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

  • April 2, 2015 at 10:54 am

    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 .

  • February 9, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    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.

  • February 9, 2015 at 11:35 am

    “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.

  • February 9, 2015 at 11:28 am

    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.

  • February 9, 2015 at 11:15 am

    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 .

  • February 9, 2015 at 9:22 am

    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.

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