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.

  • “At least with the embargo in place, the Castros will have less of our money to do their dirty work”
    A magnificently stupid remark.
    If money is short , do you really think that the “Castros” will choose to economize on state security given their dictatorial bent ?When have they ever done so ?
    Like the U.S. government they will spend their last dime/peso and go into deep debt to maintain control of what they have.
    It’s what ALL totalitarian regimes do.

  • The Cuban authorities , if they wish, can keep the lid on the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people regardless of conditions.
    The GOUSA has no problem, China has no problem, NO totalitarian government has much of a problem keeping its populace in line because most populations live under self-imposed totalitarian belief systems and prefer to be sheep rather than have to make decisions .
    Religion is totalitarian
    Capitalism is totalitarian whether free enterprise or Cuba’s state capitalism version .
    Most governments are oligarchic/totalitarian
    The typical nuclear family is patriarchal; male dominated.
    Most of the world is following orders not giving them.
    Most of the world is both used to that way of life and prefers it that way.
    For that reason they are ill-suited to a democratic society and will be until advanced educational processes of the near future that tie in with current brain-mapping research make universal education and morality a possibility .
    People can also be led to do the right thing when they can see it is in their best interests in the long run as well as for the welfare of their family, their children and all our brothers and sisters on this blue pearl that is Earth.
    The future is better than you think.

  • The exponential technological advances that will create the new human paradigm cannot be stopped by any force short of the obliteration of civilization within 25 years.
    Capitalism is a very powerful, some would say irresistible force and the need for ever-increasing profits, intrinsic to capitalism will force manufacturers to go to automation and the elimination of human labor which will then cause the end of capitalism.
    Just as manufacturers have had to move their plants to low-cost labor markets like China, Vietnam , so too will the coming super-efficient, super-cheap super-human AI and robotics drive these same owners to destroy capitalism through automation and the elimination of human work.
    This will be a seismic shift , truly a new human age that will indeed eliminate ignorance and the cause for most of our wars and inhumanity to man .
    You should understand that previous to the establishment of the state and capitalism, the human race operated largely upon a mutual aid basis- of course punctuated by the assorted disasters , plagues, wars – over our 100,000 year history as homo sapiens.
    We are not inherently selfish , immoral and evil as Catholic original sin would have it .
    That shit is imposed upon us by capitalism and the state, both of which were fairly late developments in our 100,000 year history.
    You can read anarchists like Kropotkin especially his ” Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution” and the writings of Bakunin as well to see all the evidence they researched that backs up this up .
    As an anarchist: a dedicated and principled (small d) democrat I fully understand that all governments long enough in power become self-preserving, corrupt and totalitarian as have all the so-called communist countries AND the now-oligarchic United States .
    There is still hope that a Cuba in flux with the changing relationship due to the POSSIBLE normalization of relations with the U.S. will make good on Fidel’s revolutionary communist promises and be the first democratic/ socialist society to evolve on the planet.
    We should not have long to wait once and IF -a mighty big if- the Congress of the USA rescinds the various punitive actions it now takes against Cuba.
    That could take months or years or it might never happen.
    The ball is in the U.S. court .
    It is their play to make .

  • Fair enough, there were student protests against Machado & Batista. And the students may have thrown up the occasional barricades. But their were no mass barricades by trade unions or whole neighbourhoods against the dictators.

    During the whole of the Castro era, the only open revolt to his rule happened when the rebels of the Second Front of the Escambrey returned to the hills when Castro revealed himself as a Communist after denying so for years. Castro sent 70,000 troops against them and found them down to defeat. After that, the closest thing a “barricades” moment was the “Maleconazo” street protest in 1994.

    So it is safe to say, any “barricade” impulse among the Cuban people has been successfully beaten out of them at this point.

    On a statistical note, it’s hard to find accurate & reliable figures on the numbers of people killed during the rebellion against Batista. The 20,000 figure comes from Castro’s circle, and is certainly an exaggeration. Historians who have looked at the numbers & tried to count up the dead have arrived at numbers between 2,000 and 6,000 as the most likely. That figure is the total idea on all sides of the conflict.

    The use of torture was extensive and well documented, as the victims were often dumped in the streets for the terror value, where journalists were able to get photographs.

  • I don’t do distortion. I quoted from Wikipedia to refute the claim that there was no barricades during the Batista and Machado eras.

    But as it happens you have got it wrong. The Bohemia interview wasn’t published due to censorship until Batista had fled. And Bohemia hasn’t been closed down – it is still published biweekly.

  • Educated people can be selfish, immoral, evil and all manner of frailty. It is part of the human condition. The vision you paint of a wide knowledge base, economic abundance and distributed power will be resisted by those that want control. Scarcity gives power to those who control the spichet.

    It is no accident that the left is always looking to trade personal freedom for economic security. The Obama administration has been accumulating executive power much the same as the Bush administration. Giving up power is the hardest thing to do for those who hold it.

  • Yet the press was still out of the government hands, thus the support and the Fidel Castro interview by Bohemia magazine . The same magazine that was shut down by Castro

    ….interesting huh.

    Fidel Castro could school Batista when it comes to suppression of the Cuban population

    The problem you have Dani is that history is recorded. You can’t hide from it. No matter how much you wish to distort it.

  • From wikipedia – to quell the growing discontent amongst the populace—which was subsequently displayed through frequent student riots and demonstrations—Batista established tighter censorship of the media, while also utilizing his anti-Communist secret police to carry out wide-scale violence, torture and public executions; ultimately killing anywhere from 1,000 to 20,000 people. See for article on rioting under Machado.

  • Yes , well put another way and from a pro-Cuban government perspective, it can be said that the Cuban people, by a considerable majority, wish to retain what they have now rather than go to what the GOUSA desires.
    Yes, the misfits and the go-back-to-free enterprise people that comprise almost any revolution’s losers having left minimizes internal protests but the revolution was/is a popular one.
    The U.S. aggression and the Cuban people’s anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist education under Fidel assured a stubborn will amongst that educated -some would say indoctrinated – Cuban people to hang on to the admittedly totalitarian and non-socialist revolution that evolved under attack from an implacable and existential enemy.
    I agree that the “regime” can pretty much do as it likes now and even after normalization -IF….IF that happens.
    The question now becomes WILL it remain totalitarian or start adopting the (socialist) principles of a democratic society and both continue and finish the revolution .

  • That there is no history of a socialist economy nor a socialist society is no guarantee of a continued totalitarian world.
    Humans evolve.
    Human constructs change as new developments both societal and technical develop to propel them.
    The changes coming in education through brain-mapping; learning where our learning centers are, and then accessing them through advanced computing power, technologies and ultimately super-human AI will educate the planet practically overnight .
    An educated human race will not be, cannot be immoral, selfish, totalitarian.
    An educated race will be communist- thinking of itself as a community: a big family and not as the separate entities capitalism and ignorance force us to be.
    What is coming is beyond the capacity of most to imagine given how sordid and cruel the history of humanity has been since the advent of capitalism and the state .
    A golden age for humanity is just a few decades away and can be plainly seen by those looking in that direction but , as said, most people , the overwhelming majority , are looking at the past to create their vision of the future but the near future with super- human AI due in the early 2020s combined with super-human computing capabilities and very advanced robotics will change things at a speed impossible for that majority to comprehend at present.
    It is very difficult to be optimistic if you believe that the past is prologue and totally inaccurate .
    As homo sapiens we have come this 100,000 years incrementally creeping up on this time when everything changes and we go beyond being as damned close to our uncivilized cousins the chimpanzees as we have acted for the past few thousand years to being all that humans are capable of being as far as intelligence, learning and morality are concerned.
    The future is better than you think .
    ( which is the subtitle to ‘Abundance” ; just one of the many books out now that help explain the future and how good it will be .
    Please do me the kindness of telling me where you believe my thinking on this to be in error.

  • I thought Heraldo was suggesting that Cubans have a history of defending their civil rights against an authoritarian government by rushing to the barricades. that has not happened in 56 years.

    Now the other kind of barricades, the ones you describe, thrown up by the regime and their low-rent mobs against the people when they dare to ask for human rights, well those barricades are everywhere, everyday.

  • A totalitarian state with a mix of state companies and controlled private sector is the most likely outcome. The social institutions and cultural heritage does not exist that would lead to your vision of a democratic socialist model.

  • One of us has misunderstood Griffin. Cuba’s populist barricades are widespread. Put in place by the Castro regime to contain independent action. I don’t see your interpretation.

  • ” Cuba, a Western, Latin American country whose anti-liberalism… stem(s) from populist barricades.”

    Wait, populist barricades in Cuba? When did that happen? Not during 56 years of the Castro dictatorship, nor during the Batista or Machado eras. That sounds like a romantic dream of a past never lived.

    To dismiss the Cuban dissidents as irrelevant is to credit the Castro regime with having conducted effective suppression of all political opposition. Lift the internal blockade on the press & freedom of association, allow an independent labour movement and legalize a plurality of political parties and then we shall see how representative the various dissident movements are.

  • An excellent analysis IMO.
    I have stated previously that I believe once relations are normalized between Cuba and the Empire, if not sooner under the current easing , the big question will be whether or not Cuba’s so far Leninist leadership will cede power to grass roots, worker-led organizations such as cooperatives and thereby keep the promise of a socialist (democratic economy and government) society or repeat the historical tragedies of the Soviet Union , China, et al who kept their Leninist -totalitarian top-down ways even into the hybrid state and free-enterprise capitalist forms they are today.
    It has been clearly shown that the U.S. has had no trouble in maintaining normal relations with societies like China’s, like Vietnam’s and even the Russians (before Crimea) as long as their economic and political/electoral forms remained totalitarian.
    Cuba is, or will be, in flux as the normalization continues .
    We shall see whether democracy ( socialism ) is the victor or whether totalitarian state/free-enterprise capitalism is the future for Cuba.
    Either way, according to the tech people and people like chief of engineering at Google, Ray Kurzweil, the coming near-total conversion from human to machine labor will bring about the end of capitalism within 15 years.
    Moore’s Law works. and this is the future.

  • Terry, here is where we differ: Despots don’t respond to public opinion. They REACT! It sounds like you believe the heretofore rubber stamp Cuban parliament will suddenly grow a set and begin to legislate new laws that will allow an independent media and public anti-government protests. Historically, there is no precedent for dictatorships doing this. On the contrary, as the public increases their expectation of change, we can expect the Castros to ‘react’ by clamping down. At least with the embargo in place, the Castros will have less of our money to do their dirty work.

  • Oh, you under estimate the ability of a state to keep a people in perpetual sheep like obedience. Prosperity is not in the cards for the public. Keeping the people a little hungry and dependent is a governance art well learned by the Castro’s.

  • Moses, you asked me earlier how the Cuban government would be leveraged to change once the embargo / Helms-Burton are repealed. Haroldo and I think very much alike concerning this issue…and it seems that you do too. Everything you posted just now is absolutely spot on. That’s how the Cuban government will be forced to change…the growing discontent, post embargo, will be impossible for the Cuban government to ignore…and the only way to quell the growing protests will be to change the way they govern. Free of US interventionist policies, the Cuban government will have nowhere else to hide for their deficiencies. Once the Cuban populous is working again and earning a wage, the domino effect for change will be undeniable.

  • Cuban’s in America are not the same as those in Cuba. The Castro’s have had 50+ years to export the free thinkers and tame the remaining population. Plenty of Cuban’s will be happy with a marginal increase in life’s comforts while fearing the loss of state provided benefits. Look at the complaints in the cut backs on food card. My bet is the regime hang’s on just fine.

  • “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.” Never truer words spoken. Cubans are prodigious consumers when given access to resources. The Castros will not be able to maintain the sheep-like obedience they currently enjoy from the Cuban people once Cubans have money in their pockets.

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