When José Imperatori, a secretary of the Cuban mission in Washington, D.C., was ordered out of the country last February for his alleged role in a Cuban spy ring, he went on a hunger strike and hired a lawyer. It took four burly FBI agents to get him out of his apartment and into a plane to Canada. Reflecting on the episode, one wonders not only why little Cuba is still spying on the United States after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, but also why any Cuban would spy for his country. Why should an educated man like Imperatori defend a regime that he knows to be economically and ideologically bankrupt?
The standard answer is privilege. Cuba, like all former communist regimes, has created a ruling class with an enviable lifestyle: Its members live in exclusive neighborhoods, drive late-model European cars, and often wear Guccis and Rolexes. Borrowing a page from their erstwhile Eastern European colleagues, they have positioned themselves to run the new capitalist corporations set up in partnership with foreign firms. Self-interest is an eminently plausible reason to stay loyal.
But there is more to the story. The old communist aristocracies of Eastern Europe collapsed of their own weight once their exclusive reason for being became the preservation of their status. The cynicism of this position became increasingly obvious to all as it was reflected in their ritualistic repetition of ideological formulas, devoid of conviction. There is little of this cynicism among members of the Cuban elite. It is easy to talk to them for a while as if they were reasonable, but at some point in the conversation, they let go of their inhibitions and show true fervor. To be sure, this is not fervor for Marxism-Leninism, and this is the sense in which the regime is ideologically bankrupt. No one in a position of authority ever utters such Marxist mantras as class struggle, the dictatorship of the proletariat, or the coming world revolution. As the leadership understands, Cuban socialism depends entirely on foreign investments, remittances from Cuban émigrés, and tourism from the capitalist countries.
The key force that drives Cuban communists beyond self-interest is nationalism. The defense of national sovereignty is a powerful theme everywhere, but it has particularly deep roots in Cuba because of its long and troubled relationship with the United States. Several times in the nineteenth century, the island came close to being annexed, and a powerful political movement in Cuba argued for turning the country into an American state. The island owed its independence from Spain to U.S. intervention but was also saddled with a heavy American tutelage afterward. The reaction against that tutelage led to a particularly virulent strain of nationalism in the revolutionary movement that overthrew former dictator Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar and installed Fidel Castro. For 41 years, the Cuban leadership has seen itself as the embodiment of national sovereignty and the living continuation of the men who launched the Cuban war of independence.
After the Soviet crack-up, Castro defied the expectations of those who expected his regime to collapse if the United States kept up its embargo and other pressures. Now there is a broad effort to rethink the American posture toward Cuba and encourage a more gradual process of change in Cuba. The underlying issue is whether--and how--Cuba can change. Can a movement toward democratization arise within the regime, and can the U.S. government do anything to promote that outcome? The answers to these questions critically depend on how Cuban leaders define their role and the legitimacy of their continuing hold on power. Understanding their frame of mind is the first step toward any effective policy in support of democratization.
For the better part of the past decade, I have regularly visited Cuba in a dual role: first, as an academic to offer lectures and take part in conferences at the University of Havana; second, as a member of the Cuban Committee for Democracy, an organization of moderate Cuban Americans created to offer an alternative to the extreme right-wing Cuban leadership in Miami and promote a peaceful political transition in the island. In both roles, I have met with government functionaries and prominent members of the Cuban Communist Party. In these conversations, common themes have emerged that reveal how the nationalist idea plays itself out in their minds. These are a series of leitmotifs that inevitably make their appearance when the tone of voice rises and the fists bang the table.
Of these, none is more important than the "small besieged country" standing up to the colossus of the North. In Cuban revolutionary imagery, the island is at the very core of North American interests and is the target of ceaseless machinations. From the Bay of Pigs invasion to the sustained economic embargo, the revolution has had to contend with every possible form of American hostility. Any anti-Cuban plot hatched by the CIA or the Pentagon is conceivable. The only inconceivable scenario, in these people's minds, would be a Cuba of no more than marginal significance to the United States. This David versus Goliath imagery also has deep roots in Cuban history and literature. Back in the 1950s, the famous poet Nicolás Guillén portrayed his despair in three lines:
Afuera está el Vecino,
Tiene una flota bárbara,
Una flota bárbara.
("Outside is the Neighbor, / It has a barbarous fleet." The repeated term bárbara does double duty for "massive" and "pitiless.") The revolution stood up to this threat, giving rise to the theme of "the little besieged country" holding firm against impossible odds.
La Falsa Democracia Capitalista
"Everyone wants to give us advice, and the advice is always the same. We are tired of hearing about a democracy that we know to be false." The words of the high-ranking Cuban diplomat explain why so much external pressure on the Cuban regime has yielded so few results. The revolutionary leadership is genuinely convinced that American-style democracy is a sham, a game of money and power that excludes the majority of the population. In Latin America, the implementation of this sort of democracy is a double tragedy as it legitimizes vast social inequalities and perpetuates the abandonment of the weak. By contrast, in Cuba every citizen has access to free medical care, free education, and at least a minimum diet. The big sign atop a Havana building proclaims the message loudly: "Twenty-five million Latin American children went to sleep hungry tonight; not one of them is Cuban."
There is less conviction in defending the Cuban version of a legislature, the National Assembly of Popular Power, as an alternative to a U.S.-style Congress. It is well-known that the Assembly has never stood up to Castro and is consistently used to rubber-stamp his policies. On the other hand, as a leader of the Assembly told me, "we provide guidance and information to the leadership, and it costs nothing in Cuba to get elected." His point is that the Assembly is "popular" because anyone can be nominated and voted into office, unlike the American Congress, where elections are decided by money.
A key story in Cuban revolutionary lore is the moment back in 1956 when the guerrilla band led by Fidel Castro was routed by the old Cuban army moments after disembarking. Having lost most of his men, Fidel assembled the remaining dozen or so in a remote mountain spot and told them, "Now, there is no doubt that we will win." Though the disheartened men looked at each other with incredulity then, they rode into Havana in a victory parade three years later.
Since that time, Fidel has unfailingly shown to his comrades both courage and political acumen. On the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, he refused to back down and instead rallied the nation around him. The prompt defeat of the exiles' expeditionary force, after the refusal of the Kennedy administration to support it, proved him right. With popular discontent rising and the Peruvian embassy occupied by Cubans wishing to escape the island in 1980, the regime seemed to be in trouble. Fidel's response was to declare that anyone wishing to leave could do so, and he opened the port of Mariel to all exiles who wanted to join their relatives. The resulting Mariel exodus turned the table on Castro's opponents by creating chaos in south Florida and putting the Carter administration on the defensive. The subsequent defeat of the Democratic Party in November 1980 was in no small part attributable to Carter's perceived weakness during that episode.
The pope's visit in 1998 gave yet another demonstration of the aging Cuban leader's political deftness. By inviting the pope, the regime showed its openness and tolerance. Then it mobilized its supporters to fill the pope's Masses and other public events, preventing any show of opposition. Fidel never stayed far from his visitor, escorting him to most functions and responding courteously, but firmly, to the pope's urgent calls for openness. The result was not the beginning of the end for Cuban communism, as many analysts had anticipated by drawing a parallel between Cuba and Poland. Instead, the Cuban government, and Castro in particular, emerged from the episode with a refurbished image of flexibility and religious tolerance.
The late saga of Elián Gonzalez can be properly understood from this perspective. By demanding the child's immediate return and mobilizing the population around it, Fidel not only created a new nationalist rallying cry but also placed its adversaries in a dilemma. Keeping Elián in the United States would turn him into an instant child-martyr around the world; returning him meant direct confrontation with the right-wing Cuban-American community. The conflict did, in fact, force the Clinton administration into direct conflict with the Miami exile leadership--a spectacle that surely brought joy to the old revolutionaries' hearts. Castro's continued success in thwarting the regime's enemies reassures the rest of the leadership that they are on the right side of history.
The Pantyhose Theory
"The Vatican, the king of Spain, the Canadian prime minister all want the same thing. They tell us, 'Just yield a little, allow some internal opposition, let some free enterprise grow. It will make things easier for you,'" says the high official in the Ministry of Culture. "But you know what happens to pantyhose when the first little tear appears? You can patch it, but eventually the whole thing disintegrates."
Cuban leaders learned the pantyhose lesson from the experience of the defeated regimes in Eastern Europe. In the Soviet Union and its satellites, attempts to reform communism quickly led to its demise. Gorbachev's perestroika is reviled by Cuban communists as naïve and suicidal, and its author blamed for the end of the socialist camp. For Castro and his followers, the Eastern European regimes collapsed after they opened political space and made attempts at dialogue with the opposition.
This will not happen in Cuba. Not even Chinese communism comes in for praise. While the Communist Party there has managed to remain in power, it has opened its economy wide to free enterprise and, in the process, has created a large and autonomous bourgeoisie. This growing class poses a threat to socialism because of its wealth, distinct political outlook, and contacts with the capitalist world. No similar development will be allowed in Cuba. Self-employment in the island remains confined to the informal economy and a few minor activities, such as small restaurants. The only large capitalist enterprises allowed are foreign ones in partnership with the state or closely supervised by it. The island's only employer, directly or indirectly, remains the revolutionary state.
After 41 years, the Cuban revolutionaries' mind-set is internally coherent, still militant, and deeply intransigent. In defense of this intransigence, Fidel and his collaborators are willing to meet with outsiders, host foreign leaders and delegations, and posture as reasonable and tolerant people. But any genuine political or economic threat is met with an iron fist. The scattered internal dissidents are constantly harassed and put in jail at the slightest provocation; any public show of discontent is ruthlessly repressed; and periodic raids ensure that street vendors and other small entrepreneurs do not get any ideas of capitalist accumulation into their heads. Convinced of their own legitimacy as defenders of national sovereignty, the Cuban leaders have converted the country's citizens into little more than tools for their policies. National dignity is preserved at the cost of a thorough violation of the dignity of the individual.
What America Needs to Do
How to deal with this mind-set? After lengthy encounters with Cuban revolutionaries, I am persuaded that the key lies in the "small besieged country" motif. If the present economic embargo and other aggressive policies against the island were lifted, Cuba's power would be greatly reduced. The rest of the ideological edifice is likely to fall of its own weight. Repeated episodes during the past four decades have shown that Fidel thrives on confrontation, but remove the Cuban leader's sense of importance by denying him the role of nationalist David and much of the influence he exercises over his followers would dissipate.
There are holes already in the pantyhose. The economic dependence of Cuba on remittances from its own exile community and on tourism creates a number of rising contradictions. It is difficult to preach communism to children who must cruise the streets after school panhandling for dollars. Revolutionary faith is hard to sustain among physicians and other professionals whose monthly salary is less than a day's take in hotel tips. The large presence of tourists from the capitalist countries, including those from Latin America, who are free to come and go as they please and to speak their minds, acts as a powerful solvent of official ideology, pointing out to ordinary Cubans the inferiority of their position.
Asked what he wants to be when he grows up, the Cuban boy loses no time: "I want to be a foreigner." To his young mind, it is clear that this is about the only way to acquire the privileges denied by Cuba to its own citizens. With this level of discontent in place, only the nationalist myths stand in the way of serious political unraveling. Ironically, the U.S. government has in its hands the power to promote political change in Cuba, not by continuing to confront Castro, but by leaving him alone. Lifting the economic embargo and other hostile measures against Cuba would deprive aging revolutionaries of the single persuasive reason for their holding on to power. In Eastern Europe, anticommunism and nationalism worked together to undermine the entrenched communist regimes because the Soviet Union was the common target of both ideologies. In Cuba nationalism and anticommunism work at crosspurposes since the government loses no opportunity to wrap itself in the banner of national sovereignty. This confuses the internal opposition, who find themselves persuasively tarred as allies and servants of American imperialism. Every instance of confrontation with the United States--from the Mariel boatlift in 1980 to the downing of the exile planes in 1996, to the annual battles in various international fora--strengthens the resolve of Cuban revolutionaries and the cohesive ideological mind-set that sustains Castro in power. That mind-set would not survive his relegation to the status of just another small-country dictator. ¤
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)