Viva la Revolución?

Professor Norman Girvan’s speech, on receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Havana last month, tells us lot about the enduring appeal of the Cuban Revolution, now 50.

One of the region’s pre-eminent development economists, he evokes the “transformative” impact of the triumph of the revolution on January 1, 1959 over the venality and brutality of the Batista regime, itself the puppet of a grotesque marriage of Yankee imperialism and mafia exploitation that had prostituted the island.

For the young Girvan and the West Indian Independence generation, the revolution was hugely significant in the struggle against colonialism and foreign domination. You would have had to go back to another New Year’s Day, January 1, 1804 and the proclamation of Haitian Independence, to find a more powerful symbol of freedom and anti-colonial sentiment in the Caribbean.

As Professor Girvan puts it, “the Cuban Revolution was a source of inspiration to many of us on the ability of a small Caribbean country to chart its own course of social justice, economic transformation, and national independence by relying on the will and energy of its people; with a leadership that trusted the mass of the population and refused to bow before threats, economic punishment and counter-revolutionary violence from the greatest military power on the planet.” Indeed, it is this David and Goliath syndrome that has arguably been responsible for the romanticizing of the revolution as a triumph of independence, self-sufficiency and indomitable will against the odds.

Nelson Mandela and his comrades imprisoned on Robben Island drew strength from the revolutionary fervour and defiance of Fidel Castro and his followers. True revolutionaries need that kind of inspiration to maintain the struggle and Mr Mandela and the ANC were ultimately vindicated in their fight against an abhorrent and unjust order.

Cheddi Jagan, Forbes Burnham, Michael Manley and Maurice Bishop embraced Cuba and its revolutionary ideology in varying degrees. All did so with near catastrophic political, social and economic consequences. In Guyana, we are to some extent still paying the price for our flirtation with communism and our adoption of cooperative socialism and practices rooted in party paramountcy and central control of the economy.

In Latin America, the radical left has risen again. Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, Evo Morales and Daniel Ortega are trying to re-engineer their societies, inspired by the Cuban Revolution and bankrolled by Venezuela’s petro-dollars. But even though the Washington Consensus and neo-liberalism have been proven to be socially and economically bankrupt, there is little evidence that populism and authoritarianism can lead to a viable and sustainable new economic model.

After 50 years, Cuba has moved from being, in Fidel Castro’s words, a “colony of the United States,” through being a subsidized satellite of the Soviet Union, to dependence on Venezuelan largesse. In spite of its well-known achievements in health and education – now significantly eroded some say – Cuba, with its centralized economic model, has been incapable of changing the fundamental structure of its economy to achieve true self-sufficiency. And its leaders have over the decades, in parallel with the US economic embargo, imposed a ruthless internal embargo on plurality of views and freedom of expression, which might just have endowed the revolution with the dynamism necessary to adapt and flourish, rather than stagnate.

Jorge Piñón, a Fellow at the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy, is perhaps more nuanced in his assessment, arguing that the problem is not so much Cuba’s centralized economy, as “inefficiency and lack of strategic planning.
Instead of setting the basic umbrella policy for the economy and bringing in the experts for day-to-day operations, Fidel Castro has always wanted to micro-manage.” Sounds familiar?

But let’s not digress. To be fair, Raúl Castro seems to understand Cuba’s structural challenges and appears inclined towards reform, though still somewhat constrained by Fidel’s massive influence. There needs to be more movement towards macroeconomic policies to stimulate growth, create jobs and raise personal income, but so far, there has only been some cautious tinkering.  Raúl has even allowed some criticisms to surface in the state-controlled, indeed the only, media, but serious dissidents are still being muzzled.
Nevertheless, Latin America and the Caribbean are determined that Cuba should once again resume its rightful place in the hemispheric family of nations. As we have reported, the Rio Group has accepted Cuba into the club and calls are being made for Barack Obama to lift the embargo and for Cuba to be readmitted to the Organization of American States.

This is all well and good. The US embargo is an anachronism and has for too long been a barrier to change in Cuba. It must end. At the same time, Cuba needs to be encouraged to open up politically as well as economically, and to move towards a society based on the observance of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression and freedom of choice, economic and political.

However, for too long, the dark side of the revolution has been glossed over by those who have found it more convenient to blame the hostility of successive US administrations than criticize the failings of the Cuban government.

It is therefore not sufficient to say, as Professor Girvan does, that the “miracle” of the survival of the Cuban Revolution, in the face of the US embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union, “can only be explained by the practice of a profound participatory democracy in Cuba, with a leadership that explains everything, a people that discusses everything, an economic adjustment that was equitably shared, and a people determined to defend their Revolution and their independence, no matter what the cost.” The Cuban Revolution might justifiably be considered a triumph of equity over gross injustice and of will over reality, but statements such as these constitute a wilful evasion of reality.

Yes, we should be grateful for all the humanitarian work the Cuban Government and people have done for us in the Caribbean, as Professor Girvan rightly points out. The good professor goes so far as to argue in rhetoric borrowed from Fidel that the debt “owed to the Cuban people by the rest of the Caribbean and indeed by all humanity” is “unpayable.”

We beg to differ. The debt is payable and we should repay it by doing all we can to help the Cuban people attain true political and economic freedom. Whitewashing the truth because of ideological sympathies or romantic notions just will not do.

In Guyana, those who, for example, rail against the inaction of Caricom during “28 years of dictatorship,” should readily understand the position of Cuban citizens who must feel isolated as they live their daily struggles and yearn for a little more prosperity, a little more freedom.

Even as we embrace Cuba – a beautiful island with beautiful people, who surely deserve better from their rulers after decades of sacrifice and deprivation – we should encourage Cuba to embrace change, by quietly but firmly reminding Cuba’s leadership of long-held and deeply cherished West Indian principles of freedom and democracy.

The revolution has survived to a battling half-century. It is time to draw a line and move on.