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Why Did Cuba Embrace Socialism?

A belief in a great destiny for the country, a commitment to 'caudillos', and 'revolutionism' over the centuries have gotten us here.


To envision how Cuba might emerge from socialism, it may be useful to first understand how it came to embrace this system. Cubans born after the coup d'état that Batista headed in 1952 - perhaps 90% of the adult population today - never lived under the last republican regime, and almost everything they know about it they have been taught by the current government's propaganda and indoctrination bodies.

The "revolutionism" that made possible the meteoric rise and the ultimate triumph of Fidel Castro in the 1950s was nourished, on the surface, by two ideas closely linked to each other: the need to replace the illegitimate and corrupt government of Fulgencio Batista, and to restore the Constitution of 1940. Freedom, honesty and respect for the rule of law were, purportedly, the principles upheld by the insurrection.

I write "on the surface" because those ideas appeared explicitly and prominently in all the documents signed by opposition forces of the era, from the Montreal Pact (1953) to that in Caracas (1958). But there was a set of beliefs, sometimes latent and less evident, that existed in Cuban society since much earlier and that contributed decisively to legitimizing the revolutionary struggle, and, later, to consolidating the new caudillo's power.

Perhaps the most curious of these beliefs was the conviction that Cuba was predestined to fulfill a great destiny, one out of proportion to the country's actual conditions. Geography had a lot to do with the origin of this superstition, as for centuries Havana was a key meeting point for the Spanish fleets, and a site of vital strategic importance ("Key to the New World, Citadel of the West Indies"), it was called in 1761 by its first historian, José Martín Félix de Arrate. Then came its rapid enrichment thanks to the export of sugar and coffee, which reinforced the idea that Providence had an exceptional future in store for the Island.

In contrast to the decline of the mother country (the first half of the nineteenth century was perhaps the most chaotic stage in Spanish history) the colony boomed. Cuba boasted maritime steamboat, railroad and telegraph services years before those inventions reached Spain. But socioeconomic progress did not lead, as many Cubans of Spanish descent had hoped, to independence, or the island's annexation to another country in the Americas.

This belief in an exceptional destiny for Cuba brewed for a long while, culminating around the middle of the century. After the failure of the annexationist efforts of the triennium in 1848 to 1851, Cuban elites had to resign themselves to remaining subordinated to the Spanish Crown – though they considered themselves superior to those who governed them. To alleviate the bitterness of subjection and impotence, they invented a compensatory myth. This myth saw its final formulation in 1855, in the Manifesto of the Cuban Junta of New York, which explained the origin, evolution and causes for the defeat of the annexationist revolution.

In its final paragraphs this remarkable document proclaimed "the significance and importance [of Cuba] in the destinies of the universe" and its capacity to achieve "prosperity without equal... and an indestructible greatness, based on balance and the regulation of the modern world's most valuable interests." That is, the island had a grandiose yet imprecise international mission, which would become a reality through revolutionary struggle. This compensatory myth arose, fully intact and complete, like Minerva from Jupiter's skull, following the first failed attempt to sever Cuba from Spain.

One of the weaknesses of this worldview was that the realization of a glorious destiny called for the actions of a "chosen people," and it was difficult to imagine that a society composed of white and mestizo criollos, Spanish civil servants, some Chinese serfs, and a near majority of slaves and freedmen, could be the providential agent of this development. In fact, the idea of ​​a Cuban nationality distinct and separate from the Spanish one would only develop in a significant part of the population after several decades of insurrectionary struggle. In this way, Cuban nationalism emerged late, and did so infused with a spirit of revolution.

The other essential aspect of the belief in grandiose national destiny, achievable only through political violence, also had to do with the United States. The influence of this country in Cuba preceded the formation of its national consciousness, and shaped it in multiple and obvious ways. In the very idea of ​ sublime predestination formulated by the annexation patriots there sounds the echo of the "Manifest Destiny" that John L. O'Sullivan had proclaimed for the Union ten years earlier, in the magazine United States Magazine and Democratic Review.

In all the revolutionary efforts that took place on the island throughout the nineteenth century, the US played a leading role, whether through its action or absence. The Cuban insurgents, in the minority and poorly armed, always sought Washington's intervention in the conflict, knowing that it would be the only way to throw off Spain. But both American neutrality in 1850 and 1868, and its interference in 1898, which finally allowed for independence, were grounds for criticism and frustration among the separatist elites.

When the new Republic was proclaimed in 1902, the US had already become the deux ex machina of the island's history, a country with which Cubans would maintain a conflictive love-hate relationship. The Platt Amendment imposed on the Constitution and the increase in foreign investment under the US occupation ratified the nationalist accusation that Washington had not entered the war to selflessly help Cuban democrats, but rather to consolidate its neocolonial dominion over the island.

The failures of 1855 and 1878, and the half-victory of 1898, the death of the main independence leaders, and the role that the United States had played in each of these stages, contributed to forging the myth of "the unfinished revolution", which fed the belief in a glorious national destiny. But an unfinished revolution with planetary aspirations could not be the work of a prosaic local leader. It needed a messiah, someone to head up a great, epic undertaking. During the Republic, a series of leaders strove to exude that messianic charisma: José Miguel Gómez, Mario García Menocal, Gerardo Machado, Fulgencio Batista, Ramón Grau San Martín, Eduardo Chibás and, finally, Fidel Castro.

The vindication of the unfinished revolution, late nationalism, interference by the USA, and the messianic expectation of a redeemer gradually generated in those years an increasingly violent and populist atmosphere. Although the country's economic and social progress was evident, intellectuals exaggerated the Republic's flaws, politicians generated unrealistic expectations, and the population expected more and more from the State.

Gradually, political life became polarized, intolerance increased, and recourse to weapons became increasingly commonplace. The idea spread that "an attack was necessary to kill the rogues / to finish the work of the revolutions", in the words of poet Rubén Martínez Villena. This was the breeding ground for the movements that deposed Machado in 1933 and Batista in 1959.

Unlike the insurrections of the nineteenth century, which were crystal clear, both in their objectives (annexation or independence) and in their methods (an armed uprising in the open field), the Cuban revolutions of the twentieth century were contradictory urban clashes between bands who often pursued irreconcilable goals. The official historiography exalts the legend of the guerrilla struggle and the epic battles waged in the Sierra Maestra. The truth, however, is that bribes to army commanders were much more effective than the strictly military side of the struggle, which until December 1958 consisted of small-scale skirmishes. Had it not been for money from the national bourgeoisie, and the role played by the cities in 1957 and 1958, the Castroist rebels could have spent half a century in the mountains without achieving victory, like Colombia's guerrillas have done.

Elsewhere I have asserted that Castro's triumph in 1959 was the result of a lethal combination of urban terrorism, police repression, guerrilla warfare, corruption and government neglect, bad press, ridiculous expectations, the suspension of US support, and disaffection among the middle and upper classes, which ended up generously financing the rebel groups, and not the simple result of a military campaign that defeated the national army, as the current Government claims. But the concurrence of these factors would not have been as effective without the preceding sway of the myth of the unfinished revolution, and the belief in a grandiose national destiny, which paved the way for totalitarian tyranny in 1959.

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