Why Did Cuba Embrace Socialism?
To envision how Cuba might emerge from socialism, it may be useful to first understand how it came to embrace this system. Cubans born after the coup d’état that Batista headed in 1952 – perhaps 90% of the adult population today – never lived under the last republican regime, and almost everything they know about it they have been taught by the current government’s propaganda and indoctrination bodies.
The “revolutionism” that made possible the meteoric rise and the ultimate triumph of Fidel Castro in the 1950s was nourished, on the surface, by two ideas closely linked to each other: the need to replace the illegitimate and corrupt government of Fulgencio Batista, and to restore the Constitution of 1940. Freedom, honesty and respect for the rule of law were, purportedly, the principles upheld by the insurrection.
I write “on the surface” because those ideas appeared explicitly and prominently in all the documents signed by opposition forces of the era, from the Montreal Pact (1953) to that in Caracas (1958). But there was a set of beliefs, sometimes latent and less evident, that existed in Cuban society since much earlier and that contributed decisively to legitimizing the revolutionary struggle, and, later, to consolidating the new caudillo‘s power.
Perhaps the most curious of these beliefs was the conviction that Cuba was predestined to fulfill a great destiny, one out of proportion to the country’s actual conditions. Geography had a lot to do with the origin of this superstition, as for centuries Havana was a key meeting point for the Spanish fleets, and a site of vital strategic importance (“Key to the New World, Citadel of the West Indies”), it was called in 1761 by its first historian, José Martín Félix de Arrate. Then came its rapid enrichment thanks to the export of sugar and coffee, which reinforced the idea that Providence had an exceptional future in store for the Island.
In contrast to the decline of the mother country (the first half of the nineteenth century was perhaps the most chaotic stage in Spanish history) the colony boomed. Cuba boasted maritime steamboat, railroad and telegraph services years before those inventions reached Spain. But socioeconomic progress did not lead, as many Cubans of Spanish descent had hoped, to independence, or the island’s annexation to another country in the Americas.
This belief in an exceptional destiny for Cuba brewed for a long while, culminating around the middle of the century. After the failure of the annexationist efforts of the triennium in 1848 to 1851, Cuban elites had to resign themselves to remaining subordinated to the Spanish Crown – though they considered themselves superior to those who governed them. To alleviate the bitterness of subjection and impotence, they invented a compensatory myth. This myth saw its final formulation in 1855, in the Manifesto of the Cuban Junta of New York, which explained the origin, evolution and causes for the defeat of the annexationist revolution.
In its final paragraphs this remarkable document proclaimed “the significance and importance [of Cuba] in the destinies of the universe” and its capacity to achieve “prosperity without equal… and an indestructible greatness, based on balance and the regulation of the modern world’s most valuable interests.” That is, the island had a grandiose yet imprecise international mission, which would become a reality through revolutionary struggle. This compensatory myth arose, fully intact and complete, like Minerva from Jupiter’s skull, following the first failed attempt to sever Cuba from Spain.
One of the weaknesses of this worldview was that the realization of a glorious destiny called for the actions of a “chosen people,” and it was difficult to imagine that a society composed of white and mestizo criollos, Spanish civil servants, some Chinese serfs, and a near majority of slaves and freedmen, could be the providential agent of this development. In fact, the idea of ??a Cuban nationality distinct and separate from the Spanish one would only develop in a significant part of the population after several decades of insurrectionary struggle. In this way, Cuban nationalism emerged late, and did so infused with a spirit of revolution.
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