Thinking Historically About Cuba

by Louis A. Pérez, Jr.

I

We will ponder the meaning of the Cuban revolution for decades to come, and after us, others will reflect on its meaning for many decades more. At present, attention has been given more to predicting the Cuban future (what will happen after Fidel) than to understanding the Cuban past (what happened in Cuba), a tendency that fails to appreciate the ways the latter serves to inform the former. In fact, the question of the future of Cuba evokes a problematic far too speculative and far too imponderable, and is perhaps best left to those who dwell in the realm of contingency. To contemplate the future of the Cuban past, however, perhaps more precisely, to reflect on the historical context from which the Cuban present has emerged, cannot but contribute to a deeper understanding of the circumstances that act to shape the options available to the Cuban people.

Many factors have played a part in maintaining the Cuban leadership and the government over which it presides in power. Certainly the oft-cited resort to repression is not without some basis in fact. The system has indeed relied on an extensive and efficient intelligence apparatus. It acts on authoritarian reflexes, and has been neither slow nor unwilling to apply repression as a means to maintain internal consensus.

But repression alone is not an adequate explanation for the endurance of a government that has persisted under extraordinary circumstances, during years of enormously difficult internal conditions, compounded by five decades of external pressures–active and passive, principally from the United States. The Cuban government had its origins in an enormously popular revolutionary upheaval, a process in which the claim to power and the legitimacy to rule were initially never in question. Much in the capacity of the Cuban leadership to survive even under the most difficult circumstances has been related to the larger logic of patria as a place-bound source of self-identification, specifically the degree to which the idea of nation and the purpose of revolution fused to form a larger metaphysics in which the value of nationality was invested in the virtue of sovereignty.

II

The proposition of patria acquired meaning around an emerging nineteenth-century ethos, and thereupon acted to inform belief systems, shape canons of self-representation, and convey modes of conduct, central to which was the premise of self-determination as the minimum condition of self-fulfillment. To the degree that Cubans invested selfhood into nationhood, the former could not be imagined without the latter. Formulations of nationality reached deeply into the sources of self-representation and self-esteem. The plausibility of “Cuban” as a transcendental category of identity was contingent on possession of place, unmediated and unencumbered, a condition vital to the very sustenance of the logic of a separate nationality.

The premise of Cuban–what made Cubans Cuban–was invested in the promise of patria, without which the proposition of nationality possessed neither reason nor rationale. Patria and pueblo joined together to give meaning to nationality. Central to this construct was the very vindication of patria, without which nothing remained and for which, hence, no sacrifice was too great, no struggle was too long.

No other aspiration has so profoundly shaped the formation of Cuban national sensibility as the pursuit of national sovereignty and self-determination. The Cuban sense of self had its origins in the nineteenth century, when Cubans arrived to the conviction that they too had a destiny to pursue, that they too had a claim to self-determination, that they too had a right to sovereign nationhood. The liberation project of the nineteenth century summoned three generations of Cubans to four decades of warfare against Spain under the inspiration of the lyric of the national anthem “To die for the Patria is to live.” Cuban aspirations to sovereignty were thwarted by the United States first in 1898 by military occupation and thereafter by the Platt Amendment, repeated armed interventions and political inter-meddling, and possession of the national economy.

Cuban aspirations of the nineteenth century persisted into the twentieth as hopes unfulfilled and goals unmet, but most of all as ideals that retained the capacity repeatedly to summon Cuban mobilization. These were not sentiments invented by the revolution–they formed part of the larger political culture to which Cuban leaders after 1959 were heir and in which they themselves had been formed.

Whatever else the Cuban revolution addressed, whatever else the revolution sought to remedy, at the core of its mystique was the logic of patria. It was central to the purpose of the revolution, and indeed in no small way accounts for Cuban endurance through the past five decades of political isolation and economic sanctions.

The Cuban leadership subsumed into the project of revolution a historic mission: the redemption of patria, which implied above all defense of sovereignty, specifically from the United States. Within the logic of the Cuban historical experience, both as a matter of popular memory and a learned past, confrontation with the United States was perhaps not only inevitable, but necessary–possibly even desirable. “¡Viva Cuba Libre!” celebrated the headlines of the newspaper Revolución in January 1961 when the United States severed diplomatic relations.

The confrontation released powerful nationalist sentiments, revived long-standing historical grievances, which in turn contributed to a national unanimity of purpose perhaps unattainable by any other means. The Cuban confrontation with the United States drew vast support across the island and–certainly initially–this support cut across racial categories and transcended class lines, among men and women, young and old, in the cities and in the countryside. All through the decades that followed, confrontation with the United States served as a powerful catalyst of national mobilization. “Señor Imperialistas,” taunts the well-known Havana billboard. “¡No tenemos absolutamemte ningún miedo!”

III

The Americans’ response to the revolution was unambiguous. All through the early decades, the United States sought successively by way of invasion, assassination plots, covert operations, political isolation, and punitive economic sanctions, to overthrow of the Cuban government. With the loss of Soviet patronage in the early 1990s, Cubans found themselves increasingly isolated and beleaguered, faced with dwindling aid, decreasing foreign exchange reserves, and diminishing resources: a good time, the Americans persuaded themselves, to expand the scope and increased the severity of economic sanctions as a way to hasten the “transition to democracy.”

The Torricelli Law (1992) and Helms-Burton Law (1996) were particularly harsh and mean-spirited, both in timing and in kind. To mischievous intent was added malevolent purpose, for the new sanctions were directed against the Cuban people, to make daily life in Cuba as difficult and grim as possible, to increase Cuban suffering in measured but sustained increments, at every turn, at every opportunity.

The Americans sought to deepen hardship as a means of provoking the Cuban people into rebellion, to politicize hunger as a way to foment popular disaffection in the hope that, driven by want and motivated by despair, Cubans would deliver the political outcome desired in Washington: the overthrow of the Cuban government.

These developments had far-reaching consequences. The defense of the nation became indistinguishable from the defense of the revolution and, in fact, acted at once to accelerate the centralization of power and facilitate the curtailment of civil liberties–all in the name of the defense of patria. The American intent to provoke the Cuban people into rebellion was transparent, and readily understood by Cuban leaders. They responded accordingly. If indeed the survival of the nation was at stake, what mattered most was unanimity of purpose and an unyielding course of action, neither of which admitted easily political opposition and internal division. It was the height of cynicism for the United States to condemn Cuba for the absence of civil liberties and political rights, on one hand, and, on the other, pursue policies variously employing sabotage, subversion, and sanctions to obtain the overthrow the Cuban government.

Internal security developed into an obsession in Cuba. Opposition was portrayed as tantamount to treason. Dissent was perceived as a process that was both pernicious and perilous to the survival of patria. The North American call for oppositional space within Cuba, in the form of an opposition party, for example, or for an opposition press, could not but arouse suspicion and raise the spectre of subversion. The emphasis was on the unanimity of the nation, at whatever cost, for however long required. The leadership has been ill-disposed to tolerate political opposition in the face of an implacable adversary from without and a battered economy from within. That the United States acted to provide moral support and material assistance to dissidents groups served further to cast a pall over the legitimacy of critics of the government. The emergence of political opposition was denounced as divisive and subversive and characterized as a stalking “enemy within.” This was the obvious purport of Raúl Castro’s shrill warning in late 1992: “Those who act as a fifth column of the enemy can expect nothing else but the crushing blow of the people, the weight of our power and our revolutionary justice.”

A policy professing to promote a “transition to democracy” had the opposite effect. To varying degrees, the Americans did in fact achieves their purpose: conditions in Cuba did indeed worsen. Cubans faced mounting shortages, increased rationing, deteriorating services, and growing scarcities, circumstances in which the needs of everyday life in their most ordinary and commonplace forms were met often only by Herculean efforts. But circumstances of dire need and urgent want were hardly conditions conducive to contemplate a “transition to democracy.” A people utterly prostrate, preoccupied with matters of survival as the overriding reality of day-to-day life, were not readily disposed to think about elections. Vast numbers of Cubans chose instead to emigrate. Others burrowed deeper into the nether world of the black market in search of ways to make do and carry on. Many committed suicide. Nothing perhaps could have more effectively arrested and reversed a “transition to democracy” than the grim and relentless urgency with which Cubans faced daily life. As one Cuban colleague confided to the author: “Primero necesidades; después democracia.”

IV

U.S. sanctions challenged the Cubans on the grounds that the leadership was best prepared to defend: the ideal of nation, free and sovereign, the defense of which the Cuban leadership could claim a historic mandate to uphold. The Americans challenged the Cuban revolution at its most credible point and its most defensible position. U.S. policy was received as another maneuver to exact Cuban acquiescence to North American power, another attempt to remove a government in Cuba dedicated to the defense of patria, another way to punish the Cuban people for their affirmation of national sovereignty.

The duty of struggle and sacrifice to redeem the patria was a matter of historical legacy, to be assumed and discharged by successive generations of Cubans. As conditions deteriorated during the 1990s, efforts to raise flagging morale appealed explicitly to patria. “Todo por la patria,” proclaimed one Havana billboard, and another: “Ante todo, tenemos patria.” Across the island, on streets and highways, in schools and at workplaces, and in all state offices, billboards and posters alluded to Cuba as an “eterno Baraguá,” metaphorical reference to Antonio Maceo’s refusal to surrender to Spain in 1878 and the Cuban determination to prevail. “¡Hasta la victoria siempre!” There was no compelling repository of patriotic morale than the words and works of José Martí. During the 1990s José Martí was everywhere, evoked to remind Cubans of their duty. The meaning of Martí’s oft-quoted passage was unambiguous: “For me, patria will never be triumph, but rather agony and duty.” It is unfortunate that most North American politicians and policymakers have never read Martí. The proposition of patria has loomed as large in Cuban survival strategies during the post-Soviet period. If in the end the invocation of patria had been the last and only rationale through which to defend the revolution, the Cuban leadership would still have retained a powerful claim on the allegiance of vast numbers of Cubans. It has been a sentiment of enormous vitality and resonance, one that could be defended without compromise, no matter what its defense may cost.

The Cuban condition has been in varying degrees historically a function of its relationship with the United States. It could hardly be otherwise. That the Americans chose to array themselves against the full logic of Cuban historical sensibilities was to go up against propositions that transcended the specific claims upon which the Cuban leadership based its claim to rule. The Americans failed to appreciate adequately the power of the appeal to historic notions of patria as a source of internal cohesion and national consensus. The imperative of patria offered very few choices: “¡Patria o muerte! ¡Venceremos!

VI

The invocation of patria as a strategy of political survival and source of morale and means of sustenance is not without risks, and indeed may have far-reaching and unforeseen consequences. For more than 150 years, the proposition of patria has implied the promise of uplift and upward mobility, Cuba for Cubans as a place of security and well-being. The idea of nation was conceived as a means of self-fulfillment and a source of self-esteem, always with the promise of a better life as reason to struggle and sacrifice. Much had to do with the egalitarian vision contained within the nineteenth-century project of liberation, from the populist impulses that evoked social justice, racial equality, and economic opportunity as the purpose to which patria was to be dedicated. Aspiration to nationhood was about making life better for all Cubans. That was the point: the creation of a nation entrusted with the defense of Cuban interests as the reason for being.

The experience of the last twenty years has had a withering effect on the moral premise of power. For decades, the collective resolve to persevere and persist has drawn upon the proposition of patria as a mean of sustenance and a source of solace. But it is also true that the defense of patria has be accompanied by deepening impoverishment and unrelieved adversity. The implications of this experience for future renderings of nationality are far from clear, and it may be among the most lasting consequences of the revolution. A shattering of the bound between patria and pueblo cannot bode well for a people whose historic sense of self has been contingent on a historic notion of nation.

VII

Decades from now future generations of historians will no doubt look back upon these years with a mixture of incomprehension and incredulity at the utter cynicism and the poverty of imagination with which ten successive U.S. presidential administrations have engaged Cuba. Historians in the future will surely come to understand that U.S. policy served to sustain the very conditions that it purported to remedy. Within the context of Cuban historic sensibilities, U.S. policy has not only contributed to Cuban intransigence but, more important, has lent credibility to that intransigence. Rather than weakening Cuban resolve, sanctions have strengthened Cuban determination. U.S. policy has served to bring out some of the most intransigent tendencies of Cuban leaders in the defense of some of the most exalted notions of Cuban nationality.

The United States has been less a source of a solution than a cause of the problem. It is difficult indeed to imagine a policy so exquisitely suited to the political needs of the Cuban leadership. Future historians will also no doubt demonstrate what we today can only suspect, that the Americans lacked confidence in the ability of the Cuban people to resolve their own destiny. Or–perhaps–future historians will reveal that the Americans really did recognize the Cuban capacity for agency, and that the prolongation of the status quo was far more preferable than a Cuban reaffirmation of national sovereignty and self-determination. And surely future historians will arrive to an appreciation of the greatest irony of all: that in the end, the biggest obstacle to the “transition to democracy” in Cuba was the United States itself.

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