Commentary Magazine

Is Cuba Next?

Since the collapse of Communist power in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Fidel Castro’s Cuba has entered into the deepest crisis of its history. Deprived of subsidized oil and foodstuffs from the former Eastern bloc, and no longer able to sell its sugar at above-market prices, the island is approaching economic free fall. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, “even common goods like soap, rum, and cooking oil have become rare luxuries.” Rations of meat and other sources of protein have been cut repeatedly. And Cubans are now forced to wait in line for virtually all consumer goods, the supply and variety of which—again, to quote the Times—“never rich, have become scanty.”

Nonetheless, Castro’s grip on power seems unshaken—and by all appearances unshakable. He has even felt safe enough these last two years to leave the island in the hands of subordinates and journey abroad—to Venezuela, to Brazil, to Mexico (twice), most recently to attend the summit of Latin American presidents in Madrid. The Cuban dictator’s apparent capacity to insulate himself politically from the effects of economic failure—a capacity which former colleagues of the erstwhile Soviet empire might well envy—raises some important questions about the nature of his regime, the true extent of its popularity, and the viability of any reasonable alternative.

These issues do not concern Cubans alone. The collapse of the Soviet system threatens to turn Western advocates of Marxism into ideological orphans. For even if things are not going particularly well these days in Russia or Ukraine, Poland or Romania, it is nonetheless unlikely that Communism will ever reemerge in those countries as a concrete political option. Soviet-style regimes have managed to survive thus far in Albania, Vietnam, and North Korea, but few would suggest they enjoy a deep-rooted political or historical legitimacy.

Something—one cannot be quite sure what it is—makes Cuba different. Perhaps it is the fact that, alone among surviving Communist regimes, the one in Havana has succeeded in appropriating the language, symbols, and sensibility of the Western revolutionary ethos (the people in arms; anticolonialism; the quest for social and economic equality). Or possibly it is the red-hot intensity of Castro’s anti-Americanism. Or perhaps it is nothing more than the sheer longevity of the regime: if, the reasoning might go, it has endured all these storms and tribulations, it must have some important hidden strengths.

Can it be possible—as recent books and articles half-suggest—that Communism has “succeeded” in Cuba even though it has failed everywhere else? If so, what does Castro’s survival mean in terms of the broader political values which have inspired movements toward freedom throughout the world? Are there special rules and needs for poor, agrarian countries that supersede (or cancel out) the aspirations of people in more advanced societies? These are questions implicit in the ongoing debate over Cuba’s future—a debate which is coming to resemble something like the final engagement of the cold war, fought on the field of ideology or what remains of it.



The survival of Communism in Cuba is—let us say it right away—due in largest measure to repression pure and simple. This is a point with which by now almost nobody abroad—not even many people who have spent a lifetime on the Left—would take issue. Cuba is a police state par excellence, complete with block committees, electronic surveillance, and “rapid-response brigades” deployed to intimidate those with “political and ideological problems.” Its jails and psychiatric hospitals are bursting with prisoners. Cuban treatment of dissidents is harsh; those who speak out lose their jobs, their ration cards, and eventually their freedom.

Nor is this all: local block committees stage “acts of repudiation” intended to intimidate by example. These are mob actions reminiscent of Nazi Germany, in which hapless citizens are invited to discharge their frustrations and anxieties on a nonconforming neighbor. Most recently, Maria Elena Cruz Varela, a prizewinning poet and founder of the dissident group Criterio Alternativo, was forced literally to eat her own verses before an angry throng which had invaded her shabby apartment in Havana.

Paradoxically, economic failure has in some ways strengthened rather than weakened the regime by empowering it with some uniquely repressive tools. Rationing of increasingly scarce goods and services has proved an excellent instrument to force most Cubans to become integrados—that is, obedient, compliant citizens of the socialist state. This may explain, also, why American visitors tend to meet so many Cubans who mouth the formulas of the regime without much (apparent) coaching.

The success of the Cuban repression owes much to geography. Surrounded by sometimes shark-infested waters, the island itself is not an easy place to escape. Most of those who have managed to flee in recent years have either stowed away on foreign carriers, braved enormous risks on balsa-wood rafts, or been well-placed enough in the regime to have access to airplanes or helicopters. At the same time, the relative proximity of the United States (and its willingness to receive defectors with open arms) has encouraged more than one million Cubans to depart the island rather than to remain and confront Fidel Castro.

While the United States has benefited enormously from the presence of these refugees, it has also, by providing a haven for dissidents who might have given Castro a great deal of trouble, propped up the very system which its other policies are intended to undermine. Castro has implicitly recognized this fact by lowering drastically the age at which qualified Cubans are allowed to emigrate. Cuban officials have even spoken privately of permitting several thousand, perhaps even several hundred thousand, to leave if internal pressures become unmanageable.



And yet, and yet. . . . No regime can possibly survive on repression alone. There are never enough jails or policemen. In Cuba as elsewhere in the nondemocratic world, there are—there must be—a certain number of people who support the regime. In a new, groundbreaking book on Cuba, Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald has shed much light on this subject.1

Of the 3.5 million people active in Cuba’s workforce, Oppenheimer finds, the island’s national census office classifies 1.1 million as holding “unproductive” jobs. Some of these are predictable bureaucratic preferments—in the police and the armed forces, or in the offices of the party and state. But others sound as if they had been created by our own National Welfare Rights Organization in close consultation with the National Endowment for the Arts. Thus, Oppenheimer reports that thousands of people have been pensioned off to remain at home “researching topics such as 15th-century French classical music or ancient Chinese poetry—without even the prospect of having their work published.” His pièce de résistance, a musician who plays in the Havana Psychiatric Hospital Orchestra, told him that

Many of us would like to start our own bands, play our own music, make our own money, and stop playing for the crazies. But others in the orchestra, especially the older ones, are terrified by the idea of change. They’re perfectly content to receive a monthly check for what we do. They wouldn’t mind if Fidel stayed in power forever.

Then, too, as in any other country which has undergone a violent political upheaval, in Cuba there is a new class of people who owe everything they are and everything they have to the Castro regime. Most conspicuously, these include university graduates of peasant origins; or the elderly who subsist on pensions, however modest; or professional women who have gained a measure of independence undreamed-of by their mothers and grandmothers. Cuba’s black community, which is difficult to estimate in number since the national census office does not sort out the population by race, but which cannot be less than 40 percent, is said to fear the return of “white” Cuba (represented by the Miami emigration, most of it descended from Spaniards), and with it segregated beaches, restaurants, and other public facilities. There are also those living in houses expropriated from owners who have fled to Miami, Caracas, Madrid, or elsewhere, and who are said to dread the return of these owners. And there may even be some who really believe the government when it claims that the United States wants to occupy the island and reduce its population to wage slavery, humiliation, and a nightmare of oppression and revenge.

Visitors to Cuba who have spoken to such people have noticed, however, a significant change in tone. Formerly their support for the regime seemed more spontaneous; today it appears forced, inspired more than anything else by fear of the unknown. They are still firmly in Castro’s camp. But there may not be enough of them to save the regime if Cuba suddenly lurches into a politico-military crisis.



The Cuban regime enjoys, we are often told, a measure of legitimacy at least partly because it came to power on its own steam rather than on the bayonets of the Red Army. (The same argument, one cannot forbear mentioning, was habitually invoked until quite recently in the case of Yugoslavia.) Certainly Castro never wished to be a Soviet puppet, however much he was periodically forced to knuckle under to Moscow’s pressures, or to do its dirty work in some of the more uncongenial precincts of the third world. He has always seen himself as a Cuban nationalist, and in a uniquely perverted way he was probably right to do so. On one crucial point he has succeeded where all his predecessors failed: that is, he has ended U.S. control of the Cuban economy, and removed Cuban politics, culture, and public life from American influence. Whether the economic and political deficits of his rule can be canceled out by this accomplishment is another question.

No doubt there is—or at least there used to be—something called Cuban nationalism. It would be surprising if there were not, since the island has always been dangerously close to the United States—in the sense of being unable to avoid invidious comparisons with the disproportionate wealth, power, and influence of its most important neighbor. Since there was nothing that could be done to change the facts of geography, successive generations of Cuban politicians preferred to focus on no-win issues, like the sugar quota. This was the sector of the U.S. domestic market reserved for Cuban exporters under the terms of a commercial treaty concluded in 1934. Although the arrangement made possible a living standard higher than that of any other country in the region (and one of the three highest in Latin America as a whole), Cuban nationalists habitually argued that it deliberately chained the country to a monoculture, and prevented it from becoming a major industrial power in its own right.

Since then hard experience has revealed this notion to be utterly without foundation. The quota was abolished during the Eisenhower administration, and that was followed shortly thereafter by an omnibus trade embargo. But 30 years of economic independence from the United States has not made Cuba richer or freer—quite the contrary. Ironically, today Castro’s principal complaint is that the United States refuses to trade with him. Thus Cuban nationalism—at least in its current Castroite version—now stands for precisely the opposite of what it did in 1960.

It is anyone’s guess why Castro thinks that normal relations with the United States will—this time—make his island somehow more resistant to our blandishments and vices. But according to Andrés Oppenheimer, for a new generation of Cubans, the United States, far from being an imperialist bogey, is something of a forbidden fruit, all the more delicious for remaining both close at hand and totally inaccessible. (“I love Miami,” one teenager told him, “I could get a good pair of pants there.”)



Aside from the effects of repression, and aside from the effects of nationalism, we are often told that most Cubans continue to support something called the “revolution.” On closer examination, however, this term seems nothing more than a shorthand expression for all the events which have occurred on the island since Castro took power in 1959. Yet during that time the regime has changed ideological direction more than once. Since Cubans have not been allowed to vote, or to express themselves uninhibitedly for a generation and a half, we have no way of knowing with which “revolution” (if any) they identify. To speak of Castro’s enduring “charisma” is not enough; to imagine that any regime can sustain the same legitimacy—or rule with the same assent—as it did 32 years ago is on the face of it incredible.

For some, the “revolution” means Cuba’s alleged social and economic “gains”; for these people, many of whom may be otherwise critical of the regime’s political and human-rights aspects, it is precisely here—and particularly in the areas of housing, education, and health—that one can locate the sources of Castro’s continued appeal. Again, Andrés Oppenheimer:

In Cuba of the late 1980’s you didn’t find the pockets of misery you stumbled on in virtually any other Latin American country. There were no beggars on the streets—at least no full-time ones. Everyone seemed to have a pair of shoes and a T-shirt, no matter how worn-out. Cuba had eliminated misery at the cost of imposing a general poverty.

Most people seemed reasonably educated. . . . Street crime was rare. . . . College and postgraduate education were free, and there were large numbers of working-class students at the universities. . . .

The revolution’s greatest success had been providing a first-class health care system for free . . . even cosmetic surgery and orthodontic treatments were performed free of charge. By the late 1980’s, more than 10,000 family doctors were seated throughout the island, about half in cities and half in rural areas.

And here are two American social scientists, Eliana Cardoso and Ann Helwege, reporting on a recent visit to Cuba:

Despite the economic crisis, schools have composition paper and pencils. Day-care centers continue to have access to food, ensuring that children get at least minimal nutrition. The system has not generated the underclass of kids condemned to beg, steal, or pick through garbage that one finds elsewhere in Latin America.2

But there has been an important shift in the treatment of this subject. In the past, many writers on the Left regarded the issue of political freedom in Cuba as wholly gratuitous; things like free medical care provided their own, overarching justification and canceled out the regime’s unlovely aspects. Today, however, even those (like Cardoso and Helwege) who are willing to give Castro the benefit of the doubt on education and health demand that the dictator countenance a political opening. One might well ask why. What, after all, is a bit of political repression in exchange for free plastic surgery and orthodontic treatments? Or universal day care?

The answer would seem to lie in the fact that the Cuban social-welfare system cannot, in any case, survive in its present form—for the simple reason that the Soviet subsidy has suddenly disappeared. And this, in and of itself, places the putative “gains” in a new and more searching light. After all, any small Caribbean country which received an annual subsidy of $6 billion for more than 30 years had better have something to show for it. But as studies by the demographer Nicholas N. Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute and others have suggested, in both literacy and infant mortality the Cuban record is far from remarkable, and roughly parallels that of many similar societies in the Western hemisphere—with the important exception that the latter did not receive a fraction of the foreign assistance doled out to Castro’s Cuba.

Even admirers of the Cuban welfare system must tacitly recognize these inconvenient facts. Cardoso and Helwege worry that political change may imperil Cuba’s revolutionary “gains”—that the Cuban people, if left to their own devices, might be inclined to make the “wrong” decisions. “With a transition to capitalism,” they warn, “the commitment to basic needs may evaporate.” But why, if the “commitment” has been as substantial as claimed, would any future government wish to disavow it? What seems to be suggested here is that the realities of Cuban education and health are very different from what the government claims. The truth may lie closer to the statement a Cuban mother recently made to the Miami Herald: “Cuba is supposed to be so medically sophisticated. But you know, we can’t even find aspirin to bring down a child’s fever.”



Opponents of our Cuban policy used to argue that since Castro was in power for good, we might as well make our peace with him and his system. Now, many of the same people have reversed the terms of the discussion: the reason Castro remains in power, they say, is that the United States continues to isolate his regime and to refuse “constructive engagement” with it. To put it another way, the same people who used to tell us that the trade embargo or Radio Martí would be powerless to unseat the Cuban dictator now blame those very things for keeping him in power. A more ductile policy of negotiations, they contend, would disarm the dictator, deprive him of much of his excuse for repression, and drive a wedge between him and many high-ranking members of his regime who are said to favor some sort of political opening.

This is the view, for example, of Wayne Smith, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, as well as of Robert Pastor, former director of Latin American affairs on the National Security Council staff under Carter. It is emphatically endorsed by Cardoso and Helwege, who write that “[h]elping Cuba is far more important than overthrowing Castro. We must start negotiations before Cuba lands in our lap.”

Such arguments cannot be dismissed entirely out of hand. Evidently, change in Cuba will have to come from within, and it is known that many high-ranking members of the nomenklatura—Oppenheimer calls them “Yummies” (Young Upwardly-Mobile Marxists)—are dreaming of a Mexican-type system, dominated by a single (putatively) leftist party which would nonetheless respect civil liberties and give way to private initiative. It is also true that a handful of Cuba’s important dissidents have endorsed a lifting of the embargo and negotiations as the only civilized way out, as have some of the more liberal elements of the exile community in Florida.

Lifting the embargo would, certainly, deprive Castro of his principal excuse for economic failure—at least as far as foreigners are concerned. What impact it would have on Cuban society remains to be seen. This is true even in the narrow sphere of propaganda, since regimes which have a pathological need for enemies always succeed in finding them. At the more concrete level of commerce and tourism, it is striking that Castro himself seems not to fear in the least the possible consequences of a normalization of relations with the U.S. Quite the contrary, the near-totality of his foreign policy these days seems aimed at getting the embargo lifted or, at a minimum, circumventing it by luring Europeans, Canadians, and others to new, luxury tourist enclaves constructed with Spanish capital.

Oppenheimer thinks that these islands of free enterprise, restricted to Cuba’s coastal margins, and from which most Cubans are prohibited from entering, cannot be prevented from spilling over into other sectors of the economy. Possibly he is right, but here again Castro sees matters differently. The dictator may recall that massive European tourism in Yugoslavia during the 60’s and 70’s did not disturb its existing political arrangements; the same was true for Franco’s Spain. Yet tourism in Cuba is at present very small indeed compared to what it would be if American citizens were allowed to visit; whether the fall-out from that kind of exposure to foreigners could be so easily contained is another matter.

It is often said, too, that the United States can contemplate lifting the embargo without much risk of strengthening the regime because Castro is anyway not in a position to buy anything. It is certainly true that Cuba is not only bankrupt, but has few remaining sources of hard currency. Under no conceivable circumstances can it résumé exporting sugar to the United States, since its share of the U.S. quota was long ago divided up among other producers.

Massive American tourism would, however, provide access to important amounts of hard currency, and it is not inconceivable that Castro could purchase large amounts of foodstuffs on credit, subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer. Many Americans would be surprised and even shocked to learn the degree to which ordinary lending constraints can be overridden by congressional fiat when a large market can be found for some important American export such as chickens, wheat, soybeans, or edible oils. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is a case in point. It seems, therefore, more likely that a renewal of trade would throw Castro a vital lifeline rather than abbreviate his rule.

Without doubt the embargo remains an important political symbol, if for no other reason than that Castro has made it so. Its elimination would naturally be represented by the Cuban dictator as a major political victory—a humiliation of the United States, which after 30-some years would finally have been forced to accept him as the sole representative of Cuba and its destiny. The effect would be to demoralize his internal opposition, most of which fears the psychological effects of such a development. This, at any rate, was the view of all but one of a dozen dissidents interviewed late last year by Christopher Kean of Freedom House. The most characteristic observation of all was made by Gustavo Arcos: “As long as the Castro regime lasts we think . . . that [the embargo] ought to be maintained. . . . Our message is not to give him a drop of oxygen, neither in the economic nor political area.”



There is, finally, the argument that Castro is kept in power by fear of the exile community—variously estimated at between one-and-a-half and two million people. Most of these live in Southern Florida, but there are large expatriate communities in northern New Jersey, California, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Others have settled in Spain, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or Venezuela, where they have distinguished themselves in business, publishing, or the arts. When the Castro regime talks about the diaspora, however, it uses the omnibus term “Miami,” which is supposed to represent the most right-wing elements of the emigration.

Although they are among the most successful of American immigrant groups, Cuban-Americans have the most unfavorable public image here, at least among the prestige media and the cultural elites. This is no doubt partly due to the involvement of individual exiles in right-wing (and sometimes very right-wing) politics in the United States, such as the Watergate affair, and to the acts of violence committed by fringe elements against other refugees with whom they disagree. But it is also due to the fact that Cuban-Americans embrace rather uninhibitedly the bourgeois values of work, order, and family which are so out of cultural fashion these days, and seem to feel no particular obligation to countenance the misdeeds of other ethnic groups, particularly African-Americans. (Their vigorous anti-Communism has likewise not been appreciated.)

This vague distaste for the Cuban-American community—for its social values and political views—tends to color discussions of the Castro regime and Cuba’s future. Evidently American liberals would not wish to live in a country run by Cuban-Americans (neither, probably, would American conservatives); but whether Cubans would find it so distasteful is far less clear, particularly considering the alternatives. Without elections or public-opinion polls we simply cannot know.

Yet the point is surely moot, since members of the exile community have been in the United States for at least a generation; some who identify themselves as Cuban-Americans were born in the United States. While they still vote Republican in overwhelming numbers, Democratic candidates are beginning to make significant gains among the younger generation. In any case, polls show that the vast majority have no intention of returning to live on the island, though many naturally would wish to visit or even establish some presence there. The latest surveys also show that only a tiny majority—about 8 percent—think that Cuba’s future should somehow be determined by the emigration; 33 percent believe that it should be resolved wholly by those who have remained on the island, while 48 percent think that it should be co-determined by the two communities.



To sum up: within what might be called the Soviet family of revolutions, only Cuba has managed to catch and hold the imagination of the United States. Because of the island’s intense historical relationship with this country, its rejection of our economic system and way of life and its voluntary entry into the camp of our adversaries was an enormously traumatic event—and not only in raw geopolitical terms. The Cuban revolution has also represented at various times an alternative pole of attraction for American radicals, for the literary and artistic avant-garde, and for members of the print and (particularly) electronic media. Indeed, even now the Castro regime exercises a residual hold on the loyalties of our cultural elite, perhaps as an anti-mirror of American patriotism, order, property—the whole bourgeois bag of tricks.

Certainly there can be no other explanation as to why, all of a sudden, so many books, policy studies, and op-ed pieces are urging us to provide for Cuba what Cardoso and Helwege call a “soft landing.” Could it be that a precipitous collapse threatens to reveal the real bases of its power, and in so doing, sweep away the last of the illusions that have nourished the socialist idea in the West for a half-century and more?

Castro, at any rate, seems utterly uninterested in the proposition of a “landing,” soft or otherwise. It would appear that he understands far better than his increasingly tepid foreign sympathizers that there is no such thing as a truly popular Communist regime, and he is not about to embark upon dangerous experiments to relieve them of the embarrassment that has been provoked by the latest turn of world events.


1 Castro's Final Hour: The Secret Story Behind the Coming Downfall of Communist Cuba. Simon & Schuster, 461 pp., $25.00.

2 Cuba After Communism. MIT Press, 148 pp., $17.95.

About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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