“A remarkable achievement. The most comprehensive, synthetic, and systematic appraisal of the Cuban Revolution to date.”—Jorge Duany, author of Blurred Borders

“Passionate and balanced, Luis Martínez-Fernández guides the reader expertly through the seemingly endless twists, turns, and detours of the Cuban Revolution.”—Gustavo Pérez Firmat, author of Life on the Hyphen

Revolutionary Cuba is the first book in more than three decades to offer a complete and chronological history of revolutionary Cuba, including the years of rebellion that led to the revolution. Want to understand the entire sweep of the Cuban Revolution and its impact on the world over the past half century? This is the ideal book for you!

Brush up on your Cuban history in today’s guest post as author Luis Martínez-Fernández explains how he sees the path of Cuban politics since 1959.

 

Castro's victory speech in Havana, Camp Columbia, January 8, 1959. Camilo Cienfuegos stands behind him. Source: Bohemia, January 11, 1959.
Castro’s victory speech in Havana, Camp Columbia, January 8, 1959. Camilo Cienfuegos stands behind him. Source: Bohemia, January 11, 1959.

The Pendular Revolution

by Luis Martínez-Fernández

Understanding the complex phenomenon of the Cuban Revolution that began in 1959 is no easy task. It’s like entering a labyrinth and then trying to find your way out. During nearly a decade of research, reflection, and writing about the Cuban Revolution, I unwound some guiding threads to help me navigate Cuba’s revolutionary labyrinth. One of them is the overarching theme of a “pendular” revolution.

Since the 1970s, Cuba experts have pointed out pendular shifts in Cuban politics and ideology—dramatic swings between political formulas, perhaps most noticeable in the movement between idealism and pragmatism. In the past fifty-five years, Cuba has seen idealist phases of orthodox Marxism and turns toward pragmatist reformist socialism, often incorporating the market and other capitalist mechanisms.

Poster by Elena Serrano commemorating the Day of the Heroic Guerilla, OSPAAAL, 1968. Source: Lincoln Cushing, Revolucion!: Cuban Poster Art (San Francisco: Chronicle, 2003).
Poster by Elena Serrano commemorating the Day of the Heroic Guerilla, OSPAAAL, 1968. Source: Lincoln Cushing, Revolucion!: Cuban Poster Art (San Francisco: Chronicle, 2003).

First came a phase of heroic idealism, emblematized by Che Guevara. This was a period of grand social and economic experiments and feverish adventures: the economy’s socialization, the literacy campaign, and guerrilla deployments to Africa and South America. Yet toward the mid-1960s the revolution began to shift toward pragmatism. The Great Debate between idealists and pragmatists resulted in compromised idealism, a fusion of ideology that allowed Cuba to hold on to its core revolutionary pillars of socialism, egalitarianism, and internationalism while deemphasizing the goals of economic diversification and autonomous international affairs.

After the failure of the Ten Million Ton Harvest of 1970, when the island became even more dependent on producing sugar for the Soviet and East European markets, the revolution entered an extended period of institutionalized pragmatism that lasted until 1985. As their dependence on the Soviet Union increased, Cuba’s leaders embraced Soviet reformist practices such as paying higher wages and bonuses to its most productive workers—something totally opposed to Guevara’s ideals of equality.

In 1990, after a brief cycle of government-enforced idealism, officially christened the “Rectification of Errors,” Cuba entered a long survivalist phase. Cuba’s leaders returned to pragmatism in reaction to the profound crisis known as the Special Period. They carried out extreme austerity measures, encouraged capitalist investments from abroad, and approved peasant markets and many private businesses and forms of self-employment—from twelve-chair restaurants to dog grooming salons. Once the Cuban economy improved in the late 1990s private economic ventures were significantly cut back, and Cuba began yet another pendular swing: from the pragmatism of the Special Period to a new idealism under the banner of what Castro called “The Battle of Ideas.”

A family flees Cuba in a 1951 Chevrolet truck transformed into an amphibious motorized balsa. Photo by U.S. Coast Guard.
A family flees Cuba in a 1951 Chevrolet truck transformed into an amphibious motorized balsa. Photo by U.S. Coast Guard.

Since Fidel Castro stepped down from power, his brother Raúl has ushered in yet another swing back toward pragmatism. He announced it in a 2008 speech: “Socialism,” he remarked, “means social justice and equality, but equality of rights and opportunities, not of income.” Of egalitarianism, he said “it is in itself a form of exploiting good workers by those who are less productive, or worse yet, lazy.” Raúl Castro’s rule has caused a gradual shrinking of the state sector and its services and the rapid expansion of market capitalism and private ventures.

The trajectory of the revolution since 1959 has shown that it is virtually impossible to predict the next cycle or pendular shift. In the past, such ideological swings were directed—though sometimes reluctantly—by Fidel Castro. It is hard to picture his brother Raúl or anyone else leading another swing back to an idealist cycle. Cubans seem unlikely to embrace socialist idealism again anytime soon.

But you never know with Cuba. The pendulum may very well have stopped swinging altogether, stuck in a phase of failed pragmatism.

 

Luis Martínez-Fernández. Courtesy of The College Board.
Luis Martínez-Fernández. Courtesy of The College Board.

Luis Martínez-Fernández, professor of history at the University of Central Florida, is coeditor of Encyclopedia of Cuba: People, History, Culture and the author of numerous books including Frontiers, Plantations, and Walled Cities: Essays on Society, Culture and Politics in the Hispanic Caribbean.

The author will present his new book November 6, 8:00 pm, at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida. The event is free and open to the public.

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