Rebuilding Cubans as Individuals

By Alejandro Armengol*

Rally against members of the Ladies in White.
Rally against members of the Ladies in White.  Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — Even though studies and conferences about the rebuilding of a post-Castro Cuba abound, this transformation has never been analyzed in any depth from the point of view of the individual.

Urgently taking on the study about the means that will allow Cubans to change and become individuals capable of facing the challenges and benefits of a democratic State and civil society is as pressing a task as debating over the economic and political bases that are to sustain the Cuban nation of the future.

Impelling such a process from within Cuba’s current regime is impossible. Though efforts to establish the foundations of a civil society in Cuba under the current situation are commendable, these efforts are for the most part limited if not utopian. No civil society could be built in Nazi Germany, fascist Italy or the communist Soviet Union. That came later.

The comparison may seem disproportionate for some – in part, if one considers the war these European nations experienced, or the subsequent Cold War faced by the USSR, it is – but, when one focuses on the characteristics of a totalitarian system, most differences tend to vanish. To speak of establishing civil structures, groups and institutions that are truly separate from the State – and not of necessity pitted against the government – in today’s Cuba is as nonsensical as suggesting this be tried in North Korea.

This, however, does not stand in the way of studying the slow and inevitable evolution towards this end, a process which, in Cuba’s case, is characterized by the development of an increasingly porous border between the island and its counterpart, Miami.

Here, in contrast to North and South Korea, we cannot speak of a nation divided into two States. We are faced, rather, with an ever-more deteriorated country and a refuge established in a republic that is at once similar and different (ultimately, Cuban émigrés living in Miami abide by US laws).

Beyond the superficial similarity caught sight in the fact that South Korea directly and indirectly offers North Koreans economic aid so that they will be less hungry and miserable, Cubans living on the island and in the United States have become closer to one another in the course of years and these ties are transcending ideological and political differences (whose extremes are becoming more and more obsolete at both ends) every day.

In this sense, attempts in Miami at establishing the bases for a “future Cuba”, let alone a government for tomorrow’s Cuba, are as absurd as the pretext of the “besieged fortress” one still hears at Havana’s Revolution Square, and, with time, have become mere comical references to an abandoned project.

The New Émigrés

In the course of 55 years, Cubans have evolved into two groups with significant differences and similarities. One group, the majority, has remained in the country. The other has made a new life for itself abroad.

Havana bus stop.
Havana bus stop.  Photo: Juan Suarez

For years, the Cuban government has been repeating that émigrés leave Cuba for economic reasons. This argument has been echoed in Miami. Here, we are also told on a daily basis that those who have arrived in the country in recent years have come in search of a better life and not for ideological reasons. In that always ironic convergence of extremes, a discourse that points to the immigrant who is solely interested in their wellbeing and not in any ideal of freedom begins to take shape on both coasts.

There is some truth to these claims, insofar as there is a growing tendency among the new émigrés to distance themselves from all forms of “politicization” (having grown tired of hearing these kinds of discourses) and to prioritize family values or maintain previous personal ties, and even customs, with which those who arrived before the 1990s were, for the most part, obliged to break off.

There are however differences that remain, even though these are overlooked or deliberately ignored in our daily lives. This could be described simply by saying that Cubans go back to Cuba but never actually return. Those who do – as in the case of the occasional musician – are the exception that turns the event into news.

The most significant difference between Cubans within and without Cuba is that those who have emigrated to the United States or other countries live in countries with capitalist, market economies and democratic governments, while those who have remained in Cuba of their own will or reasons beyond their control are obliged to adapt to the circumstances that prevail in a totalitarian society based on communist tenets (though, in practice, the ideological terminology has evolved and the prevailing system is the facade of a regime whose sole interest is surviving at all costs).

Beyond the possibility of expressing oneself freely – and without facing any repercussions, for the most part – under capitalism and the generalized censorship of a system that continues to call itself socialist, what has the greatest impact upon individuals is the sense that they are not in control of their own lives.

Escape Valve

For the time being, leaving the country continues to be the escape valve chosen by those living on the island. Neither the increase in travel and sending of remittances between the two countries nor Cuba’s new migratory laws have put an end to the exodus of Cubans, who leave the country on vessels and other means considered illegal by Havana and other governments (save in such exceptional cases envisaged by the still effective “wet foot / dry foot” policy).

A Havana CADECA money exchange.
A Havana CADECA money exchange.  Photo: Juan Suarez

In addition, leaving Cuba is, in most cases, no longer considered an attack on the regime, but rather a family or personal affair.

This tendency to regard the migratory process through the lens of family or personal concerns (and, as such, depoliticitzed), however, serves a political aim.

What the Cuban government is actually after is a twofold benefit: to receive revenue through those who settle abroad and continue to help the relatives they left behind and to widen the social and political blowoff valve. Like Havana, Washington also acts in accordance with its national interests: to maintain social and political stability 90 miles from Cuban coasts, without looking for any additional trouble. Ultimately, that has more weight than any declaration in favor of democracy in Cuba.

For many years, migratory policies have been used as political instruments by both the United States and Cuba, and this has not changed. This has benefitted many Cubans, but not without a number of costs.

Over time, Havana and Washington have offered different answers to the phenomenon of Cuban immigrants. They are two very different countries that share a common problem, while thousands of desperate people continue to look for a better life. Of course we should not condemn anyone for wanting to have a better life, particularly if one has done exactly the same.

It is the country of origin that is suffering ever greater damage from the point of view of its future independence, not only political but also social, the danger of disintegration, chaos and violence that looms ever more threateningly over Cuban society.

A Volatile Stage

An extremely volatile situation – which the government has managed to control through repression and promises – has been taking shape in Cuba over recent years. Though repression is generalized, it manifests itself more visibly when applied on dissidents.

The regime is not only capable of keeping dissidents divided – that hasn’t been news for years – but also of ensuring that the small protests and acts of civil disobedience that take place on a daily basis do not acquire larger dimensions. The dissidents still prove incapable of guiding or organizing the nationwide feeling of discontent and the government has not made any significant progress in terms of alleviating the prevailing poverty in the country. In this sense, we can speak of stagnation both within the opposition and government, whose reforms make such slow progress that it could well be said they aren’t moving at all.

All of this increases the chances of a social upheaval. Should such a violent fragmentation of society take place and regardless of its outcome, taking advantage of the chaos and the use of force as a solution to daily problems will likely become a behavioral pattern that will be adopted by part of the island’s population. This behavior will limit or thwart social progress, as is the case in Haiti today. Manipulation would cease to be institutionalized, as is the case now, and would become the work of small groups of thugs, demagogues and politickers.

Book covers, notebooks and cigars for sale.
Book covers, notebooks and cigars for sale.  Photo: Juan Suarez

Should a social upheaval take place – and we must stress that the situation of Cuban society is ever more like a boiler gaining more and more pressure – people will not take to the streets to demand political liberties (the moment for that has passed), but to vent their social and economic frustration.

From the economic point of view, and contrary to what people may suppose, a general worsening of the country’s economic situation need not be the catalyst for these more or less generalized protests. The country’s growing social differences, which become starker every day, are what could light the fuse.

Despite the extreme limitations they face in their efforts (chiefly owed to the vigorous forms of repression applied on them), Cuban dissidents have not only warned of this danger but have done everything possible to avoid reaching such a chaotic situation, after which it would be very difficult to carry out the task of rebuilding Cubans as individuals. The government of the Castro brothers, on the other hand, is intent on leaving only chaos behind following its disappearance.

Every day there are more and more signs that reveal that part of Cuba’s population is willing to carry out violent acts – or is unable to control its passions and base instincts – and that it reacts to the simplest of stimuli. It is that sector of the population that willingly participates in public reprisals against dissidents, in which they are guided and controlled by a group of repressive agents. That is to say, they are not even at the level of professionals of violence: they are mere, circumstantial thugs.

In the more or less immediate future, following the disappearance of the Castros, gang members, extortionists, people who abuse power and even murderers will come out of the ranks of that sector, to meet the demand for delinquents and violent people that the different groups involved in illegal activities (now flourishing on the island) will have.

The rise in criminal activity is not the only danger that lurks ahead of us in connection with these unscrupulous individuals who currently find satisfaction in and take advantage of their participation in repressive activities.

The main problem is the existence of a population accustomed to living under a totalitarian regime that will soon find itself incapable of living in freedom and assuming the responsibilities this entails. Those who deal the blows today will be the maladjusted individuals of tomorrow.

Getting to know how people who have survived in a country in ruins for too long think and act involves exploring a world that is broader than our current political discussions. Studying the conduct of part of the island’s population that will limit or prevent social progress in the future goes beyond the anecdote, the timely chronicle or the report on the island’s most recent shortage. It is of course not an easy task and there are practically no means of carrying out such studies. That, however, should not prevent us from sounding the alarm and continuing to worry about this situation.
(*) Translated by Havana Times with permission from

13 thoughts on “Rebuilding Cubans as Individuals

  • September 17, 2014 at 9:32 am

    We are very close to agreement the only remaining difference being that you think that somehow the US proposing a clear alternative could invoke change. How Terry when that economic juggernaut of General Rodriguez and Castro Espin is in control;?

  • September 17, 2014 at 5:22 am

    Carlyle, I think it will be… “second verse, same as the first”. The current system is well entrenched. There has to be a prime motivator for the military to give up control and let others run the country based on a new approach. It’s all about money. If a plan can be put together to insure their economic interests will be protected, the possibility for political change would then be greatly enhanced. The two need to be separated from one another. But without a clear alternative promoted and supported by the US government, I don’t see that happening. There will be some that will say the US is already promoting a clear alternative, but as we all know, that aggressive approach has made little difference. My fear is it will continue to be “second verse, same as the first” for the US government too. If so, why should anyone expect anything to change anytime soon?

  • September 16, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    Thank you Terry for responding to whoever pinched my name!
    I was expressing my guess (nobody knows) about what will happen following the demise of the Castro brothers. Raul thinks that he has got it all laid out and arranged, but even supposedly dedicated communists are driven by self-interest and the desire for power, both to control and to pursue their own interests (wealth). Has Raul underestimated the desires of members of his own family, or has he very cleverly (and Raul has plenty of “street smarts”) by building up the financial empire of GAESA under Castro family management ensured that the Political Front of Diaz-Canel, Murillo, Rodriguez et al is but a convenient facade?
    We won’t know the answer until both brothers are gone. We still don’t know for example whether Raul will retain his position as Head of the military following relinquishing his post as President in three years time.
    It has been known for a long time that one horse can run faster than another – but which one? The differences are crucial!

  • September 16, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    Carlyle Reid (or MacDuff…that is strange), I have no quarrel with anything that you wrote…I’m in full agreement. And just so you’re aware, I’m not a Socializmo admirer, only that I feel the revolution was necessary at the time, but I want change for Cuba now too just as much as anybody else. I just differ greatly and take exception to the tactics that continue to thwart meaningful progress. Without dialogue and coordinated change on both sides being first entertained, nurtured, negotiated, and sustained, we can expect another 50+ years of more of the same.

  • September 15, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    A fascinating and thought provoking essay! Of all his crimes, perhaps the worst thing Castro did was to destroy the human individual in Cuba. It will take a generation or more to bring back that endangered species from the brink of extinction.

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