Will the Cuban Revolution Survive a New Special Period Crisis?
By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez
June 22, 2019
Photo: Juan Suarez
The Cuban system is entering a renewed Special Period crisis, at a dizzying rate. While the former never really ended, the current worsening of this calamity, after a more relaxed time with fewer shortages which lasted a good while, makes us see it in a different light. Thus, we have to ask ourselves, will the radical socialist system of government survive these trying times in today’s context?
The Special Period began in the early 1990s when the Socialist Bloc collapsed, especially the Soviet Union. Over the preceding decades the country had become more dependent on the USSR than it had ever been on the US before 1959; and it depended a lot more on single-crop farming and single exports. That’s to say that the critique of capitalism having deformed the Cuban economy so that it served the US, remained the same and wasn’t resolved in the slightest, now serving the new partner of the hour instead.
However, in spite of the severe crisis in the ‘90s, of the Special Period’s shortages and social damage, the government had powerful social control mechanisms which prevented its downfall. Although there were some important moments of tension and irreversible political/social processes began, such as an intense migration movement. A greater connection with the world via tourism and the articulation of an organized opposition also took place.
Today, nearly three decades later, our people have changed a great deal. They aren’t the same, even though it seems like they are subjugated to rigid and strict social control mechanisms (which aren’t unbeatable mind you). The Cuban population is still afraid to openly stand up to the government and people allow themselves to be led in pro-government parades because the State has two thirds of the national workforce on its payroll, under control and coerced, but it’s not like before. Before, people were mostly sincere when they shouted out pro-government slogans; now, they are mostly hypocritical.
There is more disappointment every day and a growing awareness about Cuba and the world around it. A larger percentage of families no longer depend on their ties to the government and they support themselves with remittances mainly, or their own small businesses. And, in spite of having to sign up for a license and pay taxes, they are at a political crossroads or something that could truly be successful, and they will stand up against the government for many reasons. Especially because fewer people really believe in the government anymore.
After the economic failure of Raul Castro’s half-baked plans, with his Guidelines, opening the economy and promising a boom by 2030, we are now experiencing a new Special Period. Greater waves of migration, food shortages, more transport problems due to a lack of fuel, blackouts at productive and services companies, increased repression. All of this worsens the Cuban crisis, which is on the brink of becoming a humanitarian crisis, recognized worldwide.
In the ‘90s, we were prisoners on the island, without the freedom to travel. In order to emigrate, you needed to take to sea on a raft. We had less information about the world and the government’s hegemonic manipulation of the press was a lot more effective and exclusive. There were more sincere Communists; democratic socialists believed they could convince the Communist Party of the viability of a democratic route forward, and the opposition had a smaller audience and was less well-known, on the whole.
Leaders were less corrupt and not so hypocritical. Government officials still had morals, which have deteriorated over time. The Cuban people didn’t have a voice, and they didn’t dare speak. State Security repressed the population with a lot more violence, but it could be hidden from the public and they had even trained them to applaud these actions.
Internet access and social media didn’t exist, like it does nowadays, and people can report problems or give their opinion. Cubans are traveling, getting to know the world or seeing how emigres’ lives improve, even when they go to impoverished countries like Haiti. All of the above constitutes a great difference.
Many things have changed. Cubans can’t be deceived all the time anymore, nor can the mediocrity, inefficiency and the impracticality of a failed social project be justified by the blockade or interfering “enemy”.
Any expectation that Cuba would improve has disappeared and the Cuban people have resisted without daring to protest openly because they are afraid of the government, its fierce repression and the lack of a civic spirit that has been instilled in generations for decades. However, it’s very hard for the Cuban people to go back to the extreme shortages that hurt us so badly in the ‘90s and not demand change.
It’s a very different landscape and this might be the last straw. It’s not crazy to think that our people might gain civic awareness. The country is demanding inevitable changes that the Cuban Communist Party refuses to do because it is afraid of losing its privileges. However, I believe that Diaz-Canel will need to offer a lot more than a hollow and arbitrary slogan, which only benefits its conservative mentors.
Unless changes are made, which is possible, but holding on to the initial spirit at least. However, there are two kinds of changes: the much-needed ones to move forward and fix the country; or make cosmetic changes, more of the same, which allows the government to win time hoping for a better future situation in conjunction with other dictatorships. Unfortunately, the latter is the course most likely to be chosen.
However, while superficial changes are conceived to appease international pressure instead of reclaiming rights, new precedents and scenarios are created, and as the Cuban population is different to the one in the ‘90s, it will promote more substantial Changes. Because one change leads to another; and one right reclaimed leads to another. It’s a domino effect which is inevitable and will lead us towards democracy, at least in our Western culture. I’m sure of that.
On the other hand, opening up these democratizing rifts, plus the international outcry that Human Rights violations have won in Cuba and its lack of freedoms, are pressuring and will continue to pressure the new head of government, Diaz-Canel, meaning he will promote more real change.
He always says, “I am continuity”, but it’s a message that is directed to the military elite, who still hold power in the Communist Party which he was handpicked for. When he stands alone as the head of government and the Party [Currently the Party is led by Raul Castro], he won’t be able to enthrone himself like his predecessors, no matter how much he wants to. The national and foreign landscape will make it impossible.