Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*
HAVANA TIMES, Jan 10 — Recently I read one of Yoani Sanchez’s incisive articles stating that Cubans have had their capacity for rebellion rooted out.
Her statement alluded to the inability of Cuban society to produce a socio-political rebellious response similar to the ones that occurred at different times with the Czechs, the East Germans and the Russians themselves. Certainly, this question is nestled in the minds of many people who are interested in the issue of Cuba – and I’m no exception.
For fifty years, Cubans — as members of a very liberal Western society, and as a people who waged enough wars and revolts to fill several history books — have stoically endured an authoritarian political regime, a true dictatorship over their basic needs (here I recall Agnes Heller), which in the past twenty years has been an economy characterized by chronic shortages.
This makes me wonder about what’s the exact meaning of this surgical removal of our rebelliousness of which Yoani speaks.
As we are in the New Year, when we’re always allowed a few extra frivolities, I would like to share some speculation about that subject.
Above all, I don’t think they extirpated the capacity for rebelliousness of post-revolutionary Cuban society but instead, they created a model devoid of it.
In other words, the society we know today is the result of a fatal siphoning off that (in the beginning) not only kicked the bourgeois class out of the country, but also a very considerable part of the middle class. In this same way, it destroyed not only the political right wing but also the center and a significant portion of the left.
What remained was an amorphous and disorganized mass of the population subjected to the aesthetically pleasing but confusing concept of “the people.” Moreover, they were led by a very radical left with no more of a commitment to democracy than to the virtues of their own power and to the applause of those entangled in the even more confusing “worker-peasant alliance.”
In such an asymmetric condition, the “dictators of the proletariat” enjoyed a unique position to engage in social engineering that substantially altered the social composition of Cuba. Moreover, they did their best (Sam Farber brilliantly demonstrates this in his latest book) to omit the nurseries of nonconformity.
The popular masses benefited from the many social programs. In fact, they experienced a powerful surge in social mobility (I don’t think that mobility was as intense in any other period in the history of Cuba), which undoubtedly helped to create areas of consensus.
However, sociologically this would have worked to produce a higher grade of social subjects and an increase in their capacity for rebelliousness; this means the capacity that Yoani mentioned should have grown.
But this didn’t happen, since at the same time the Cuban economy began to be heavily subsidized — with this continuing for nearly two decades — based on its political relationship with Moscow. This allowed Cuban authorities to govern with considerable autonomy with respect to society and to the disastrous economy that they themselves had generated.
Ultimately, the material reproduction of society and the authoritarian political system didn’t depend on internal variables but on political relations with the Soviet Union.
In addition, in their relationship with society they were in an excellent position to produce a credible ideology that pointed to an unstoppable march hand in hand with the “laws of history” and their “indestructible friendship” with the Soviets.
This ideology, as Alejandro Armengol has rightly noted, was not super-structural, but structural, as they still would like it to remain – and effectively it is for the hard-core supporters, certainly the minority, but enough to demonstrate government control of the streets, while the vast majority of people remain waiting in a perennial state of wait and see.
The collapse of the Soviet bloc was a hard economic blow, but it could be assimilated by a rigid system of political and police control. Cuban authorities, masters in the art of saying the same thing and the opposite without blushing, blamed the CIA for the whole mess and shifted all of their sermonizing onto a nationalist tack.
Again they got the best of their antagonists: Cuban-American politicians and the Republican right.
They produced the best case of social mobility that they could come up with: a new migratory stampede that within a few days put several tens of thousands of young Cubans on American soil and forced the US to renegotiate a more favorable immigration accord.
When the economy began to recover and new subsidies started coming [from Venezuela] in the name of Simon Bolivar, the population had already stopped growing and had even begun a dangerous decline, which constitutes the most disturbing sign of the contemporary Cuban situation.
In other words, when the rebellious capacity was growing and had better prospects for functioning, the government clamped down on it with such power that people decided to protest with oars. In fact, they only protested in the streets — for a few hours — when they lost hope in being able to paddle away.
If there’s something that needs to be recognized about Cuba’s leaders, particularly Fidel Castro, it’s their unparalleled talent to retain power, whether by adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing.
They have been the receivers of a macabre combination of Stalinism along with tyrannical and Mafioso-like “caudilloism” – all seasoned with the Jesuit charm that the commander learned in his Belen boarding school. With this they have offset their remarkable economic disabilities, seduced Tyrians and Trojans, and survived allies and enemies alike.
My doubt or question is whether we are at the inevitable end of the incantation or if the Cuban elite has the new resources to accommodate themselves. On the one hand, the state-society relationship has lost its protective function and is vanishing in the aisles of the marketplace, social inequality and the impoverishment of a very high percentage of the population.
In addition, society is generationally different from that which frantically applauded the entrance of the barbudos (the bearded guys) into Havana and cheered Cuban-Soviet friendship, whose basis took the form of three meals a day.
While it’s true that the regime has a strong ability to control repression, and the arrival of the Scarabeo 9 oil rig can lead to a new era of relative prosperity, I don’t think this will be sufficient to reproduce the pattern of fissure-proof subordination that was clamped down so tightly on the capacity for rebellion.
This is especially so since in any circumstance the only way that the economy can function under the new conditions — including with accumulation for the benefit of the emerging the middle class — is to defragment markets and close the most exclusive legal and political gaps.
While none of this automatically produces democracy, it does create a more open setting, especially in a liberal Western society like Cuba.
In any case, everything I’ve said is obviously a hypothetical position, useful only for discussion.
Especially for those of us who from very different political positions and desiring a change without violent disruptions, are convinced that changes organized from above without pressure from below and dependent solely on the will of the elite can only lead to “updated” authoritarianism and the recycling of political and cultural mediocrity.
This is what the so-called orderly transition involves, lots of order but little transition.
The capacity for rebellion is essential.
(*) A Havana Times translation (from the Spanish original) published by Cubaencuentro.