Cuban Exceptionalism: A Personal View
by Ken Cole
Ken Cole is a member of the International Institute for the Study of Cuba at London Metropolitan University.
January 1, 2009, marks the fiftieth anniversary of victory in Cuba’s third war of independence. In his first speech of the Cuban Revolution, given in Santiago de Cuba on January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro declared that for the first time in four centuries Cubans were free. Whereas Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and José Martí had led the previous wars, in 1868 and 1895, against Spanish colonial dominion, Castro’s July 26th Movement (named after the day in 1953 when the attack on the Moncada barracks marked the commencement of the revolution) challenged the economic domination of Cuba by the United States.
In the 60 years following liberation from Spain, the island had become a virtual colony of the United States. After 1959, 10 successive U.S. presidents relentlessly sought to undermine the revolution to maintain U.S. imperial power, which under the John F. Kennedy’s administration (1961–1963) led to the Bay of Pigs invasion and the implementation of a crushing embargo subsequently reinforced by the Torricelli bill (in 1992) and the Helms-Burton Act (in 1996), the cost of which is estimated to have been over US$225 billion. In the 1960s and 1970s the bulwark of the revolution was the Soviet Union, and the collapse of the Soviet bloc (1989–1991) was devastating. Approximately 80 percent of foreign trade disappeared, and the gross domestic product declined by more than a third. There was a breakdown in the transportation and agricultural sectors, power outages could last up to 16 hours, food consumption was cut up to 20 percent, and the average Cuban lost about 20 pounds. This was the “Special Period,” in which virtually everyone, friend or foe, expected the revolution to collapse. And yet in many ways the revolution was strengthened. The cultural tenor of the early 1990s reflected the emphases of the Rectification Process of 1986, when the antidemocratic nature of post- 1972 central planning had become evident. The resurgent political environment was the harbinger of a return to the optimism and enthusiasm of the early 1960s, when Che Guevara’s prophetic vision of an emerging “New (Socialist) Man” was pervasive.
For Fidel it was this flowering of consciousness that reinforced the stoicism and forbearance of the Cuban people and their belief in themselves and gave them the strength to endure the rigors and uncertainties of the “double blockade”: U.S. aggression and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This fundamental belief in the human capacity for commitment, selflessness, and altruism defines Cuban exceptionalism. It is not that Cubans are any better than anybody else. The capacity to withstand hardship and appreciate the importance of the revolution arises from the significance of ideas and an emergent social consciousness that is a dimension of individuals’ daily lives and an explicit aspect of social, economic, and cultural policy in Cuba. In this the political leadership, especially the moral authority of Fidel Castro, has been a driving force, fusing people’s awareness and individuals’ motivation into a collective vision of what is possible in the pursuit of self-liberation and political participation. In this twenty-first-century era of globalization, ineluctably there is a global quality to individuals’ experience and personal choice, and the continued process of socialism—the ethic of equality, liberty, and justice by which people reflect on experience in order to transform existence—inevitably has an international dimension. The future of Cuba is contingent on the evolution of regional integration through the Alternativa Bolivariana para las Américas (Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America—ALBA). The institution of “ALBA,” which structurally addresses regional needs (energy, health, environment, culture, production, education, etc. . . .), is also the process of “alba”: the word alba translates as the “dawn of the day.” And the socialist process in general in Latin America and progress in Cuba in particular depends on the dawning of a Latin American political imagination and social consciousness—the feeling of solidarity and a generous internationalist spirit. The institutional agenda of ALBA focuses upon regional development in the context of a democratic culture, through exchanges of ideas and the implementation of social, economic, and cultural development projects. The emergence of a social consciousness of human rights, based on the politics of consensus, is the essence of this process.
LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES
Issue 165, Vol. 36 No. 2,
March 2009 128-129
© 2009 Latin American Perspectives