Cuban authoritarianism cannot survive the country’s liberalization

Why is Cuesta Morua Right?

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

Manuel Cuesta Morúa
Manuel Cuesta Morúa

HAVANA  TIMES – A few days ago, a group of five Cuban opposition activists appeared before the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to express their points of view regarding the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States.

Three of them criticized the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, maintaining that it makes life easier for the Cuban government and that the United States should have forced the government to make political concessions and talked with the opposition before taking this step. Two of them, on the other hand, considered it a positive step that creates a better atmosphere for the only effective means of demanding changes from the government: by mobilizing Cuban public opinion.

This difference of opinions is not surprising. In fact, one could have easily anticipated it the moment the issue of bilateral relations began to be addressed by the Obama administration and activists and intellectuals began to assume a position regarding that. I fear, however, that most activists from the opposition, both in Cuba and abroad, coincide in their condemnation of the move – and I believe this is so because of two, persistent mistakes.

The first is the idea that the opposition is a decisive factor in Cuban reality, an idea that has been encouraged by the way in which the significance of some opposition figures has been blown completely out of proportion. This exaggerated sense of self-importance has led the opposition to conclude that the US government should have consulted with them and made them part of the process, and that such an omission constitutes a weak-point of the negotiations which some have gone as far as to call a betrayal.

This is a political illusion that deserves no more attention than that which we devote the “tolerated critical companions” of the system (Cuba’s Temas, Cuba Posible and Progreso Semanal journals, some Cuban-American activist groups, and others) when they portray themselves as a “loyal opposition.” No one can deny the moral courage that some may show when confronting an authoritarian power with their words or deeds. That, however, does not make them necessary as interlocutors, for failing to consult them does not involve paying a prohibitive price, and consulting them does not garner anyone any substantial benefits. And real politics is all about prices and costs.

The second mistake is the idea (curiously shared by the opposition and Cuban technocrats, academics and officials) that Cuba can set up a capitalist model a la China, where authoritarianism and market freedoms can go hand in hand without meeting considerable obstacles. This, to mention one example, is the idea traced by Mario Vargas Llosa in an article for El Pais, where he again made a show of his unparalleled skills as a writer and his blinkered liberal dogmatism. It was also what Manuel Cuesta Morua critically addressed in Washington when he affirmed that “(…) Cuban authoritarianism cannot survive the country’s liberalization, as Chinese authoritarianism has demonstrated it can.”

Cuesta Morua is not only a tireless activist and a highly respectable intellectual figure; he is also a historian who knows that capitalism is not a trans-historical abstraction but a series of socio-historical constructions. He certainly knows (hence his sound warning) that there are different types of capitalism (Rheinland, Manchester, Scandinavian, etc.) that are sustained by specific social and cultural arrangements.

Photo: Juan Suarez

The so-called “Chinese model” isn’t simply an economic configuration – it is a political and cultural one as well. It doesn’t mainly convey a means of organizing productive forces (the aspect our technocrats are always highlighting), but rather how to array relations of production based on the extreme exploitation of an obedient workforce. Such a cultural perception of authority does not exist in Cuba, a Western, Latin American country whose anti-liberalism does not stem from Confucian thought, but from populist barricades.

It is true that the normalization of relations with the United States (and the erosion of the blockade/embargo in particular) will create conditions that favor an improvement in Cuba’s disastrous economic situation. But it will not do away with the island’s many pressing problems, to the extent that these problems do not arise from the blockade/embargo. Overcoming the country’s current economic situation invariably demands a degree of social restructuring that entails the elimination of many of the populist and paternalist contention mechanisms now in place, and making the true nature of the exploitation that underpins the system more transparent.

In the political arena – where the Cuban leadership refuses to bring about any changes – the normalization of relations will create a context different from the one in which the suppression of differences could be justified. The government will have to moderate the use of its last rhetorical device – intransigent nationalism before a supposed imperialist threat – and, as the restrictions of the blockade are relaxed, it will also have to look elsewhere for the anti-imperialist excuses for Cuba’s economic catastrophes. Cuban society will invariably have more access to information and contacts, and the spectrum of the system’s opposition and critics could gain in opportunities to express opinions and act without being portrayed as enemy agents.

It is a serious mistake to perceive Cuba’s generalized poverty as the antechamber of longed-for change. The most significant political changes we’ve seen have not stemmed from hunger. In a tasteful study, Crane Brinton said that revolutions aren’t born of despair but of hope.

When hope runs into the government’s mistakes, that is when people begin to see that something is missing and something is in excess. Tocqueville explained it in this fashion: “The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform (…). Evils which were suffered patiently as being inevitable appear insupportable if the notion of being rid of them is conceived.”


22 thoughts on “Cuban authoritarianism cannot survive the country’s liberalization

  • Just to refresh your failing memory:
    About 54 years ago, the government of the USA put an embargo in place against Cuba .
    The explicit purpose of the embargo was to impoverish the entire island so drastically that they would overthrow their revolution .
    That you post that the poverty in Cuba is due to the Castros means that you think that the 54 year old embargo has not worked to achieve deep levels of poverty and that the people running the USG’s foreign policy don’t know what they’ve been doing and the effect that 54 year-old policy has had .
    According to people like you, they just keep the embargo because they enjoy failure .

    Your post totally ignores the fact and effect of the 54 year-old U.S foreign policy and the present-day reality that is a poverty-stricken Cuba in order to put all the blame on the “Castro’s” .
    Of course, the Cuban government I doing things wrong in the economic area as well, but to totally omit mention of the empire’s economic war on the island renders the gist of your post invalid .

  • Because you often write about things in Cuba with which you have no knowledge, it is not surprising that you feel this way. In general, it is correct that despotic tyrants like the Castros “will spend their last dime/peso and go into deep debt to maintain control”. But things are so bad in Cuba that even the Castros have been forced to engage their thuggery on the cheap. During my last trip I saw several police in a patrol car. When I asked my buddy “since when do police ride 4 deep?”. He responded that they have more cops than patrol cars sometimes so they double up.

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