It’s hard to bite the hand that feeds you

In my last post, I argued that Cuba’s lack of a real civil society creates a poor groundwork from which social movements could develop on the island. But behind this, and every potential outlet for change to occur, lies the state.

I don’t know if I’ll ever feel satisfied by my understanding of how the Cuban state operates and how it shapes Cuban society. Since I began studying Cuba, I’ve had a break through every few months, in which I feel like I’ve made progress, like another piece of the puzzle has fallen into place. But I doubt that it will ever be complete. I don’t think I’m alone in this. The people and the state share more common ground in Cuba than they do in almost any other country on earth.

Even with the recent economic reforms, nearly 80% of the workforce is employed by the Cuban government—this is almost of half of the nation’s population. And the vast majority of Cubans rely on the state for nearly every aspect of their livelihood—in addition to employment, there’s housing, utilities, health care, education, food. The state is omnipresent in life on the island.

Many scholars have argued that the Castro government has prevailed in large part because of its unique blend of control and charisma, and because it is intimately tied to the life and survival of almost every citizen of the country. I think this is on point.

It’s not surprising that the Cuban state is often depicted as exercising repression upon Cuban people, and it’s not inaccurate either. But this kind of analysis implies that there is a clear distinction between the people and the state, that the state is a monolithic force holding the Cuban people (who we imagine to be unified in their desire for change) captive. In reality, there is no one in Cuba who doesn’t have a close relative or friend who works for the state in some capacity—to draw such a sharp distinction between people, or individuals, and the state, suggests that they are somehow separate from one another, but this is almost never the case.

Cuban bloggers like Laritza Diversent and Miriam Celaya, who have written recently about the possibility of a popular uprising happening in Cuba, say that shame and guilt are enormous obstacles in this. This is powerful evidence of the paternalistic nature of the relationship between individuals and the state in Cuba. It’s hard to bite the only hand that has ever fed you. And when you think about doing it, you feel guilty.

In messages sent by Miami and Spain-based groups who attempted to start a popular movement in Cuba via Facebook last week, it was evident that at least some of these people believed that all Cubans needed was to see the example of Egypt in order to realize that they could start their own revolution. This too is paternalistic, and terribly naive. As they are often told, Cubans on the island live in perpetual revolution. The story of the renegade group that became the heroes of the Cuban revolution burns in every Cuban person’s brain, regardless of how they feel about what this revolution became. I also think, like Celaya, that it is naive to assume that a popular uprising could succeed in changing Cuba for the better. It’s very hard to imagine sufficient popular support for such a thing, but assuming that this could happen, who would lead the country in the wake of the government’s fall? There is no institutional autonomy in Cuba, and there is no culture of leadership beyond the highest echelons of the state. There is no equivalent to the military in Egypt, for instance.

Some have dared to suggest that Yoani Sánchez should become president. This is not quite as crazy as backing a Tea Party candidate, but it’s close. Aside from the fact that she has no experience in government, the libertarianism that bloggers like Sánchez claim to want would leave Cuba in serious trouble. In a country where the state has controlled but also taken care of citizens for this long, a regulation-free market and limited government would shock the population. If the person who once provided you with a place to live, food to eat, employment, healthcare, and schooling suddenly disappeared one day, you’d feel pretty upset. Multiply this by eleven million, and you can imagine what this might lead to in Cuba. Riots and mass starvation? Perhaps. Another revolution? I don’t know. Another authoritarian government? Entirely possible. I think that positive change in Cuba would be marked by a relatively strong, socialistic state that restored civil, political rights, and economic rights, upheld the UDHR, and reformed the elections system. But at the moment, it’s hard to see how could come about.


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