May 20 will mark 114 years since the founding of the Republic of Cuba. The date, which went unnoticed by almost everyone, is important in itself, because it marks the moment when Spain's last holding in the Americas broke away from the Crown and was constituted as a sovereign state, and because it marks the point on the calendar when the liberal republic, born of the pro-independence struggles of the 19th century, and the socialist republic, spawned by the political conflicts of the 20th century, reached exactly the same age: 57.
It should be clarified that we are speaking of historical precision here; that is, equivalence between the two periods and not mathematical exactitude. It is possible to subtract from the computation the three years of the second American intervention (1906-1909) during which the Republic was suspended, and it would also be valid to discount the first two years (1959-1960), which constituted the transition or semi-liberal prologue to what would become the totalitarian regime of the Castro brothers. But these adjustments would not alter the essential fact: both stages are now perfectly equivalent and, in fact, also equal to the insurrectional phase that preceded the Republic, which lasted from 1847 to 1898.
However, for a comparison between the liberal stage and the socialist stage of the Republic to make any sense, it is necessary to situate the two periods in their respective contexts. There is a tendency to talk about "Cuba" or the "Cuban people" as ahistorical entities, as subjects that, once constituted in the first third of the 19th century, have endured, unchanged and identical, the nearly 200 years separating the regime from the absolute powers wielded at present. But this illusion of transcendence ignores the obvious fact that the population of the island, along with its ideas and beliefs, its political and socio-economic conditions, and the international context, were very different during each of these stages.
It is impossible to understand what was Cuba in 1959 if we do not take into account the starting point of 1899. At the conclusion of the second war of independence the island had been devastated by a conflict that had taken a particularly heavy toll on civilians, and had seriously eroded its economic cornerstones. The strategy of "reconcentration" employed by the Spanish General Valeriano Weyler, and the "incendiary torch" approach of the Cuban-Dominican General Máximo Gómez, respectively, left 20% of the population dead, and the island with its agro-industrial wealth cut in half. The production of sugar, tobacco, livestock and other products was down sharply compared to 1895. There were no direct overland transport links between Havana and Santiago, epidemics of cholera and yellow fever were still frequent, and more than half of the population was certainly illiterate.
In the next half century sugar production increased eightfold, life expectancy more than doubled, going from less than 30 to more than 65, the number of homes with running water tripled, and illiteracy was reduced to less than half.
But the statistics only partially reflect the degree of modernization and development that the island knew under the liberal republic. In those 57 years the Island saw the introduction of film, radio, automobiles, the central railway, aviation and, starting in 1949, television. The most harmful pandemics were eradicated, and dozens of schools and hospitals were built and equipped. While all this was achieved, Cuba welcomed and employed more than a 1.5 million immigrants, many of whom regularly sent remittances to their families in Spain, Jamaica, Mexico and other countries.
And this transformation occurred in an international context that was not always favorable: two world wars, the Great Depression of 1929, the nationalist fever that greatly affected trade between countries, and the revolution of 1930 against General Machado, whose consequences would impact the island until the middle of next decade. It was a world in which there were virtually no international aid agencies, nor was there any concept of development aid. And all this occurred in a country that, according to the Marxist interpretation of history, was the victim of Yankee monopolies, the greed of capitalist entrepreneurs, and sacking by its venal rulers.
When in 1959 the insurrection, commanded by Fidel Castro, overthrew the Government of Fulgencio Batista, Cuba was one of the most developed countries in Latin America, boasting socioeconomic indicators better than in many regions of the central US, or southern Europe. But Cubans did not use to compare themselves to Oklahoma farmers, or sharecroppers from the Algarve, and much less to their counterparts in Honduras or Colombia. The obligatory reference point was Paris-London-New York and, when pride sagged, Madrid.
According to the promises of its leaders, the Revolution had come to restore democratic rule, under the auspices of the 1940 Constitution and to continue, with some corrections, the developmental effort of the previous period. But in reality the Castro brothers and their inner circle had a different, secret plan, which they began to implement as soon as they occupied key positions.
Their project, clearly explained by writers and witnesses like Rufo López Fresquet, Manuel Urrutia, Elena Mederos, Tad Szulc and others, was based on the Marxist-Leninist vulgate: in a Third World country true national independence and rapid economic development could only be achieved through the implementation of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" that nationalized the economy, crushed the bourgeoisie, and threw off its subordination to imperialist powers.
In the case of Cuba, the application of this formula entailed the confiscation of domestic and foreign capital, the creation of a huge repressive apparatus (firing squads, committees of informers, prisons and labor camps) and a break with US, in the framework of a strategy that was only possible thanks to the USSR's military, diplomatic and economic protection. After two years of intense resistance to the establishment of the Communist regime, the Government, with a single party and under a single leader, was consolidated in 1962.
Over the next 54 years the Castro regime seized all the country's resources, and received a huge volume of subsidies - first from the USSR, followed by Venezuela - to promote the development of a society that in 1959 had already generated considerable wealth. And it undertook this task during an era of relative peace, and technological breakthroughs, and in a very favorable economic climate, with assistance from multilateral agencies, and while maintaining trade relations with the whole world (except the US), and without having to worry about strikes, student demonstrations, the claims of minorities, criticism by the media and other social pressures. The press, trade unions, churches, student groups and all other institutions of civil society have always complied with the directives of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).
What Castroism has "achieved", under such auspicious circumstances, jumps out: a demographic crisis that has proven very difficult to solve, a broken economy, colossal debt (creditors are now pardoning debts, almost ashamed to have demanded what they were owed), cities that are falling apart, and squalid living conditions for most of the population. When one considers the lack of running water, electricity, transportation, housing, clothing and food that Cubans have suffered in the past half century, the achievements that the Government touts in its propaganda, extolling the Holy Trinity of Education, Health and Sports, seem paltry, to say the least.
One glance at the actual contents of the education received, and the quality of the health care provided, and the cost of the Olympic medals won, and one concludes that the results have been deplorable. Because there is little to add: ballet, some films portraying bygone areas on the Island, a biotechnology sector not complying with international standards, and a tourism sector that is just starting to recover the importance it boasted in the 1950s. (International tourism has multiplied by 40 since that time. In 1957, Cuba was already receiving more than 300,000 visitors a year, mainly from the US and Canada. If the current Government had implemented another policy, instead of celebrating the 3 million the country receives today, it would be welcoming 12 million.)
But, obviously, when a regime has a daily like Granma, and an absolute monopoly over the radio, television, films, print press, and the education system, it is not difficult to convert failures into victories, every day of the year, if necessary.
Though the results of half a century of socialism are profoundly deficient, its moral consequences are much worse. Three generations of Cubans have become accustomed to living under constant lies, without rights, and without dignity. And 1.5 million Cubans have fled in search of the freedom and prosperity that the regime has denied them. On the Island, hundreds of thousands of young people still see emigration as the only prospect for progress for themselves and their families.
"How did we fall so low?" wonder many Cubans who are old enough to remember what the country was like before 1959.
The explanation of the phenomena that gave rise to this collective failure would require another text, at least as extensive as this one. Suffice to say, for now, that the Republic's strong socio-economic performance was not accompanied by similar progress in the national political sphere. The political class failed and, by doing so, dragged down everything else: the State, economy, culture and social development.
Over these past decades millions of Cubans have sacrificed their freedom and rights, placing them in the hands of a purportedly enlightened, bombastic leader who claimed to know everything, to make infallible decisions, and, who, to make matters even worse, has sought to establish a North Korea-style dynasty.
The incipient regeneration that is underway is going to be very difficult. The way things stand, there is no other path than to fully accept the past, with all its causes for pride, and for shame, and to try to right the ship that went off course in 1959. Without puerile optimism, or any certainty of a happy ending, but in the hope that, with effort, intelligence and goodwill, another May 20th might be achieved. So that Cuba might become, finally, the Republic its heroes dreamed of, with and for the good of all.