The populist measures that the Cuban government launched immediately after the 1959 revolutionary victory were designed to blaze the trail for the implementation of a single-party regime, a concentration of resources in the hands of the State, and anti-American foreign policy. After all, these were the premises of national liberation and the accelerated development posited by Marxism-Leninism for the Third World.
It was necessary to concentrate power in the hands of the genuine representatives of the "people" (a category from which those who did not share the ideology of the victors were excluded, a priori), to nationalize wealth and the means of production, to invert international alliances in order to break the ties of subordination established with the US, and foreign capital, and modify the terms of commerce to achieve "fair trade." This strategy would be executed, naturally, under the clear and unquestionable guidance of the victorious leader, who would guide the masses towards an authentic and definitive national liberation.
In later years government propaganda would exploit the idea of victimhood and portray the establishment of the totalitarian regime as a set of defensive measures that the regime was improvising in response to US aggression. According to this version, the 1959 revolution was democratic and nationalist, and it was only trying to reestablish the constitutional liberties trampled by Batista in 1952, and protect the interests of the population against the voracity of the Americans' monopolies.
These good intentions at the outset took a bad turn due to an imperialist reaction that insisted on destroying the Revolution, which drove Castrointo the arms of the Soviet Union. But those familiar with the accounts of contemporaries - from Elena Mederos, to Rufo López Fresquet, to Manuel Ray, who were ministers of the first revolutionary cabinet; to foreign observers, like the journalist Tad Szulc, and the historian Hugh Thomas - and who take note of the sequence of events that transpired from 1959 to 1962, will realize that the implementation of Communism in Cuba followed a scheme that had been meticulously prepared before the triumph of January 1, and that began to be applied as soon as political and military power was left in the hands of Castro and his closest collaborators.
Hidden behind the energetic and colorful diatribes of the Supreme Leader, which amused journalists and seduced the masses, there operated a discreet and disciplined team of commissioners, in charge of eliminating political opponents, confiscating the means of production, suppressing the unions, dominating the University, controlling the media, and quashing other entities of civil society.
The application in Cuba of the theories of Marxism-Leninism triggered, as expected, a break with Washington, the creation of a police state, and a militarized society. But he upper and middle classes did not meekly allow themselves to be expropriated and deported, so it was necessary to multiply the prisons and firing squad walls throughout the Island. Shortly after the imposition of the socialist model, thousands of everyday Cubans who, seduced by the populist messages, had applauded the initial measures of the regime, began to flee the country by any means possible. 60 years later, their children and grandchildren continue to do so.
Cuba is still suffering from the repercussions of those first decisions, which shattered the country's coexistence, tore apart its social fabric, disrupted its productive apparatus, and rescinded the people's fundamental rights and liberties. These consequences deeply affect life in the country and hinder the development of its economy. The Government struggles to alleviate them, but, since it does not go to the root of the problem, it is limited to applying superficial remedies and arbitrary measures. This is why the reforms introduced and the decrees pronounced have only marginal effects on the conditions under which most Cubans live today.
Barely getting by
The nationalization of the means of production and the laws that drastically reduced economic freedom in the 1960s led to the rapid impoverishment of the country. The Government explained away the fall in the standard of living with the claim that it was necessary to reinforce the country's defenses against the imperialist enemy, to finance plans that would extend education and medical attention to the whole island, and to improve the infrastructure, which would lay the foundations for subsequent development.
When, after a few years, it was found that productivity continued to decline, and that the ration card and the long lines had come to stay, instead of changing its policies, the regime chose to change its narrative: it was no longer about achieving the glorious prosperity and development that socialism had promised, but rather to live austerely and "create wealth with one's conscience:" that is, work hard, consume as little as possible, and march with a rifle over one's shoulder on weekends.
For 30 years Soviet subsidies guaranteed the subsistence levels necessary to implement this policy, and the Government managed poverty through the guarantee of "free" schools and hospitals, open to all. With the disappearance of the USSR in 1991, Cuba's GDP contracted, by half, and even today, 27 years later, it has not recovered the very modest levels it had in the 1980s, despite what for Cuba came as a God-send: the appearance of Hugo Chavez as a benefactor of Castroism at the end of the 20th century. The window dressing of the system - education, public health, sports - quickly shattered, and the migratory stampede multiplied, exceed all the preceding figures.
In the current context, the new deterioration in relations with the US, and the crisis that Venezuela is going through, augur an even more uncertain future for the island if Raúl Castro's successors decide to maintain the country's current course.
When we examine the keys that will determine the country's fate in the near future - immigration/demography, remittances from abroad, agricultural and industrial productivity, prospects for transport, energy and housing, the composition of foreign trade, trends in the tourism sector - it is obvious that the only possible way out of the spiral of impoverishment in which the country remains trapped today is to place the State on serious diet, and improve relations with its immediate neighbors, to both the North and South. But, in order to reduce the state's powers and bureaucracy, a much greater volume of economic activity must be transferred to civil society, and the country needs to be opened up to foreign investment and technological innovation, which would entail broadening the scope of individual rights and freedoms via legal reform. And this can only be done if the Communist Party of Cuba is willing to give up part of the power that it holds today.
The dilemma between controlling or producing - in other words, the need to sacrifice part of the political monopoly for the sake of economic well-being - is far from a new phenomenon. Sooner or later, almost all Marxist regimes have had to confront it. The response has varied, depending on the country's culture, the characteristics of its economy, its geographical conditions, its links with its exiled population, and the degree of development achieved before the implementation of socialism. It is an equation with many variables, and which allows different solutions.
In Cuba, the responses will depend, above all, on two external factors: the immigration policy of Washington, and the strength of the Government of Nicolás Maduro. This has been the end result of "national liberation" and the "defense of sovereignty," historical excuses for the repression and poverty ceaselessly wielded by the Castro family's military regime.