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Cuba Without the Castros | Dissent Magazine

Cuba Without the Castros | Dissent Magazine

Cuba Without the Castros

Andrés Pertierra ▪ Winter 2019
Former President Raúl Castro greets President Miguel Díaz-Canel in July 2012. (Photograph by Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photograph by way of Getty Photographs)

Months after his elevation to go of state, the new Cuban president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, largely stays a thriller. At most, we’ve got simply begun to catch glimpses of his long-term technique and character as a pacesetter.

We will’t predict the future with certainty, nevertheless it appears clear that he has inherited a far weaker place than his predecessors, Fidel and Raúl Castro. He’s beset on all sides by numerous crises, with far much less political capital than the Castros to face the challenges forward. No matter long-term options he might take into consideration, for now he’s maintaining them near his chest.

One issue that may undoubtedly play a task in the survival or shipwreck of his authorities is his capacity to deal with a disaster of legitimacy that had already turn into noticeable beneath his predecessors.

The rationale that is so essential is straightforward. Since 1959 the Cuban authorities has based mostly its rule not on democratic elections, however as an alternative on a vertical command–fashion system with the head of state paternalistically shaping and implementing coverage. Supporters of the Cuban Revolution had little efficient technique of controlling coverage, however the authorities might rely on their backing as a result of Fidel Castro and the motion he led have been thought-about reputable as a consequence of their achievements and mythos. Whereas the main disaster that adopted the collapse of the Soviet Union and the remainder of the Japanese Bloc shook Cuba to its core, the authorities was saved by the undeniable fact that it nonetheless loved an necessary diploma of public help from a big a part of the inhabitants. Cuba’s political system and chief weren’t overseas impositions, secured by menace of tanks, however as an alternative have been seen by many as a continuation of nationalist actions going again to the nineteenth century. The federal government’s supporters didn’t again it as a result of it assured nice prosperity. They backed it as a result of they noticed it as the commonplace bearer of Cuban sovereignty, nationwide satisfaction, dignity, and the promise of a extra simply society.

This fashionable help and legitimacy was key, however not all Cubans embraced the revolutionary authorities. Cuba additionally used repressive mechanisms, together with home intelligence providers, to disrupt and disable any political opposition. One other vital sector of the inhabitants was most interested by having a traditional life the place they might increase a household. As time has handed and the fervor of the revolution has receded into reminiscence, increasingly Cubans appear to fall into this class.

Ornamental democratic establishments exist in Cuba, in fact—most notably the Asamblea Nacional del Poder Widespread, Cuba’s legislature, which in apply has all the time been a rubber-stamp committee. However the authorities’s profitable cultivation of its legitimacy by different means has allowed it to keep away from both empowering these establishments or to show to ruling purely by way of extra repressive means. As an example Díaz-Canel’s relative weak spot on this level, it’s instructive to look at his two predecessors. (I’m excluding President Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado, in workplace from 1959 to 1976, since in apply Fidel dominated Cuba throughout that interval.)

Fidel Castro got here to energy after a guerrilla warfare. He had overthrown the dictator Fulgencio Batista, who had upended the constitutional order in 1952 and dominated the nation by way of terror and bloodshed. Whereas Fidel’s authorities failed in its promise to revive the structure of 1940, it did fulfill many aged well-liked calls for, corresponding to land reform, and it carried out packages directed at serving to Cuba’s poorest. The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 was a boon to the revolution, permitting it to border itself as the David to the United States’s Goliath—a real heir of the custom of Cuban nationalism. Fidel’s overseas coverage elevated the nation on the world stage like by no means earlier than, which delighted Cuban nationalists who had chafed underneath the neocolonial grip of the United States. These insurance policies, along side mass public occasions like marches and public speeches, made his supporters really feel like they have been a part of one thing higher than themselves, and that the authorities was on their aspect.

Parallel to those extra-institutional mechanisms, critics of the Cuban authorities have been monitored and sometimes blacklisted, berated, jailed, and in any other case mistreated by safety and intelligence forces. The federal government achieved a big diploma of management over entry to info, together with management of all media retailers and publishing homes in addition to the importation of overseas literature. Censorship in the arts expanded beneath Fidel, reaching its zenith throughout the so-called “Grey Quinquennial” in the 1970s. Labor camps have been utilized in the 1960s in an try and purge Cubans of homosexuality, religiosity, or different traits deemed a menace. Whereas the camps closed after just a few years, individuals embodying those self same traits have been typically blacklisted from good jobs.

Nonetheless, the authorities maintained legitimacy amongst many Cubans, rooted in Fidel’s interpersonal presents, public occasions, and insurance policies, and supporters forgave and even tried to justify the state’s abuses and shortcomings. A superb instance of how this labored in follow is the well-known “Maleconazo” in 1994, when Cubans took to Havana’s streets in desperation at the nadir of the post-Soviet financial disaster. Fidel personally marched out in the crowd with a gaggle of supporters to defuse the state of affairs. The last decade would see mass migration, however not rebel.


When Raúl Castro formally took management in 2008, his authorities deserted marches virtually completely. He barely gave speeches; many Cubans joked to me that “Raúl no habla” (Raúl doesn’t converse). Directions would come down from on excessive with out a lot of an try and make supporters really feel they have been being taken under consideration. Lots of the extra-institutional mechanisms that Fidel had used have been deserted.

Raúl had the luxurious of allowing the authorities’s legitimacy to slowly atrophy as a result of he might nonetheless lean on his household identify, his management in the struggle towards Batista, his monitor report underneath Fidel, and the necessary private networks he had cultivated over many years. He was already a longtime nationwide determine in his personal proper, and his energy didn’t solely come from being Fidel’s brother.

Underneath Raúl’s administration, I observed that whereas financial reforms—reminiscent of permission to open personal companies and contract staff—have been typically fortunately acquired, even supporters began to really feel alienated from the authorities and its modifications. Some felt the reforms didn’t go far sufficient or have been being poorly carried out. Such misgivings have been, for the most half, restricted to sad grumblings. Others argued that cutbacks to social packages, typically referred to derisively as “gratuidades indebidas” (undue gratuities), signaled a flip in the direction of austerity. Typically, it appeared like the absence of Fidel’s private contact and appeal had laid naked the realities of energy in a disquieting approach.

Fidel’s political genius was to make his supporters really feel like that they had a stake in the authorities, even when in apply they lacked a lot energy. Whether or not out of private dislike for the highlight or a want to maneuver away from private legitimacy and towards institutionalism, Raúl experimented with mechanisms resembling nationwide public debates over the nation’s new coverage tips. As a result of main modifications needed to be made to the nation’s financial system, Raúl utilized the debates as quasi-plebiscites, with the information that they have been nonbinding. In the meantime, he continued to bypass democratic establishments akin to the nationwide and provincial assemblies. The choice to not empower these establishments meant that whereas Raúl was shifting towards a depersonalization of the authorities, he didn’t basically change the vertical nature of Fidel’s system.

Opposite to his predecessors, Díaz-Canel isn’t a army man. He wasn’t even born at the time of the revolution, and he didn’t cowl himself in glory in Angola in the 1980s. He’s an administrator with no apparent pull amongst the military. In a closely militarized nation like Cuba, the place the military runs a lot of the nation instantly, this poses an issue. He additionally doesn’t appear to have a big base of fashionable help, having spent his years as inheritor obvious with restricted engagement with the public.

In the early 2010s, Díaz-Canel’s official-unofficial standing as dauphin impressed hope amongst authorities supporters I spoke to in Havana and a cautious neutrality amongst many working-class Cubans in Havana and the japanese provinces. In recent times, after chatting with the similar individuals and new Cubans I met, there appears to be a rising rejection of Díaz-Canel, with earlier supporters turning into extra jaded. Díaz-Canel appears to concentrate on this disconnect and has tried to deal with it, amongst different methods, by way of extra proactive engagement with the public, together with by means of his new Twitter account. His visits to varied elements of Cuba, corresponding to areas recovering from hurricanes, are fairly commonplace fare for any head of state and shouldn’t be seen as a real emulation of Fidel’s technique, however he additionally hasn’t shut himself off from the world like Raúl did. It’s a midway, lukewarm answer that appears to do little to deal with the drawback of the authorities’s ebbing help.

The Cuban authorities faces many challenges. It has misplaced its monopoly on info for good, with the web and a semi-legal digital media distribution system often known as “el paquete” (the package deal) inundating the Cuban media market. The achievements of the revolution—particularly in healthcare and schooling—are slowly imploding because of being run on a shoestring finances for many years. Many younger Cubans don’t appear to see a future in Cuba, preferring to to migrate, as lots of my classmates who graduated with me in 2013 from the College of Havana have already executed. Former authorities supporters I’ve spoken to have turn out to be extra dejected about politics and extra interested by specializing in assembly their quick financial wants.

However the financial system has been rising at a snail’s tempo. The Cuban authorities, first beneath Raúl and now underneath Díaz-Canel, seems to be betting on financial reforms as a way to boost the lifestyle and create a tax base with which to finance authorities spending. That technique is sensible; it might scale back in style discontent and assist the nation’s chronically ailing funds. However additionally it is profoundly harmful in the long-term if not paired with political reforms.

Capitalism is a system characterised by periodic financial crises. Even when the Cuban authorities wasn’t making main errors (it’s), financial crises are sure to occur. Cuba is a part of a broader worldwide financial system. It is determined by overseas commerce and tourism for its prosperity. Ultimately, a disaster will come to its doorstep, whether or not Cuba has a task in precipitating it or not. Fidel’s authorities weathered the 1990s in no small half as a result of there was underlying dedication and help for the authorities amongst a big part of the inhabitants. A authorities constructed on the prosperity of the second wouldn’t have that very same stability.


Díaz-Canel finds himself in a precarious place. The opening up of the financial system over the previous couple of years has been pretty fashionable, nevertheless it stays incomplete and unstable, with main insurance policies being introduced at the drop of a hat. Painful although essential modifications have fallen on him to implement, reminiscent of the lengthy awaited unification of the nation’s two currencies and the reform of its accounting system, each of that are required steps on the street to lastly elevating state wages however will deliver a painful transition interval that working-class Cubans will endure from most.

To be truthful, Díaz-Canel continues to be not solely unbiased of his predecessor, so it isn’t clear what his insurance policies will appear to be in the long run. Whereas not head of state in identify, Raúl Castro stays the energy behind the throne as head of the Communist Social gathering and would probably retain huge powers even when he formally stepped down from all authorities posts. In any case, if Díaz-Canel intends to set himself and his successors on a extra strong footing by creating a real successor authorities able to outliving anybody man or household, it’ll have to be carried out together with a revitalization of extra democratic establishments. (Whereas the authorities’s home intelligence and police providers are nonetheless fairly robust, this can be very unlikely that the present authorities might get away with implementing even half the repressive measures taken in the 1960s or 1970s, which authorities supporters now apologetically seek advice from as “errors” of the previous.)

Simply to call a couple of prospects, the authorities might allow direct voting for political management; it might empower the nationwide and provincial assemblies and hold them in session for greater than two temporary moments throughout the yr; it might empower the Staff’ Central Union of Cuba in order that staff truly management it and defend their pursuits by way of it. The chances are huge, even with out contemplating the creation of solely new establishments. The federal government would lose a few of its seemingly limitless current attain, however in trade for empowering its residents and democratic establishments, it will encourage identification with the political system, bolster its legitimacy, and supply institutional mechanisms by which state excesses and abuses can truly be redressed.

The Cuban authorities finds itself at a crossroads. If it focuses solely on financial reforms and limits political reform to beauty or ineffectual modifications, will probably be like forged iron: arduous however brittle. If as an alternative it builds new mechanisms for legitimation, it will be capable of construct a extra lasting basis.

It isn’t clear to me that democratization is on the horizon. Neither is it clear whether or not Díaz-Canel might realistically implement such modifications with out Raúl’s blessing and the backing of a big a part of the present authorities. We have no idea how Díaz-Canel will govern as soon as Raúl passes away or leaves politics. However democratization may stem the hemorrhaging legitimacy of the authorities. And it might assist meet the nonetheless unfulfilled promise of restoring the Cuban individuals’s proper to determine their nation’s future—a promise made when the revolution was a handful of guerrilla fighters in the Sierra Maestra.

Andrés Pertierra is a Cuban-American historian at present dwelling and dealing in Washington, D.C.

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