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

  • February 9, 2015 at 7:37 am

    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.

  • February 8, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    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.

  • February 8, 2015 at 12:38 pm

    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.

  • February 8, 2015 at 8:11 am

    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.

  • February 7, 2015 at 8:50 pm

    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 .

  • February 7, 2015 at 8:39 pm

    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.

  • February 7, 2015 at 8:21 pm

    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.

  • February 7, 2015 at 7:45 pm

    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.

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