Reflecting on the Cuban Revolution

— John Vandermeer

A YOUNG STREET musician in Havana clarified something for me. After telling me he was trying to get a visa to go to the United States, I asked him how many of his generation wanted to leave Cuba. He said probably about 90%. I asked him when he stopped supporting the Revolution. "But I support the Revolution," he answered. My next question was obvious, "How many of your generation support the Revolution?" I asked. "Probably about 90%," he replied.

This short interchange clarified what had been a paradox in my mind after many conversations with Cubans, both inside and outside of Cuba, over the past five years. So many support the Revolution. So many wish to leave the island. I, like many, failed to see that those two statistics are quite independent of one another.

With the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1989-1990, Cuba lost 70-80% of all foreign commerce. Few countries could have withstood such an assault on the economy. Cuba has survived so far, but that remarkable survivorship has a dark side. The people are suffering. Suffering people frequently seek to relocate to stop their suffering. That may be quite independent of whether they like or dislike the place they choose to leave.

My Grandfather "escaped" from the Netherlands in 1919. He came to earn money, something it was increasingly difficult to do for him in the Netherlands at that time. It never occurred to him to suggest that the Netherlands was a politically persecutory place. Indeed, it seems a little silly to suggest so. That was the suggestion in the face of that young musician in Havana when I asked him when he stopped supporting the Revolution. The question was a little silly.

I don’t really believe the 90%-90% figures. Probably fewer than 90% of the youth want to leave—but certainly a substantial number do. And probably fewer than 90% of the youth support the Revolution—but certainly a substantial number do. The point to be appreciated is that the two figures are simply unrelated to one another.

Yet it does spark my curiosity to hear so many young people in Havana talking about leaving the island. Some actively support the Revolution but have become cynical. Some just don’t think about politics, but somehow feel patriotic about the Revolution even as they try to obtain a visa for the United States. Some undoubtedly also are counterrevolutionaries.

On the other hand, most in the older age classes, as anyone who has recently visited Cuba will attest, remain steadfast in their support of the Revolution and its spiritual leader, Fidel Castro. The only serious poll available (a national referendum two years ago) suggests that well over 90% of the population supports the Revolution. Yet that support is complex, including those who support the Revolution but not Fidel, those who support the Revolution but want to leave the island for economic reasons, those who want to reunite with family in the United States.

All this is in addition to those who are truly opposed to the Cuban Revolution. Such complexity is perplexing, and can easily lead to confusion. The New York Times reporter who interviews young people in Havana will undoubtedly encounter the 90% that wish to leave the island, and without further probing, might interpret that figure as 90% rejection of the Cuban Revolution.

At the same time an Against The Current reporter interviewing middle-aged people in the countryside may find 99% support for both Fidel and the Revolution. In this way conflicting reports may easily emerge.

My conversation with the street musician and others his age suggest that today’s Cubans are a complex mixture. Understanding their views on the Revolution, Fidel, relations with the United States, and other volatile political issues is not easy. Yet even the most cursory observations of Cubans in Cuba strongly suggest that the bipolar model of "everyone hates Fidel and the Revolution" versus "everyone loves Fidel and the Revolution," is hopelessly simplistic. The estimate of 90% of the youth in support of the Revolution, yet attempting to leave the island, is a striking case in point.

The youth of Cuba are certainly important, but they are not the majority. What about the non-youth, the elderly, the middle aged, the young adults? How many of them support Fidel? How many love the Revolution? How many want to "escape"? Yet here again we are confronted with questions that may seem similar but are really quite independent.

A friend of mine who left Cuba three years ago, when he was in his late twenties, hates Castro and loves the Revolution. He assures me that "almost everyone" (I think he may exaggerate) in his age category feels the same. If he is right, about 2 million Cubans hate Castro but love the Revolution.

People in the forty-and-above age category can pretty well be assumed to remain pro-Revolution and pro-Castro. They have lived the Revolution, generally remember the pre-revolutionary times, and view Fidel with almost religious reverence. The older they are the more vigorously pro-Castro they seem to be.

So a very rough estimate—and all estimates in Cuba are very rough—would suggest that maybe as many as a million and a half Cubans want to leave the island. That’s a lot! It is not, of course, nearly as many as Mexicans who want to leave Mexico or Puerto Ricans who already have left Puerto Rico. But it is a lot. By the same calculus something like 100,000 Cuban citizens do not support the Revolution. That’s a lot too! It’s almost 1%.

Of course many more apparently do not like Castro, but one would be hard pressed to come up with a figure much more than 1% for those who do not support the Revolution. This explains fairly well why support for the main counter-revolutionary group in the United States, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), seems to be restricted to the likes of Jesse Helms.

It turns out that the CANF contributes enormous sums of money to both wings of the U.S. party, the Republican wing and the Democratic wing. Since most members of CANF are rich, they can afford to pay a lot to buy Cuba back. Naturally, their assumption that they can buy it back from the United States rests on the deeper assumption that the United States still owns it, which has the support of many Cuban citizens, almost 1% of the population.

The leader of the CANF is a man who is difficult to describe. His name is Jorge Mas Canosa, and he claims to run Miami, threatens the Miami Herald in a way equaled only by the Salvadoran and Guatemalan militaries, makes life miserable for any Cuban American who is to the left of Atilla the Hun, and plans to be installed by the CIA as Cuba’s next president some day. Maybe the key 1% of the Cuban population who do not support the Revolution want him, but even that is probably an upper estimate.

I asked the Havana street musician how many people supported Mas Canosa. At first he had a curious look on his face—perhaps something like a U.S. citizen would look if asked how he or she would feel about the British monarchy taking over the U.S. government. Then he laughed. "No one," he said.

Another Cuban friend, very anti-Castro, told me of a popular saying amongst anti-Castro Cuban citizens. "Fidel y Mas Canosa, es la misma cosa," ("Fidel and Mas Canosa, it’s the same thing.") In other words, if you really hate Castro, the way to say the worst possible thing about him is to claim he is just as bad as Mas Canosa.

Now comes the punch line. Mas Canosa is, effectively, in Bill Clinton’s cabinet. Remember a few months ago when Bill said Cubans would be treated like other people regarding immigration policy? Mas Canosa hit the ceiling. Why hadn’t slick Willy consulted him and the CANF first? He is right in a sense.

Bill should consult all of his cabinet members before making important decisions. That he did not consult Mr. Mas this time may be a sign that Bill’s advisors are finally getting through to him that U.S. policy on Cuba is profoundly stupid.

The U.S. economic blockade against Cuba is recognized worldwide as an anachronistic holdover from the Cold War. It is certainly immoral, probably illegal, and has not led to Castro’s downfall—indeed some anti-Castro Cubans claim it has helped keep him in power—but it has caused immense suffering in the Cuban population.

I have never met a Cuban citizen who thinks the blockade is a good thing, including several rabidly anti-Castro Cubans. All Cuban churches are against the blockade.

The entire world has frequently expressed, through United Nations resolutions, its condemnation of the blockade. It has no support from even the Cuban opposition. It is roundly criticized in all the world’s civilized countries. And it has not worked. So what is the argument for it?—Mr. Mas and the Cuban National Foundation.

President Clinton should be praised for his recent attempts to move away from hysteria and normalize immigration policy with the Cuban government. Mr. Mas and the CANF may be immensely rich and want intensely to take over Cuba. But that is hardly a basis for U.S. foreign policy.

U.S. foreign policy should not be held hostage by a small group, no matter how much it is willing to contribute to the U.S. political machine. U.S. foreign policy simply should not be for sale.

The blockade against Cuba is contrary to the interests of the United States in almost every way conceivable—morally, socially, economically, culturally, and more. The blockade’s only beneficiaries are a small, increasingly isolated group, the Cuban Americans in the Cuban American National Foundation, who do not represent the majority of Cuban-Americans anyway, and certainly have trivial support, if any, in Cuba.

Reform will certainly come to Cuba, but it will come through the participation of the Cuban people, not from illegitimate pressure from outside the country.

ATC 61, March-April 1996