Half a loaf

Today’s must-read from ICCAS senior scholar Dr. Jose Azel in the Miami Herald:

In Cuba, half a loaf is not enough

In the second half of the 19th 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, Arsenio Martínez Campos.

Some Autonomistas believed that Cubans would be better off as Spanish citizens, but with a greater degree of economic autonomy. Others 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, autonomists were not traitors or anti-nationalists. Some had fought bravely in the Ten Years’ War for independence 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 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 19th 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 Gen. Raúl Castro with the same sense of encouragement that the Autonomistas attached to the apparent forbearance of Spain’s military commander in Cuba at the time. 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” They perceive gradual reformism as the only viable course after 52 years of communist rule and many failed efforts to overthrow the dictatorship.

Not unlike the Autonomistas, 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 able to reform. It must be abolished.

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 Amartya Sen, an economist from India, has noted, “People in economic need also need a political voice.”

In Cuba, that’s the reality.

José Azel is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami and the author of the book, Mañana in Cuba.

3 thoughts on “Half a loaf”

  1. Uh, sure, that’s all well and good, but as the memo CLEARLY indicates, it all depends on whether people are oppressed/enslaved by the right or the left. Those screwed by the left are out of luck. Sorry. Nice try, though. Your consolation pize is some version of the Vietnamese model, assuming you stop trying to beat the system.

  2. These silly Cuban-Americans can be SO funny. They actually think they can get somewhere with mere logic, truth or reason. No wonder nobody takes them seriously.

  3. Count me as a skeptic. Sorry to be so blunt, but my people and compatriots have never in their history exhibited political maturity and stability. The democratic bones are not part of our governmental history.

    We need to proceed slowly from the present oppressive regime to one that is less oppressive and tinged with democracy, the ultimate goal being a democratic society with full civil rights. A gradual change will minimize the chances that another self-serving maniac, which is all we’ve had in Cuba, will ascend to power and continue the historical pattern.

    We probably would have been better off under Spanish rule after all: Cuba to Spain as Puerto Rico is to the US.

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