When Cuba was apparently getting ready to execute a few reform measures after the juridical cession of power from Fidel Castro to his brother Raúl, the country was hit by a triad of negative sudden events and traditional political patterns. First, the capitalist world that saw Cuba as a sort of communist Jurassic park in the Americas, debating between the Chinese of the Vietnamese models, went through a seismic jolt with its financial base shattered. Raúl was seen as dependent on the ambivalent support of Venezuela’s Chávez, who saw the price of oil descending to unprecedented lows. Second, the forces of nature unleashed their wrath in the form of three successive hurricanes. It is ironic that the second was named Ike, possibly as a vague reference to the nickname of U.S. president Eisenhower who imposed the beginning of the embargo against Cuba in the early 60s. Gustav prepared the way and Paloma (another ironic peaceful name) did damage in areas not visited by the preceding killer storms.
The third damaging phenomenon was endogenous and resided in the deep bowels of the Cuban regime. European persuasion, U.S. pressure, and Latin American centrist coalesced in contributing to the evolution of the Cuban regime. However, Raúl (after implementing cosmetic measures, such as allowing Cubans to buy cell phones and rent hotel rooms) disappointed optimists and confirmed the fears of the skeptical observers. He not only did not put into practice the reforms that he had announced to make the Cuban economy more efficient and competitive, but he also repeated the hard line discourse of the past in the rare and brief public appearances.
While political calculations could predict an atmosphere of doom, perceptive observers pointed out that nothing could be worse than what Cuba went through at the end of the Cold War when Soviet subsidies vanished. The United States then tried innovative measures to quash the alternative Cuban solutions put in place to diminish the damage done by the end of Moscow’s backing. When U.S. subsidiaries were caught in circumventing the embargo by selling goods through third countries, Washington activated the Cuban Democracy Act (Torricelli) of 1992. When foreign investors “trafficked” in a bold way (as they did in the past) with expropriated properties in Cuba, the U.S. prepared the Helms-Burton law that, opening the door to law suits against foreign companies that dared to trade with Castro.
Just in case Congress and the President might drag their feet, Castro shot down two planes of the Brothers to the Rescue organization. This group had expanded its original humanitarian work of rescuing refugees at sea, by flooding Cuban air space (including the skies of Havana itself), for the irritation of the Castro government that had warned in unequivocal terms the U.S. administration. As a result, the EU, while adamantly still protesting the U. S. extraterritorial and unilateral trade and investment curtailing measures, slapped Cuba with a Common Position, conditioning a better aid deal to notable political and economic reforms.
The record shows that the U.S. – European pincer became an excuse for the Cuban regime to circle the wagons and resist with even more energy. It did not matter that the combination of the world’s pressure (including the U.S. embargo) and Cuban stubbornness produced an expected casualty in the daily lives of the Cuban people. A totalitarian system that left no windows open to breath and had managed to consolidate a national sense became the favorite weapon to survive. Foreign observers did not quite realize that the key explanations for the impressive survival skills of the Cuban regime included some other additional dimensions than a political control system of such repressive level that was unknown in Eastern and Central Europe at the height of the Cold War. The Cuban Revolution surpassed the mark of four decades of life, and counting, by a combination of three other aspects.
First, it was a full revolutionary struggle made in Cuba. It was not imposed by Soviet tanks. It effectively destroyed the weak democratic system that was corroded by periodic waves of dictatorship and corruption. It flattened the capitalist system with no other replacement than a centralized economy that left few avenues for individual initiative. Second, it was led by an inimitable personality, unmatched in the history of Latin America, who always had found the way to change course, while maintaining the basic logic of uncontested full control. Finally, the system had learned in a masterly way to use the renewable energy provided by the erratic and counterproductive policy of the United States. A reinforced nationalism, with no parallel in Latin America, was the result.
In the current circumstances, Raúl knows very well that he faces a dilemma. On the one hand, he has to tackle the internal demand and ameliorate the daily consequences of the inefficient economy that cannot produce even one third of the food needed by the Cuban people. On the other hand, he has to decide on implementing real and bold measures that would cross the border of capitalism (small businesses, real and competitive salaries that would confirm the existence of social classes, private agricultural enterprises). He knows that this opening of the genie bottle would mean the start of a movement of not return. After the economic reforms the social restructure will follow. Then the political demands could be irresistible.
This changing environment could mean that in a given moment internal clashes would be too formidable for the repressive apparatus to neutralize. The armed forces, the only institution with national implantation, could not be capable of coping with unrest. Seen from the other side of the straights of Florida, the threat of massive, uncontrolled and illegal migration has become a hovering nightmare in need of redress. In spite of what President Bush promised, “stability” is the code word that has replaced the well-sought democratic path to peaceful transition. Significantly, the stubborn immobility sported by the Cuban regime, added to presenting this threat, has managed to make up for its structural weakness. The impasse would then, for the moment and no one knows until when (not before the death of Fidel, for sure), provide both sides for an eerie sense of security.
This ideal condition from a realist point of view, although it may look unfair and hypocritical in certain cases, has constituted the ultimate goal of any government and society in these uncertain and dangerous times. Ironically, a worsening of the circumstances surrounding the Cuban drama (financial crisis, hurricane damage, and political unrest) could be added to the measures aimed at avoiding drastic effects and feared developments. Internal confrontations, military repression, sea migration, corruption, unseen levels of crime, riots caused by lack of food, and foreign humanitarian occupation as a result could then present a combustible combination. This situation would be too high a price to pay at the expense of stability, even if that means the consolidation of the Cuban regime for a while. Ironically, this scenario would provide the security of Havana’s and Washington’s governments, thus forming a never experienced coalition.
Joaquín Royis Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration, Director of University of Miami European Union Center and Co-Director of the Miami-Florida European Union Center of Excellence. He has published over 200 academic articles and reviews, and he is the author, editor, or co-editor of 25 books. He has also published over 1,300 columns and essays in newspapers and magazines. Among his awards is the Encomienda of the Order of Merit bestowed by King Juan Carlos of Spain.