SUMMARY: Since 1959, the island nation of Cuba has been giving the middle finger to the United States. Cuba has been in the control of a Castro through thirteen separate presidential administrations and they’ve made it in the most unlikely of ways under the most improbable circumstances. This is episode of UNFTR begins with a slightly different perspective on the 1959 Revolution that has evaded most retellings in U.S. history books and follows the twisted journey of Fidel Castro and his brother Raul through the heights of the Cold War, the despair of their “Special Period” and quasi-resurgence as the beating heart of the socialist movement in Latin America.
This episode is actually one the first ones that I had on the board when I started formulating Unf*cking the Republic. I had a chance to visit Cuba with my partner in crime right as Trump was coming into office and the time we spent there stuck me more than literally any other place I’ve traveled. What’s fun about telling Americans that you visited Cuba is that they’re like, “Whoa man. What was it like?”, like you just got back from the fucking moon. And Canadians are like, “Oh ya, isn’t it great? Me and the wife love getting ooot and abooot in the classic cars, eh.”
What I can tell you is that it took me a few days to wrap my head around this island nation. It was like every preconceived notion I had about it was just fucking wrong. There was a healthy mix of controlled government narrative bullshit that they jammed down our throats, which only served to counteract the bullshit narrative that the U.S. had been shoveling down our throats since for-fucking-ever. The Cuban people themselves - and full disclosure we only spent time in Havana and Cuba is so much more than Havana - were delightful, open and chill as fuck. That, and the fact that music seemingly poured out of every person, every window, every door.
We begin our story with the Cuban Revolution in 1959 though we’re going to go down a different path than most of the historical accounts fed to us in the United States and focus on the second most prominent figure of the revolution. Hint… it’s not Che Guevara.
Cuba (Not So) Libre
In 1958 the U.S. mafia in partnership with teamsters and wealthy “investors” were closing in on Havana. With the U.S. preoccupied with the escalating Cold War and waning support in D.C. for the leadership of Fulgencio Batista, a band of Cuban rebels were making serious progress in the fight for Cuban independence.
By the time opposition to Batista entered the presidential palace to assume control on New Years in 1959, the dictator had already fled the country. Negotiations between Fidel Castro, who was across the island at the time of Batista’s exodus, and those who assumed control began that night. And on January 2nd the first of Castro’s troops, led by two men forever linked to the revolution and the future of Cuba, entered the city of Havana and claimed victory. One was Che Guevara, a man known all over the world even today as the bearded guy in a communist hat clueless people wear on their shirt.
Contrary to popular retellings of Che and the Revolution, it’s the other guy we’re focusing on because his story reveals much more about what Cuba was and what it was to become.
“Voy bien, Camilo?”
One of the most important figures in modern Cuban history is a man named Camilo Cienfuegos. Images of Cienfuegos are everywhere in Havana. His legend is enormous, which I found interesting considering how little is said of him outside of Cuba. School children are called “Camilitos” in his honor. And every year on the anniversary of his death, Cuban children head to the beach and set flowers in the water to honor his memory. His story and legend is taught to them early and his iconic cowboy hat and beard are as ubiquitous throughout the island as the patented Che Guevara image. The reason I start with him is because what happened to Cienfuegos is an allegory for the next sixty years of Cuban history.
Cienfuegos would become politically engaged during the student protests against Fulgencio Batista. At one protest he was actually wounded by a bullet from Batista’s army. He gained brief notoriety from this event, but after that he actually bounced around Cuba and even the United States before separating from his girlfriend and heading to Mexico to hook up with the exiled revolutionaries. Because he wasn’t a communist or particularly ideological, it actually took a while for Cienfuegos to be trusted. But once the revolutionaries made good on their plans and launched an invasion into Cuba he immediately proved himself to be one of the most valuable leaders in the fight.
From the mountain hideaway positions where Batista’s army had difficulty tracking the insurgents, Cienfuegos was personally tapped by Guevara to lead a unit and he quickly gained a reputation for protecting his men above all else. This was a surprise to those who knew him growing up because he had never previously demonstrated any of the revolutionary characteristics or political spirit that would ultimately define him.
After winning several skirmishes on the island, and as Batista’s grasp loosened, it was Cienfuegos who was the first to enter Havana on Fidel’s orders and essentially take the city in a bloodless coup alongside Guevara and only a handful of soldiers. Fidel wouldn’t arrive with his victory caravan for another six days.
At the beginning stages, at least in Havana, Camilo was the face of the revolution.
When Fidel established his government it wasn’t exactly clear what shape it would take. At this time, Castro identified as a democrat who was interested in expelling Batista the dictator and re-establishing the constitution of Cuba in the spirit of José Martí, another lionized figure in Cuban history associated with its liberation from Spain. His closest associates were Guevara who, as an Argentine Marxist revolutionary, was a beloved outsider, but an outsider nonetheless.
Cienfuegos was still ideologically agnostic, but it was a known fact that he did not identify as a Marxist in any way, shape or form. The real ideological force of the group was Fidel’s brother Raúl who was a devout Marxist and cold blooded militarist who upon taking a role in his brother’s government began devising ways to eliminate Batista loyalists whether or not they had surrendered peaceably and given themselves over to the new regime.
The story at this point hinges on one important fact and that is that next to Fidel, Cienfuegos emerged as the most popular figure of the revolution. And many would argue that he was actually far more popular among Cuban citizens at the time.
Gradually, dissent began to grow in the ranks of the revolutionaries, many of whom had signed on for a fight to overthrow Batista but were wary of the communist thread that ran through the ranks, most notably Raúl and Che. Now, note to the reader that, as we know, history is written by the victors. So it stands to reason that what happens next would be colored over time by the Castro regime. But history is sometimes co-authored by its exiles and in the case of Castro, much of what we have access to comes to us from Cuban exiles who have a serious axe to grind.
So I’m going to stick closely to the events and relay information that I’ve garnered firsthand of the treatment of Cienfuegos by Cuban institutions and speaking to people who were surprisingly open about the controversy surrounding him. I’ll match these conversations with historical accounts from both history books and documentary footage from exiles. Like most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in between but it doesn’t make this moment any less important.
Camilo and Huber
Huber Matos was another of Castro’s revolutionary fighters who joined his administration after the fall of Batista. He was a friend and confidant of Cienfuegos and had a plum position in the Castro administration. But things were turning quickly inside the Castro camp. Guevara and Raúl Castro were gaining in influence as Fidel tended to matters abroad and attempted to cobble together a functioning government and economy that under existing sanctions when the U.S. fell out with the Batista regime, was struggling mightily. Fidel’s preoccupation with governing, despite appointing others to the top spots and claiming he was merely the humble Cuban servant who restored order to the Cuban universe, kept him from tending to day-to-day affairs. It didn’t take long for Guevara and Raúl Castro to begin exerting influence over military and political affairs and to bring the fledgling regime closer to communism.
One of the most outspoken critics of these developments early on was Huber Matos.
In the beginning Fidel attempted to assuage Matos and assure him that Cuba wasn’t heading in the direction of a communist state. But these assurances would soon dissolve and Matos fell out of favor almost overnight. In October of 1959, Fidel dispatched his loyal emissary and beloved figure to the Cuban people, Camilo Cienfuegos, to arrest his friend and bring him back to Havana to stand trial.
According to those who knew him, this was an impossible situation for Cienfuegos who himself was battling with Che Guevara and Raúl Castro inside the newly established government. Battling, and losing. Apart from the Sophie’s Choice of either arresting his friend with whom he was politically allied and rejecting an order from his leader Fidel, Cienfuegos had a bigger problem on his hands. Three words: “Voy bien, Camilo?” Or, “Am I doing okay, Camilo?”
Just days after the revolution, Fidel Castro addressed an enormous crowd that had gathered to hear from the revolutionary leader who had freed Cuba in the spirit of José Martí. About midway through a fiery speech, according to legend and witness accounts, Cienfuegos appeared on the balcony and the crowd erupted into chants of “Camilo.”
According to Cuban exiles - and remember now the perspective we’re talking about - this was the beginning of the end of the popular Cienfuegos. Fidel, upon hearing the chants, brought his friend forward for the crowd to see plainly and asked him, “Voy bien, Camilo?” The humble man of the people who claimed his only ideology was as a Fidelista, this regular citizen turned revolutionary who led his troops with honor and won the hearts of the Cuban people, responded simply and humbly, “Vas bien, Fidel.” “You’re doing fine, Fidel.”
These words are to this day, a revolutionary slogan known by every Cuban.
Ten months later, after arresting his friend Huber Matos and assuring him that things would be okay, Cienfuegos was asked to remain in Camagüey, where his friend Matos was stationed, to prevent any uprising though it never came. Then, days later on October 28, he was summoned back to Havana only he would never arrive.
Camilo the Martyr
The Cessna aircraft carrying Camilo Cienfuegos disappeared after takeoff. Despite a three day search, neither his plane nor the passengers aboard were ever found. Nothing. Conspiracy theorists believe the plane took off for America and Cienfuegos settled somewhere in Florida, knowing that he too had fallen out of favor with Fidel. There is zero evidence of this. Others report an armed military plane taking off shortly after Cienfuegos’ flight and believe that he was shot down and killed on Fidel’s orders. The Castro brothers would repeatedly float the rumor that it was the CIA who had him killed. Others believe it was simply a tragic accident.
Regardless of what happened to arguably the most popular figure of the revolution, now lost to the American history books for sure, this moment was massively important and marks the true beginning of our story today. The bloodless revolution had its martyr. Raúl and Che had control of the party. And the murky circumstances surrounding Camilo’s death sent a message to those who would defy Fidel. Just the possibility that Fidel would order the murder of his friend and the beating heart of the Cuban people was enough to cement his position as the leader of Cuba who could not, should not ever be crossed.
JFK to Havana
Under President Obama, there was a détente of sorts. The beginning of a cooling off in hostilities. Fidel had long been out of public sight and Raúl was signaling a future without a Castro at the helm. It was a small opening, but an opening. On the bottom level of a terminal in JFK, at what appeared to be a makeshift gate, we breezed through security and boarded a direct flight to Havana. Having lived in New York for so long and being accustomed to redonkulous lines at the airport, the trip was already weird.
Tourists are treated with great care but there’s also that super creepy feeling that you know they know you’re there. Now I don’t think the Cuban surveillance apparatus is anything like the United States, but this wouldn’t be a place one could hide for very long. The heat was unbelievable and yet no one was sweating. That was my first fucking observation because I spent the entire time with busboy ass. And the lore of Havana being filled with classic American cars from the 1950s? All true. It’s fucking surreal and awesome and sad and cool.
We heard a collection of what I would consider the finest musicians in the world. Incomparable. Nearly everyone we met was willing to speak openly about Cuban history. The desire for relations with the United States to improve - though the disdain for our leadership is certainly palpable and understandable - was expressed almost universally. The national museum in Havana is a trip because it contains amazing photographs of the Revolution and some of the most laughable propaganda that you’ll ever see. And there’s a wall as soon as you enter that has caricatures of the U.S. presidents in really compromising poses. Just pure mockery of the United States.
The markets were bare, and I mean bare. The soccer fields were large patches of dirt. Buildings were in complete disrepair everywhere we went. There also wasn’t a homeless person in sight. People with the most menial jobs were a wealth of knowledge and information and happy to share their education degrees with you. Strangers we spoke with spoke adoringly of Fidel in one breath and called him a murderous dictator in the next. They called the United States their “natural brother” and yet condemned us with pure hatred as only a sibling can.
They welcomed the idea of tourists coming to their island on grand ships to promote tourism but showed little interest in giving up on nationalized businesses. You can visit, but you can’t stay. The young people we met yearned for Internet access and spoke of one day visiting the United States. But only visiting. No one expressed the desire to get the fuck out of here. This is their paradise and their prison.
On one tour someone asked our guide what she thought the Cuban people wanted the most. She said, “Home Depot. Home Depot would be nice. There are so many talented builders and engineers here and we could make things so beautiful but we have no materials, no tools, nothing to build with.” These people have kept automobiles on the road for sixty fucking years with pixie dust and bubble gum but there’s not a fucking hammer or screwdriver to be found because our hatred of this island, of the Castro brothers and everything they represent is so deep and layered, we have tied a tourniquet around the entire island and squeezed with all of our might for decades.
Those in the U.S. looking to Cuba as a source of inspiration for a socialist revolution will come face-to-face with the harsh reality of a failed state run by a brutal autocrat whose biggest initiatives failed spectacularly. Those seeking comfort in this as proof that socialism is a fraud will be disappointed to learn that the most positive aspects of Cuban society that have endured are socialist programs that can be traced even to the early days of the Batista regime.
The early days of the Revolution offer great insight into Castro as a leader. The difference between Fidel Castro’s populist rhetoric broadcast on Guevara’s pirate radio channel is stark in comparison to his conciliatory interviews with American journalists who originally painted him as a hero of democracy. Once in power, he betrayed those close to him, played on the emotions of the people, and cozied up to economic suitors that filled immediate needs.
Castro’s policies changed almost daily in the early days especially. It’s clear, in retrospect, that he was never a man of great ideology or capability in terms of governance. Nor was he a particularly gifted fighter or strategist. He was an opportunist of the highest order and an almost unrivaled propagandist.
Still, the revolution belonged to the Castro brothers and no one else. Raúl Castro was a capable communist who ruled ruthlessly from the shadows. Fidel was a master prevaricator who found good fortune in even the worst setbacks. From escaping death when his first band of guerrilla fighters were mostly massacred, to being pardoned by the very man he sought to overthrow, to the now-infamous trip on the “Granma” and the (virtually) bloodless coup that put him into power, Fidel personally dodged every bullet. The Cuban people and some of his closest allies didn’t fare as well under Fidel’s Faustian bargain.
Guevara was an uncompromising intellectual and idealist who captured the zeitgeist of the uprising. He was also a murderer and misogynist who exacted brutal revenge on all those who would oppose him. He would grow apart from Castro after a few years and return to his revolutionary roots in South America, and enter martyrdom, cementing his now-mythical status.
Considering Fidel was a failure in nearly every respect leading up to the 1959 Revolution, it’s astounding how quickly he was able to consolidate his power. This was his gift. What’s frustrating about attempts by the political left in America to portray Cuba as a champion of socialism and egalitarianism is they ignore his utter ruthlessness.
Throughout the 1970s it’s estimated the regime imprisoned some 20,000 political dissidents. Until the last few years, the island itself was a virtual prison for LGBTQ people. His economic policies and insistence upon a return to a sugar-based agrarian economy were largely shams that shackled Cuba to its Soviet masters, which sentenced the island economy to certain death when the Iron Curtain fell. On the island it’s referred to as the “Special Period.” Or as one of our more outspoken guides said plainly, “The ’90s were tough because we literally lost our Sugar Daddy.”
Time and again, Fidel’s economic instincts proved disastrous, while core social programs, such as universal health care, quality education and welfare, endured. One can only imagine how the country might have flourished if the socialist policies were housed within a more open society and less bureaucratic government.
Historians in the U.S. like to talk about the 13 critical days of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Cuban regime set up by Fidel and Raúl has endured through 13 U.S. presidential administrations.
How do you like them apples?
The movies would have us believe that the United States was hunky-dory with the Batista regime and caught completely off guard when Castro took over. In reality, the United States was already exercising economic influence over Cuba and punishing Batista with sanctions during the Eisenhower administration. And initially when Castro took over there was optimism in D.C. and among American journalists who were fascinated by the revolutionaries. Because, well, they were fucking fascinating. And Americans love a good underdog story. They love it, that is, until the underdog lifts its leg and starts pissing on us.
So in the late stages of Ike’s term, the CIA began plotting ways to first control then oust Castro if necessary. Remember at the time Fidel was sort of a freelance mercenary who had yet to tip his hand. It was the height of the Cold War and he had options that, at the time, seemed fairly equal. For their part, the Soviets treated the Castro regime as somewhat of a curiosity and a distraction but when it started to become clear there was a Marxist strain in the Castro family, suddenly the U.S. and the Soviet Union started to take a keen interest in what would happen next.
We made the decision fairly easy when the CIA backed an attempt to overthrow Cuba with a ragtag group of exiles. Needless to say, this did not go well. The Bay of Pigs invasion was an embarrassment to the United States and a self-inflicted wound. It was sold to a naive Kennedy administration by leftovers from Ike. Kennedy would thereafter be at odds with his own intelligence agencies over the blunder and cause him to close ranks with brother Bobby at the same time the Castro brothers also closed ranks, hardened their stance against the United States and cozied up to the Soviets.
When you think about the timing of this, it’s massively fucked up. The Bay of Pigs was only in the second year of the Castro regime and ensured that any option of diplomacy or attempt at an economic reconciliation immediately came off the table. The sides were chosen and our dangerous game allowed for a hungry dictator to select quite possibly the worst ally in the eyes of the Americans to befriend. Here’s where we need to understand America’s responsibility in this relationship.
Thus, it was only one year after this failed coup attempt that the world came to the brink of disaster in a possible nuclear engagement between the two leading superpowers referred to in the U.S. as the Cuban Missile Crisis. I’m not going to rehash these events here except to say that American historians would fawn over Kennedy for his handling of this crisis. Books would be written and movies would be made about how Kennedy grew into the presidency overnight and looked the Russian bear right in the eye until the bear blinked and the Russians turned their vessels around and slunk back to the Soviet Union with their tails between their legs.
What’s missing from this narrative, of course, is why the fuck the ships were there in the first fucking place. Like how we blame countries for calling for Death to America after we massacre their civilians and pillage their natural resources.
The United States moved ballistic missiles into Turkey and Italy, which prompted outrage from the Soviet Union who saw this as a major threat. Obviously. After the Bay of Pigs and other bullshit attempts by the United States to meddle in Cuban affairs, Fidel Castro made a plea for protection to the Soviets who were all too happy to play tit-for-tat with us since we were literally moving our nuclear arsenal around the globe.
The reality of the situation, while admittedly tense and I don’t want to understate the importance of this moment, was that our leaders reached an arrangement that dismantled the Soviet arsenal in Cuba and the American arsenal in Turkey. The United States also agreed to stop fucking with Cuba. Hardy-fucking-har-har. I’m guessing Kennedy was like, “and then I told them that we wouldn’t invade Cuba again, but I had my fingers crossed so it doesn’t really matter. What does matter, is that I spend the rest of my time in office trying to get laid.”
So we’re through the history channel shit, right? My sense from speaking with people about Cuba and from my own education experience is that as Americans we have a pretty enormous gap in knowledge between the Kennedy years and today. In many ways, this is kind of accurate. That’s not to say Cuba doesn’t have a rich history from this period on, but the choice to ally with the Soviets over the United States placed Cuba somewhat in arrested development by the measures that Americans typically consider the most meaningful.
Cuba’s economy was largely agrarian throughout the Sixties and Seventies, relying on favorable price-fixed deals for its primary export, sugar. Like so many dictatorships that maintain tight control at the top, there was precious little innovation in these decades while the rest of the industrialized world was experiencing somewhat of a renaissance.
Fidel turned out to be a terrible financial and economic manager as he failed to diversify the Cuban economy. But for a time, it didn’t matter all that much to the average citizen because the social policies flourished. Education immediately became a right and Cuban literacy skyrocketed. They made incredible advances in medicine and healthcare became a natural right.
But because of their proximity to the United States and our ability to prevent neighboring and U.S. allied nations from doing any sort of business or participating in trade agreements, Cuba was stuck with the partners it had on the other side of the world. The rest of Latin America was sympathetic to the Cuban cause and several were able to do business with Castro, but the core goods and services that would have modernized the Cuban economy were essentially unavailable. And so, tobacco, rum and sugar - mostly sugar - held the island together.
The Sixties and Seventies had a few consequences. For one, they solidified Castro’s reputation as the guy who gave the United States the middle finger and successfully evaded multiple attempts by the Americans to oust him or assassinate him. This made him a hero to the people throughout Latin America. On the island, it was a different story. As his international stature grew his grip on dissidents tightened and he imprisoned thousands and purportedly disappeared hundreds, perhaps thousands more. This is the dark side of Castro that simply cannot be ignored regardless of how impressive the social gains of an increase in life expectancy, decrease in infant mortality, universal healthcare and literacy, etc. were.
Then in the late Seventies, Cuba entered a deep recession along with the rest of the world. Even the price-fixed goods they sold to communist allies weren’t enough to prop up the economy and the island fell on hard times.
It was during the time of Carter that an opening occurred for Cuban and U.S. relations to thaw a bit and diplomatic channels were opened up. Perhaps the biggest event that occurred was something called the Mariel boatlift. A flood of Haitian refugees were streaming into American in makeshift flotillas and Cubans suddenly had the same idea. So Carter worked out a deal for a short time that allowed Cubans to gain asylum in the United States so long as Castro released political prisoners. Castro was all too happy to oblige because he took the opportunity to ship out dissidents who were expensive to care for in prison along with those he considered undesirable including a host of criminals.
Neoliberalism, Miami Style
The Cuban exiles and political prisoners who made it to Miami would, over time, exert a tremendous amount of influence in the all important Florida and ironically prevent Castro from making further inroads with the United States in the future. But something else was happening around this time as we headed into the go-go eighties. Neoliberalism was about to move from the textbooks and whitepapers and go to work in practice under the Reagan administration. Oh, and we were about to win the Cold War.
Well. I suppose it’s time to bring in our favorite whipping boy. Fucking Milton Friedman. Poster boy of neoliberal economic policy and purveyor of free trade fuckery that would clear the way for the United States to pillage, rape and plunder Latin America. I bet old shorty pants fuckstick had a hand in fucking over the Cuban people with his bullshit view of the world.
Actually, Friedman despised our policy toward Cuba and believed that we should end all sanctions against them.
That’s okay, Unf*ckers. He’s still a fuckhead and we’ll take him apart in a bit. But on this, Uncle dickhead is actually pretty clear and consistent. Remember the Chicago Boys were all about free trade. Any artificial impediment to doing business between nations was a nonstarter for them and Friedman advised against Cuban and other sanctions. They also despised price-fixing in the market, which made them anti-communist for sure, so the idea that Cuba was able to get along by relying on subsidized sugar and other natural resources was anathema to neoliberal philosophy.
Where they do come very much into play is in Latin America and Mexico during the eighties. Politically, Reagan would quite clearly reverse course from Carter and shut any hope of working with the Cuban government down. This suited the fresh Cuban population that rooted mostly in Miami just fine.
So we have to move our attention slightly to explain how the Mexican debt crisis of 1982 was a seminal moment. Understand that Chicago School theories were in full swing under Reagan and a debtor nation was music to the ears of the Reagan administration. Mexico was just the beginning of the debt crisis throughout Latin America. Throughout the Eighties it would spread like a virus. And with the Soviet block financially out of the picture, even before the Iron Curtain fell, Latin American countries had precious few options for debt relief. The United States on the other hand was about to unleash its new economic arsenal on the world.
Here’s the economic backdrop:
The U.S. economy was still in crisis under Reagan but the Chicago Boys had an answer to this. Through free trade we can go take what we need from others and through monetary policy we can control the flow of funds. Remember that we came off the Gold Standard with Nixon’s repeal of the Bretton Woods Agreement. And though things were dicey for a while we steadily came to the realization that as the world’s dominant currency, we could unleash money supply to accumulate stuff. Other countries didn’t have the same ability at the time and were also suffering. This was our first big shift from Keynes to Friedman. And it worked, but in a completely asymmetrical way because of what was happening politically.
Here’s the political backdrop:
During this time we adopted what is now known as the Washington Consensus. This will be a recurring topic Unf*ckers so if you haven’t heard of it, tune your ears to it. The Washington Consensus had ten specific principles but for our purposes we’ll cover the three most important points to our story today. The first is free trade, which is obviously a cornerstone. Though we’ll unpack how not-free our idea of trade is another time. The second is the relaxation of rules on foreign direct investment, basically encouraging companies to invest abroad and vice versa. And the last is to privatize state enterprises in developing countries like railways, oil and gas.
Put them all together and…
Add together the Washington Consensus with a newfound strategy of monetary policy muscle, the collapse of our only legitimate competitor in the world and an appetite to simply take whatever we wanted through force and you have the Eighties. American simply consumed everything in sight.
Ximena de la Barra, a public policy advisor on Latin America, said it best. She sums up our policy saying, “the neoliberal model is fixated on monetary stabilization and expanding markets for transnational corporations. This is an approach that has proven incapable of considering the ethical, social and ecological costs of its financial actions.”
True to her statement we return to our Caribbean protagonist who was sort of left on the side during this period of U.S. expansion. Still under sanctions, chugging along in a ‘57 Chevy, and living without its sugar daddy was Cuba. Literate, healthy and about to be poor as fuck.
The Special Period
Electricity failed. Crops died. People rationed and went hungry. There was no soap. No gasoline. No building materials. Everything just stopped. People rode bicycles. Lived on government handouts. The so-called “Special Period” lives vividly in the memory of Cubans as the island was left on its own to fend for itself. That’s the story of the Nineties in Cuba, Unf*ckers. It was a period of hardship that has come to define the Cuban experience almost as much as the Revolution itself.
To understand this with the benefit of hindsight is to know that this decade contributed to the Cuban identity of resilience more than anything else. From this time, they’ve adopted sort of a, “if we can endure that, we can do anything.”
So ironically, an economic situation that would have dismantled a government and loosened the grip of a dictator under any normal circumstances, actually served to strengthen Castro’s mythology. Another fucking bullet dodged by this guy.
Resistance to Castro only hardened among Cuban exiles in the United States who were fast becoming a political and economic force, particularly in South Florida. And they found willing suitors in Washington who sought to curry favor with this new voting block and continue to punish the communist dictatorship. Most notably was the even tighter measures in the Helms Burton Act in 1995 authored by Representative Dan Burns and Senator Jesse Helms. The text of the Act says it all. “To seek international sanctions against the Castro government in Cuba, to plan for support of a transition government leading to a democratically elected government in Cuba, and for other purposes.”
We tried a secret coup. We tried killing him. We sanctioned the fuck out of them and made them a pawn in U.S. / Soviet relations. We codified these measures through legislation and squeezed as hard as we could to put the nail in the coffin of Castro but nothing fucking worked.
And so they persisted. And they did it by blaming us, which was actually pretty fair. But conditions for marginalized groups remained abysmal and the Cuban infrastructure essentially failed on a wholesale level. Then in the 2000s things began to loosen up a bit as other Latin American countries began to climb out of poverty and follow the path of their aging hero, Fidel Castro.
It’s hard to explain the impact the Cuban revolution and subsequent regime had on the mindset of Latin American countries. To some it was and remains the ultimate expression of freedom, self determination and independence. The ultimate fuck you to the neoliberal policies of the United States and conquering nations prior such as Spain. Over time the luster wore off in many countries, with most choosing to take a bite of the free trade apple. It’s safe to say, however, that the admiration for the Cuban model is still deep seated, particularly among the rural poor throughout Latin America.
In the early 2000s a light emerged for the Castro regime. Critically, an economic agreement called ALBA was established between Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba. Over time additional agreements would pull in Brazil and Uruguay. This was intended to counter efforts in Washington to promote the Free Trade of the Americas agreement, or FTA, to encompass trade, investments and intellectual property and bring Latin nations more into line along with trade agreements the U.S. had forced with Mexico, Chile and the Dominican Republic.
I haven’t seen this correlation formally written anywhere - though I imagine it exists - but the FTA almost feels like a precursor for what the Obama administration tried to secretly push through with the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Good things and bad things, all under the cover of free trade but certainly asymmetrical as the United States had the most to gain from making the market, exploiting cheap labor and protecting intellectual property under Washington standards primarily.
As usual, the U.S. forgot to ask whether anyone else was interested and at the time we were met with two massive middle fingers. One from Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and the other from our old friend Fidel.
This is where we begin to wind down our story and draw some conclusions. Our meddling in Latin America will be covered specifically and peripherally in future episodes, especially as we talk about the rise of uncle fuckbreath and the Chicago School. But to put a bow on the last twenty years, Cuba essentially experienced somewhat of a rebirth albeit a very, very slow one.
With newly formed alliances that were oil rich and having no part of U.S. shenanigans, Cuba was able to regain its footing, turn the lights back on, increase the flow of goods onto the island and even birth a small tourism industry that welcomes tourists from pretty much anywhere but the United States. It’s far from enough to support a complete comeback for the island and the government remains incredibly oppressive so it’s important to understand that their idea of business and economic development is almost childlike and pedestrian compared to what we are used to.
Having said that, the Cuban youth have something their parents and grandparents did not: The Internet. (And having said that, it fucking sucks.)
Two quick developments that are worth covering in this period stand out before we bring this home. The first is the reduction in political prisoners and a push to allow equal rights for LGBTQ individuals. The latter is actually the result of efforts by Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela, who opened the aging dictator’s eyes to the concept of human rights for marginalized people. The former is a bit prickly but in a way Americans should understand better than anyone.
Cuba still has an incarceration problem and it’s something that plagues Cuban society and policy. What should be familiar is that dark skinned Cubans are disproportionately incarcerated. Now before we jump up and down and point to this as a failing, understand that America still leads the world in incarceration figures and has a clear problem with disproportionate treatment of black and brown people. So best not to throw stones. And according to the Equaldex index that tracks rights of marginalized people across the globe, we’re basically equal to Cuba.
The other development is the quest for broadband access to the Internet. Cuban Internet access is spotty and monitored. Spotty because they simply do not have the infrastructure to obtain quality access due to U.S. sanctions preventing private industries from laying fiber to support the island. Google announced a couple of years ago that they intended to do just that to the joy of Cuban citizens, but the government basically said hold my fucking beer and nothing has happened as of yet.
The other part is that it is closely monitored so even in the zones where access is supported and the Cuban people can get online and even have social media profiles, big brother is watching. And they know it.
That’s the one thing we had trouble reconciling as visiting Americans; the lack of personal freedom. Repressive economic and regressive social policies aside, the restriction on travel and personal liberties is jarring. This was a palpable source of agitation among the younger people we met. The population is entirely literate, a remarkable achievement that serves both as a bright spot and inflection point when married with the slow, steady increase in access to social media. The younger generation is highly educated and aware that a world outside of Cuba awaits and it’s only a matter of time before the island’s forced seclusion faces an inevitable reckoning.
I’m aware this sentiment also smacks of ethnocentrism as though access to the United States is all that matters in terms of personal liberty and the freedom to travel. But the proximity of the U.S. and Cuba and the latter’s inability to access goods, services and vital imports make for a strained and unnatural existence.
Despite the clear, self-imposed disadvantages that have plagued Castro’s Cuba, one can’t help but marvel at the fortitude of its people. There is an almost universal sense of pride in its revolutionary history and a belief that while the island’s infrastructure is a mess, it’s their mess. They successfully defied the most powerful nation in history for 60 years and retained a collective sense of purpose and autonomy. Given the chance to take its place on the international stage and participate in the world’s economy unfettered by U.S. trade restrictions, it’s entirely possible to imagine Cuba emerging as a powerhouse in the hemisphere.
As for how this happens, the “Never Cuba under a Castro” mantra of the conservative Cuban-American voting block in the always-important election state of Florida is one that clearly resonates within the Republican Party. But democrats in charge of Congress and President Biden are running out of excuses unless we’re simply waiting for Raúl to die. (Which might be the case.)
Fidel is gone. Raúl stepped down and handed the reins to Miguel Diaz-Canel.
Then earlier in 2021, Raúl stepped down as leader of the communist party.
To hold a deceased Fidel accountable for the whole of the Cuban people is no longer a viable policy. Cuba is not perfect, but it’s proud and primed for a comeback. And we might finally be standing in the moment when a true socialist system takes root without the influence of dictators, the oppression of its “natural brother” and the hangover of a man who stood for nothing but controlled everything in his strange, beautiful and heartbreaking little world.
Final word today goes to Samuel Farber, author of Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment:
“It follows then that there may be the need to undergo a series of socialist revolutions before a new socialist political system and mode of production become stabilized and long lasting. In any case, there can be no advanced historical guarantees of socialist perpetuity except the perennial struggle of actual people to continue making socialism a historical reality.”
Sometimes Milton was right. Fuck him anyway. Free the Cuban people.
Here endeth the lesson.
Blowback Season 2- The Cuban Revolution
Samuel Farber- Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment
Jorge G. Castañeda- Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara
Richard A. Dello Buono + José Bell Lara- Imperialism, Neoliberalism, and Social Struggles in Latin America