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Is it “economy libre” or “political libre”: The real story of cuban protests

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Albert Einstein once famously quipped– “Politics is far more difficult than Physics”. By the latter, he was obviously hinting at scientific disciplines instead of a single subject. The recent spate of protests in Cuba is a testimony to this statement. While there are a number of scholars who speak in harmony with the Biden administration that these are largely owing to the failed policies and mismanagement of the Cuban authorities, another group of thinkers seem to harp upon the deleterious impact of US sanctions (including the 236 sanctions imposed by the Trump administration) as the immediate cause of this outbreak. As an independent observer, I would like to see if the position of truth lies not in one side or another but emerges in the zone in between. This will lead us to a serious reconsideration of history and politics alike.

It is true that the range of policies pursued by the Cuban state upto 1989 had been massively successful in creating a climate conducive to the improvement of social standards and indicators. This has been detailed even by international agencies and Cuba’s own rank in the Human Development Index as a low-income country. This is coupled with massive investments in health care and other areas that has led to remarkable achievements even in the fields of scientific and healthcare development. However, the ‘science’ in the aforementioned quotation of Einstein lies in acknowledging that the massive changes in social indicators are bound to raise aspirations in the hearts and minds of people especially among a generation that was not part of any grand and oft-celebrated revolution.

Thus state propaganda on how medical practitioners work for meagre pennies simply because they consider it a duty and responsibility to serve seems to founder in the face of a dearth of incentives for medical practitioners of the 21st century. The skilled workforce of a nation will obviously look for advancements in the realm of self-actualization for which the constraints of a rigid one-party system may not always be right. Even Deng’s regime in China and the Doi Moi in Vietnam were possible not only because of their ability to let loose these aspirations in a population that had been fairly introduced to basic living standards, but also because of limited concessions even in the political realm such as the introduction of term limits in China (at least creating the initial impression that political reforms were soon to follow).

The tightening of authoritarian restrictions seems to be counter-productive in these situations and might even showcase a failure of consent (“domination without hegemony”, as the historian Ranajit Guha pointed out).

While the above section points out the economic causes behind the ‘failed state’ as Biden pointed out recently, it will perhaps be too harsh on the authorities to pass over the political aspects of the crisis. It is true that the modest reforms that the Cuban government introduced in 1993 were reversed a decade later but the emphasis of Raul Castro in the last years of his reign had always been on reforms and stability of relations with the US. The incumbent President, Canal-Diaz has attributed the protests to US sanctions and seems justified in doing so owing to the government not indicating any stance of reversal of its reform policies anytime soon.

However, history is a great teacher. The transition of Communist governments in the past is a spectre that haunts US authorities irrespective of who is in power. The first flushes of hope in 1993 in Soviet politics took only a few years to be dashed with the rise of Putin while the expectations of the ‘open-door policy’ in China did not really take off . In fact Kissinger’s visit in 1974 and the Chinese embrace of the market was not wholly planned. Instead the Sino-Soviet tensions led to the US finding a comfortable ally in a nation large enough in Asia to combat the Soviet presence. However it is a fact widely known today that China’s liberalization dis not resemble the expected liberalization strategy in other parts of the developing and the huge presence of the Chinese state in various sectors of the economy is a testimony to that. However way back in 1978 this was perhaps only a ‘secondary contradiction'( to use a Maoist phrase) for the US.

Thus, in spite of the Cuban state’s insistence on an open door policy and commitment to globalization, the prospects of a future nation with a stable economy and a one-party Communist system seems to haunt US dreams. It could lead the way to a complete imbalance of power in the region and the memories of one of the most intimidating episodes of the Cold War- the Cuban missile crisis- looms large in history textbooks and American minds even today. Thus inspite of US spokespersons blaming the crisis on economic inefficiency and mismanagement, we need to ask if it’s something other than economic commitments that predominates the Cuban policy.

The fact that the problem with basic supplies is one of the reasons fuelling the protests is also significant in that it shows how a liberalization policy will need to move beyond the tourism sector in Cuba, given the pandemic’s immediate impact on tourism and services. Perhaps these are times that are calling for larger liberalized reforms in Cuba but, to give the devil its due, let us also ask- “Is it really policy measures or the nightmarish past and contemporary geo-politics that is a major deterrent to reforms”?

India has always supported the lifting of sanctions on Cuba and this a hallmark of our commitment to the stability in the developing world. However, practicality exceeds commitment and the situation cam only be reversed through economic as well as political reforms, with the communist party conceding space to other political alternatives and competing in the dance of democracy.

Subhayu Bhattacharjee
Asstt Prof, Dept of English
Mirik College Darjeeling India

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