With or Without Fidel

For the first time ever on July 31, Fidel Castro, chief comandante of the Cuban Revolution, temporarily relinquished power. Incapacitated with severe intestinal bleeding, Fidel underwent emergency surgery and his brother Raúl Castro assumed the post of temporary president while Fidel recovered. But nearly three months later, as Fidel seems to be recovering from his surgery, he has not returned to the center stage. Has a devolution taken place to a new layer of revolutionary leadership?

Since its inception on January 8, 1959, the Cuban Revolution has survived a U.S.-supported invasion, the threat of nuclear war, a harsh economic embargo, and the collapse of its major trading partner, the Soviet Union. But could the Revolution survive the absence of Fidel? For many years, the U.S. Government had argued that Castro’s iron-handed rule was the reason the Cuban Revolution could withstand the various challenges, and that without him it would collapse. Yet despite the street parties among political conservative sections of the Miami exile community at the news of Fidel’s illness, the major uprising in Havana did not occur. Analysts were somewhat surprised to see the reaction of ordinary Cubans, who continued on with their normal activities and seemed concerned about their leader’s health.

While officially Fidel passed on presidential powers to his brother Raúl, word on the street is that a more meaningful transition has actually taken place, to a collective leadership of six men. These are Vice President Carlos Lage, Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, President of the Central Bank Francisco Soberón, Health Minister José Ramón Balaguer, Communist Party leader Esteban Lazo, and secretariat member José Ramón Machado Ventura, in addition to Defence Minister Raúl Castro.

The situation in Cuba may depend on the ability of these leaders to forge a collective leadership, as well as Cuba’s support networks in Latin America and the Caribbean, but what will also be at stake in the continuity of the Revolution is how much legitimacy it has among ordinary Cubans. On the ground, it seems that although the revolutionary euphoria of the 1960s has long waned, Cubans continue to believe that the Revolution was important and that elements of its values and institutions can be salvaged.

There is an important mass of Cubans within the arts, academic consortiums, social organizations, and work centers who have identified their criticisms of Cuban socialism, but continue to stay in Cuba and create dialogue and debate. Rather than hard liners such as Raul Castro, or dissidents, who are mostly based outside the island, it is these critically engaged Cubans who will most likely be the base of continuity and will actively shape the nature of any future transition.

Crisis and Transformation during the 1990s

Following the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1991, the Cuban political leadership continued to argue that Marxist-Leninist principles still constituted the basis of official ideology, although the ideas of other nationalist and revolutionary leaders such as José Martí should be incorporated. A rhetorical commitment to socialism, combined with the necessity of adopting market mechanisms in selected areas of the economy led to the segmentation of the economy into two.
During the 1990s, the tourism sector expanded dramatically as the major source of foreign exchange income; production and distribution functions of state-owned enterprises were transferred to foreign business through the mixed firm; traditional export markets were recuperated; and the dollar was legalized, so that the Cuban economy functioned as a dual dollar-peso economy. The state employed new strategies of labor discipline in order to achieve competitiveness in a world market.

The emergence of a critical layer of artists, intellectuals and activists in Cuban society can be traced to the political and economic liberalization of the early 1990s. The Cuban government legalized limited forms of self-employment, agricultural markets were established, and the renting of homes to tourists was permitted. Along with these liberalizing economic measures, the government was also more tolerant towards opposition groups as it attempted to improve its human rights image in order to attract investment and build support against the U.S. embargo.

Various official mass organizations and institutes began to gain a degree of independence from the state. The Center for the Study of America (CEA), which was established by the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, was granted Non Governmental Organization (NGO) status in order to project a more independent image, attract international funding, and facilitate international academic exchanges. Other institutes such as the Center for Psychological and Social Research and the Center Félix Varela, and journals such as Temas provided a space for debates about the crisis of state socialism. The feminist network Magín was formed in the mid-1990s as a result of the encounters of Cuban women in international meetings.

By the late 1990s, these spaces had begun to close up. The limited economic recovery of the country, its re-establishment of trade links with a range of countries, and the tightening of the US embargo through Track II of the Torricelli Law in 1995 and the Helms-Burton law in 1996 prompted more restrictions in Cuba. New prohibitions were placed on rental activity. Taxation measures designed to limit self-employment and laws passed to stop theft of state property in 1997 were part of a crackdown on the black market. The academics of CEA and the women of Magín were criticized by Raúl Castro in a March 1996 speech, and members of a group called the Cuban Council were arrested. The CEA collective was dissolved and their members were moved to other centers. Magín was also closed down.

The Formation of New Revolutionary Cultures

Following this series of confrontations, some activists, intellectuals and artists left Cuba. However, others stayed in Cuba and began to work within other institutions. Intellectuals from the CEA were sent to the Center for Psychological and Social Research, Center for Studies of the Cuban Economy, and the Center for Research on Cuban Culture, Juan Marinello. The women from Magín became active in the arts and other institutes such as the Cuban Society of Psychologists and the National Center of Sexual Education. These actors became involved with nascent cultural movements such as Cuban rap music and hip hop culture, poetry, performance art, video, and permaculture that were to create new avenues for critical participation within Cuban society.
Through the Cuban rap movement, young black Cubans began to address growing problems of racial discrimination and inequality in contemporary Cuban society. Rappers are strongly critical of the silencing of race issues within Cuban society, police harassment of black youth, and the marginalizing of black youth within a new tourist economy. But they are invested in the idea and legacy of the Cuban Revolution as the basis for their acts of resistance. Rappers associate the Cuban nation with the condition of “underground,” and its connotations of political awareness and rebellion. In their song “Rebellious Youth,” the name of the official youth newspaper, rappers Alto Voltaje claim that “Like a cross I go, raising the ‘underground’ banner for the whole nation.” In “My Country, Damn!,” Explosión Suprema state, “We are the Cuban ‘underground,’ almost without possibilities, but with the little that we have we are not dissenters.”

Rappers have identified their movement with statements by the political leadership about justice and sovereignty in the international arena. For instance, the Cuban state issued several statements condemning the arrest and subsequent sentencing in 2001 of five Cubans imprisoned in Miami because of their intelligence work for the Cuban government in the United States. A Cuban solidarity campaign to “Free the Cuban Five,” attracted followers around the world. In the song Asere (Cuban slang for friend, or “homie”), a collaboration between Cuban rappers Obsesión and Anónimo Consejo and Puerto Rican rapper Tony Touch, the rappers link the campaign of the “Cuban Five” to the struggles of Puerto Ricans on the small island of Vieques against US nuclear testing, and they criticize US hegemony in the region.

Transnational networks have played an important role in supporting cultural movements such as rap. North American rap music is the original source of Cuban rap music, and from the early days Cuban rappers have maintained close ties with rappers in the US. The visits of politically progressive African American rappers were crucial to the formation of Cuban rap and hip hop, particularly through a network known as the “Black August Hip Hop Collective.” Black August was a network established during the 1970s in the California prison system as a way of linking up movements for resistance in the Americas and the hip hop collective sought to draw connections between radical black activism and hip hop culture. Black August concerts held in New York raised money for the Cuban hip hop movement, including funding for an annual hip hop concert, attended by American rappers. International academic exchanges, regional feminist meetings, and other youth and cultural exchanges have been critical to the shaping of the new movements that have emerged on the island in the late 1990s and new millenium.
The developing political awareness of some sectors of Cuban youth, as well as the efforts of other Cubans active in state institutions and cultural centers around the country, is giving substance to a critical mass within the country. Cuban rappers, cultural activists, and intellectuals are reinterpreting the meanings and values of Cuban socialism in ways that are relevant for them today. As they define new paths and strategies, these actors find themselves in conflict with the hard-liners, but are also skeptical of a transition to market democracy that is being heavily promoted by the US Government.

Analysts have long sought to predict the fate of the Cuban Revolution, and have been proven wrong time and again. Rather than adding to this list of failed predictions, it is perhaps more fruitful to understand some of the actors on the scene, their visions of social change, and the futures they are engaged in fighting for.

Sujatha Fernandes is the author of a recently published book, Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures (Duke University Press, October 2006).

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