Cuba: Opposition and Repression

Against the Current, No. 106, September/October 2003

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

THE WORLD IS not a simple place. It cannot be explained in the sharply contrasting tones that provide such delight to simple thought. It has actually never been simple, but this is truer now than ever. And there is no reason to believe Cuba is an exception.

Once again this small Caribbean island has occupied a prominent place in world debate, whether because of the “bad news, sad news that deeply hurt those who believe that . . . freedom and justice should exist together or they don’t exist at all,” as Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano lamented; or because, as Mexican anthropologist Daz Polanco put it, “Cuba is forever carried in the heart;” or, as Nobel peace laureate Jose Saramago outspokenly stated, “This is as far as I go. From now on, Cuba can follow its own path, and I will stay put;” or simply because, as the loquacious American academic James Petras argued, it has always been in the front line of all struggles.

This is not exactly a new situation. For decades, generations of Cubans have experienced the exalting pleasure of seeing their country assuming international roles that far exceeded the island’s dimensions, which probably explains Cubans’ high self-esteem in the world. Only Cuba’s notoriety now is not because of a large haul of Olympic medals or famous military victories, but rather a series of regrettable events that have put the country on the defensive in a particularly adverse international context.

The events are well known, so I will limit myself to summarizing them without comment. March 18 saw the detention of thirty-two activists from the fragmented organized Cuban opposition, all of whom had been at a meeting with the new head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

Another thirty-three were detained the following day, accused of receiving money from the U.S. government or its agencies, with the number captured continuing to rise until it reached seventy-five. In twenty-nine summary trials held over the course of a few days, all seventy-five were sentenced to between six and twenty-eight years in prison.

Meanwhile, citizens anxious to emigrate had hijacked two small planes carrying passengers, taking advantage of the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act that offers Cubans who set foot on U.S. soil the right to immediate asylum and to residency in a year’s time. And then on April 2, a small group of armed, mainly young people hijacked one of the frail boats that ferry passengers to different parts of Havana Bay and headed north towards Florida.

The ferry ran out of fuel some forty-five kilometers from Cuba and was towed back to port; no passengers had been hurt. In just one week, the kidnappers were captured, subjected to summary trials, and four of them shot by firing squad on April 10.

It was, to say the least, an unusually condensed set of repressive measures. The international reactions were very diverse, provoking an intense skirmish of articles, proclamations and a wide spectrum of viewpoints from leftist intellectuals and politicians around the world.

One extreme of this spectrum was unilateral condemnation of the repression and the other was unconditional support for the Cuban government’s policies in the face of U.S. interference, either accepting the imprisonment and executions as legitimate or simply not mentioning them at all. The Cuban press only aired the favorable positions and tarred all the critical voices as either confused or traitors who were accomplices of imperialist media aggression.

One Cuban cultural official summed up his position by saying, “In the ideological sustenance of the anti-Cuban campaign . . . that media in the empire’s service are amplifying with perfidious delight, there is agreement between individuals traditionally on the left and those who, from their unequivocal backing of the capitalist order, offer us the limitation of sovereignty as a solution. Both favor an elementary consequence of imperial supremacy and its media domination: countering the revolution with the supposedly libertarian condition of the essences of capitalism” (Fernando Rojas: “Rosa, Vladimir, las derechas y las izquierdas” on

Thus by decree of this inspired official, the left becomes right, the right stays where it was and all become mental mercenaries of the empire. The only thing missing was any mention of Judas and the thirty pieces of silver.

Response to U.S. “Single Thinking”

Midway through Clinton’s second term, in response to evident weakening of the embargo, the Cuban government started to implement a strategy designed to win support within the United States so it would be able to negotiate any normalizing of relations without having to make political concessions.

A key idea in this strategy has been to increase the purchase of agricultural products from the Midwest grain belt, a traditionally Republican economic sector, thus encouraging support from U.S. business sectors interested in the Cuban market and eventually an anti-embargo lobby that could be very effective in a country that prioritizes clients over friends. Another key point has been to strengthen the traditional alliance with liberal and left-wing political sectors opposed to their government’s interference in the island, a less effective lobby but one with a lot of symbolic value on the domestic political market.

At the same time, with a view to regrouping their political base in difficult times, the Cuban leaders set out on a crusade of mobilizations, public acts, television programs, etc., focused on very sensitive nationalist issues, such as little Elian Gonzalez or the current imprisonment in the United States in frankly abusive conditions of five young Cubans accused of spying.

In time, this series of actions began to take shape in what the Cuban President has termed “the battle of ideas.” But while this is a just reaction to the global predominance of neoliberal mercantilist ideology, it is contradictory in that it demands alternatives to “single thinking” internationally, while at the same time enthroning a single way of thinking nationally, with no room for discrepancy.

The arrival of the unilateralist team of hawks presided by George W. Bush in the White House changed the coordinates of the above scenario. This was less because of its particular right-wing devotion (after all, conservative crusader John Ashcroft actively opposed the embargo when a senator) than because of its well-known links with Florida and the incorporation into its ranks of figures strongly linked to the Cuban-American ultra-right who are very partial to “big-stick” foreign policy.

Although at the start the Cuban government tried hard to maintain a far more pragmatic collaborative position than it had with the previous administration, the Bush-Cheney administration was unreceptive to the signs. On the other hand, it did little to intensify the economic embargo and was generally moving in the same direction as its predecessor, which is essential to avoid affecting its political base of farmers and agricultural traders or generating new tensions with its European and North American allies over the reactionary Helms-Burton Law. Its main concessions to its vociferous supporters in southern Florida have been to increase its aggressive rhetoric, radio transmissions and relations with internal opposition groups.

Cason: Stupid or Calculated?

This was the context in which James Cason, the newly appointed head of the U.S. Interests Section, arrived in Havana. Cason’s behavior was the diplomatic equivalent of the charge up San Juan Hill of one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Under his command, the U.S. Interests Section increased its links with the small opposition groups, even organizing various meetings and workshops in his own residency. These were the very events that catalyzed the Cuban government’s repressive actions.

Cason’s activities deserve a more studied analysis. It would not be too far-fetched to think that Cason believed his support would allow the organized opposition to abandon its larval state and become a decisive force in Cuban politics, at the same way turning the United States into an internal player in the island’s politics. This is typical of the simplistic thinking that is normally behind U.S. formulations. After all, it has to be recognized that stupidity also plays its part in history.

But it is also possible to imagine a more sophisticated political design in which the detention of dissidents was seen as “collateral damage” in a maneuver aimed at provoking repression and accentuating Cuba’s international isolation, particularly at a moment in which the European Union was opening its first legation on the island.

If that were the case, then Cason at least partially fulfilled his objective, in line with the old axiom that in politics extremists end up unknowingly giving each other a hand, like Moliere’s character Monsieur Jourdan who spoke in prose without suspecting it.

Let’s not forget that these opposition groups had been infiltrated by various Cuban security agents who were not just members but top leaders. One of them even organized the meeting that triggered the whole situation. One female agent who headed two of the organizations and was welcome in the U.S. Interests Section stated that imprisoning the seventy-five activists had finished off dissident activity in Cuba once and for all; another simplistic line of thought that the Cuban press did not hesitate to disseminate.

The Response to International Criticism

The Cuban government has responded to the negative reaction to the imprisonment and executions by hardening its positions. Justifying itself with a supposedly imminent U.S. invasion, it has accused all international critics of potential complicity with the aggressors, called for unconditional solidarity, increased nationalist mobilizations at home and further reduced the space for any critical debate.

In several public appearances, government spokespeople have declared that all the imprisoned opponents were pawns of the U.S. government, presenting proof that is overwhelming in some cases and laughable in others.

They have declared that the death penalty applied to the hijackers was an extreme action aimed at sending a firm message to Bush and avoiding a migratory crisis that would encourage U.S. aggression. But in the same unwitting way as Monsieur Jourdan, they are as good as saying that the Cuban state has the authority to dispose of its citizens’ lives as it sees fit to send political messages to foreign presidents.

No less significant has been the reiteration that everything was legal because the concept of summary trials and the death penalty exist in Cuban law, along with Law 88, which establishes crushing penalties for circumstantial crimes on perceived grounds. By arguing this, it is actually saying–again unwittingly–that the Cuban legal system is part of the problem.

The Cuban government similarly insists that all of those tried, both the hijackers and the dissidents, were granted the corresponding legal guarantees. But this is more than doubtful given that the time between detention and sentencing varied from four days to two weeks, which in the best of cases is not long enough for a lawyer to organize an adequate defense and have the chance to discuss the case with the defendant.

For these reasons, over and above any other consideration, the opposition members should be set free and allowed a fair trial. Unfortunately, it is too late in the case of the executed hijackers.

If we were to grant Cason a certain level of intellectual sophistication, the imprisonments, executions and general repressive responses must surely have brought a smile of satisfaction to his face.

The Opposition in Cuba

It is commonplace for official Cuban discourse to state that emigrants and opponents have a common origin: U.S. hostility to Cuba. The argument, first, is that emigration is determined by the U.S. policy of encouraging illegal departures through the attractive Cuban Adjustment Act, and second, U.S. government financing and organizing of the opposition.

It does not matter how credible the reader might find the information provided by the Cuban government. I have no doubt that the relations between part of the organized opposition and the U.S. government are based on more than just emotions. And if that is so, the Cuban government has the right to repress them for their complicity with an enemy power, providing it offers basic legal guarantees.

The obstinate U.S. hostility towards Cuba admittedly conditions the attitudes and alignments of the opposition political sector, along with those of all other national actors, the Cuban government included. And this necessarily implies imposing legal limitations on the functioning of these or other groups as long as the United States employs hostile policies in its disagreements with Cuba.

But it would be frivolous to believe that all opposition is the result of U.S. activities, or could be universally labeled a “fifth column at the service of imperialism,” an epithet the Cuban government has inconsiderately used against its critics.

The U.S. government has tried to foster opposition groups in Cuba as part of its counterrevolutionary strategy for decades. During the sixties, such groups displayed quite a capacity for belligerence, their greatest expression being a number of rebel groups based in the central mountains for around five years.

Their defeat was neither because the United States withdrew its support nor because Cuba’s government carried out an energetic anti-subversive military campaign, but because they lost their social base.

Despite U.S. hostility, there was virtually no internal opposition during the seventies and eighties; but it re-emerged in the nineties due to certain social conditions, which included dashed expectations, frustration, impoverishment and the growing diversity of the social subject.

Truncated Debate Among Cuba’s Left

The organized opposition in Cuba includes groups that have no links with the United States, that have stood up against U.S. interference and that propose alternatives which are occasionally more socialist than those the Cuban government itself advocates. But they are just as repressed and coerced as any other group.

During the first half of the nineties, in the midst of the toughest economic crisis, Cuban society experienced a moment of debate led by academic groups, emerging NGOs, embryonic autonomous community movements, etc., all of which wanted to offer ideas on how to reproduce the socialist system on the island.

This debate, encouraged by the innovative political and economic actions the government had begun to adopt, was harshly truncated by the Cuban authorities starting in mid-1995, curiously enough using arguments qualitatively similar to those being used against today’s opposition.

In so doing, the Cuban government inevitably moved the critical debate to the right, a negative turn in logical and formal terms for a political project that claims to be on the left, but perfectly understandable according to a way of doing politics that allows no legitimate competition in the production of ideas. As long as the critique is defined as being rightist and with suspected relations with the United States, political debate could be repressed and, above all, anathematized with greater public acceptance.

Behind the Government’s Response

The Cuban government’s main concern is not the organized opposition itself, but its possible linking up with the growing areas of discontent and demobilization that characterize Cuban society today.

In the last elections, for example, around ten percent of the electorate–close to a million people–used their secret vote to challenge the government’s mandate to vote for all candidates presented under the propaganda slogan that this was the only way to vote “for the homeland, the revolution and socialism.” They did it by spoiling their ballot, leaving it blank, voting for just a few of the candidates presented, or in an insignificant number of cases, simply not voting at all.

If more people did not do the same, it was because most of the Cuban population has opted for individual solutions and high levels of simulation that lead them to participate in political demonstrations as the result of a simple cost-benefit calculation.

This government concern explains its disproportionate responses to the meager public advances of the opposition. Last year, for example, a coalition of small organizations headed by Christian Democrat Oswaldo Pay managed to collect 11,000 signatures supporting legislation for more economic and political openness that made it all the way to parliament.

This bill, known as the Varela Project, would have remained unnoticed by public opinion had Jimmy Carter not mentioned it on national television during his visit to the island. The Cuban government immediately responded by calling a referendum on a constitutional reform to declare the Cuban regime immutable, probably the most resounding public anti-Marxist declaration since the times of Fukuyama’s “End of History.”

The government’s concern about a possible opposition hook-up with other discontented sectors also explains the disproportionate measure of sentencing seventy-five opponents to a combined total of over a millennium in jail by means of summary trials.

Weak Opposition, Brittle System

So the issue is not one of a strong organized opposition, since it is actually weak, short on social support and–with the usual exceptions to the rule–opportunist and incapable of producing a coherent program. The Cuban government is happy to repress it because the domestic costs of tolerance are greater than those of repression.

The fact is that the Cuban system is hard but brittle. The Cuban state is in a complex position in which it must attend to the new demands of the circuits of world accumulation, into which it wants to incorporate itself, in a very unfavorable geopolitical context.

Meanwhile, it must also attend to demands from the basic social alliance of the revolutionary project. And it aspires to do all of this without giving up a project of bureaucratic, state and centralized power that admits no competition and fruitlessly seeks what the Communist Party itself occasionally terms “the unreal thirst for unanimity.”

In short, the main reason for tension in Cuba’s political system is that it subordinates its citizens in open contradiction to the cultural and educational wealth these same people have acquired over the course of the revolutionary process itself. It could therefore be considered that the Cuban revolution is suffering as the result of its own successes and virtues.

The Ongoing Migration Problem

The treatment of the migration problem is no different from that meted out to the opposition. The Cuban government quite rightly states that the United States has used the migration issue to destabilize Cuba. An obvious example is the Cuban Adjustment Act, officially known in Cuba as the Homicidal Act because it encourages acts of heroic lunacy by Cuban migrants, whom the United States considers fugitives from communism, by offering special entry and residence conditions to any who manage to touch foot on American soil.

But attributing the increase in the migratory flow to Florida exclusively to the existence of this act seems rather unreasonable. While the Adjustment Act is an incentive, it is surely not enough in itself to convince people to board a makeshift raft and cross the Florida Straits under the greedy watch of sharks.

Cubans emigrate for the same reasons as Dominicans, Mexicans and Salvadorans, who don’t have their own versions of the adjustment act. In the eighties, when Cuban society experienced notable economic growth and an expansion of individual and collective consumption, very few Cubans emigrated, even though the Adjustment Act was already peddling its wares.

It is also argued that the United States has manipulated the migratory agreements and been slow to issue the 20,000 visas it should grant every year, according to the agreement signed in 1994.

This might be true, but even were the U.S. government to fulfill the agreement with puritan strictness, it would not solve the problem. After all, the last visa request survey conducted by the U.S. Interests Section showed that over 700,000 people applied for visas out of a possible total of some 2.5 million people eligible.

This means that even if the United States were to grant the stipulated 20,000 visas a year, it would take thirty-five years for all of these people to be granted their right to emigrate, assuming nobody else added their name to the list. Executing hijackers and increasing security on Cuban ferries obviously will not solve this problem.

Exploiting Legal and Illegal Emigration

No serious analysis of the issue can fail to recognize that the Cuban government has also used emigration as a political weapon against the United States and other hostile political regimes. Good examples of this are the way it managed the crises in Havana caused by the invasion of foreign embassies by Cuban citizens in the distant eighties and, above all, the utilitarianism that has characterized the government’s handling of the different migratory explosions.

In 1994, for example, the Cuban government allowed citizens on makeshift rafts to flood towards Florida in an attempt to force the Clinton government to sign a new migratory agreement. For several days thousands of frail rafts packed with people could be seen setting off from Cuba’s northeastern coast with full consent from the very authorities who days earlier were imprisoning illegal emigrants. Many of those who set out never reached any destination.

Nor is legal migration exempt from such forms of exploitation, or others related to internal political control. For a long time, the Cuban government almost totally prohibited anyone from leaving the country for personal reasons, citing geopolitical imperatives.

That was lamentable enough, but at the end of the eighties it started selling that right to its citizens through an “exit permit” issued at the migration authorities’ discretion. The price of such permits was astronomical for ordinary people.

All forms of migration are subject to the “no return” concept, so any emigrants who opt for a “definitive” exit or stay in another country for over eleven months lose their rights as Cuban citizens and need a special visa to visit the country in which they were born. This also means having to wait longer than a foreign citizen who wants to visit Cuba. And because there is no migration law in Cuba, the whole legal structure is organized around regulations and discretional norms that are especially vulnerable to [political expediency].

The issue of migration in Cuba is extremely complex and all sides bear their share of the responsibility, something not always evident from the simple thinking that characterizes certain analyses. It would be good for the Cuban government to at least let a little fresh air into this smoke-filled room.

Nothing Justifies U.S. Policy

None of what has been discussed so far implies accepting that the United States has any legitimate right to criticize Cuba or apply policies against it. The U.S. government is the main perpetrator of human rights violations in the world, and its policy of harassment and diplomatic attacks only stimulates the proliferation of authoritarian characteristics in Cuba’s political system.

The now customary condemnation of Cuba by the United States and its allies in the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission is an illegitimate and unjust manipulation aimed only at exploiting the much-flogged UN system for individual ends.

In the same way, no critical reasoning on contemporary Cuba can omit the impressive social and political successes achieved by Cuban society. Nor can it deny the significance of the social equity achieved and the Cuban government’s determination to preserve it and assume responsibility for the well-being of the national community.

It similarly cannot ignore the revolution’s internationalist vocation expressed in the aid it provides to many Third World countries. In short, it cannot overlook the obstacle to the global capitalist offensive represented by the very existence of this revolution of national liberation and socialist vocation.

At the same time, it is vital for those who display disinterested solidarity with this project in response to the hostility of the United States and its allies to criticize its negative features, particularly those that deny its socialist content, to counterbalance those arrogant partisans who see thirty pieces of silver behind every differing opinion.

The issue is not just one of condemning the repressive acts of this fatal moment, but also of condemning the dogmatically intolerant climate that characterizes Cuba’s political system today.

The Solution: Democratic Debate

The very common supposition in official–and unofficial–Cuban discourse that any criticism involves a virtual conspiracy with hostile U.S. preparations and eventual military aggression is quite simply false and opportunist.

First, the imminence of military aggression against Cuba right now is exaggerated. Naturally, being on the same planet as the fundamentalist fanatics occupying the White House always implies an exposure to risk, and Cuba is even more at risk having appeared on a list of terrorist countries for over a decade and more recently having been included in the “axis of evil” announced in one of the U.S. President’s dyslexic excesses.

Yet nothing would seem to indicate that Cuba is facing an imminent act of military aggression; it is not a priority above all because of the high costs and meager benefits it would involve. Second, what makes Cuba most vulnerable internationally is precisely its application of repressive measures as analyzed above, and the ongoing immobility of its economic and political systems.

I know of no single case in which the international Right has resorted to leftist critical arguments to achieve an objective. It would be like Krasnov and Denikin [counterrevolutionary generals in Russia’s Civil War of 1918-21–ed.] waving Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism of the Bolsheviks to justify aggression against Soviet Russia. But I know of many cases in which the right, with a skill built up over centuries, has exploited the practical errors committed by the left.

If as Marti stated and Cubans are fond and justifiably proud of repeating, whoever stands up with Cuba stands up with the world, it would have to be accepted that such a commitment must transcend charismatic attachments, ideological comforts and simplistic lines of thought.

I don’t think anyone has any unequivocal answers to the problems of contemporary Cuban society, which have been cruelly condensed at this particular moment. But of this I am sure: no solution will come from the simplistic thinking that motivated either Saramago’s withdrawal or Petras’ impenitent accompaniment.

The solution has to come from society as a whole, from a democratic and sovereign debate that corresponds to Cubans alone. And it has to be done, recalling a phrase from an old emancipatory hymn, “without caesar, bourgeois or king.”

ATC 106, September-October 2003