Two Ways Out for a Decaying Cuba: Reinvention or Collapse
The brutal repression following the popular protests of July 11 seems to have stabilized the political situation in Cuba. However, the regime must understand that, despite its long history of repression, the current calm is fragile. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, the protests broke a very important psychological barrier: the conviction — meticulously cultivated by Fidel Castro for decades — that publicly demonstrating against the regime was impossible and pointless. When that dam broke in Eastern Europe, it signaled the beginning of the end for Marxist totalitarianism there.
The second reason is that the causes underlying the protests will not go away anytime soon. The regime has lost almost all political legitimacy and, when it comes to economics, is intrinsically incompetent The Cuban people no longer believe in the official dogma and know that their situation will not improve under the Cuban Communist Party. To make matters worse, the Covid-19 health crisis has reinforced the image that the regime is inept and intolerant. The popular rebellion has now spread even to the public health sector. The third reason is that, despite their declarations of solidarity, neither Russia nor China is willing to support a destitute and parasitic regime.
It is clear that Raul Castro’s policy of continuity is unsustainable. The regime is at a crossroads, its ruling class paralyzed, clinging to repression and reluctant to adopt serious reforms. The opposition has been radicalized because, rather than extinguishing it, the wave of repression has only added fuel to the fire. This is a bad omen for Cuba’s communist oligarchs.
In his essay “Totalitarian and Post-Totalitarian Regimes in Transition and Non-Transition from Communism” (2002), Mark R. Thompson describes the evolutionary process most of these regimes follow. According to his thesis, Cuba should now be moving from “frozen post-totalitarianism” to a “decomposing post-totalitarianism.” The final phase is characterized by intransigent and paralyzed leadership, ideological decadence, lack of political and economic legitimacy, widespread popular cynicism and increasingly counterproductive repression. Sound familiar? The theory holds that, once a regime begins decaying, it either reinvents itself or collapses.
With the Cuban regime at a crossroads, academic literature points to several possible options it has for reinvention. This is not a matter of making predictions but rather about applying lessons from the past to current circumstances. In addition to Thompson’s essay, there is another important analytical reference: Samuel P. Huntington’s classic The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late 20h Century, published in 1991.
The Chinese Model
Known in academic literature as “post-totalitarian hybrid” or “market Leninism,” this alternative requires a pragmatic leadership that accepts the need for improving people’s quality of life in order to insure the continued political dominance of the communist party. This is achieved by replacing the centralized economic model for one which favors the free market and private property. This would be the worst option for the democratic opposition because, as in China and Vietnam, it would guarantee the communist party’s hold on power. If there are supporters of this approach within the party, they have been silenced by Raul Castro’s hardline faction. In addition to political pragmatism, this alternative requires speed and determination, three ingredients which the country’s oligarchs do not currently seem to have in abundance. I believe the probability of this option being chosen is low.
Controlled Transition to Democracy (and the Rule of Law)
Defined by Samuel Huntington as “transformation,” this option consists of a deliberate transition to free elections and full democracy initiated and controlled, from start to finish, by the regime. According to Huntington, half of the thirty-five transitions that occurred between 1975 and 1991, such as those in Spain and Chile, were these types of transformations.
This approach has benefits for everyone. On the one hand, it avoids violence by funneling all internal and external interests and actors in the same direction. On the other hand, the ruling class does not have to pick up the tab and ends up in a more advantageous economic and political position than the opposition. This option requires a powerful reformist faction within the regime that would prevail over the hardline faction, something that does not seem realistic in today’s Cuba. Unless the balance of power changes radically, I believe this is unlikely to occur.
Tolerated Authoritarianism (Putinism)
Academic literature also points to the possibility that one system can be set aside, either deliberately or unexpectedly, in favor of a different system. For example, the transformation initiated by Gorbachev in the USSR was interrupted by a military coup that tried to reverse it.* The coup’s failure quickly led to a democratic replacement (a “transplant,” according to Huntington).
The Cuban regime could begin a limited transformation in hopes of convincing a pragmatic U.S. administration to accept an authoritarian regime in exchange for political stability on the island. If the United States blesses this transformation with diplomatic and economic normalization, the regime could freeze the process and remain in power as an authoritarian Putin-style kleptocracy.
This option is viable because it plays on the fear, shared in certain American military and intelligence circles, that a collapse of the regime would turn Cuba into a failed state, preyed upon by drug traffickers and terrorists. According to this hypothesis, which has the hallmarks of having been planted by Cuban intelligence, it would better suit U.S. interests to reach an understanding with the regime than to contribute to its collapse.
This option is very attractive to Cuba’s oligarchs because it can be implemented relatively quickly and without the significant economic or political changes required by the first two. On the other hand, the disadvantage is that authoritarianism is more vulnerable to political winds than totalitarianism. A robust democratic opposition could force a transplant, thwarting the oligarch’s plans and turning the limited transformation into a full-blown transition. Although this scenario presents the regime with more uncontrollable variables — it depends, for example, on who happens to governing the United States at the time or how effective activist Cuban exiles turn out to be — I believe it is a more likely outcome than the first two.
Continuity or Collapse
The worst outcome for everyone would be if the regime decided to continue following its current course of repression and limited reform. As previously discussed, this option would resolve none of the chronic problems that led to the July 11 protests. Sooner or later, the people will return to the streets and the regime will be forced to either ramp up its repression to intolerable levels or give up power. A vicious cycle of growing opposition followed by more repression followed by more opposition is unsustainable and could end in civil war, as happened in Romania in 1989.** Even if the pro-Castro elites were inclined to unleash rivers of blood, the tragic end of Nicolai and Elena Ceausescu should give them pause.
Finally, those hoping for U.S. military intervention should consider the example of Afghanistan. Setting aside the damage foreign intervention would cause to Cuban nationalism, events in Afghanistan demonstrate how little appetite the United States currently has for foreign military adventures. On top of that, the obvious incompetence of the Biden administration in handling a matter of utmost importance to U.S. national security should be enough to rule out the idea of an interventionist option for Cuba. Among the insiders, incompetence abounds.
*Though the military was involved, the attempted coup was actually led by eight senior officials from the Soviet goverment, Communist Party and KGB.
**Spontaneous mass protests led to the overthrow of Nicolai Ceausescu on December 22, 1989. He and his wife Elena were executed three days later after a summary trial. The provisional government subsequently promised free and fair elections, which took place five months later. While thousands died or were injured in the course of the uprising, the event might better be described as a brief period of violent civil unrest rather than a civil war.