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In Memoriam Castro’s Cuba 1959–2010

Not to be caught off guard, most serious journals keep obituaries of the notables that will sooner or later succumb to the passing of time. I have prepared the following for Telos, not only on a man but also on his country. I propose to launch it ahead of the events.

From Hope to Fear: The Dilemma of Radical Equality

Ten years after the triumph of the Chinese revolution, in the Americas the island of Cuba underwent an equivalent upheaval. The Cuban revolution provoked an extraordinary interest and enthusiasm at the time throughout the world. In the middle of the Cold War, Cuba acquired a geopolitical significance out of proportion to its size and economic weight—and almost provoked a nuclear exchange between the two superpowers.

The importance of Cuba, however, was of a different kind. The Cuban revolution was seen as the latest of a series of socialist experiments in moving beyond capitalism and toward a new society of radical equality. One could argue that Cuba closed an even longer cycle of revolutions.[1] In fact, the Cuban revolution vowed to “build a new man” and demanded nothing less than the reconception of human nature. The prestige and the lasting legitimacy of the Cuban revolution rested primarily on the equalization of social conditions and on the universal access to health and education—two achievements attained with record speed during the first decade of the revolution.

Those of us who were young in 1960 remember the passionate curiosity that the Cuban experiment provoked. That was in the West, where postwar prosperity had given rise to leftist libertarian hopes among the youth. In the communist East, where socialism had been imposed from above and from outside, and had solidified into an oppressive form of bureaucratic domination, the Cuban revolution seemed also to offer a better hope. The following are recollections from a Romanian student:

Castro’s energetic and long speeches while visiting Romania were listened to in people’s houses with an admiration and a form of exotic respect that the Romanian dictator Ceausescu never enjoyed. “It’s Fidel!”—old people were saying to me in a tone that resembled a mythological invocation. . . . Fidel seemed to have accomplished, in Romanian popular view at the time, something that local communism either failed to achieve or lost as a cause on its way.[2]

From a sociological and comparative point of view however, one must pose two different and perhaps disturbing questions: One, to what extent are those achievements linked to the totalitarian form of the regime that took shape during the initial surge of the revolution? And two, what price did the Cuban society and economy pay for the relentless pursuit of total and egalitarian inclusion? In other words, is there an inner logic that connects the enforcement of social justice with the absence of civic and public rights, with police repression, and with the prohibition to move away? The official complaints in the capitalist West about the violation of human rights fail to fathom a completely different view of what is right and what is wrong, a view of the world that does not recognize as legitimate any act of dissent, abstention, and the embrace of difference—in Albert Hirschman’s words, that refuses to consider voice and exit as worthy of respect.

In a forthcoming book on Cuba, Claudia Hilb addresses these two questions.[3] She approaches them historically and chronicles the intimate association between two processes during the first decade of the revolution, namely, the rapid equalization of conditions imposed by the revolutionary regime upon the entire society and the extraordinary concentration of power in the figure of Fidel Castro. According to this author, the one makes no sense without the other. The entire revolutionary project was one of transforming society from the top—in Foucault’s terms, from a high point of total visibility, surveillance, and control. According to this analysis, the revolution was panoptical from the beginning. The project rode on a wave of popular enthusiasm and a collective feeling of emancipation from a corrupt and despotic past. It was not therefore the voluntary or unwitting replacement of one despotism for another, but something very different: a radical overhaul of existing inequalities that required total and central control and mass participation.

In Max Weber’s typology of the forms of legitimation, the revolution joined together rational (in the sense of systematic and meticulous control) and charismatic domination. This coincidence of the rational and the charismatic is a phase through in which most revolutions pass. In the long run however, rationality trumps the “cult of personality,” and true to Weber’s prediction, charisma becomes bureaucratically “routinized.” The Cuban peculiarity consists in the persistence of charisma and the longevity of Fidel—a process that has provided the regime with long-range stability but ultimate fragility. Aside from these distinctions, what count for the present discussion is the speed, the depth, and the manner of construction of an egalitarian society during the first phase of the revolution.

In a very abridged form, what one discerns in this period is the rapid equalization of society from the bottom up, by favoring the rise of the downtrodden and the excluded, but enforced “without ifs or buts” from the top of political power. In other words, radical equalization and centralization of control were two sides of the same coin, two constitutive elements of the same process.

The first ten years witnessed two agrarian reforms: the first an expropriation, break-up, and redistribution of large holdings to the landless, and the second an imposition of state control over all agricultural production, large and small. The non-agrarian sectors of the economy too were nationalized and passed into the property of the state: foreign subsidiaries, sugar refineries, commerce, utilities, and construction. The state also took control of health and education, and regulated housing. All these measures favored those at the bottom of the social pyramid and progressively alienated those above, first the privileged elite and then the middle class, including small property owners initially favored by redistribution. Each wave of equalization produced a corresponding wave of exile—first the recalcitrant, then the disenchanted. In the worlds of Barrington Moore Jr. in reference to a similar but much more severe process in the early phases of the Soviet revolution, this was a period of “terror and progress”[4]. Popular mobilization went hand in hand with severe repression.

At the top level of leadership a voluntaristic model of forced development prevailed (first embodied in the figure of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and subsequently by Fidel Castro himself), with the stress on altruistic as opposed to material incentives. In the language of the times, it was an attempt to construct socialism (efforts-based compensation) and communism (needs-based compensation) simultaneously. In practical terms, the process eliminated all the economic agents that were not agents of the state.

What was the upshot? At the sociological level, there was a radical leveling of difference and distinction; at the economic level, a phenomenal disorganization of production. The economic dislocation happened in part due to the eviction and exodus of qualified strata, but more significantly due to the inability of the state to manage and to allocate activities without market signals. The former was a serious but temporary effect; the latter a fatal flaw.

The centralization of control in the hands of one person and the repression or marginalization of any other center of decision-making affected not only the “natural” enemies of the revolution, but its original supporters as well. The control and “coordination” of student organizations, of labor unions, and finally of the cultural and artistic producers, has been well documented by analysts throughout the years and is also available in the form of recollections and memoirs. A similar process occurred with the single party of the revolution, which through successive purges became a docile communist machine, subordinated to Fidel. As in other soviet-type regimes, those “in the cockpit” were in constant fear of “falling out of grace.”

For the wider society, quieter forms of what Victor Zaslavsky called “organized consensus” gradually replaced the initial enthusiasm of revolutionary mobilization.[5] A vast network of surveillance and thought control was established through the committees for the defense of the revolution, police informants, and the active encouragement of denunciations of acquaintances, relatives and friends. Daily life under such conditions passed from a state of charismatic endorsement to a culture of fear, perhaps best illustrated by the German film The Life of Others, [6] which portrays the social psychology of control in the former DDR—the epitome of Soviet-style societies. The result was the corrosion of civil forms of conviviality, which have been studied in other contexts as well.[7] From an economic point of view, it meant the downgrading of initiative and morale, which reinforced the incompetence of the state and required ever more unpleasant dispositions, like desabastecimiento (stock outs) and rationing.

If on the political level the regime survived through repression, on the macro-economic level it was on the dole of the former Soviet Union. When the latter collapsed Cuba suffered enormous penury until it was partially bailed out by the help of Chavez’s oil-rich Venezuela. The early dependence on the USSR tempered the initial voluntarism of the revolution,[8] and the aggressive but clumsy foreign policy of the United States helped to provide a justification for tightening control. But ultimately the model of soviet-type society that was established in Cuba was the product of a deep internal logic.

Forced equality produced economic disincentives and dysfunctions negatively affecting growth and prosperity—among them ersatz full employment, absenteeism, theft of public property, a clandestine market, and a “double morality” of conformity and deviance at the same time. For example, an ordinary Cuban would ritually denounce the exiles in Miami but cash in on remittances by relatives in the United States. Moreover, the regime soon discovered that social inequality has not one source but many—and that the regime was generating its own. For as Charles Tilly has shown, inequality is not a mere gradient susceptible of measurement along one dimension (as for instance with the Gini coefficient), but a series of categorical distinctions based on different means and resources.[9]

The Autumn of the Patriarch

As time goes by and the original leadership faces old age and death, Cuba teeters unprepared for a transition to a world that, although mired in crisis, no longer accepts the mode of life that Cubans have withstood during a heavy fifty years. Excluding inequality, on many other comparative indicators, Cuba today does not fare better than it did in 1959. Comparing it to poorer Caribbean nations will not do—the comparison is with Chile, Uruguay, or Brazil. Today, as then, the relative position is pretty much the same. The conclusion is sobering: Cuba has attained greater social equality at the price of political repression and economic stagnation. It lives in a bubble of silence and denial, as in a museum of a way of life that nobody wants.[10] Over fifty years, the revolution has spent the moral capital reserves it held as a bastion of dignified resistance to the colossus of the North. The question pending for the future is how to accede to a modality of economic growth that does not destroy some social achievements of the past—how to throw away the communist bathwater without ejecting the egalitarian baby as well.[11] That is a tall order indeed.

The world of late capitalism does offer examples of managed transitions from egalitarian socialism to unequal but prosperous capitalism—some more attractive than others.[12] In some intellectual and policy circles there is discussion of the “Vietnamese way” in which the communist power structure itself sponsors an opening of the country to capitalist investment, while protecting not just its own interests but also social solidarity. A superficial overview of social behavior however, raises the question of whether the Cubans—after decades of forced-fed altruism—have not lost their appetite for solidarity as well as the initiative for entrepreneurship that East Asians managed to retain. Travelers from Brazil to Cuba these days report that, although the two populations live in the tropics, Brazilians exude and exalt life, but Cubans seem numb.

If the Cuban leadership decided to undertake “Vietnamese reforms,” the situation would look like this. The regime would propose measures that would give greater scope to the private sector, reduce the budget deficit, and boost the output of agricultural and consumer goods in order to raise market supplies and exports. Specifically, the government would seek to make prices more responsive to market forces and to allow farmers and industrial producers to make profits. Barriers to trade would be lowered; the checkpoint inspection system that requires goods in transit to be frequently inspected would be abolished; and regulations on private inflow of money, goods, and tourists from overseas would be relaxed. In the state-controlled industrial sector, overstaffing in state administrative and service organizations would be slated for reduction. Government leaders also would plan to restructure the tax system to boost revenue and improve incentives. Non-traditional exports would increase, while outside investors would regain their faith. As in Vietnam, the economy would then grow at 6 percent or more a year, inequality would increase (an inevitable byproduct of a capitalist surge), but poverty would diminish significantly. With luck and investments from another tropical republic—Brazil—Cuba could mitigate its dependence on foreign fossil fuels and become a net exporter of sugar ethanol. The transition would be for Cuba another large social experiment, this time based no longer on the socialist proposition that sacrifice should be shared equally, but on the capitalist proposition that a rising tide lifts all boats.

In the immediate future, Cuba will navigate treacherous waters—a passage full of danger between the Scylla and Charybdis of two rent-seeking mafias, one inside the country and the other one outside:[13] on the one hand the attempt by exiles to settle accounts, and on the other the pretensions of functionaries of the regime to become the new capitalist masters, Russian style.

More than fifty years ago, a young rebellious student called Fidel Castro led a failed assault on the fortress of Moncada. He was arrested and tried. In his defense, he gave a speech that became famous, “History will absolve me.” For the next fifty years history was kind to him because he made it, wrote it, and kept it under firm control. The other History to which he referred in his youthful speech could not possibly absolve him—because it does not exist. What remains of its ghost is a question mark in the sky, under which Fidel and his system wither dismally with age.


1. Barrington Moore, Jr., in Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), discussed the cycle.

2. Emanuel Ionut Crudu, “Exploring the Future of Cuba. Scenarios about the Remains of an Alternative Modernity,” Lucca: Institute of Advanced Studies (IMT), 2009.

3. Claudia Hilb, ¡Silencio, Cuba! La izquierda democrática frente al régimen de la Revolución Cubana (Buenos Aires: 2010).

4. Barrington Moore, Jr., Terror and Progress: USSR. Some Sources of Change and Stability in the Soviet Dictatorship (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1954).

5. Victor Zaslavsky, The Neo-Stalinist State. Class, Ethnicity and Consensus in Soviet Society (New York: Sharpe, 1982).

6. Das Leben der Anderen, a 2006 drama film by writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

7. Juan E. Corradi et al., eds., Fear at the Edge. State Terror and Resistance (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1992).

8. In part, the “Sovietization” of Cuba was a consequence of the spectacular failure of an economically irrational decision by the Líder máximo—the failed “record” sugar harvest of 1970, reminiscent of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward.”

9. Consider the powerful theoretical argument by Charles Tilly, Durable Inequality (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1999). For the dysfunctional legacies of Cuban socialism, see Edward Gonzalez and Kevin F. McCarthy, Cuba After Castro: Legacies, Challenges, and Impediments (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2004).

10. For an illustration see another German film, Bye Bye Lenin! directed by Wolfgang Becker, 2003.

11. For an interpretation that still values the nature and persistence of a Cuban alternative modernity, see Antonio Carmona Baez, State Resistance to Globalization in Cuba (London: Pluto Press, 2004).

12. A useful contribution to this comparison is B. Smith, “Life of the Party. The Origins of Regime Breakdown and Persistence under Single-Party Rule,” World Politics 57, no. 3 (2005): 421–51. See also Mark P. Sullivan, “Cuba After Fidel Castro: Issues for US Policy,” CRS Report for Congress, August 2005.

13. See Joel Hellman, “Winners Take All: The Politics of Partial Reform in Post communist Transitions,” World Politics 50 (1998): 203–34. For a comprehensive review of post-Fidel scenarios, I recommend the research report produced under my guidance by the Rumanian doctoral candidate Emanuel Ionut Crudu, “Exploring the Future of Cuba. Scenarios about the Remains of an Alternative Modernity,” Lucca: Institute of Advanced Studies (IMT), 2009, op. cit.

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