On Cuba

By Nelson Valdes | 1999-01-01 12:00:00

Regrettably, almost everyone who passes judgment on the Cuban revolutionary process - whether he or she favors or opposes it - does so out of context.

Many events in Cuba since 1959 have been tragic. First, the Cuban revolutionaries naively believed that it was possible to establish a society of justice and liberty at the same time. But neither the United States nor those fighting to preserve their own interests allowed such a process to unfold. Moreover, the revolutionaries and their opponents alike were products of their own political culture - a culture that offered little that can be considered democratic or respectful of personal liberty.

Cubans - like anyone else - are born in a pre-established society. Intolerance was deeply rooted in most traditional societies. The plantation economy, established in the 18th century and based on slavery, lasted until the late 1880s in the island. Then sharecropping and authoritarian relations of work and production were maintained throughout the sugar economy after the emancipation of the slaves.

In 1902 when Cuba became independent (in name), a republic was established, yet there was no right to collective bargaining; women had no right to vote; and males over 18 had to be literate in order to cast a vote. There were many political parties, but national sovereignty and real universal suffrage were absent. Neither the day-to-day institutions, nor the political culture of the country, nor the hegemonic impositions from outside favored a democratic system.

Second, the Cubans who fought against the revolutionary process were naive in their assumptions about the United States, which they regarded as an ally in their struggle against "Communism," and in their defence of capitalism. They did not comprehend that to the United States they were mere tools to be used, discarded, and then used again. The counter-revolutionaries and the political exiles, contrary to their own self-images, were just neocolonial instruments in the hands of Washington, DC. The revolutionaries in Havana understood that.

But - third - the revolutionaries in Havana were naive as well. They assumed that the Soviet Union would treat them as equals, though the Missile Crisis proved otherwise. Nevertheless, the revolutionaries still thought that it was possible to create a decent society in an underdeveloped country - as long as the Soviets provided a significant portion of the necessary capital. Then, one day, the USSR was no longer there and the small island of just 11 million souls, possessing few resources, found itself in an extraordinarily difficult position. Its many well-wishers over the world could offer the island few material resources. The struggle to remain independent became even more difficult, which has been an extraordinary tragedy as well.

Fourth, the great numbers of Cubans in the island had been taught that they had a right to education, to health, to social security, to employment, and to subsidized housing and food. In actuality, those things have slowly disappeared. The Cubans continue to believe that they have a right to material goods and a decent way of life, though the resources of the island make that exceedingly difficult. In the final analysis no one wishes to talk about this. The society is becoming more stratified and less just. The revolutionary leaders give numerous speeches about it but everyone understands the reality.

Finally, as the standard of living in Cuba has dropped and national independence seems threatened, as the United States Congress imposes ever harsher legislation on the island, there are those who shout now for the democratization of the island. This is naive as well. A working democracy is not a mere act of choice or faith. Numerous historical preconditions must be met before a real democracy (rather than the formality of democracy) will emerge.


Unfortunately, no one seems to be asking whether history, the international context, the political culture of the country, or the institutional context in Cuba (or Miami for that matter) permit the emergence and maintenance of democracy in the island. (The United States itself, which was established in 1776, did not establish the "voting rights act" until 1964 - which meant, of course, that even there the democratic institutional framework came slowly.)

Ideology on all sides blocks comprehension of the overwhelming odds against the Cuban people. They have much to confront in order to overcome their own historical and structural conditioning, even if some day the United States does recognize the island's right to independence. None of those elements seem to be on the horizon.


In a society with very high degree of stratification, the possibility of democracy is minimal. Even if the society's constitution guarantees equal political rights, if there is widespread poverty it is structurally impossible for the poor to enjoy those rights.

A high degree of social equality will create a more propitious environment for political democracy only if the population does not depend on just one employer - the state. If the state is the main provider of work and of social justice, that can have unfavorable influence on political behavior.

Another factor, of course, is the political culture. In a population in which dissent or political opposition is inter- preted as betrayal or treason (something widespread in pre-modern cultures regardless of the degree of technology) there is little room for political tolerance - a prerequisite for democracy. Neither right-wing dictatorships, left-wing revolutions, nor counter-revolutions offer moderation.

Among the other preconditions are an educational system that prepares people to be critical and discerning; a mass media that represents the interests of the population rather than those of the state or the private sector; a literate population; some degree of leisure time; and formalized rules of democratic process.

Only when Cuba and governments around the world face up to the challenging complexity of building democracy will a solution be found. Otherwise the appropriate decisions and correct policies will not be implemented.

Nelson P Valdes is a sociology professor at the University of New Mexico.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1999

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1999, page 20. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Nelson Valdes here

Peace Magazine homepage