Life for Cubans, both exiled and still on the island, is like that of no other disrupted people, and this is another factor that distinguishes the Cuba situation. When Guatemalans or El Salvadorians want to leave the corruption and impoverished disorder that lingers from past US involvement, they are free to do so. If Colombians or Nicaraguans tire of the crime and illicit control that rushed in to fill the void left by the dismantling of their country’s government, they can start anew elsewhere. But Cuba’s citizens are forbidden from leaving the island. Where Chile and Argentina have an election process and therefore some hope for change, Cubans are powerless to affect their situation in any real way. Where other countries are free to trade with any nation, to import essential raw or finished products, or to bring in money through export, the long arm of the US punishes those who try to do business with Cuba. And so no other nation is as cut off from the world as Cuba.
Here in America almost everything about the Cuban experience is different than that of other Latin Americans who came to this country. Where Peruvians and Mexicans must enter illegally through the back door, Cubans, during the main exodus periods in 1959, 1980 and 1994, were US government-escorted, and subsidized with programs that favored them socially and economically. While Honduran and Colombian migrants must find a place for themselves in unwelcoming communities, Cubans were handed over a community in which to prosper and pursue the American dream. Where Cubans in Miami and New Jersey live prominently and display their Cubanness proudly and run banks and newspapers, the majority of South- and Central-Americans in this country rarely venture outside their immigrant enclave. In fact, say Cuban Americans, they do not consider themselves immigrants but political exiles.
The Cuba situation is also more familiar to Americans, in part because of the country’s proximity and its recognizable leader, but more so because of high-drama events. Few know of the action that links the US with Guatemala or what prompted the US to meddle in El Salvador, but even young Americans know about Cuba’s role in the Cold War crisis that played out between President Kennedy and the Soviets in 1962. The Elián González spectacle in 1999 provided a rare glimpse of conditions inside Cuba, and reminded America and the rest of the world that Cuba is still a communist country living under a blockade and struggling for survival. If nothing else, the incident exposed some of the seething heat that had built up between Miami Cubans and Cuban Cubans. And perhaps even Desi Arnaz contributed to Americans’ familiarity with the Cuban persona.
Cuba’s domestic history is marked by steady turmoil and cyclical uprisings against foreign oppression, and Fidel Castro is only one in a continuum of Cuban revolutionaries, beginning with Hatuey, a Native American chief who rose up against Spain’s annexation of Cuba in 1511, and who was later burned at the stake by the Spaniards. For centuries Spain enslaved Cubans in mining and sugarcane cutting, almost killing off the population through massacre, starvation and suicide, until Carlos de Céspedes, in 1868, launched a revolution, first seeking peaceful social reform, which the Spaniards refused, then complete independence by war, which was ultimately defeated. The conflict lasted 10 years and was followed by another insurrection that made resistance heroes of Antonio Maceo and Calixto García Iñiguez. Sixteen years later, in 1895, José Martí and Máximo Gómez gathered up another rebellion, also defeated. Cuba remained under despotic Spanish control until the US took the island by force in 1898, installing another string of tyrant leaders lasting until 1959. At various times within the intervening 62 years, when the repression became especially brutal, or the fraud too much, dissident factions rose up and attempted to overpower US-installed regimes. Finally, when the US began backing away from its man, Fulgencio Batista, after the leader’s bloody return on student demonstrators, and with the nation of Cuba already fed up with Batista’s violence, the door peeked open enough to make an overthrow possible. Seeing his days numbered, Batista, rather than facing or fighting the overthrow, snuck out of the country with all he could take of the country’s wealth.
Indeed, Cuba’s revolution cannot be reduced to a single act, person, period or ideology. Not when the country has been engaged in perpetual revolution, a continual struggle to liberate itself from enslavement, despotism, underdevelopment, ignorance, racism, immorality and destitution left by the foreigner’s control of its resources. Its movements toward independence over time were with different philosophies, approaches and personalities. And to view the “Cuba situation” as beginning in 1959, with Castro’s coming to power, and as a mainly communist phenomenon, is naive and limiting, and is perhaps what blocks a sincere understanding of the conditions giving rise to revolutionary Cuba. Perhaps this truncated view is what stands in the way of any kind of real progress between the US and Cuba. The reality is that the US lacks the policy experience or sensibilities that would guide it in dealing with nations transitioning from colonialism to sovereignty. Its only policy model is one based on self-interest driven counterrevolutionary force and retaliatory repression.
While Fidel Castro may have been right to reclaim the island, the turn to socialism is another matter. In material ways, one is hard-pressed to say that Cubans are any better off than they were fifty years ago. Yes, the foreign imperialism is gone and yes, Cubans may be better-educated and have better access to healthcare, and there is much less crime, vice and illiteracy. But Cubans are still impoverished and still live in a kind of bondage. Food and other essentials are rationed, and even with rationing there are shortages. And where can they use their new education?
But in other ways, in matters of the soul and mind, in ways consistent with the goals of the Revolution, Cubans, according to the Revolution, are better off. Toward the bringing of a “new socialist man” with a purer heart, unmoved by material things, the Cuban people, says the Revolution, have made progress.
“The Revolution educates our people in feelings of equality and brotherhood among all men and all peoples,” Castro explained to journalists in his heyday. “It educates them in the ideal that one’s own work, not the exploitation of others, is the just social way earning one’s living; in the idea of the right of each nation to the full enjoyment of its natural resources and the fruit of its labor, not the exploitation of some nations by others; in feelings of love, and not of hatred and discrimination between men.
“Capitalist society deforms individuals greatly. It entangles them in an egotistical struggle for existence. What is the philosophical foundation of free enterprise? That the most competent, the most able, the most audacious will triumph. Success is the goal of each individual. And he has to achieve it in competition, in a war to the death with everybody else, in a pitiless struggle for existence. Capitalism presupposes that man is moved exclusively by material interests. It assumes that man is capable of acting rightly and correctly only when he can derive an advantage or a profit from it.
“We love the Revolution as a labor. We love it just as a painter, a sculptor, or a writer may love his work. The revolution is not made for the sake of revolution itself; it is made in order to create the best conditions for the development of the material and spiritual activities of the human being. That is, revolutions are only made with the postulate of creating a happier man.”
But again, one would have difficulty finding that happier man in today’s Cuba. With so many dreaming of escape or marking time until the current regime dies off, it is hard to form a picture of a happy Cuban. It’s true that many Cubans truly believe in the Revolution and its ideals of a more equal and moral society, but it’s true also that human nature has a limit to how altruistic it can be before selfish, survival mechanisms kick in and take over. It is less the socialist ideals that Cuba’s dissenters oppose than the economic conditions that have come with it. Had the island been able to reach self-sufficiency by now, perhaps the Cuba situation would be different. Had the country not sunk back into poverty 18 years ago after Soviet subsidy vanished, the people’s revolutionary verve might not have ebbed as it has. And were Cuba not a small island so dependent on the resources of others, and were there not an overbearing nation with such long political reach, so opposed to Cuba’s government, perhaps Fidel Castro would have had an easier time bringing about his utopian society.
Today, one cannot visit the island without feeling the blame Cuba puts on the US and encountering the harangue about America’s arrogance; on the television, on the radio, in the newspaper, and at the Revolution’s mass gatherings, where discourses on the Revolution’s virtues have given way to an incessant recounting of US aggression.
The question, of course, is what will become of Cuba. What is the fate of this small piece of plucky land as the Castro regime nears an end? Cuba’s government promises a steady supply of like-minded leaders committed to socialist ideals at the same time that the US government prepares for a mass exodus to US land of half a million Cubans. In the balance hangs a power contest: Will the resolve and resourcefulness of Cuba’s pro-Revolution body be enough to stave off internal and external threats? Or will it have all been in vain? Will the severed families, the confiscated property, the prison terms and executed dissenters, the fifty years of hardship, the loss of culture, the lives consumed with righting a perceived wrong—will it all make for just another chapter in this embattled land’s history?