Cuba’s New “Autonomists” of the XXI Century
In the second half of the XIX Century, during the inter-war period between Cuba’s Ten Years’ War (1868) and its War of Independence (1895), a reformist political movement emerged in Cuba under the rubric of Autonomismo. Frustrated by the failure of the Ten Years’ War, and convinced that no other viable options were available, some Cuban intellectuals and businessmen sought to obtain a greater degree of political and economic autonomy from Spain while remaining under its rule. They were encouraged by a measure of tolerance shown by the then Spanish Captain General of Cuba, General Martínez Campos.
Some Autonomistas believed that Cubans would be better of as Spanish citizens, but with a greater degree of economic autonomy. Others Autonomistas held that partial reformism was a better alternative to a prolonged struggle for independence from Spain. In any case, they postulated that Autonomismo was not incompatible with Spanish sovereignty and sought to gain political “space” from the Crown.
Although the political stance and ideological elitism of the autonomists disturbed José Marti, who championed Cuba’s full independence from Spain, autonomists were not traitors or anti-nationalists. Some were former independentists who had fought bravely in the Ten Years’ War but were now convinced that times had changed and a new strategy was needed to fight Spanish colonialism.
Fast forward some 130 years and we find nowadays a similar divide in the Cuban nation. The label autonomist no longer applies, but the contemporary approaches to Cuba’s future correspond with those of the XIX Century.
The “neo-autonomists” of today, both in and out of the Island support gradual change that does not alter the command and control structure of Cuba’s totalitarian system. They view the minimalist economic reforms proposed by General Raúl Castro with the same sense of encouragement that the Autonomistas attached to General Martinez Campos’ apparent forbearance. Some seek to “actualize” the communist system; others see the purported reforms as political space or a strategic opportunity to undermine Cuba’s totalitarianism over the long-term. Not unlike the frustrated ethos that permeated the Cuban nation following the inconclusive Ten Years’ War, “neo-autonomists” perceive gradual reformism as the only viable course after fifty two years of communist rule and many failed efforts to overthrow the dictatorship.
Also not unlike the Autonomistas of the XIX Century, they will also eventually realize that the Castro government, like the Spanish Crown, has no intention of allowing legitimate reforms that will undermine its totalitarian rule. One of the lessons we have learned in the study of totalitarian systems throughout the world is that such systems do not generate truthful or useful knowledge regarding the causes of their own malfunction. Thus totalitarian systems are ontologically incapable of reforming themselves. Simply put, Cuban communism is not reformable. It must be abolished.
A defining feature of the Cuban experience under totalitarian rule is that of an intrusive state whose elites have used pervasive repression to atomize society. This process has eliminated political competition, destroyed economic performance and rendered civil society weak and ineffective debilitated by a miasma of fear. Initiatives which do not empower society, leave the hegemonic political system untouched, and seek exclusively to alter official policies to improve economic conditions are contrary to democratic values. This is essentially what the Autonomistas sought in the XIX Century and what their modern day counterparts pursue today.
The “neo-autonomists”, as their predecessors, believe, that economic progress is an essential antecedent to civic empowerment and must come first, if at all; popular sovereignty is not a priority. Central to their argument is that change should originate with an enlightened autocratic government and not with the will of the people. The democratic counterargument is that civic empowerment is the foundation of progress and its necessary precondition. These divergent approaches may seem to differ only in the sequencing and prioritizing of polices. However, the differences are philosophically fundamental. The eradication of personal freedoms is incompatible with human dignity and the pursuit of happiness.
The contemporary Autonomistas look to economic measures undertaken by the Castros without democratic empowerment as useful to foster prosperity. This belief embodies the elitist and despotic notion that the “special knowledge” of the few should rule the activities of the many. This conviction is particularly noxious to Cuba’s future, because democracy will fail everywhere when there is no appreciation for its decisive role in good governance.
The citizenry empowerment camp values individual freedoms as essential to living meaningful lives. They do not consider political rights and civil liberties as superfluous luxuries to be perhaps appended following a program of economic reforms. As Nobel Prize laureate Indian economist Amartya Sen has noted, “People in economic need also need a political voice.”
*José Azel is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami. He is the author of the recently published book, Mañana in Cuba.