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The Metaphysics of the 'Special Period'

With the economic crisis the fundamental objectives of 'the Revolution' were achieved – which were never those that Fidel Castro proclaimed when he rose to power in 1959.

Havana, April 2019.
Havana, April 2019. AFP

Cuba’s subaltern president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, recently declared on national television that the "Special Period"  was "a great act of collective creation, with firm leadership that never gave up".

Despite the numerous criticisms of the metaphor used to characterize this diffuse period (which officially began in 1990, but whose end has never been fully clarified) it is the first time that Díaz-Canel has actually conveyed a really interesting idea, one which points to a profound understanding of the nature of the regime he oversees administrates. This conceptual capacity is very meritorious, because his functions are not supposed to include that of exercising "the dismal mania of thinking", which, at the beginning of the 19th century, Fernando VII’s supporters reviled.

According to the sermon that Castro II delivered on April 19 of last year, when he appointed Díaz-Canel to the first magistracy, the exercise of the presidency of the Council of State and the Council of the Ministers consists of applying old ideas, transmitting new orders, and preserving,  sine die,  the political monopoly of the  Communist Party of Cuba (PCC)  .

In line with this definition, that day the new president promised that he would be faithful to the ideas of Castro I, as enforced by Castro II and the hegemony of the PCC. "I know the strength and wisdom of the people, the leadership of the Party, the ideas of Fidel, [...] and I affirm before this assembly that Comrade Raúl will lead the decisions for the present and future of the nation," he declared at the time.

Now, upon proposing prescriptions to face the prospect of a new "Special Period," Diaz-Canel has stated that it is necessary to return to the measures promulgated by Castro I in the 1990s: "These are documents that have to be dusted off, that the whole world has to study," he said.

Those who criticize the description of the "Special Period" offered by Díaz-Canel are totally missing the point. They draw on anecdotes and remember the  power outages, the camello superbuses , the transgenic tilapia fish, the hunting of street cats; optic neuritis and other epidemics generated by malnutrition, and point to the more than probable increase in the number of suicides and abortions spawned by the regime's measures.

Although all this is evident, the deep meaning of the "Special Period" must be sought in the interiorization of suffering, misery and submission as normal conditions of survival under Castroism.

Until then, the system was sustained by the promise of a better future. It is true that the country had gone through some difficult circumstances, but the Soviet help and the existence of a Communist bloc in Eastern Europe made it possible to cultivate and hold out hope, however minimal, that the situation could improve. After 1989, that conviction began to evaporate, and disappeared completely in 1991. Not even the providential appearance of  Hugo Chavez, eight years later, would totally offset that loss, even though Venezuelan subsidies have become, to this day, even greater than the Soviets’. The loss of conviction was of such a magnitude that, since then, more than a million people have fled the island, representing an outflow of 50,000 emigrants a year.

Of course, Castro I and his henchmen had options that would have spared Cubans all this suffering, without the need to "capitulate to imperialism," as the government's choristers then argued. It would have been enough to implement some reform that fit perfectly into the institutional framework of the system, and accept the help that many democratic countries offered.

But, any reasonable and moderate solution would have contravened Castro's truculent, Numantine spirit. In his mind, he confused Cuba's fate with his personal destiny, and that was his "Stalingrad moment." It was then that he announced that "the island would sooner sink into the sea before renouncing Communism," and issued the dismal slogan "Socialism or Death" – which, until recently, his successors were striving to forget. Now Díaz-Canel has proposed to pass the dusting cloth over the old measures, which had lain dormant for so long, and to re-apply them, to conjure up the specter of a new "Special Period".

However, the triumphalist tone of Diaz-Canel's analysis leads us to suspect that he considers -correctly, in my opinion- that the "Special Period" was not a failure, but quite the opposite. He was right. The "Special Period," in reality, represented the definitive triumph of Castroism. It was the apotheosis of slavish servitude, barely mitigated by the Maleconazo protests (where, once again, failure was turned into victory, with the mere appearance of Castro I) and the exodus of the rafters, who, over time, would become primary sources of foreign currency and compliant petitioners of tourist visas.

And that is the way it happened.  The "Special Period" was not (is not) an accident of what many still call, employing the richest anachronism, "the Revolution", but rather its very essence: a factory of poverty, obedience and debasement. It is the crowning moment of Castroism, the system realized, the definitive victory of the model: slaves who, as in Verdi’s  Nabucco, sing in a chorus, but this time exalting their chains, filled with adoration by the very master who oppresses them. These are the "fighting people", hungry and without a future, who, in spite of their evidently miserable condition, repeat slogans and build bunkers to defend themselves from the imminent imperialist attack.

With the "Special Period" the fundamental objectives of "the Revolution" were realized, which were never those that Castro I proclaimed upon reaching power in 1959, but rather the total submission of society to the Communist project, absolute police control, comprehensive militarization, the expulsion of less docile segments of the population (a procedure that had already begun through Camarioca, in 1965, and Mariel, 1980, but which has been perfected since 1994, through immigration agreements with the US), and the reduction of the economy to primary, subsistence activities totally dependent on the State.

A regime that had already been in power for 30 years and suffered a whole succession of great failures, which had sacrificed thousands of soldiers in Africa, with dubious results; and had just lost its main source of subsidies, suddenly expelled another 35,000 potential adversaries and throws them onto the coasts of their enemy, turning them into feral castoffs, who henceforth would be reduced to unwillingly propping up the same government that oppresses their relatives, authorizes their perpetual separation, and places those who remain on the island on a lower rung of misery and obedience.

Despite his less than prodigious brainpower, Díaz-Canel has actually grasped that fundamental truth. The essence of socialism in Cuba is not to improve education, or expand medical care, much less raise the standard of living or the people’s levels of consumption. In the long run, all that is populist drivel  to entertain the gallery, advances considered roads leading back to capitalism. And they’re right; just look at what happened in the former Soviet Union, and what is happening now in China.

To save Cuban Communism - at least for 30 more years - another "great act of collective creation" is needed, which, in this case, will have its clear and solid leadership. Díaz-Canel raises the scarecrow of a new "Special Period" so that the masses tremble at the prospect of blackouts and inedible food again, but in reality it seems that he is not averse to the idea of culminating the great scheme and confronting its consequences. Another question is whether he will be able to deal with the situation.

Socialism or Death. Forgive the redundancy.

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