This commentary is part of a Foreign Policy In Focus strategic dialogue on Cuba.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cubans have lived through a “special period.” This euphemism stood not only for a drastic decline in the standard of living, but for a sharp alteration of social values as well. Soviet aid vanished along with the advantageous trade with the Soviet bloc. As Cuba’s economy went south, the state broke its part of the social contract: it no longer provided Cubans with their material needs of sufficient food and clothing. Basic health care and education remained, albeit cut back. But the government cut rations by more than half and cheap food disappeared. To survive, each Cuban felt himself morphed from the values of communism (sharing) to the values of individualism (dog eat dog).

In the early 1990s, U.S. government experts and prestigious pundits predicted the imminent fall of the Fidel Castro government. Office parties in Washington’s national security bureaucracy held lotteries (which day or week would Castro fall?). Pulitzer Prize winner Andres Oppenheimer penned a 1992 book called Castro’s Final Hour (giving new meaning to the words “final” and “hour”).

Seventeen years after the USSR vanished Cuba remains the world’s only socialist state. Its critics call it a “failed state” or “a basket case,” but over the last decade Cubans’ standard of living has risen steadily. Bookies have stopped taking bets on the date of its demise.

Miraculous Survival

Cuban leaders admit in private it’s a miracle they survived. The answer might lie in Castro’s Machiavellian policy of exporting his enemies to the United States (almost 1 million). He even got his most militant detractors to regularly send money to their relatives on the island, thereby replenishing his nearly empty treasury to the tune of $1 billion a year in remittances.

Castro’s political agility, however, has not helped realize his more quixotic vision of making Cuba into a magnetic model for other third world countries looking for proper paths to development. Indeed, Cubans continue to leave their island perilously in rafts or smugglers’ boats to seek more opportunity in Florida. Engineers, scientists and PhDs in literature choose not to spend their work lives making pizzas or paper boxes, or teaching grade school.

Cubans also want to earn enough money to survive. During the “special period” adults found “hustles” to make enough for family survival. This meant breaking the law, buying or selling illegally, or turning an occasional trick. It meant theft of state property and thriving black market operations.

By 2006, however, China and Venezuela had begun to pour hundreds of millions of investment dollars into the island’s mineral and oil resources. In addition, the discovery of off-shore oil brought other investors to Cuba. With the new money, Cuba began to rebuild its decaying infrastructure. In the mid-1990s, summer blackouts lasted up to 20 hours on bad days. In 2008, the refurbished electrical grid allowed the government to sell appliances to the public and gradually raise the standard of living.

Rejecting Other Models

By 2007, Cuban leaders began a public debate to address some of the problems that developed in the post-Soviet period. Some of these problems had roots in the Soviet model itself. The leadership, however, had no intention of going capitalist. Those who have pushed the Chinese or Vietnamese models did not prevail when, last July 26, Raul Castro spoke of solving the pressing issues like daily adversity, shortage of food and low agricultural productivity, within a socialist model.

The government has responded to popular discontent, alienation, and downright cynicism and over the last two years imported 35% more food. Raul also admitted that “wages are clearly insufficient to meet people’s needs.” This statement does not mean what U.S. journalists report or sneer at when they report that the average Cuban wage comes to $20 a month. They don’t factor in free health care and education from nursery school to PhD; no rent or taxes; practically free transportation, entertainment, and subsidized food. But it is still a long way from the cradle-to grave security Cubans experienced before the Soviet demise.

Most foreign reporters also omit the obvious fact: Cuban leaders make choices on the basis of needs of the 11-plus million people, underlining health and education as basics. Reporters hold as axiomatic the values of their consumer societies, one with supermarkets and department stores stocked with multiple brand names. If Cubans wish to maintain equality as a value, such a model will not appear on the island. Although Cuban trade has increased, especially with Venezuela and China, it remains a far cry from competitive. Its work force has remained low on the productivity scale for production, partly as a result of labor laws that make it difficult to fire or even discipline workers.

Allowing more goods for sale will not mean a mass rush of sales because most Cubans do not possess excess foreign cash. Cubans will have to choose between the new items available – including stays at posh hotels. Cubans who receive remittances from family members abroad or get paid in hard currency continue to enjoy buying privileges – institutionalized inequality – that grate at much of the population. But freedom to shop cannot sustain a socialist country – especially a third world nation built on the twin themes of justice and equality.

Cuba’s new investment has also gone into public transportation – especially urban and long-hop buses and trains. The reforms also allowed more freedoms for small farmers who had done better than the massive state operations. More food, better transport, and no more costly blackouts mean a lot in the life of Cubans.

Revolution in Trouble

The new mood has extended beyond the material. The artists and intellectuals declared they would not tolerate censorship. The leadership agreed. All of the openings and reforms spelled progress. But all the positive steps aside, the revolution is in trouble. In the first months of this year, several thousand Cubans fled the island for Florida. They didn’t leave because of lack of freedom of speech, but rather for freedom to practice their professions and envision more possibilities for their and their children’s futures.

Fidel Castro warned that although the Cuban revolution had successfully defied imperialism, Cubans could lose their own revolution. In his April 3, 2008 letter to Artists and Writers Union President Miguel Barnet Castro wrote: “everything that ethically fortifies the Revolution is good; everything that weakens it is bad.” He said something similar in 1961 to Cuba’s intellectuals: “Inside the revolution, everything; outside the revolution; nothing.” The revolution meant sovereignty and independence, social justice and equality. If one agrees and sympathizes, one had to wince when Cuban leaders acted in ways that contradict or ignore this starting point.

Some recent events are especially disturbing. In early April 2003, Cuban state security officials arrested three men who had tried to hijack a passenger ferry and killed a resisting pilot. The court then imposed the death penalty and gave the men only several days to appeal. Cuba’s Supreme Tribunal and the governing Council of State upheld the sentences, and on April 11 the three were executed.

Cuban officials claimed that the speed of the process “set an example” for other potential hijackers. A spate of boat and plane thefts previously allowed Cubans to go to the United States, where officials neither punished the men nor returned the crafts. But the death penalty with virtually no time to appeal bespoke of panic rather than the usually reasoned response Cuban leaders presented to crises.

A month before, in March, Cuba arrested 75 dissidents, which shocked much of the world and saddened some of Cuba’s supporters. At the subsequent trial, witnesses testified that the accused dissidents received goods and services from U.S. diplomats in Havana. Twelve witnesses were putative dissidents, including some of the most articulate members like journalist Nestor Baguer, who presented documents describing the transactions, which were a violation of a Cuban law designed to retaliate against the Helms Burton Act that punished Cuba.

In 1998, Baguer led the Independent Press Agency of Cuba. With a few other journalists he faxed reports to Reporters Sans Frontiers and to the U.S. government funded Radio Martí. In the April 2003 trial, Baguer emerged as one of 12 moles planted by state security. The convincing evidence they presented to the court did not dissuade critics who believed that Cuba should not have punished people for holding dissenting views even if they took money from representatives of an enemy government.

Why retreat to the death penalty and arrest people whom they had neutralized by planting police agents inside their groups? And why expose the agents?

Cuban officials, some of them in semi-apologetic tones, told me they had to show the United States it could not act impulsively against Cuba as it had done in Afghanistan and Iraq. By executing hijackers and arresting dissidents, the government showed its determination: it would be tough – and bloody – against U.S. provocations. I felt unsatisfied, although I believed the Cuban officials had told the truth.

Cuba Hurts

“The Cuban revolution was born to be different,” the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once wrote. “Assailed by the incessant hounding from the empire to the north, it survived as it could and not as it wished. The people, valiant and generous, sacrificed a great deal to stay on their feet in a world of rampant servility. But as year after year of trials buffeted the island, the revolution began to lose the spontaneity and freshness that marked its beginning.”

No kidding. In 1960, I watched creative chaos dominate everyday life. And like Galeano, I have seen, over 48 years, “revolutionary virtue” turned into “obedience to orders from above.”

That’s what happens, almost as a law of political nature when the United States wages a half-century-long war of aggression. Cuba’s crime: disobedience. By punishing this upstart, Galeano wrote, the United States effectively blocked “the development of democracy in Cuba, feeding the militarization of power and providing alibis for bureaucratic rigidity.”

Galeano continued. “The revolution which was capable of surviving the fury of 10 American presidents and 20 CIA directors,” he wrote, “needs the energy that comes from participation and diversity to face the dark times that surely lie ahead. I say with sadness: Cuba hurts.”

Could I or anyone I know have done better? Fidel claims the CIA tried to assassinate him 638 times. The CIA says this is slightly exaggerated. The Agency admits it launched thousands of terrorist attacks against Cuba and Cubans. For half a century, the United States attacked with an economic blockade, psychological and quite possibly biological and chemical warfare. It attempted to isolate Cuba diplomatically and continues to wage an aggressive propaganda assault with Radio and TV Marti.
Democratic Opening

Cuba resisted and survived – but was wounded in the process. In March 2008, however, the democratic opening Galeano and other long-time sympathizers waited for, had begun. Above and beyond the trumpeted freedom of Cubans to buy electronic appliances and cell phones and own their own houses free and clear, Cuba has signed the UN covenants on human rights and labor, which binds it to the terms of those accords. This means that unions cannot be part of government and that free speech, press, and politics must be respected. We shall see how this develops.

A citizen told Vice President Carlos Lage at a conference that the government lacked sensitivity to people’s social needs and psychological problems, stuff money can’t fix. Lage apologized. Cubans watched it on TV. Earlier this year, in Juventud Rebelde, an official newspaper, the government was ripped for fudging statistics on unemployment. Changes have begun, but the smugglers remain. The boats remain full as well.

Look at the Cuban revolution historically. It has been a success. It achieved independence and sovereignty, educated and made healthy its population, provided them with basic needs and educated its people to dance on the stage of world history. Cubans altered the destiny of southern Africa when its troops helped defeat the apartheid South African armies at Cuito Cuanavale in 1987-8. Mandela hugged Fidel at his inauguration. “You made this possible,” he said for the world to hear. Cubans played a vital role in helping Angola maintain her independence and for Namibia to get hers. They played roles in the Vietnam War, the Yom Kippur war, and led the charge to slay the Monroe Doctrine.

Fifty years ago, Washington controlled Latin America; not one leader dared challenge its hegemony or its economic policies. Today, four of Fidel’s ideological sons run countries (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua) and several of his cousins direct others (Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Panama).

Cuban doctors and scientists, artists and dancers, writers and filmmakers have etched their names in the honor rolls of countless countries through their sterling performances. The Cuban revolution created them.

All those triumphs belong to the past. The question now is: can Cuba overcome the legacy of the special period, when individualism eroded the collective spirit, and can she transcend the three decades of the Soviet model that she had to adopt for survival? Her leaders have lived in and for the revolution and imparted its values to the population. Will Cubans respond and grab the initiative to maintain the enormous gains or succumb to the shiny lure of mass consumerism? We shall see.

Saul Landau is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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