Searching for Middle Ground: Cuba's Chronic Dilemma

By Holly Ackerman | 1997-01-01 12:00:00

The plotline of Cuban history is a story of hope gone sour - of a proud, energetic, and opinionated people who have been repeatedly thwarted. Among Cubans, discussion of Cuban history and politics is frequently reduced to debates over who are the worthy and the unworthy ancestors. Which unworthy forebearers betrayed the nation in favor of personal wealth, fame, or power? Which worthy souls sacrificed for the collective good? Who used violence and repression against whom? The circle of leadership is small enough that you can know the players and keep an intergenerational scorecard in your individual and collective memory.

The theme goes way back. Three separate wars of independence ended in a frustrated truce in 1898. The first two (The Ten Years War and The Little War) brought continuing Spanish rule. The third (which the Cubans call the Cuban War of Independence and the Americans call The Spanish American War) ended with the United States snatching victory from the Cubans, invading the island and imposing the Platt Amendment in 1901. Under Platt, the Cubans had to accept U.S. rights of intervention as a condition of "independence." It was an option the U.S. exercised in 1906 in response to Cuban invitation and twice more as a unilateral action, landing troops in 1912, and 1917. In 1961, a joint exile-CIA invasion party failed at Playa Girón (known in the U.S. as the Bay of Pigs).

After independence, in 1902, a succession of Cuban political leaders (the clearly unworthy ancestors) used repressive tactics to rob the place blind. Reformers (the worthy but ineffective ancestors) couldn't establish enough consensus to gain office or to have an orderly transition of government and continuing social peace. Still others (the worthy but unwilling ancestors) were capable and popular but refused to engage in politics - seeing it as inherently corrupt. The "truly worthy" usually died young in defence of altruistic patriotic goals that never got tested in practice. Hence, the constant nostalgia about what might have been, who could have carried it off, and who belongs in which category. An unspoken thread that runs throughout is the willingness of most Cuban political groups to use terror. Until 1962, bombings, shoot-em-ups, and political assassination were as common as coffee and tobacco.

These features hold whether you're discussing the wars of liberation from Spanish colonialism, U.S. neocolonialism or the internal struggle to establish a national identity and a sovereign ship of state. Nor is the plotline altered by geography. The good-guy/bad-guy motif continues to be used both on the island and within the diaspora. As I'll illustrate, the "Revolutionary triumph" of 1959 varied, but didn't really alter, the basic pattern - it just obscured the local elements and made the whole pattern international. By this I mean that the notoriety and hope which accompanied the Cuban Insurrection of 1959 brought a groundswell of world interest and support. In the process many people were convinced by the charismatic revolutionary leadership (principally Fidel Castro and Che Guevara) that the good guy/bad guy theme had crystallized for the first time. What is more, many were convinced that all the unworthy relatives in the national family had fled to the U.S. The vision of struggle came to include a united, revolutionary people with incorruptible leaders, versus the U.S. bully who invited newly-arrived bad guys to whisper hostile foreign policy suggestions in his ear. In the process, the contest over Cuban national identity was ignored, even as a worldwide polity bought into the simplistic meta-theme of worthy and unworthy groups.

My basic argument is that the complex problem of national identity remains active among Cubans despite having been confused with, and obscured by, the high profile given to U.S.-Cuban relations. For purposes of peaceful national reconciliation it needs to be disaggregated into more discrete issues. In the intervening 37 years, the political culture of Miami has been understudied and oversimplified, while the political culture in Cuba has been made sacred and is frozen in its 1959 colors. I contend that the political culture of exile has incorporated gradual but significant changes through democratization, while the political culture of the island has been imposed and maintained through repression. The surface appearance of consent and belief on the island is a veil. The monolithic nature of Miami is a misconception. Worse still, the divided Cuban nation continues to be thwarted by this bipolar image. Those who wish peace with justice for the Cuban people must begin to entertain the possibility that the Cuban dilemma is more local, complex, and diverse than formerly imagined. Three current myths need reevaluation.

Myth #1: Dedicated socialists in Cuba - Grasping materialists and social misfits in Miami

Visitors to Cuba often come away with the impression that the population is supportive of the Castro government and committed to a socialist course. Cracks in national unity are grudgingly acknowledged and attributed to the loss of Soviet aid coupled with the tightened U. S. embargo (known in Cuba as "the blockade"). If the government has lost some unity with the people, it has only lost it recently and simply because of economic shocks and U.S. aggression. Recent rafters arriving in South Florida tell a different story.

Diosdado Gomez [pseudonyms are used throughout to protect confidentiality], a university-educated architect from Havana who arrived in 1992, explains how his alienation built over a lifetime. "It is a subtle process. They don't need to use force because the repression is so complete in each life. Starting in childhood, your parents tell you every day when you leave for school, 'don't tell them we ate meat yesterday, don't say we turn off the radio when Fidel speaks, don't tell them we heard from the relatives in Miami.' You can see the fear in your parents' eyes, you see they are helpless. You know the local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution can search your house at will - you have to account for your guests, the smells that come from your kitchen, your clothes, everything. Over time, you build a mask, a double face. If you want education and prospects you have to have a very good mask - university and desirable jobs are only for the compliant. You join the economy of small favors (la economia de prebendas) - it is the system of pilfering from the state and getting access to goods through political compliance. It only increases your fear and a feeling of deep, sad emptiness.

"The whole population lives this way - pretending and stealing - accusing each other of deviation or slacking in order to get a bar of soap or a more favorable position or just to show you can be trusted. You go to the voluntary work and to the plaza. You shout 'Viva Fidel' and you feel helpless and empty. Finally I went to sea. I was already dead inside - what happened at sea didn't matter. I said, well, at least I'll be trying."

Paula Morales, a fifth-year medical student from Pinar del Río who arrived in 1994, put the interaction of "the mask" and "the economy of small favors" this way. "We talk in Cuba of being forced to wear masks of compliance and we say we want to take them off. But, over time, they have been grafted to our faces and we would rip our own features off if we suddenly revealed what's underneath. So, we leave and hope they will dissolve in a new environment."

The highly-touted Cuban system of universal education and work also looks very different to the rafters. Modesto Estevez, a physical education teacher in his early thirties from Pinar del Río explains what happens to those who don't wear a mask. "My mother was religious and, as a child, she would not let me wear the bandana that shows your solidarity with the revolution. Each day, the local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution would force her to come to school and we would have to stand in front of the class while she was berated by the children and adults for counterrevolutionary attitudes. Each day, I was asked to choose between her and the revolution and was offered the bandana. I never took it from them. Finally, she said my father would never have work again if I didn't take it - we had no choice. I took it because my parents told me to. But, our lack of integration was known - your political history is part of your education record and it followed me.

"I wanted to be an engineer but my history didn't permit me to go to the university and so I was sent for technical training as a physical education teacher because I was physically strong. It was a low-paying job and not suited to my temperament but I became the captain of the rowing team - first locally, then nationally. I took out my frustration on the oars. We won the national championships and were to compete in games in East Germany. State Security decided I was unreliable and the team was sent without me. Imagine, a rowing team without their captain! I was blamed for the loss. If I had integrated myself better they might have won. I became completely enraged and frustrated."

Eventually, Estevez became a human rights advocate and spent several years in prison. A history of thwarted career objectives and years of government-assigned study has undoubtedly played a part in discouraging the work force. Absentee rates above 50 percent were routine even during the 1970s and early '80s, long before the end of Soviet subsidies brought massive unemployment.

Between 1994 and 1995, I interviewed, surveyed, or read the immigration records of over 700 of the 16,778 Cubans who entered the U.S. directly between 1989 and July of 1994, when President Clinton prohibited direct entry, sending an additional 32,000 rafters to refugee camps at Guantánamo Naval Base. I analyzed questionnaires completed by an additional 642 refugees at Guantánamo. The wish to give up the "mask" was the number one reason given for wanting to leave Cuba. Most rafters leaving before July 1994 had planned their exit for months or years and often had wanted to leave for as long as 20 years. Neither were they social misfits or pre-revolutionary elements who had finally left. They were young, educated, mostly married, and geographically dispersed: the average age was 27; over 60 percent had completed secondary education and another 15 percent had university education; 72 percent were married; only 39 percent were from Havana.

These are the "new men" Guevara and Castro molded. Theirs is the reality that vacationing tourists and political tourists do not see, but it is the reality for most Cubans. Eighty percent of rafters between 1989 and July 1994 had no immediate relatives waiting in Miami. They didn't set out for a known and comfortable future. They fled a system that exhausted them.

Those Cubans who entered exile before 1980 were called Batistianos, parasites, and worms. They were also labeled as rich and exploitive. Professionals and large landowners did tend to come early, but they formed a small part of the total. In 1968 alone, over 50,000 small businesses - mostly restaurants, repair shops, and garages - were confiscated in one day by the state. These proprietors and skilled laborers are the working people who made up the bulk of the pre-1980 exodus.

In the U.S. their diversity continues to be evident. Almost 15 percent of Cubans in the U.S. live below the poverty level and only .8 percent earn more than $100,000 per year according to the 1990 Census. The median income for all Cubans in the U.S. was $12,325 in 1989. The myth of South Florida (home to 65 percent of Cuban exiles) as the refuge of right-wing sugarmill owners, conspiring to reclaim their properties in Cuba, is just that.

Myth #2: Each exit is an emotional ending

There is a lop-sided, out-of-sight-out-of-mind assumption that lies beneath the image of two separate Cuban nations. Right-wing politics, aimed at reclaiming economic domination, is believed to continue in exile but emotional attachment and mutual aid are rarely mentioned in the international press. In fact, mutual aid has never stopped, nor has it been reserved only for kinfolk or for those who leave Cuba. Consider the case of Lourdes Navarette.

During the rafter crisis of 1994, Navarette, a Miami housewife whose husband is a commercial airline pilot, heard that over a thousand rafters who had set out from the southern side of Cuba were stranded on Grand Cayman Island. She couldn't put them out of her mind. She felt they were being ignored as the world focused on Guantánamo.

Navarette used her access to cheap plane fare to go to the island. She found 1,200 Cubans crammed into a tent city built for 200. On the day she arrived, dinner consisted of water boiled with a few vegetables. The rafters were using scavenged cans for dishes and were sharing those. No one had proper bedding or sufficient clothes. She talked with refugees who were wearing the clothes they had arrived in weeks before. Some had lost their shoes.

Navarette charged food to her MasterCard, then returned to Miami to speak on the Cuban radio stations (in Miami, radio talk shows are a source of constant dialogue within the Cuban community). She asked for donations and said she would spend every dime on the refugees. In 10 subsequent trips she took clothing, 1,200 sets of plates, utensils, bedding, and weekly supplies of food for the entire group. She convinced United Airlines to fly the mountain of cargo as a charitable donation. Local doctors from The Miami Medical Team flew down to organize clinics. The money came from Cubans in Miami who didn't know Navarette and didn't know the rafters - they just knew what it was to be Cuban and in need.

Navarette's efforts were substantial but not rare. For two years, 200 rafters stranded in the Bahamas were fed, clothed, and housed by the Miami exiles. Between 1991 and 1994, over 4,000 rafters were saved by four different exile-led groups of pilots who used local donations to buy planes and comb the Straits of Florida. Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue), whose pilots were shot down in international waters by the Cuban government, is the largest and best-known of these groups, but not the only one. The single largest source of humanitarian aid and remittances to Cubans on the island is Cubans in the U.S. Estimates of the value of remittances and exile visits (while they were allowed by the U.S. government) varied between $300 and $1,000 million annually. Since 1978, exiles have been allowed to return to Cuba and, by 1994, over 500,000 trips had been made. This view of the Cuban nation from below is almost never acknowledged.

Following the recent damage from hurricane Lili in October 1996, exiles amassed 40 tons of donated food within three days. Much was made by the Cuban government of aid that arrived marked with "political slogans." Some exile organizations marked containers with the word "exile" or with the phrase "Through love everything is possible." Most chose not to mark their gifts. The unmarked aid was distributed without fanfare through the Catholic church in Cuba. The marked cans were sent to hurricane victims in the Bahamas after the Cuban government rejected them with front page headlines in Granma (the main Cuban newspaper). The point is, a strong tradition of anonymous mutual aid continues within the divided Cuban nation but it is poorly publicized. It is a tradition that can lead to peace.

Myth #3: Cuban charm is a revolutionary product

Many of those who visit Cuba come away charmed. Everyone is so lively, determined, and optimistic, despite the shortages. This demeanor is often cited as evidence of revolutionary support and socialist transformation. I argue that this is simply a Cuban cultural trait. Confusing persistent cultural patterns with political accomplishments has badly confused the Cuban case.

Several hundred Cubans remain in Peru. They were among the 10,800 that requested asylum at the Peruvian embassy in Havana in 1980 (the incident that sparked the Mariel boatlift) and were flown there in an initial airlift. They live outside Lima in utter squalor in unheated cement huts with dirt floors. The Peruvian economy has never had room for them and they work as itinerant street vendors selling coconut candy. If you meet them, you will come away charmed. They're optimistic and eager to talk. The fact is, on the whole, Cubans are charming, optimistic, and eager to talk. It is a deeply embedded cultural trait that has withstood Spanish domination, U.S. domination, and Castroism, and it ought not be confused with any of them. It's a simple point that lends itself to charges of essentialism. At the same time, national character is real. In the case of Cuba, reconciliation will be well served by delinking charm from politics.

Where does this leave us? I hope with a more informed debate that begins to have some middle ground. Admittedly, it is ground that moves from the edges of two extreme positions. Nonetheless, it is an extension. Those in the international community who have adhered to extremes on Cuba - knowingly or intuitively - need not follow in the tradition of seeing only good or bad ancestors. Appeals to mutual aid and recognition of the desire for national reconciliation have currency in Cuba's present economic malaise as well as in her history. Pressure for national dialogue among all parties could expand the middle ground.

Holly Ackerman is an assistant professor of social work and Latin American studies at Tulane University, New Orleans. She previously lived and worked in southern Florida.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1997

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1997, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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