MIAMI — Unpredictability has long been the hallmark of social change in Cuba. Just when you think you know what’s going to happen, you are invariably surprised by the twists and turns of a revolution that has always had its own logic, or lack of it. The application of models from somewhere else, the attempts at predictability by looking at the experience of this or that other nation, have long frustrated the forecasters of the island’s future. The appeal, and the agony, of studying the Cuban revolution is precisely its extraordinary, even surreal, nature.
Who would have predicted that a Caribbean island would deploy its army throughout Africa, successfully engage South African forces, and become a factor in drawing the political map of that continent? Who would have predicted the storming of an embassy by more than ten thousand people and a resulting boatlift that chaotically brought more than 125,000 Cubans to the U.S.? Or that a little boy would capture the attention and emotions of two nations or that Fidel Castro would welcome a Pope to Havana? And who could have possibly predicted that Cuban exiles, the pawns of the CIA in a failed invasion, would someday hold the key to U.S. policy towards the island?
Seasoned observers of Cuba have therefore long learned caution in anticipating the future and have become inured to the inevitable surprise. Take, for example, the events of last February 24. The newly-elected Cuban National Assembly was scheduled to meet and vote on the members of the Council of State, that is, the President and Vice-President of the government, among others. Fidel Castro had already taken himself out of the running. Would Raúl Castro, his brother, send a message of change by allowing someone else to take the presidency while he and Fidel retained the all-important top positions in the party and the military? If not, then the choice of Vice-President would surely signal change. In the end, however, the old guard retained control of the government. There would be no symbolic tokens of change.
But to those of us who have long been observing the politics of the Cuban American community with respect to its homeland, what was most surprising about the events of February 24 was not what was happening in Havana, but what was happening in Miami. Cubans here were very interested in what the Cuban National Assembly would do. It was the talk of the town. Miami’s Spanish-language media stood ready to broadcast the news emerging from the Palace of the Conventions in Havana, where the Assembly was in session. At first glance, that may not seem extraordinary for an exile community that retains a vital interest in the affairs of the homeland. But it is unprecedented for this exile community. What in effect was happening was that attention was focused in Miami on a process occurring within Cuba’s political institutions.
That had never happened. Elections, meetings of the Cuban National Assembly or the Congresses of the Cuban Communist Party were usually noted in Miami only with a sneer. The exile view has always been that only one man with absolute power has ruled Cuba, and the institutions are mere window dressing. For exiles, their enemy, the one who drove them from their homeland, wasn’t a party or a movement or an army or a government or communism or the Soviets. It’s always had a name and a face: Fidel Castro.
That highly personal view of the revolution’s political system has invariably shaped the exiles’ perception of how change will occur in Cuba. For nearly five decades, opponents of Fidel Castro’s rule have stubbornly held on to a single vision of how the much-desired demise of his regime will occur. It stands to reason that if only one man holds power, then when that man somehow disappears everything will crumble. It is the caída or rupture scenario: Castro will fall and his government along with him. It will happen suddenly, on a given day, wiping out entirely the existing order and ushering in a new era. It is a view of change with historical precedents. Previous Cuban strongmen have all ended their rules that way: Gerardo Machado in 1933 and Fulgencio Batista in 1959. They were compelled to abandon power and flee the country. They did not leave behind any remnants of their regimes. The church bells rang out the following morning and it was a new day for Cuba.
Ever since Fidel Castro became ill in July 2006 and ceded his official duties to others, the rupture scenario has been in crisis. Admittedly, he has not disappeared from the scene, but what evidence has surfaced since his illness that the political system has been even remotely in danger of collapse with his physical incapacity to rule? Instead, we have witnessed a seamless transfer of power to his brother and to others, a transition made official on February 24. The process of replacing Fidel Castro has demonstrated something that had heretofore not been contemplated by the exiles and others outside of Cuba: the possibility that Castro’s perennial one-man rule is backed up by individuals and institutions with the capacity to stay in power and indefinitely prolong the regime in the absence of the leader.
Why such stability, in defiance of the predictions that the regime could not survive Castro? The more immediate answer may lie in the institutions themselves, which were created in 1976 during a long-overdue process of institutionalization that seemed to confirm Max Weber’s argument that there are limits to charismatic authority and that such authority eventually must be institutionalized. In the Cuban case, those institutions did not replace the undeniable personal authority of Castro, but they did provide a vehicle for succession. The focus on Fidel Castro has frequently served to take attention away from the fact that Cuba does have a constitution, and while it may well have been window dressing, the institutions did kick in at the critical moment.
Another explanation for the stability of the system rests on the fact that little has changed in the military and the internal security apparatus. Those elements of social control have shown their loyalty to the continuation of the political system. That loyalty, however, has profound historical roots. The Cuban revolution’s ability to consolidate and retain power has been due largely to its success in making itself the trustee of political values and ideals that were part of the process of Cuban nation building and that have long been central to national identity. But there is no need to expand here on those historical conditions. The reader can find them elegantly presented in Louis A. Pérez, Jr.’s essay in this SSRC website.
Obviously, then, the prospects for a rupture scenario appear to be dimming. It looks as if, contrary to the expectations of many, we are in for an evolutionary change that is likely to take place within the country’s existing institutions. But old ways of thinking die hard, especially among exiles. Many here in Miami still wait for the day, the precise day, in which we learn of a sudden and total change in the island’s future. Despite the interest in the National Assembly’s deliberations, the news of Fidel Castro’s replacement was greeted here with the response: “nothing has changed.” There is an incapacity to even consider viewing changes in Cuba as an evolution in which replacing Fidel Castro is an essential step in that process.
The possibility of a gradual change based on the country’s current institutions and leadership is a bitter pill for many exiles. It would mean that they may have to renounce one aspiration that all exiles usually hold dear: forming part of the destiny of their homeland. A rupture scenario represents the best chance for the participation of the exile community in the future of the island, especially if it is a chaotic and violent one in which U.S. may have a role in resolving. A gradual and evolutionary process, on the other hand, would not create much space for participation from the outside, especially from those exiles long hostile to the government. In other words, many in Miami cannot see the emerging reality of change in Cuba because but they do not want to see it.
The implications of this myopic vision extend beyond Miami, all the way to Washington, and therein lays the importance of looking at the exile community in this process of change. It is no secret that for nearly twenty five years Cuban exiles have exerted a major role in shaping U.S. policy towards the island. Various initiatives by Cuban exile organizations and by Cuban American members of Congress have resulted in not only maintaining the U.S. embargo on the island, but also in strengthening its scope and provisions. Those initiatives have invariably been enacted by the U.S. during election years, as politicians from both parties have sought to make largely symbolic concessions to what traditionally has swayed the Cuban American voter in a critical electoral state: supporting a tough-on-Castro policy.
Part of the influence of Cuban Americans on U.S. Cuba policy has been to sell Washington on the rupture scenario. The 1996 Helms-Burton Law, passed under considerable pressure from Cuban Americans after Cuba shot down two civilian planes from Miami, explicitly prohibits the U.S. from changing its policy while Fidel and Raúl Castro are in power. The lengthy 2004 Report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, drafted under the direction of former Under Secretary State for Inter-American Affairs, Otto Reich, a Cuban American, and adopted by the Bush White House, is essentially a blueprint for detailed U.S. involvement in administering a Cuba emerging from a total rupture in its institutions. Plans are outlined, for example, for “responding rapidly to changes on the island” including mobilization of humanitarian emergency relief efforts, such as the distribution of nonfat dry milk, immediate immunization programs for childhood illnesses, making sure schools stay open, and provisions for public security and law enforcement during the “initial stages” of a transition.
It is therefore not surprising that Washington’s response to the replacement of Fidel Castro echoed Miami’s: “nothing has changed.” To be sure, little has changed thus far. But the U.S. is clearly unprepared for dealing with the scenario we are facing. Its only plan calls for waiting until some precise moment when change is total, involves conditions required by the U.S., and, of course, with no Raúl Castro.
Change in Cuba has been unpredictable, but it has become evident that Washington and Miami have based their responses to events in Cuba on a prediction that now seems unlikely to happen. The Cuban government seems poised to survive Fidel Castro. Now what? That is the question many Cubans would like to ask their new President as his government eventually and inexorably moves away from the long shadow that for decades was cast by the historical leader of the Cuban revolution. And that is the question that both Cuban exiles and Washington should ask themselves if, as they have long maintained, they have the best interests of the Cuban people foremost in their minds.
Although the forces of stability and continuity are strong not only in Havana, but also in Washington and Miami, there are glimmers of hope. Just as the replacement of Fidel Castro opens the possibility of change in the island, so too does the possible replacement of leaders in Washington and Miami. For the first time in decades a leading candidate for the presidency of the United States has voiced a willingness to fundamentally change U.S. policy. In Miami, two of the most recalcitrant Cuban American members of Congress are facing tough reelection battles from Cuban American opponents who have challenged them precisely on their support for hardline policies towards the island.
As is to be expected, however, in all matters having to do with Cuba, what will happen in Havana, Miami, or Washington is, of course, unpredictable and likely to surprise us.