revolutionary project. He arbitrarily makes the generalization that all the generations of Cubans that have defended independence were sustaining the Revolution, as if independence and Revolution were also equivalent.

Today, Cuba is experiencing another of the worst crises of its history, with long blackouts and scarcity of most basic products. Nonetheless, the Cuban leaders’ rescue strategy is to play down the magnitude of the problems through their continuous rhetoric.

During the closing ceremony of the National Assembly on May 16, 2022, Diaz-Canel once again appealed to history in referring to the May 2022 explosion at Havana’s Saratoga Hotel. “Those anonymous heroes channeled the spirit of the naked Mambises [Cuban guerilla fighters during the 10 years war from 1868-1878 and the Cuban Independence War of 1895], whose yell of ‘Long Live Free Cuba!’, machete in hand, caused the most powerful army of the era to tremble.”

Then on July 26, the President spoke to commemorate the anniversary of the assaults on the Moncada and Carlos Manuel de Cespedes barracks. In his speech, he recalled features of neo-colonial Cuba, to motivate gratitude towards the Cuban government. This was a slanted interpretation of history, but he wanted to persuade the listeners of the supposed “privileges” that Cubans today enjoy.

“They would ignore the fact that the great majority didn’t own the land they worked, nor even the houses where they lived; that, in general, the poor and the black and the mixed-races could only enter through the back doors of the businesses and mansions; that women were at a total disadvantage socially to the men; that the most recurrent image in the urban landscapes were children shining shoes in the streets, selling newspapers, serving as messenger boys for any business – neglected, sick and hungry.”

The Cuba of today is dominated by the version of History that serves as foundation and pillar of the Revolution. That’s the History that serves as a tool to legitimize the Cuban government, suggesting continuity and the alignment over time of similar goals and values. The symbols and heroes that have been passed down are reclothed in dogmas and explanations, with no space for a response. The leaders not only construct an unreachable ideal that’s far distant from everyday social reality, but also deliberately exclude postures and judgments that aren’t in step with these models.

History as a moral campaign and promise of victory has become a sort of reminder that the official discourse uses with greater urgency in each period of crisis. In these speeches, Cuban society is made subordinate to values and ideals that are the fruits of a reductionist interpretation of History. Every so often, that History must be reviewed, with a moralizing dose, so that the new generations don’t forget the legacy to which they’re indebted.

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