By Nikhil Bandlish
Cigars, classic cars, Castro and ‘Communism’: What do they all have in common?
Just under 100 miles south of Florida lies what was once the promising socialist nation-state of Cuba. We’ve all heard the stories. The lynchpin in the Cold War during the missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs, Cuba was flying the flag of Communism in the Western Hemisphere amidst a cascade of toppled governments and seemingly bloodthirsty juntas throughout a fractured Latin America, under the ever-watchful eye of the United States of America.
Under the leadership of Fidel Castro, Cuban revolutionaries overthrew the ruthless and U.S.-friendly Fulgencio Batista in January of 1959, and so began a period of immense transition; the economic, social and political transformations reflected Castro’s vision of an economic heavyweight built entirely against the backdrop of an egalitarian society. Naturally, his left-leaning ‘tendencies’ earnt Castro the coveted (yet unofficial) ‘public enemy number one’ spot in the eyes of the U.S. government. Over the course of his life, over 630 assassination attempts would be made according to a senior Cuban secret service official. But not one of them was successful.
Although there was hope for reconciliation under the Obama administration, Cuba has consistently defied their capitalist neighbours to the north. But recent developments suggest that some ideological barriers are ready to come down. Earlier in February, approval was granted for the various restrictions on private activities to be lifted. The move may come as a surprise to traditionalists on the left, but following the taming of relations under Obama and the subsequent downturn under Trump, Cuba has struggled to persevere in a decade dogged by heavy economic sanctions and the crippling effects of the Coronavirus pandemic on its prized tourism industry.
What once promised to be an idyllic communist haven, now finds itself at an ideological impasse that seems to threaten the core principles from which modern Cuba was built… or does it?
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In a classic case of recency bias, we would be forgiven for thinking that Cuba has had a long and semi-prosperous history under the principles of the Marxist framework. However, modern Cuba’s first foray into socialism came in 1959, a full 61 years after gaining independence from the Spanish. The U.S. rapidly inserted themselves into the picture, making Cuba a protectorate, fortifying their presence in the region. In 1902, Cuba became an independent republic on the condition that the U.S. reserved the right to intervene in Cuban affairs; the Platt Amendment of 1902 cemented this position of dominance and allowed the construction of the well-known Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
Over 50 years of continued American interference and a string of largely ineffective governments later, genuine change was afoot. In 1956 Fidel Castro, along with 80 fellow revolutionaries, began their push to overthrow the regime of Sergeant Fulgencio Batista. It was three years later that the bolstered revolutionaries eventually took Havana.
U.S.-Cuban relations during the Cold War are well-documented. The failed coup at the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Cuba’s military involvement in Algerian and Angolan affairs in the 60’s and 70’s drove a studded wedge between the two nations. Simultaneously, living conditions deteriorated further as industries came under state purview, in line with traditional expectations of an emerging socialist government. It does then beg the question; did Cuba ever really thrive as a communist state?
Paradise and Pariah?
As ever, the question has multiple answers depending on the perspective from which we view it. If we were to measure success from, say, literacy rates, then Cuba not only consistently performs in the highest global percentile, but they significantly outperform the U.S. and have done so since the World Bank began collecting data. From a medical point of view, advancements in preventative medicine have made Cuba a respected and industry-leading actor on the global stage, while the domestic healthcare system is among the most inclusive in the world with a doctor-patient ratio of 1:150. Their own brand of international relations; ‘Medical Diplomacy’, whereby the country sends teams of doctors out on humanitarian and diplomatic missions has been an unprecedented success with over 40,000 medical professionals operating in over 75 countries. The caveat? Substantial.
“Lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Cuba is a textbook case. Unemployment rates are at record lows, but Cuban citizens are still somehow unable to afford basic necessities. Famed for their missions abroad, Cuban doctors earn the equivalent of 40 U.S. dollars a month. It should come as no surprise that the state keeps a watchful eye on its people and a tight grip on the economy, yet the perks of an apparent egalitarian society appear to have eluded those who subscribe to it. It’s a difficult situation to unravel as media coverage of Cuba is scarce at best. People live in deplorable conditions, yet their devotion to Castro and his cause remain intact. To many it would seem, a low standard of living is a price worth being paid in exchange for security, paid and provided for by the state.
It can’t be stressed enough the importance of context and perspective when assessing Cuba and what the future holds for one of the world’s last standing communist strongholds. Years of U.S. sanctions have undoubtedly taken their toll, but they made it work – albeit at a cost felt by the people. Opening the country up to private investment marks a historic change in policy and almost feels uncharacteristic, considering the prominence held by Castro throughout Latin America and the global west.
The difficult reality for the hard-line traditionalists that remain, is that the world is changing. Due to the sheer power of the free market, it is no longer tenable to stay in the shadows in the name of socialism, promising an equally prosperous future for all. The fall of the USSR may not have changed much in terms of traditional diplomacy and international relations, but the fall of what was the world’s biggest exercise in Marxism has dented the left’s credibility, and ability to support its like-minded allies around the world.
Cuba began as a powerful nation to be reckoned with and Castro built on the idea that it was the ultimate socialist paradise, but they now find themselves surrounded by adversaries. Perhaps it was only a matter of time after Castro’s death in 2016 that they would succumb to outside pressures and push ahead with privatisation. Or, perhaps the government sees genuine value in promoting the lives of the people, but either way there is one clear conclusion; Cuba is undergoing an identity crisis the likes of which they have never seen before, and the nation may not come out the other side in one piece.
Nikhil Bandlish is The International’s Latin America correspondent.