Cubanálisis - El Think-Tank
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Cuban Politics Post-Communism**
The widespread uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East have prompted the fundamental question of: Who are these rebels? More importantly, from a foreign policy perspective: What are their political ideologies and governing ideas? What sort of government will follow the fall of a long-term despot?
For the most part we seem not to know or to be able to advance an educated guess. Very little analytical attention has been paid to understanding beforehand the historical frameworks and political and ideological undercurrents that will be at play in specific post-dictatorship milieus. Some seem to naively and unwarrantedly believe that liberal democracies and free market economies are the inevitable end result when opposition movements topple authoritarian regimes.
Closer to home mortality tables inform us, with implacable certainty, that the half-century totalitarian rule of the Castro brothers is approaching its biological end. What will follow?
Recently, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, one of the most recognized members of the Cuban opposition, stated that, following the resignations of Raul and Fidel Castro, Cuban dissidents are prepared to negotiate a transition to democratic governance with succeeding government officials. Dr. Biscet’s declaration represents a symbolic milestone in the Cuban narrative. Arrested for a second time in the Black Spring of 2003 and recently released from prison, he was awarded, in absentia, the United Sates 2007 Medal of Freedom for his principled and courageous opposition activities and appeals to peaceful civil disobedience.
Biscet and other Cuban dissidents have metamorphosed from isolated individuals heroically criticizing the practices of the regime, to a recognized resistance movement challenging the legitimacy and authority of the Communist Party. As in the Soviet Bloc, the term dissident itself has changed its meaning from that of a non-conformist who opposes society to that of an activist whose efforts are understood to be in the best interest of society. Most significantly, however, this dissident movement is now developing its own political expression as it grows into a party-based political opposition.
Concurrent with this political coming of age of the opposition movement, the Communist Party of Cuba, enshrined in the constitution as the only legal political party, has lost its ideological footing. Fidel Castro, in an apparent Freudian slip, asserted that “the Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore” and Raul Castro has repeatedly emphasized that “changes are needed to save Cuba from the economic abyss.” Moreover, the firing of up to 1.3 million state employees announced in General Raúl Castro’s reform program is denounced in Marxist circles as a betrayal of communist orthodoxy. Notwithstanding Raúl’s pronouncements at the recently concluded VI Congress of Cuba’s Communist Party, communist ideology has effectively withered away.
With communist ideology discredited and an opposition beginning to articulate its own competing political expression, Cuba has entered a period of post-communist politics. Surprisingly, very little attention has been given to exploring the political dynamics that will come into play in Cuban politics post-communism.
To be clear, the political opposition is embryonic, without resources and illegal under the Cuban legal system. It may be more accurately characterized as a resistance movement seeking to coalesce into a force capable of organizing society for the recovery of individual freedoms. (1) Nonetheless, the political monopoly of the communist party is being challenged with political methods, political language, and competing governing philosophies. Cuba is not yet post-Castros, but ideologically it is post-communist.
This raises the question of what competing political philosophies and governing programs will begin to emerge in Cuba’s political landscape following communist rule. A starting point is to revisit briefly the dominant political ideologies in the pre-Castro Cuba of the 1950s.
Cuba did have a pre-Castro communist party founded in 1925 as the Partido Comunista Cubano that became, in 1944, the Partido Socialista Popular (PSP) and was dissolved in 1962. Many of its members later became members of the Central Committee of the new Cuban Communist Party officially founded in 1965. At the other end of the political spectrum, Cuba also had a Liberal Party and liberal thinkers in the historical, laissez-faire, European tradition such as the Italian-born Orestes Ferrara Marino.
But in 1950’s Cuba the political scene was dominated by two almost ideologically indistinguishable political parties: The Partido Revolucionario Cubano (Autentico) and its splinter party the Partido del Pueblo Cubano (Ortodoxo). It is worth noting that one labeled itself “Authentic” and the other “Orthodox” - words which are close to being synonyms.
In terms of modern political taxonomy, the governing programs of both of these parties were significantly center-left or social democratic, incorporating heavy dosages of nationalism, socialism, corporativism, and advocacy for governmental control of key sectors of the economy. In terms of economic policy they were as Keynsian as their era, but the Cuban state did not own any industries or intervene in the economic management of private enterprises. Then again, labor unions were strong and there was considerable coordination and cooperation between government, business and labor.
Both Autenticos and Ortodoxos emphasized civil liberties and the democratic process. The main distinction between the parties was not ideological, but operational in that the Partido Ortodoxo positioned itself as the anti-corruption party with a broom as its symbol to sweep away all the evils of a corrupt state and themes such as “Prometemos no robar” (We promise not to steal). But perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of this political time period was the personality driven nature of political discourse. More often than not, it was more about following an individual political figure than a defined governing platform.
The post-communist political spectrum in Cuba is likely to be far more diverse. It will include the political beliefs developed as a result of living in Cuba under communist rule and the political beliefs learned and adopted by a Cuban diaspora living abroad - a community that represents 15 percent of the Cuban nation. Even under the current state of repression and illegality, politically inspired documents calling for change are surfacing in the Island e.g., “We are all Cubans: The Path to Change,” “A Future for Cuba,” and “Project for Change.”
Also increasing are groups, with political party names such as Christian Democratic Party of Cuba, Cuban Democratic Socialist Current, Liberal Party of Cuba, Orthodox Renovation Party, Cuban Liberal Union, Cuba Independent and Democratic, Democratic Solidarity Party, Christian Liberation Movement and more. Some of these groups have affiliations with international political entities outside Cuba.
At the moment, Cuba’s opposition movement is ideologically diverse, institutionally weak, and imbued with the statist cognitive framework inherited from the communist regime. Unfortunately this cognitive framework includes political intolerance and the inability to distinguish between a legitimate political adversary with different ideas and a mortal enemy. This last point is essential, because communist systems do not generate truthful or useful knowledge about the causes of its own malfunction. A great virtue of democratic tolerance is the cognitive context that allows society to correct perceived errors in governance via a peaceful and constitutional electoral process.
It is impractical at this historical juncture to try to locate the political positions of the emerging Cuban body politic in terms of a single left-right axis or even within some of the more sophisticated charts with multiple axes that political scientists use to illustrate variations in political beliefs. Even so, it may be interesting to speculatively model the Cuban political spectrum post-communism.
Cuba’s dismal failure as a totalitarian state with a centrally planned economy suggests that scrutiny with a chart with x and y axes accounting for the degree of preferred government control may be most revealing. In this context the Nolan chart (below) that considers “economic freedoms” in one axis and “personal freedoms” in the other may be useful.
Given the radical denial of freedoms Cubans have experienced for five plus decades, it follows that, in the abstract, most would desire high levels of personal and economic freedoms and would reject high degrees of government control. Theoretically, this would place most Cubans choosing personal and economic freedoms in the libertarian corner and those choosing government controls in the communitarian corner.
However, this theoretical-conceptual modeling will immediately clash with the mores of a population accustomed to dictates from above, dependency from below, and the sense of entitlement inherited from a communist state. Cuban society will be suffering - in Václav Havel’s metaphorical term- from a half-century exposure to the “radiation of totalitarianism.” In practice, the ethics of social responsibility will dominate the debates and the policy-making advocated in political discourse will not match the laissez-faire driven policies suggested by the conceptual modeling. The economic reality is simply that desired social services of a Scandinavian magnitude cannot be financed with Caribbean level productivity. Thus Cuban politics post-communism will be, not just diverse and nuanced by traditional political ideologies, but close to being internally self-contradictory.
It is not enough for the opposition to fight against oppression. To work its way into governance, Cuba’s emerging political opposition must overcome its inherent intra-group and inter-group disagreements over political philosophy. It must project the image of being a viable governing alternative to the Communist Party. To do so it will need to build accords and a consensus centered on freedom and on improving the wellbeing of the citizenry. To act in concert, post-communist political leaders must learn to build relationships of trust and be able to support each other.
This unity, however, cannot be constructed on the basis of some unreachable comprehensive uniformity of political and economic beliefs. Cuba’s budding political opposition will be more viable if it embraces the diversity of its political philosophies and makes this diversity its political strength. It must learn to appreciate political tolerance and a loyal democratic opposition as the epistemological source of political order. The search for unity should thus be anchored on identifying foundational common principles and differentiating those principles from those of the Communist Party.
These principles, which are common to the large ideological family made up by all liberal democracies, are : (1) representative democracy as a method for making and legitimizing collective decisions; (2) the conviction that all persons including the highest government officials are subject to, and limited by, the authority of a constitution; (3) conviction on the necessity of mechanisms of checks and balances and separation of powers to deliberately limit the authority of a central government and preserve individual liberties; (4) the belief that we posses natural inalienable rights as promulgated by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights; (5) a belief in governmental transparency and accountability; (6) a shared belief in the importance of political pluralism and the salutatory role of a critical political opposition committed to democratic contest; and (7) a shared belief in property rights and the imperfect virtues of a market economy.
The central problem of transitioning from totalitarian rule is one of reopening a closed society and the articulation of unifying political ideals. The historical experience of post-communist countries is that transition governments tend to be coalition governments. Cuban politics post-communism will be a by-product of the regime’s decay, not its antecedent cause. This is critically important because it means that no single overriding political project of transformation will emerge victorious, and a governing coalition will have the unenviable task of rebuilding the ship at sea in the midst of a hurricane.
*José Azel is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami. He is the author of the recently published book, Mañana in Cuba.
**An abridged version was previously published in the Miami Herald on June 5, 2011.
(1) I am indebted for the intellectual input of Orlando Gutierrez, Vanessa Lopez, Carlos Alberto Montaner, Martin Palous, Marcos Antonio Ramos, and Jaime Suchlicki, whose commentary I sought and whose wisdom is strewn throughout this essay.