Just this past week, historic talks were held in Washington with the goal of inching closer to a goal that, for decades, has been unimaginable: restored diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba. It’s been 54 years since those ties were severed—and there are a number of thorny issues to work out before the U.S. and Cuba will reopen embassies in each other’s countries, or implement other steps outlined by President Obama in December. But what’s the deeper meaning in this new chapter of the U.S.-Cuba relationship? How will a more open island change the lives of ordinary Cubans, who have enjoyed health care and education gains alongside severe poverty and inequality? In advance of the Zócalo/UCLA event “Did Cuba’s Revolution Fail?”, we asked scholars of Cuba: What does the opening of Cuba signal? Does this mean the end of the Cuban Revolution?
In Havana, “the opening” of the island, such as it is, was celebrated as a triumph of the revolution. This may be a slightly precipitous response. No one yet has the sufficient distance, detachment, and dispassion on the matter of Cuba to render anything more than the most circumspect assessment of the fate of revolution.
Surely such an assessment of the revolution’s successes and failures will take into account the role of U.S. policy. Cubans must, of course, assume responsibility for the consequences of their miscalculations and the results of their mismanagement. President Raul Castro recognized this in 2012 when he described the “54th year of the revolution” as an occasion in which “the members of the generation who made the revolution have had the historic privilege of correcting the errors that they themselves have made.”
But it is also true that 55 years of U.S. sabotage, subversion, and sanctions have contributed significantly to Cuban woes. Indeed, that has been the overriding objective of U.S. policy. The degree to which deteriorating conditions in Cuba have been the result of internal factors, on one hand, and the effect of external pressures, on the other, may never be knowable—but neither can the relationship between them be disputed.
Cubans have become a very different people over the course of the last 55 years. They are comfortable with who they are, proud of their accomplishments, and mindful of their failures. Cuba struggles now to maintain what remains of its dignity, upon which so much of national identity rests. Cubans have engaged with the Americans with a powerful sense of amorpropio, and succeeded: success in this instance is best understood as survival.
Since its inception in 1959, the political, socio-economic, and foreign policy goals of the Cuban Revolution depended upon maintaining a confrontational relationship with the United States, which Washington accommodated with its policies to isolate and sanction Havana. This approach made some sense during the Cold War, but became increasingly counterproductive over time.
On December 17, 2014, President Obama surprised the world when he announced an end to the long-standing U.S. policy of isolating Cuba in favor of engaging civil society as the best means of creating the conditions for democratic change on the island. For the first time in over five decades, Washington is driving U.S.-Cuba relations. Rather than waiting for sanctions to produce change, Washington is setting a more complex, proactive agenda. The goal is to provide Cubans with tools to help empower them to be agents of change against a government increasingly on its heels on the issue of human rights, now that it can no longer blame U.S. policy for the “need” to keep society closed and repressed.
To a large extent, the regime’s excuse for its economic and social failures, including its abysmal human rights record, can no longer hold. This is particularly important as it relates to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that unfairly gave Cuba a pass on human rights violations for fear of being accused of criticizing a small country under siege by “U.S. imperialism.”
If the persistent tension between the U.S. and Cuba served as a vehicle for the latter to achieve its goals, December 17th may have pulled the rug out from Havana in its ability to maintain and justify a failed experiment. If the U.S. is no longer the convenient foil, it’s not clear on what basis the revolution can survive without its raison d’etre, other than brute repression.
Evaluating outcomes requires clarity on criteria for judgment. Suppose we take “History Will Absolve Me” as a yardstick—Fidel Castro’s famous self-defense at his 1953 trial following the disastrous attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago.
In that landmark speech, Fidel called for improvements in public education and health, goals the revolution certainly achieved. He also called for better living conditions for workers and farmers, which have been achieved for many, even if increases in Cuba’s real per capita income and consumption have lagged behind those of other Latin American and Caribbean nations in the last two decades. In “History Will Absolve Me,” and his ideas of those years, Fidel imagined a modern industrialized island, yet the industries built with Soviet assistance in the 1970s and 1980s were inefficient and many have closed. He also promised better housing, yet much of Cuba’s deteriorated housing stock has deteriorated in recent years.
Most notoriously, Fidel did not live up to his famous speech in the political sphere, as his one-party state replaced the liberal democracy of which he so eloquently spoke. Where Fidel did deliver, and in spades, was in the sphere of political culture: the revolution gave Cuba a strong sense of national pride and purpose, allowing the island to play an outsized role on the international stage.
Looking forward, the challenge will be to preserve the social gains of the revolution by replacing centralized decision-making with a smart regulatory state that protects the public interest while opening Cuba to the wealth, technologies, and manifest opportunities of the 21st century.
Far from signaling an end to the Cuban revolution, the opening of Cuba signals the revolution’s most impressive triumph. Since the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961, 11 presidents from Eisenhower to Obama resorted to extensive overt (and covert) means to destroy the Castro brothers and their revolution. From the 1961 debacle at the Bay of Pigs to the most recent failure of USAID to penetrate the island via the creation of a Cuban Twitter (ZunZuneo), the revolution survived U.S. attempts against the odds.
Without a doubt, the harshest measure over more than five decades has been the U.S. trade embargo that was designed to choke and starve the Cuban people until they rose up against the revolution and its leaders. However, even this punishing sanction failed to bring about the longstanding goal of defeating the revolution. President Obama implicitly recognized past failures when he announced that the United States would move toward normalizing relations with Cuba, because the time had come to move beyond “a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”
I traveled to Cuba a few weeks after the joint announcement by Presidents Obama and Castro, and Cubans were all smiles and hopeful that the two countries were finally willing to end their long hostility. They explained that they looked forward to improving their economic situation and addressing the flaws of Cuban socialism. At the same time, they were quick to note that they were proud of the social gains of the revolution, and that opening Cuba to the United States would not open the country to a return of U.S. domination.
Raul Castro’s military regime is not about to provide any major concessions to the United States. He is no reformist and no believer in market reforms. For him and his octogenarian military allies, the way to maintain and transfer power to their selected heirs is by preventing major political reforms in Cuba. Human rights conditions are likely to deteriorate rather than improve.
Castro’s demands at the recent CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) meeting in Costa Rica raise the bar for normalization ridiculously high. Issues like the return of Guantanamo, the closing of Radio and TV Martí, removal of Cuba from the U.S. terrorist list, and an end to the trade embargo (and massive compensation for its impact) are issues that are likely to postpone, if not derail, the process of normalization.
In the short-term future, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana will be upgraded to an embassy, and several thousand more Americans will likely visit Cuba this year. This will do little to improve the lives of Cubans or to bring democracy to the island. For the past decade, several million tourists from Europe, Canada, and Latin America have visited Cuba—yet the island is no freer or more prosperous.
And the Cuban leadership is currently preparing for their succession. Raul Castro’s son, Alejandro Castro Espín, a colonel and liaison to the Cuban intelligence services, is being groomed as a key player in the island’s future. Cuban leaders have also called for a meeting of the Cuban Communist Party next year.
The bottom line is that Cuba is not eager to normalize relations with the U.S.—and the Cuban revolution is not about to end.
Is it possible that the Cuban revolution’s defining moment has finally arrived now that an opening between Barack Obama and Raul Castro is taking shape?
Many will sneer or laugh at this idea. After all, the Cuban revolution has been at it for more than 55 years, and the U.S. has been committed to guaranteeing its failure for just as long. The current Cuban government has had sole command of the state all this time and could have done more to help its economy every step of the way. And the U.S. could have done less to obstruct its possibilities or come much sooner to the conclusion that now enlightens Obama. Hardliners on both sides have had their way—until now.
Yes, the time could be now. Cuba can no longer live off the symbolic value of its independent stance against the U.S. or from memories of the Bay of Pigs invasion, naval and economic blockades, anti-Castro assassination campaigns, and harboring of anti-Castro terrorists. Its people can’t wait longer for greater freedom of expression, broader political structures, and mixed-market opportunities, even if basic health care and education were to remain.
Now may be the time for creative solutions that neither Cuba nor the U.S. have been willing to consider for 55 years. Indeed, the moment is ripe for Cuba to pursue new economic policies with the U.S. now that Brazil and China present trading possibilities. The legacy of the revolution, ultimately, will hang in the balance.