A young lawyer, tired of the succession of corrupt government in his country, persists with a plot to overthrow the latest installment. After the second botched attempt his band of rebel fighters, by some miracle, win enough battles and create enough of a threat to scare the reigning leader into an exile flee. When the rebel takes control of the country, he promises an end to foreign imperialism and inclusion for the disenfranchised poor. He executes or jails dissenters and holdovers from the previous regime. He confiscates land and businesses owned by the rich, and says they are now public property. His charisma and ability to speak so clearly about the problems of the country, and so directly to what its people feel, win him overwhelming support.
The country is ready to move forward, and there is unity and patriotic energy like never before. But there comes a twist. Soured by the exploitive aspects of capitalism he’s seen over the years, and feeling that the country’s quest for a more humanistic society is better served by socialistic principles, the new leader adopts a communism agenda and partners with a then-superpower, which leads to a final estrangement with the US. While the world marvels at his brazen, inside his country there is mounting discord, which is quelled periodically by imprisonment and firing squads.
No one dares speak out against the wool that has been pulled over their eyes. Like bleeding off a spigot ready to burst, on two occasions the leader opens the gates to people who want to leave the country, calling them scum and saying they are not cut out to be revolutionaries. Those who leave go straight to Miami and join those who left when the leader began taking over their properties. A fierce rivalry sets up between the exiled and those still on the island, and there are brothers and mothers and daughters on each side who will never speak again because they hate each others’ political system so much. Families are forever severed by this great divide.
Owing to a US provision that helps escapees from communist rulers, Cubans in the Miami community accumulate power; working for and then owning local banks, businesses and newspapers. Leaders in the community leverage their power to pressure the US government into tighter sanctions against their home country, creating greater hardship for former loved ones. Meanwhile the superpower that the leader tied his boat to vanishes overnight, and gone instantly is the money and machinery to run the country. The country enters a dark time known as the Special Period, where the leader calls upon the people to dig deep into their souls and to be strong against the hardships, to rebuild the country’s morale through sacrifice and hard work.
When the opportunity presents itself, the US punishes those countries who try to help or do business with the impoverished island. Through the daily lapses in electricity and the empty fuel tanks and food shortages, the leader never wavers in his belief that socialism holds the greatest promise for his country, and his resolution to stay the course seems to get stronger by it all.
When the Revolutionary tells the world that the people of Cuba want socialism and are secure in its ideals, the world says it can’t be true. When reports come back that millions throng in support at May day rallies, the world says the people have been brainwashed, that they are acting out of fear, that if given the chance those millions would leave the island tomorrow.
By now, the country’s dwindling population of elders, who witnessed the Revolution, who decided to stay and support the prospect of a more equal life, who knew the exploitation and corruption that came with foreign imperialism, have grown weary of the long and tiresome ride. They have reached the point where physical comfort in the present is more important to them than future ideals. They know they won’t be around when the utopian society comes, if it ever does, and they reflect on all that has been lost. They have seen the Revolution’s ugliness; the whispering, the betrayals, neighbors informing on neighbors, brothers turning in sisters, the forced rehabilitations, the political choreography that dominates life. What was once beautiful and avant-garde in the capital city is now crumbling and dilapidated. The elegant life and the rich culture of music and literature they once knew seems gone forever.
Those of their children who did not leave the island, who are now in their 40s and 50s, have become resentful, but of course they dare not speak or act out. They have been bred in socialist ideals but are finding it hard to maintain their enthusiasm for the Revolution’s unstable continuum. They are now the country’s administrators, but they are also human, and have personal wants. Though they are closed off from it, they know enough about the world to see it passing them by. They are tempted by the material things. They hear about siblings and friends in Miami and New York, and wish they had some of that life. They too are tired of the austerity and the promise of mañana, but in a different way: they are still young, with ambitions and energy, and so there is still hope for something better.
For musicians and poets and painters, expressing oneself through their art is a delicate, complicated matter. They cannot sing and paint and write what they really feel, what life is really like for them, and so many of the country’s true artists, those who will not be told what to paint or write, have dropped out, their talent wasted on menial functions to serve the Revolution. Those who remain in the arts must be content with extolling the island’s virtues; the rich coffee, tobacco and land, and stay clear of political subjects or experiences that may be interpreted as counter-revolutionary. And so the result is uncharacteristic blandness; art which is not art in a true sense.
A country says that its future rests with its children, and perhaps this is more true in Cuba than anywhere else. Will they take up the command that will be left for them, or will they turn another way? Today, in their school uniforms, dutifully reciting the country’s pledges, disciplined in their learning about José Martí and Ché Guevera and Vladimir Lenin, and mastering English so they can one day participate in the world—today they are immersed in revolutionary thinking. But will they one day question it all? Will they some day ask where all of this came from, and why they are different from the rest of the world?
They have never known capitalism, they have only been told it brings on greed and selfishness, that it cannot help but promote a materialistic existence which eventually depletes and corrupts the soul. The country’s high school and university students are shown what goes on in the United States as evidence of capitalism’s ills. They are shown the rising corporate malfeasance, the dishonest acts committed by trusted leaders, the heinous crime, the millions of people on antidepressants, a culture overrun by advertising and commercialism. They know about America’s apathy toward its government’s aggression around the world. They are not taught to hate America’s people, but only that its ideals lead to this kind of society. America is the most capitalistic of all the capitalistic nations, and so where better to observe its symptoms.
But history has shown that socialism is also prone to corruption, that its defects and eventual downfall trace to people trying to cheat the system; trying to get more than their allotment, to have some sort of advantage or favored status over others. History shows that when a ruled people feel the slightest bit of freedom they tend towards capitalistic behavior, as if the human spirit rejects the call for a selfless existence, as if man’s innateness wars against any system that wants him to conform, that removes choice and movement, that blocks personal pursuit and expression. And so which is better, a system that tries to stifle the human spirit and punishes individualism, and wallows in stagnation and bureaucracy, and produces a resentful people, or a system that allows all manner of commercial expression and pursuit, and produces excess and moral vacancy? The question, one imagines, will be a question for eternity.
Cuba is but one of many national tragedies made so by US policy, one of several Latin American countries living in a state of limbo, damaged somehow by US intervention, and unable, it seems, to move forward. But the Cuba situation differs in several respects. It is marked by a protracted antagonism, fed on one side by daily doses of anti-US doctrine, and on the other by the inordinate power of a small community to influence US policy. The hard line toward the island remains unchanged through nine US presidencies. The US cites Cuba’s human rights violations but there are countries with worse records. It cites communism but has extended its hand to other socialist, repressed, dictator-run countries. Surely the Cold War has thawed and surely there are other, more powerful countries who sought to do us harm, who we now have dialog with. Perhaps humiliation from the US’ failed 1961 invasion is what underlies the hard stance. Perhaps it is the person of Fidel Castro and the US’ unwillingness to show any kind of conciliation to his 50-year defiance. Perhaps it is the power of the Miami community and its ability to affect policy toward its motherland.
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?