US-Cuban Relations: Life in a Cold-War Timewarp

Nicholas Partyka


The following is Part Six of a multi-part project entitled,  A Crossroads for Socialism: Cuba in Transition .” This series of analyses, observations, and dispatches on Cuba focuses on the country’s unprecedented, post-Fidel transition. With a heavy reliance on macroeconomic, geopolitical, and foreign policy analysis, Hampton contributor Nicholas Partyka seeks to pinpoint the nuanced economic, political, and social changes that are occurring on the island nation, and how these changes are impacting everyday Cubans.

Part One: Introduction

Part Two: The US Blockade of Cuba: Its Effects and Global Consequences

Part Three: When Profit-Mongering Meets a Common Good: Contrasting Societies (US and Cuba)

Part Four: A Socialism for the 21st Century

Part Five: Cuban Economic Reforms: A New Hope?

Standing between the US and Cuba, and normalizing their relationship, is more than five decades of bitterness, false starts, snubs, and much else. And the mountain of issues that would need to be resolved in a full negotiation only seems to get larger every year. This is, once again, not the place for a full history lesson. The history of US relations with Cuba since 1959 is long, complex, and truly fascinating; and it is full of twists and turns, the particulars of which are largely unknown in the US. Some of the most recent incidents that compound the US-Cuba relationship include the case of Alan Gross, the Cuban Five, and the new revelations about USAID’s ZunZuneo program. There is a long way to go before the US and Cuba can achieve normal relations. The good news is that since all the animus is on the US’ side, once we decide to end it, the process can move quickly.

Perhaps the largest of the long-standing grievances between the US and Cuba is the issue of the outstanding compensation claims for property nationalized by the revolution. For decades now, most, if not all, attempts at negotiation between the two sides have been scuttled by issues that would be precursors to negotiations about the main issue, namely the compensation claims by US citizens. The interesting thing is that though the US insists on recouping the value of its lost property, it has shown little to no willingness to discuss compensation for the economic and social damages caused by decades of CIA-sponsored terrorism in and against Cuba. I think it would be an interesting experiment (which likely exists already in classified form at the State Department) to stack up side-by-side the value of nationalized US property in Cuba, and the value of the economic losses caused by US-sponsored terrorism in Cuba. The answer to the question, Who really owes whom at this point, might be a surprising one. This accounting would in no way account for the loss of Cuban life associated with these US-sponsored terrorist attacks, for such losses cannot be treated purely economically. Let us not fail to notice that the Cubans have sponsored no similar programs to launch terrorist attack against US civilians.

It is important here to say something about the case of the Cuban Five. This is the largest contemporary issue between the US and Cuba. This case has been largely ignored in the US, but is very important to the Cubans. The silence about this case in the US is truly deafening. This case gets ignored in the US media because it paints the US in a bad light, and also is to tacitly to acknowledge that the US sponsored a decades-long campaign of terrorism in and against Cuba. The Cuban Five were spies sent to the US, to Miami, to monitor the goings-on of the Miami Cuban exile community for potential terrorist activities. As few Americans know, or choose to remember, the CIA sponsored years and years of terrorism against Cuba through the Cuban exile community. In the 1990s, the Cubans sent these five spies to Miami. They got information about drugs coming into the US, which they passed on to the US government. For many years, the US and Cuban governments cooperated on drug interdiction operations in the Caribbean.

So, when the Cubans passed on the information from the Five, they had every reason to expect the US would respond as it had in the past. That is, by arresting those attempting to bring drugs into the US. This time, instead, the US put its energy into identifying those who uncovered the information in the first place, and then arrested the five; this was in 1998. All of them were given long prison sentences, the shortest ones were around fifteen years. One of the five is serving two life sentences, back to back. This is for his role in the espionage, namely counting planes as they took off. Again, many forget the years of terrorist attacks with planes that Cuba has suffered from CIA-trained Cuban exiles taking off from US-based airstrips. It is much more reasonable for the Cubans to do this kind of spying given the history of aerial bombings. It is seemingly less reasonable only if one ignores the history of violent attacks against Cuba.

If all of the Five serve out their sentences, they will end up doing more time in prison than the four Puerto Rican separatists who fired guns on Congressmen from a balcony in the House of Representatives in 1954. The five committed no such similar act of violence while in the US, and yet are being punished more severely. The Puerto Rican separatists were pardoned by Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s towards the end of his term. This is just another piece of evidence for the complete lack of perspective the US has been able to maintain about Cuba since the revolution.

In addition to these issues, there remains the problem of the US media propaganda machine. It has effectively kept most Americans’ views of Cuba stuck in the 1990s. Americans think about Cuba and they think of ‘boat people,’ and the depths of the Cuban Great Depression. They make easy false equivalences between Cuba and North Korea (DPRK). Both struggled in the 1990s, and had problems feeding their populations. But, in truth, the North Koreans had a full-fledged famine, and it was devastating. Cuba had nothing like this. It would be true to say that during the worst parts of the Special Period, average daily caloric intake declined across the population, yes. But Cuba did not experience famine. These easy alleged isomorphisms play right into the hands of the dominant US narrative that Cuba and North Korea are both ‘dictatorial, one-party communist states’ that only survive by repression. To the eye of an unbiased observer, any comparison along these lines would be preposterous.

There are several myths that the US media continues to perpetuate about Cuba. One of the biggest is that Cuba lacks democracy. This is entirely false, and simply self-serving propaganda meant to justify regime change. A second myth is that the Cuban people are chaffing under the tyrannical yoke of the Castro brothers and cannot wait to be free of them. This is a misconception that springs directly out of the false equivalence constantly drawn between the Cuban state and the North Korean state (DPRK). Once again, this is not true; it is the wishful thinking of US foreign policy elites who believe too much in the assurances of CANF lobbyists.

The biggest myth is that Cuba lacks democracy. This is a prejudice based on a view that sees the US model of democracy as the best or truest model of democracy. If we take our own model of democracy as the standard against which everyone is judged, then the lack of US-style institutions will disqualify Cuba from being considered democratic. If we liberate ourselves from this preconception, what we will find is that Cuba has its own unique institutions for democracy. When we look into the character of these institutions, we see that they offer many avenues for citizens to participate in government. Perhaps more robustly than in US-style democratic systems. When we look at the Cuban model, we will see a system of democracy that gives the people more control over, more input into, government decisions than US-style democratic systems.

Cuba has a democratic political system that organizes people at extremely local levels and builds up to the National Assembly (ANPP) from the ground up. At the base, people are organized into what we will call here districts and municipalities, which are then grouped as provinces, and lastly at the national level. Cuban elections take place in two stages. The first stage is the electing of delegates to municipal assemblies. The second stage is where the constituents of the Provincial, as well as National Assemblies (ANPP), are chosen. People in the districts first nominate, and then elect from among themselves ‘delegates’ to the municipal assembly.

The municipal assembly elects from within its ranks a president as well as other officials. I should note here that Cuban elections have extremely little to no – depending on how you look at certain practices – campaigning in the modern US sense of that term. Moreover, political participation in these municipal, provincial, and national bodies is voluntary. That is, one is still a worker, and on works one’s job and then does one’s political work outside of their regular workplace duties. A very few people, for example those elected president of a municipal assembly, are allowed to be full-time politicians in the sense of doing their political work full time; however, they still recieve the same wage they made as a worker. This is definitely not the US sense, where doing one’s work as a politician in the US means raising money with which to be re-elected.

In the second phase, the municipalities elect delegates to both the National Assembly (ANPP) and the provincial assemblies. The National Assembly (ANPP) elects from among its member its President and other officials. The ANPP also selects from among its members the Council of State. The council of State then nominates members for the Council of Ministers, the top level of government positions. This would be most akin to what we call cabinet level posts in the US government. Though all members of the Council of State are elected delegates, the same is not necessarily true of the Council of Ministers. A maximum of 50% of elected delegates to the ANPP are elected from the municipalities. The system is constructed in such a way that the process will yield as close to that 50% maximum as possible. The other 50% of delegates to the ANPP are also elected from municipalities, but the delegate elected from a specific municipality does not need to live in that same municipality, or that same city, or even that same province.

Some Cubans think that they don’t have as much control as they think they might want, because they don’t vote directly for national politicians or the President. They elect delegates who elect other delegates, which makes them feel somewhat distant from real influence over decision-making. To be fair, I could not get a straightforward answer out of the young Cuban I was talking to about this when I asked him if he thought it was a good idea for Cuba to adopt a democratic system more like that of the US. There is a reasonably high degree of alienation on the part of younger Cubans; especially well educated and economically better off Cubans. This demographic wants a quicker pace of reforms, and largely because they seem likely to benefit most from that faster pace of liberalization. Again, this is based on conversations I had with Cubans over a couple of weeks in Cuba, so it is a very small sample size. This does not invalidate their concerns, and perhaps it should be on the table to discuss changes to the electoral system.

By this, I must say that I do not mean the one-party system. I don’t think it is necessary for there to be multiple parties in Cuba. Especially in light of decades of spying and terrorism, and attempted assassinations, the Cubans have every reason to see the demand of the US and EU for multiple parties as bunch of “human rights” jargon masking the creation of an opening for foreign intelligence services to move in and conduct their anti-regime operations. Again, the Cubans are right to be fearful of this, because we have and continue to do exactly this. So it really is hard to blame them for being so “repressive.” The US claims of Cuban repression are, in a weird way, like George Zimmermann’s claim of self-defense. The US attacks Cuba with covert agents trained to commit acts of sabotage and terrorism, then the Cubans try to protect themselves, and then the US calls the latter government repressive, and a violator of “human rights.” This is just like starting a fight by provoking the other person into thinking you are a threat to them, and then claiming self-defense when you get attacked by that other person.

Most Americans totally misunderstand the role of the Communist Party (PCC) in Cuba. In the US, joining a political party means signing a form and mailing it is, or now simply clicking a few boxes on an internet page and receiving a confirmation email. What one does within the party system is usually dependent on one’s level of motivation, amount of free time, personal financial resources, or one’s connections thereto. For many, “being a member of a political party” can mean little more than maybe you vote for them when and if you vote, receiving an email blast every so often in your inbox, or going to certain preferred “news” outlets.

In Cuba, the PCC is much more demanding on its members in terms of their personal comportment than any US political party. To be a party member one has to be invited to join, one is recommended for membership by others because of their overtly demonstrated personal qualities. Party membership is not necessarily open to any and all comers. In fact only about 16% of those eligible to be ANPP delegates are party members. The PCC is thus a kind of aspirational organization. People join because they want to become revolutionaries, because they want to try to become part of the vanguard of the new socialist person and society. The Party has served and continues to serve to develop cadres for the building of the socialist society. For this reason Party discipline is Cuba is strong. This is not to say that there is brutal punishment. This is again an area where false equivalences to North Korea (DPRK) makes people think that it is fear and threat of punishment that enforces Party discipline in Cuba. This is not at all how the PCC in Cuba works. The PCC is quite dissimilar to an electoral party in the US. The PCC is not an organization whose mission it is to win votes, or to help its candidate win votes. The PCC is not involved in selecting or electing particular candidates.

To really understand the role of the PCC in Cuba, how party members understand membership and the role of their party, one should look to – as so often is the case in Cuba – none other than the Apostle Marti. He founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party (PRC), which was a central element in the struggle for independence against Spain. This ‘party’ was not conceived along the same lines as US political parties. We do not have enough space here to go into the details of Marti’s political ideology, and explain how and why the PRC was constructed the way it was, and what nature of ideology was imbued in it. In short, this organization like the PCC is a leadership organization. It is designed to lead the struggle for independence, and then to organize and guide the Cuban people on the path to social development. I want to make clear that in the minds of both Marti and Fidel, the structures of the PRC and the PCC are only necessary as long as there is a need for them. They are not thought to be necessarily permanent features of society. Again, easy false comparisons to DPRK might incline some think that Fidel and Raul want to maintain a familial dynasty like the Kims. This is very much not the case.

Cuba, as we have seen by now, is a fascinating place where a lot of significant changes are underway, and where the outcome of these changes is uncertain. What we have seen in this series is that Cuban society is diverse, resilient, and full of different opinions and view. Cuba is most certainly not the kind of monolithic totalitarian nightmare where everyone has the same views. Decades of US anti-communist propaganda has of course made most Americans think quite erroneously that all “communist” states are the same, and that they’re all living versions of some Orwellian dystopia. Nothing could in fact be farther from the truth. Cuba has a democratic society and a socialist revolution that are both undergoing important updates for a new century, and the new social and economic conditions locally and globally that it brings. This process of transition brings with it many known, and some unknown, challenges which must be solved as the process is in motion. It will not be easy for the Cubans to make the necessary changes and achieve the desired results. The US blockade for one thing makes almost every attempt at economic development more difficult for the Cubans. But if any nation is creative and dedicated enough to make it work it is the Cubans.


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