I realized that the Americans were changing their gaze on Cuba when their questions began to change. The classic, foreseeable, had always been “what will happen when Fidel Castro dies?” However, one fine day, around 2011, the inevitable began to be something else: “How do you go about buying a house on the island?” Despite the fact that the Castros, and the system, remained the same, and that the Obama administration reigned, something different had touched a live nerve in their minds and hearts. If John Stuart Mill had been born in Cuba, he would have said that no liberal ideology could beat a little house on the beach.
Between how much I have learned with my American students, and also with the generations of their parents and grandparents, there’s plenty that could be said about these two questions. Although it seems anachronistic, the first contains very current lessons.
Being a frustrated molecular biochemist, I began to centrifuge the idea that Fidel was the cause of our not getting along, in search of its solid ingredients. The first response to “what will happen when …?” was clear: Raúl. Obvious. But as Edgar Allan Poe says in “The Purloined Letter,” the obvious often goes unnoticed. Since Raúl did not have a precisely liberal or reformist halo, my answer did not go down well. They looked at me the same way as a French journalist friend, every time Cuban politics does not go along with her way of seeing history (Stalin’s fault, she and Hanna Arendt would say).
My second comment to the Cuba post (Fidel) Castro put a question mark, in anticipation of the ineluctable. Fourteen years after Fidel passed the baton to Vice President Raúl, and after the latter initiated a reform plan, the expected transition in relations has ended up being longer than the special period. Not even four years after Fidel’s death is there a certainty that it will happen, despite all the changes since the Cold War, and the end of historical objections to Castroism. More than 30 years after Cuban troops withdrew from Southwest Africa, the Central American wars ended, and the Havana-Moscow axis disappeared, there seems to be something wrong there.
Why has the transition in relations not arrived? Shakespeare would say that there is a method to its madness, not simply an ideological or irrational motive. According to this method, the Cuban system, so contrary to common sense and human nature, has to fall. If it has not happened yet, despite the fact that the Castros are passed the horizon, it could be attributed to the fact that they have not made an effort, as they should have. After all, just because something never went right doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying in the new circumstances.
A few days ago, an insightful correspondent for The New York Times precisely asked me about these new circumstances. In his question, in a certain way, my third comment to the old question about post-Castro Cuba was throbbing: despite everything that the U.S. governments have abhorred about Fidel and Raúl, they think twice before going against them, for they have somehow learned not to underestimate them. They have been small, but dangerous, so better trod carefully. A Harvard professor I met last century called soft power the ability that does not depend on economic or military force, nor on the much-touted symbolic power, but on making the entire country tense.
Now, what then? Let’s say, to put that question in the post-2018 context: to what extent are they convinced that President Miguel Díaz-Canel masters that soft power with equal skill?
I have learned that journalists keep their theses discreetly, and often use interviewees to confirm them, by the way, with all due respect. Well yes, I told the NYT correspondent, not only is Fidel gone, but, contrary to strings of expert predictions, Raúl’s public profile in Cuban politics has dropped a lot in the last two years. So, right off the bat, we have a new president 30 years younger, another rejuvenated government team, who do and project as if they were deciding for themselves. In other words, defending ideas and policies different from the previous ones.
We also have, by the way, another Constitution, which, beyond its legal significance, embodies a way of representing socialism that is different from the one defended for almost 60 years. In fact, it includes a structural transformation, whose narrative is based on economic reforms, but which from its very origin entails fundamental political changes.
Regardless of how it is seen in the macroeconomic power points, the reform process is experienced contradictory and even incongruous in daily life, crisscrossed by things as real and not very quantitative as people’s concerns and expectations. As if that were not enough, it unfolds in this year of the great pandemic.
Above and below all that, the biggest change since the 1990s is that another society has emerged. One that, according to sociologists, was already announced with signs of pre-crisis before the fall of the Wall, and has continued to grow in internal differentiation and diversity, in addition to becoming more unequal and much more talkative. It means that, in addition to a change in leadership; new actors and policies; another government, regional environments, pressures outside and inside; an unprecedented entry and exit of locals and tourists, a not very equitable double currency, shortages and blaming the government for everything that happens; in addition to this unprecedented social picture, a much more complex transition matrix is underway, and it is difficult to enclose it in a forecasting model.
All of that was there, by the way, before the U.S. elections and the events of November 27 in Havana.
I’m not going to comment on those events here; the more they circulate in official and alternative media, social networks and WhatsApp forums, letters and counter letters, the opaquer they become. I just mention them because they give me the opportunity to go back to our tango of normalization in difficult years, seen from both sides.
The construction of Cuban problems has always depended on the eyeglasses worn by the experts, who are a legion. Those who designed the Bay of Pigs invasion wore the same ones from the intervention in Guatemala in 1954. To explain Cuban politics in the 1980s, the Rand Corporation produced a psychopathological diagnosis of Fidel Castro, with syndromes taken from Greek mythology, hubris (excessive arrogance) and nemesis (righteous revenge).
Then came a best-seller of investigative journalism that demonstrated the imminent disintegration of the Cuban regime in 1993; a Catholic Church that was said to have played the role of mediation in the domestic conflict, as well as Pope Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II) in Poland; a Cuban transition portrayed in reams of political literature inspired by the models of Spain (1977), Chile (1989), Czechoslovakia, and even German unification (1989). The main problem with all these eyeglasses has, of course, been their degree of efficiency and usefulness.
Deciphering Cuban complexities through systems of equations such as the Arab Spring, the rebound effect of banned films, the magnet of social networks or influencers; identifying anti-racist, animal protector, feminist and LGBTIQ+ rights agendas as subversive; cataloging young people, artists and intellectuals, emigrants, private entrepreneurs and the market as soft spots (that is, capitalists) of the system…. All these polarized eyeglasses, which so different and even opposite actors use for their own ends, are found in the common notion that national security is at stake literally everywhere.
How the Cuban situation manages to be interpreted in that slightly apocalyptic way can only be explained by the prevalence of a common sense encrypted in cultural inertia and the reflections of the Cold War, its interfering stereotypes and autoimmune mechanisms, in ideological and intellectual terms. The populace tribunes would say “old wine in new wineskins.” But these phrases that everybody adores leave the criticism of the so-called democratic interventionism intact. As well as its counterpart, a democratic ideology on the defensive.
I have always doubted that U.S. governments care a lot about what is happening inside Cuba or any other country to decide what their interests are. But maybe I’m prejudiced. In any case, if this time they really wanted to respond to the changes, there would not be so many reasons for them to do so in the face of economic reforms, at least until now, in the face of the accumulation of transformations in the Cuban public sphere in the last quarter of a century.
The already existing civil society―not just the one that is announced as being born in 2020―speaks nineteen to the dozen, relentlessly criticizes the government’s policies, repeats phrases that less than 30 years ago would have been taken as politically reckless, manufactures art and literature with very political ingredients, directly messes with ideology on the stage of a theater or in a movie, sings heretical lyrics in popular music tunes, applauds comedians who mock the system’s institutions, dismisses and hugs those who leave the country or return, exalts and proudly displays the attributes of all the faiths practiced as never before, and does not hide to express its discomfort at any excess by a police officer, even when someone might say that there are more repressive police forces in other democracies out there.
None of that middle ground, naturally, has to cross the mind or the discourse of those who protests, with their own reasons, in the face of the same middle ground, against the censorship by an official, the suspicion exercised by some dependencies and the all-embracing power of those who abuse it.
It can be inferred from all the above that Cuba has changed much more than the United States in these almost three decades; the two countries still lack a great deal on their own terms; and the use of war in any of its forms is counterproductive to facilitate democratic changes within.
For Cuba, continuing that process, no matter what the United States does or does not do, is a political imperative, and also a challenge, because it cannot ignore its role as a domestic factor in Cuban life. Although for them the Cuban problem was minor, ignoring it and lacking a policy towards the island is not convenient for them either, if only because of the chorus of neighbors and allies who remind them. As long as its goal of influencing the processes within Cuba was maintained, its dilemma is printed on the handle of the embargo: isolate vs. influence. Sun Tzu would wonder if it is feasible to seal a fortress’s doors and windows with the art of war and, at the same time, seduce its occupants with the art of love.
Finally, what is the role of those pieces of our color that play on the opponent’s chessboard? Are they his pieces? Bishops or rooks? More like horses, moving in one direction and another? Do they have their own game, or do they move them, like pawns? Do we really know how they do it? Is it like the polls and the TV channels in Spanish say? What if they are not an irredeemable part of the other game, neither there nor here? Or if we don’t see them as pieces on that board? Could Cintio Vitier1 be right when he said that, if there were “young political, marginal, or antisocial skeptics” they were “our painful failure” and, “in any case, our criminals, our irresponsible, our anti-socials”?
Perhaps this issue has also become opaque by dint of talking about it.
However, it is worth considering it in an equanimous way, instead of breathing heavily on the wound, because an exercise such as negotiation, so crucial in a real democratic process, depends precisely on that margin. On the side of the institutions, the calibration of the response is decisive. As a wise old friend often says, in his baseball lingo, an out badly called at second base can be a disaster.
- Cintio Vitier, “Martí en la hora actual de Cuba”, Juventud Rebelde, August 18, 1994, p. 3.