Co-author Armando Chaguaceda Noriega
The universe of analyses and opinions about Cuba in Latin America oscillates between misunderstanding, absence and, romanticization. For some, Cuba is a case “too rare”, which we cannot understand with any category of social science currently in use. According to others, it is “an insignificant little island” that is not worth analyzing. There is no lack of those who idealize the “Cuban model” as “a different, superior, popular democracy”.
But the Cuban case is perfectly understandable, analyzable, and comparable in the regional context. Most Latin American democracies are limited by criminal violence, social inequality, and the political corruption of their elites. However, in the region the people periodically change their rulers, organize, express themselves, and protest to influence government policy. Since the end of right-wing military dictatorships, citizens have changed the composition of their governments and the orientation of their policies. The alternation of neoliberal and progressive governments (and waves) demonstrates this.
For its part, Cuba has been living, for 61 years, under a Soviet-type political regime – today in a post-totalitarian phase – which enshrines single-party rule, State ideology, State control of the economy, education, and the mass media, as well as the widespread action of a powerful political police as elements of social control. This regime has allowed neither a democratic transition nor serious intra-systemic changes.
In Latin America the elites are ideologically divided between conservative, reformist, and radical sectors, and between business and political segments as well. They confront each other in the political arena with disputes and alliances with the middle and popular sectors. In Cuba, the elite” are merged into a social group and a state apparatus that is, by its omnipresence, primarily responsible for violence, inequality, and corruption. Not even the differences of agenda that may exist within it can be expressed, preventing the citizenry from even exploring the possibility of choosing between different modalities of authoritarian governance. The popular subject, so invoked by socialism, is more disempowered in Cuba -in the right to claim its social, economic, cultural, civil and political rights- than in most neighboring nations.
That authoritarian order was shaken last July 11 (11J) during the largest protests in Cuba’s history. These protests were against the backdrop of a severe crisis that combined the debacle of the statist economic model with the brutal impact of the pandemic and U.S. sanctions. To all this was added the task of economic regulation. This was a sort of structural adjustment policy that worsened the conditions of poverty, inequality, and scarcity. At the same time, the government favored the accumulation of foreign currency -opening stores selling basic necessities in dollars- and an expansion of real estate investment that exceeded 50 times -according to official sources- social spending.
Although after the protests the State maintains control of the country, the crisis and social grievances continue. The manifestations of discontent in the physical and virtual public space do not cease. There are a variety of organized groups who seek to accompany detainees, defendants, and their families; to defend specific agendas (including LGBT rights, in view of the discussion and consultation of the new Family Code); to demand dialogue with the authorities and to demand rights using formal instances. The protests demolished the idea of a people inherently incapable of reclaiming their rulers. Also, it demolished the myth of a pure and eternal Revolution, which dissolves the responsibilities of the authoritarian State in the false identification of people and government as one party.
The real Cuba versus the ideal or imagined island.
In this increasingly Latin American Cuba there is also a fragmented and impoverished society. Within it, the promise of an active citizenship has emerged. Protestant artists, independent journalists, Catholic laymen, workers, self-employed, peasants, common and diverse people. In other words, diversity that accompanies the families of prisoners, collects humanitarian aid, organizes vigils in parks and churches, signs letters, and protests in streets and police stations.
The attitude of the Cuban state post-11J is in line with that of other authoritarian governments, like Nicaragua, Burma, Venezuela or Belarus, that criminalize the demands of their citizens. Today, more than 1,100 citizens have been prosecuted because of their participation in the protests. Of these, more than 500 are still in jail, including women and Afro-descendants, most of them of humble origin. Some are minors. The crime of sedition has been used to assign sentences of up to 15, 18 and 25 years to people who demanded basic rights through peaceful protest. Amnesty International, among other organizations, accompanies and documents the ongoing crackdown. In response to the announcement of a new demonstration on November 15, a peaceful protest for the release of political prisoners and an end to political violence, the Cuban government has responded with more repression, harassment, and downgrading of its critics.
Cuban elites have failed to deliver on their revolutionary promise. They have also failed in a reformist management of the national crisis. Their character has become reactionary and articulated on an extractive model of domination, exploitation, and accumulation, halfway between bureaucratic socialism and state capitalism. Today they have nothing left to offer to their own people, nor are they an example for Latin American societies to follow. The Cuban regime should be evaluated with the same analytical and civic rigor with which we review the performance -in terms of development, inclusion and freedoms- of other countries in the region.
In contrast to the mantra of the old Soviet model, which advocated the growing prosperity and homogenization of the developed socialist society, Cuba is today an increasingly poor, unequal, and conflictive nation. Cubans have shown that they are not anthropologically different from other Latin Americans: they also have claims and rights, which they assert when they can, despite their permanent criminalization from the police state.
It is therefore advisable to stop seeing the island as an incomprehensible exceptionality or, even worse, as a luminous utopia. Cuban people and society are not untranslatable to the lexicons of Latin American politics and social sciences. The only anomaly in the Cuban case in this (still) formally democratic continent is the autocratic nature of the current regime.
Armando Chaguaceda Noriega is a political scientist and historian. He specializes in the study of democratization and autocratization processes, as well as in the relationship between the State and civil society, with special attention to the cases of Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela. He has studied the political processes in post-Soviet Russia, as well as its geopolitical links with Latin America.
Translated from Spanish by Alek Langford