The Cuba In Our Mind

The Cuba In Our Mind

Mini Teaser: Castro has never seemed more firmly ensconced in power. Those who have been bold enough over the years to declare themselves his enemies are now dead, in exile, in jail, or cowering in fear of arrest.

by Author(s): Mark Falcoff

Horowitz reminds us that in its early days (1959-62), the appeal of
the Castro regime for the intellectual left in the United States was
precisely its utopian, existential characteristics (at last, a
non-Stalinist version of revolutionary change!), and those who, per
contra, pointed to its incipient authoritarian features were
dismissed as philistines and Cold War provincials (C. Wright Mills,
Listen, Yankee!, 1960). Oddly enough, however, these same people
expressed no disappointment whatever when Castro shortly thereafter
dropped all pretense to "humanism," and adopted the Soviet model,
right down to the doorknobs and light switches.

Rather than re-examine their original premises, they simply took
refuge in the argument that whatever had gone wrong in Cuba was
entirely the fault of the United States. The classic exposition of
this argument--guilt-mongering raised to a high art form--is William
Appleman Williams' The U.S., Cuba, and Castro (1962), and its point
of view survives in many quarters of our political culture today, in
spite of the many disclaimers the Cuban dictator himself has made on
the subject. (Unlike his foreign apologists, Castro fully grasps the
contradiction between deploring a policy and celebrating its outcome.)

By 1968 it was clear that the Cuban regime had not made much progress
towards economic development, so it was necessary to emphasize its
"moral" achievements--such as the elimination of material incentives
to productivity. (During this period, which lasted roughly into 1973,
Che Guevara rather than Castro was the operative icon.) Castro's
periodic quarrels with the Soviets gave the claim a superficial gloss
of credibility. Sophisticated European ideologues like K.S. Karol
(Guerrillas in Power), even argued that Cuba in its revolutionary
purity had as its destiny "to reveal to the rest of the world [not
merely] the real nature of America's foreign policy," but also to
"la[y] bare the true nature of the Soviet bloc." "In this revisionist
scenario," Horowitz dryly observes, "it was Trotsky, not Stalin, who
would provide the blueprint for Cuban happiness."

By the mid-1970s such romantic jeux d'esprit were forgotten; Castro
had fully dispensed with moral incentives and composed his
differences with the Soviets. (Plans to publish a Cuban edition of
the complete works of Trotsky were likewise shelved.) Now, in fact,
the Maximum Leader was spending much of his time (and a huge
percentage of his limited resources) advancing Soviet interests in
the Third World through the export of weapons, advice, and soldiers.
At that point, many of his American admirers transferred their
admiration from literacy campaigns or figures on milk production, to
Cuba's putatively selfless "proletarian internationalism" (e.g., the
Cuban military adventurism in approved locales like Angola, the Horn
of Africa, and later Central America). Strange to say, these were the
very same people who were quick to denounce other Latin American
military institutions, the "bureaucratic-authoritarian" state in
places like Argentina, Brazil and Chile, and the U.S. relationship to
both. In other words, and to paraphrase Molotov, Cuban militarism
(like European fascism in 1940) turned out to be "a matter of taste."
This methodological double standard, Horowitz writes, amounts to
nothing less than "a subversion of social science in favor of covert
political support for a dictatorship."

These are strong words, but if anything they understate the case.
Well into the mid-1980s--that is, before the collapse of the Soviet
Union--many researchers (notably Andrew Zimbalist and Claes
Brundenius) persisted in arguing (in Horowitz' paraphrase) that
"unqualified dependence on sugar as a crop [was] overestimated, that
Soviet aid ha[d] been greatly exaggerated, and that the rectification
process ha[d] been a great success." Only an unforeseen
catastrophe--the end of the Socialist Commonwealth of
Nations--brought Castrologists up short. Now many of them argue that
all of the problems of the island, from the shortage of fuels to the
lack of political liberalization, can be directly traced to the
continuing U.S. trade embargo.

At the end of the day, then, it appears that we are supposed to judge
the Cuban Revolution--an epochal event putatively representing one of
the culminating moments in mankind's struggle for liberation and
dignity--not on the basis of its production indices, contributions to
human welfare, or improvement in the quality of the country's civic
and cultural life, but on Castro's success in defying a trade
embargo. Yet at the same time we are assured that whatever
deficiencies persist after thirty-five years of socialism would
somehow be corrected--if only American tourists could join with
Canadians, Europeans and Latin Americans to gamble and whore once
again at Havana's beachfront hotels!

Such logic-defying exercises make sense only if one accepts a
monistic interpretation of the island's history, one which confuses
the Castro regime with the country, and casts Cuba into the role of
eternal victim, exempting it (and its leadership) from any
responsibility for its follies or errors. Post-Gorbachev Castrology
in the United States thus takes up its position at the point where
Cuban nationalism and anti-Americanism (domestic or foreign)

The centrality of Cuban nationalism to Cuban historiography hardly
requires emphasis. Indeed, the two are virtually inseparable. The
official canon--which presented the country's struggle for nationhood
as a story with a happy ending--was barely established in Cuban
school textbooks at the beginning of this century before it was
broadly repudiated. Disillusioned by the results of the first two
decades of independence (1901-21), successive waves of "revisionists"
rummaged through the past to explain their country's lingering
deficiencies. These they variously attributed to the island's Spanish
heritage, to its emergence as a nation-state three quarters of a
century later than other Latin American countries, to the untimely
death in 1895 of the great "apostol" of cubanidad José Martí, and
above all to the United States, whose tardy but decisive intervention
in the war of independence (1895-98) all but assured that the new
republic would be forced into a quasi-protectorate with its powerful
neighbor to the north.

The bill of indictment against the United States was long and
detailed, intemperate in tone and relentlessly unforgiving: from the
Platt Amendment, by which Washington arrogated to itself the right to
intervene in the island (revoked only in 1934), through the two U.S.
occupations (1906-09; 1917-22) and the heavy-handed involvement of
Ambassador Sumner Welles in the revolution of 1933; to the creation
of the "sugar quota" which reserved to Cuba a quarter of the U.S.
domestic market (forcing it into a monoculture from which there was
no easy escape).

Some of the historians who raked these coals back and forth during
the 1930s and 1940s, like Emilio Roig de Leuchenring, were communists
or at least close to the Cuban party, and they remained on the island
after the advent of Castro to enjoy privileged berths in the new
state apparatus. But many were not. The most eminent "revisionist" of
all was Herminio Portell-Vilá, who from his chair at the University
of Havana trained several generations of Cuban students (one of them
was, in fact, Fidel Castro) to attribute all of their country's
problems to the United States. Such histrionics did not prevent
Professor Portell-Vilá from marrying an American, from periodically
teaching at American colleges, even from accepting a Guggenheim
Foundation grant to finish his multi-volume screed Historia de Cuba
en sus relaciones con Estados Unidos y España (1938).

Nonetheless, once Castro began expropriating American companies and
goading the United States into suspending the Cuban sugar
quota--which is to say, once he began to put his old professor's
preachings into practice--Portell-Vilá took the first available ship
to Miami. (He later established himself in Washington as an expert on
Cuban affairs at one of the more right-wing lobbying groups.) An even
more interesting case is that of Carlos Márquez Sterling, whose
Historia de Cuba, still available as far as I know from an émigré
publishing house in Miami, rants against the United States in
virtually every chapter except the last--the one which, after all,
explains why Señor Márquez Sterling was signing the prologue in Miami
rather than Havana.

Revisionist Theories

The ideological fit between revisionism and Castroism is too evident
to require comment. Rather more interesting, however, is the way that
revisionist themes have resurfaced in the work of Cuban-American
historians working in the United States, many of them born here or
brought to this country as small children. Three particular cases
present themselves for our attention. Two are chapters by Louis A.
Pérez, Jr. and Jorge Domínguez in Leslie Bethell's portmanteau volume
Cuba: A Short History. The other is Marifeli Pérez-Stable's The Cuban
Revolution: Origins, Course and Legacy.

For some time now Louis Pérez, Jr. has been the principal exponent of
Cuban revisionism in the United States, utilizing the latest social
science concepts and techniques to make some of the same points, with
the rather different twist that, unlike Portell-Vilá or Márquez
Sterling, he has no vested interest in separating the traditional
agendas of Cuban nationalism from the Castro regime. Quite the
contrary: he sees a significant continuity between the two (which has
an interesting political subtext of its own). The particular period
with which he deals in this volume is 1930-1959, which is to say, the
runup to Castro's seizure of power, but he ranges rather more widely
over time to get there.

Essay Types: Essay