MARCH 4, 2014
“Individuals continually feel the impact of the new social power and perceive that they do not entirely measure up to its standards. Under the pressure of indirect education, they try to adjust themselves to a situation that they feel is right and that their own lack of development had prevented them from reaching previously.”
— Che Guevara, March 1965
CUBA, whose revolution turned 55 years old earlier this year, has long pursued a great social and political experiment, attempting, as Guevara wrote, to inspire individual change through political example. Rather than beginning with a theory of human nature and building a better society for it, Guevara began with his vision of an ideal society and figured out how individuals, characterized by Guevara as an “unfinished product,” needed to change to bring it into existence.
Guevara’s writings about the new man, as he called his reformed vision of men and women alike, came about in full after Fidel Castro’s rise, and therefore directly tackled how a society is to proceed after a change in government has occurred. As a result, the new man is not so much a basis or justification for revolution as it is a prescription for how to guarantee a revolution’s success. The goal is not just a new society, but a “new society in which individuals will have different characteristics.”
That’s a fundamentally idealistic project and, when it comes to implementation, a dangerous one. Its inclinations share much with Mao’s rule in China, and particularly the Cultural Revolution, which was about to begin when Guevara laid out his own theories. It’s also an attempt to solve that most intractable problem faced by communism: the distance between its planned objective and end results. In the face of that disconnect, Guevara suggests that perhaps the problem is not with the blueprint but with the raw material, that “to build communism it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build the new man and woman.”
However, notwithstanding Guevara’s radical ideas and some concrete positive achievements, Cuba has been unable to fulfill the lofty aspirations that its revolution promised, and, for the past decade, has been crawling toward the free-market, implementing reforms that have opened up previously unthinkable possibilities of private ownership and entrepreneurship: the very same economics of inequality against which the revolution, in principle at least, was launched. This is the moment that Marc Frank’s Cuban Revelations observes — a time when Cuba’s communist project is at risk of slowly disintegrating. That very possibly spells the demise of the new man, exposing it as another practically untenable grand theoretical project. But Cuba’s nascent age of reform may also afford the opposite possibility: it may prove the notion to be more resilient than even Guevara might have imagined.
Marc Frank, a reporter for Reuters and the Financial Times, has been living in Cuba for almost 25 years. He is married to a Cuban woman and has Cuban children. As a result he has a stake in the Cuban project and he sees quite clearly that, halfway into its fifth decade, the revolution faces a crossroads: either it readjusts and takes its foot off the communist accelerator, shifting to a market economy much like China has done, or it continues down the path it has been travelling for decades, in which case it must demonstrate to its people that the ultimate outcome will be more than a poor island whose admirable universal health care still doesn’t quite compensate for many Cubans’ day-to-day struggle to survive.
Frank clearly argues for the former option; his criticisms bear the tone of a man who loves his adopted country and wants it to get its act together once and for all. He hides neither his admiration for Cuba nor his pride at its citizens’ ability to survive the numerous tumultuous times and turbulences that outsiders repeatedly predicted would lead to chaos in the streets and, finally, the end of the Castro regime. “You would make a fortune,” Frank writes, “if you could patent as an antidepressant whatever brain chemical kept the Cubans’ spirits up through the hard times.” The book chronicles the various hardships faced by communist Cuba, looking past the numerous assassination attempts aimed at Fidel Castro since 1959, to the two particularly grave threats the country has faced: first, the demise of the USSR in 1991, and second Fidel’s deteriorating health throughout the 2000s, which forced him to hand power over to his brother, Raúl, in 2008.
The fall of the Soviet Union brought about what the Cuban government, in remarkable double speak, called the “Special Period.” Beforehand, the Soviets had provided generous trade subsidies to the Cubans. As Frank describes it, the USSR bought Cuban sugar at well-above market prices and also purchased 90% of Cuba’s other exports. When the regime fell, Cuba faced the prospect of economic catastrophe — its GDP fell 35% over three years, its foreign trade plummeted 75% over the same amount of time, and its society increasingly devolved: corruption increased greatly and the black market burgeoned. As Frank writes: “The grossly underpaid economic bureaucracy more and more turned to embezzlement and kickbacks.”
The story of Cuba’s current reforms has its beginnings here, since it was the lack of aid from the USSR that forced Fidel to open up the country to tourism and the US dollar. From there, Cuba has moved between claiming that such changes are merely small adjustments to an unchanged revolutionary program and acknowledging, quickly and quietly, that past policies in fact required a nearly complete overhaul. The first stance has only been possible because of Venezuela’s support; the oil-rich South American country began to provide subsidized resources to the country when Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999. But that has not completely stopped the bleeding, and since Raúl took over the presidency there has been explicit declarations that structural changes to the economy are required and on their way.
It’s the transition represented by Raúl Castro that Frank focuses on most. In slow steps, Frank argues, the younger Castro is rejuvenating the country. He has, for instance, removed many of the old revolutionaries from his cabinet and formed the “outlines of a plan that would reengineer Cuban socialism and end its paternalistic practices and the state’s monopoly of the retail sector and agriculture.” Cubans now face fewer obstacles to starting businesses, owning property, and buying foreign cars. Welfare is increasingly directed only to those who need it rather than the entire population. The reforms, in Frank’s words, seek “to replace social, across-the-board subsidies with individual reward and target welfare”; in Raúl’s words, they “replace subsidizing goods and services with subsidizing people.”
The successes of Cuba’s revolution are cited often: universal health care and literacy, as well a high quality of social programs, particularly relative to the rest of Latin America. But its failures have come in two equally important areas: its economy and its political culture. When it comes to the former shortcoming, Frank is a forceful and strident critic. He outlines the absurdities of the Cuban economy with exacting detail and just a little bit of know-it-all superiority.
The bureaucracy, Frank explains, is often stifling enough to counteract the very outcomes it hopes to produce. In the 1960s, in an effort to combat the country’s lack of fresh milk in the country, the Cuban government forbade Cubans from killing cattle without state permission. A cow registry was initiated, but ultimately it became clear that Cubans could easily report a cow as stolen or killed in an accident when in fact it had been slaughtered. As a result, Frank writes, the state assumed the farmer’s guilt in nearly ever case. “It became a risky business even for a true-believing revolutionary farmer to raise a cow in Cuba for milk,” Frank continues, “and I have talked to a few old-timers who simply concluded it was not worth the bother.” By 2005, cattle herds had shrunk and milk production was at the same level as in 1958. Meanwhile, the population had doubled.
Frank also describes how, before reforms began, rigid state planning of the economy came hand-in-hand with corruption:
The state provided supplies (though often they went missing due to poor management and theft) and set serving amounts and prices for a cup of coffee or ham sandwich, haircut, manicure, taxi ride, watch repair, or even a shoe shine, though these were regularly ignored, as higher-ups were given a cut of the take and inspectors paid off to look the other way.
The way Frank sees it, anyone with half a brain would realize that these policies do nothing to help either Cuba or its citizens. That said, Frank’s description of the Cuban people does not make them look like fools who buy into the situation. Rather, he never hides the high esteem he has for Cubans. “I can’t imagine any people on earth putting up with such bullshit with as much grace and humor and decency as the Cubans have managed,” he writes at one point.
Of course, Cuba’s centralized economy is not the only out of date policy that has stubbornly continued for decades and prevented the country from developing. Since 1960, the United States has maintained an economic embargo against Cuba that only increases in absurdity with every passing year. Small concessions have been made — travel has become easier for Cuban-Americans and certain companies are allowed to do business in Cuba — but the general strictures remain, even as most of Latin America has grouped together to condemn the American policy and, most frustratingly, even as the economic benefits of lifting all sanctions have become evident: for several years after agricultural exports became permitted in 2000, the United States became Cuba’s top food supplier, with Brazil only recently stepping in as the main exporter.
The embargo has also clearly failed as an impetus to foster rebellion. As a principled stance, it stinks of hypocrisy, considering the Unite States’ support of other undemocratic regimes. As a political matter, it only demonstrates how if an outraged group (Cuban exiles) happens to reside in an election battleground state (Florida), their voice rings louder than common sense. Ultimately, reading Frank’s descriptions of the shifts in US policy — of how brief concessions are followed years later by re-intensification — one gets the sense that impatience is the Unite States’ primary weakness: it demands immediate regime change and is not willing to settle for slow change or reform.
The hard-headedness of that policy is evident since, after decades of staring down the world’s superpower, and almost 25 years after losing its main benefactor in the USSR, Castro’s revolution lives on. It is this unexpected longevity that also makes Frank only cautiously optimistic about Raúl Castro’s reforms. Just as he knows that Cuban society won’t unravel whenever the country hits a moment of turmoil, he is equally aware that any real change will come slowly and only from the group of Cubans that he calls “the grey zone” — “citizens who were not directly opposed to, or somewhat supported, the socialist system, but who were tiring of its abuses.” Frank may regret the pace, but such a home-grown source of reform is to his liking. As much as he disparages the Castros, he is no fan of the exile community in Florida and their conservatism either. This is Frank’s liberal instinct: he’s neither for revolution nor counter-revolution. Not for the hardliners or the exiles. Somewhere in the middle, he wagers, lies the promise of a prosperous, equitable, still socially progressive Cuba.
Yet even as Frank’s vision of a brighter future is appealing, the holes in his narrative are worrisome. He’s unflinching in his attacks on the Cuban economy, but he dances around Cuba’s equally troubling, stifled political culture.
The first signs of Frank’s problematic approach come at the book’s start, when describing Fidel’s “Battle of Ideas” — an ideological project that the aging president embarked upon in 1999 to rejuvenate the country’s support of Cuba’s communist revolution. In Frank’s telling, we get only a vague idea of the initiative. He tells us that it was “built on the struggle around the child castaway Elián González,” who in 1999 was the focus of a custody battle between his Cuban-American family in Miami and his father in Cuba. He reports that hundreds of protests and speak-outs took place in the six years following the González incident. Frank fails to note the severity of the campaign, the ideologically loyal troops going from house to house enforcing Castro’s dictates. Nor does Frank draw comparisons to China’s Cultural Revolution, as Jon Lee Anderson did in a 2006 New Yorker article, which stressed that the tension between this public governmental boosterism and citizens’ private involvement in the black market, “could erupt into open unrest.”
Frank’s treatments of the restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of movement in Cuba are equally hazy. He acknowledges both as problems, but at times seems to dismiss their seriousness. In one instance, describing the arrest of 75 dissidents in 2003, Frank strongly implies that the action was merely a reaction to increased American agitation in the country. Certainly the push-and-pull between the two countries leads to such rising tension at times, but it is unfortunate that Frank condemns the US actions more forcefully than he does the Cuban repression.
In another case, Frank describes the death of imprisoned dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo after an 85-day hunger strike as “further indication that the central government’s command and control was breaking down.” But it’s the fact that a dissident was jailed in the first place that is the more basic problem. To be clear, Frank doesn’t make a case for imprisoning the dissidents or any similar policies. Yet he remains silent, moving into a dry reportorial tone when these matters arise, using other people’s stories, like that of Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s successful campaign to have dozens of political prisoners released in 2010, to broach the topic. In contrast, when it comes to the economy, Frank allows himself the pleasure of referring to Cuban policies as “stupidities.” As a foreign journalist living in Cuba, Frank may be worried about his family and his job; as he says in the book, criticism of the economy is something that regular Cubans are permitted to express today, whereas talking about jailed dissidents or calling for the end of a one-party system is still less common.
Frank does note some promising signs of change. In the years since Raúl took power, dissidents have been discussed at book fairs and controversial Cuban films and plays have been shown in the country. Travel restrictions have been almost entirely eliminated. Term limits have been instituted, although the one-party system remains, and official forums for public debate have emerged, giving Cubans a limited space in which to voice their criticism of the state. Unfortunately, these discussions are dispersed over several chapters, with far less discussion of the glaring abuses that came before. Even taking into account the country’s slow move toward greater freedom, or a self-protective instinct on Frank’s part, any book about Cuba that doesn’t, or can’t, fully broach the topic of political freedom is not only incomplete but misses the chance to get to the heart of the Cuban dilemma.
It is distressing that the transition from revolutionary government to plain government has so far eluded Cuba. As Susie Linfield writes in a recent Boston Review article about Israel: “A state that does not mature out of its revolutionary phase risks, at best, the negation of its original raison d’être and, at worst, self-destruction.” Even in China, as Evan Osnos pointed out in a recent New Yorker article, the Communist Party “officially stopped calling itself a ‘revolutionary party’ and adopted the term ‘Party in Power.’” It’s not yet clear if Raúl Castro’s reforms signal the beginning of that change for Cuba. In Frank’s estimation, by shifting away from the suppression of “individual reward and consumption” Castro’s new policies represent the end of the pursuit of that revolution’s mythical goal. The reality, I would suggest, is far less determined: the new man has not been discarded as a prototype. If we’re in fact seeing Cuba open up to the world and slowly embrace socio-political freedoms, then as Cuba’s revolution enters middle-age, the presence of the new man, and through it, the long-term possibilities of Cuba’s revolution, is actually being tested. It is, perhaps, appropriate that such a change should come now. For as Guevara once wrote, “What we must create is the human being of the 21st century.”