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    Populism Cuban Style: Conquests, Threats and Leadership

    14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, 6 June 2017 — The leader speaks for hours on
    the platform, his index finger pointing to an invisible enemy. A human
    tide applauds when the intonation of a phrase demands it and stares
    enraptured at the bearded speaker. For decades these public acts were
    repeated in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution, shaping the face of
    revolutionary populism.

    However, Fidel Castro’s extensive speeches constituted only the most
    visible part of his style of governing. They were the moments of
    collective hypnotism, peppered with promises and announcements of a
    luminous future that allowed him to establish a close bond with the
    population, to incite class hatred and to extend his growing power.

    Castro has been the most complete product of Cuban populism and
    nationalism. Evils that sink their roots into national history and whose
    best breeding ground was the Republican era (1902-1958). Those winds
    brought the hurricane that shaped a young man born in the eastern town
    of Biran, who graduated as a lawyer and came to hold the military rank
    of Commander-in-Chief.

    The political framework in which Castro was formed was far from a
    democratic example. Many of the leaders of that convulsed Cuba of the
    first half of the twentieth century did not distinguish themselves by
    presenting programmatic platforms to their constituents. The common
    practice was horse-trading to obtain votes, along with other aberrations
    such as stealing ballot boxes or committing fraud.

    From his early days, the young attorney elbowed his way into the milieu
    of those figures who relied on gangster like behavior, rather than the
    transparent exercise of authority. He quickly absorbed many of the
    elements of demagoguery that would be greatly useful to him later when
    the time came to subject an entire nation.

    Unlike republican populism, whose purpose was the conquest of electoral
    favor, revolutionary populism had as its goal the abolishment of the
    structures of democracy. From January 195,9 the civic framework was
    systematically dismantled and the laws were subjugated to the
    disproportionate will of a single man.

    To achieve this dream of control, the Maximum Leader persuaded the
    citizens that they could enjoy a high degree of security if they
    renounced certain “bourgeois freedoms,” among them the ability to elect
    their leaders and a system of power in which leadership alternates.

    The so-called Moncada Program outlined in History Will Absolve Me, is a
    concentration of these promises in the style of a tropical Robin
    Hood. The pamphlet was presented as Fidel Castro’s plea of self-defense
    during the trial in which he was indicted for the armed attack on the
    Moncada Barracks, the main military fortress of Santiago de Cuba, in
    July 1953.

    Until that moment, this man was practically unknown as a political
    figure. The boldness that characterized the action enveloped him in an
    aura of heroic idealism that set him up as the leader of the
    revolutionary alternative to the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

    In his manuscript, where he described the problems the country faced, he
    never warned that solving them would require the confiscation of
    properties. He limited himself to detailing the necessity of an agrarian
    reform that would eliminate the latifundio and distribute land to the
    peasants. These were proposals that rapidly earned him sympathies among
    the poorest.

    Upon leaving prison, Castro was convinced that the only way to overthrow
    the dictatorship was by force. He organized an expedition and opened a
    guerrilla front in the mountains of the eastern region of the Island.
    Two years later, his triumphal entry into the capital and his
    charismatic presence made him the beneficiary of a blank check of
    political credit, endorsed by the majority of the population.

    The first populist ruse of the new regime was to present itself as
    democratic and to deny any tendency that could identify it with
    communist doctrine. At the same time that it presented itself as the
    enabler of freedom, it expropriated the newspapers, the radio stations
    and the television channels.

    The regime struck a deadly blow to civil society by establishing a
    network of “mass organizations” to bring together neighbors, women,
    peasants, workers and students. The new entities had in their statutes a
    clause of fidelity to the Revolution and perform – still to this day –
    as transmission wires from the power to the population.

    The first revolutionary laws, such as the Agrarian Reform, the rent
    reductions, the Urban Reform and the confiscation of properties,
    constituted a radical rearrangement of the possession of wealth. In a
    very short time the State stripped the upper classes of their property
    and became the owner of everything.

    With the enormous flow of treasure, the new power made multi-million
    investments in social benefits that allowed it to achieve “the original
    accumulation of prestige.”

    From its original proclamation in April 1961, the socialist system
    declared the irreversible nature of the measures taken. Maintaining the
    conquests achieved required the implementation of a system of system
    backed by a legal structure that would make it impossible for former
    owners to recover what was confiscated.

    The new situation brought with it a powerful apparatus of internal
    repression and a large army to deter any external military threat. The
    most important bars of the cage in which millions of Cubans were trapped
    were erected in those early years.

    To the binomial of an irreversible conquest and an undisputed leader was
    added the threat of an external enemy to complete the holy trinity of
    revolutionary populism.


    The main conquests in those initial years focused on education, health
    and social security. Economic centralism allowed the new ruling elite to
    establish ample gratuities and to distribute subsidies or privileges in
    exchange for ideological fidelity.

    Like all populism that rises to power, the government also needed to
    mold consciences, impose its own version of history, and create from the
    teaching laboratories an individual who will applaud greatly and
    question little.

    In 1960 the Island was already among the Latin American countries with
    the lowest proportion of illiterates, but even so the Government
    summoned thousands of young people to isolated areas to teach reading
    and writing. Participation in this initiative was considered a
    revolutionary merit and dressed in heroic tones.

    The text of the primer to teach the first letters was openly
    propagandistic and the literacy campaigners behaved like political
    commissars who, on reading the phrase “The sun rises from the East,”
    needed to add as a clarification “and from the East comes the help we
    are given by the Socialist countries.”

    At the end of the process, a massive plan of boarding schools operated
    under military methods began, the goal of which was to remove students
    from the influence of their families. Mass teacher training also began,
    thousands of schools were built in rural areas, and privately run
    schools were taken over by the Ministry of Education.

    From this rearrangement the “New Man” was supposed to emerge, free from
    “petty-bourgeois laziness.” An individual who had never known
    exploitation by a boss, paid for sex in a brothel, nor exercised his

    The fact that there was not a single child left on the island who didn’t
    attend school became a dazzling paradigm that blocked the view of the
    shadows. To this day, the myth of Cuban education is being used by the
    defenders of the system to justify all the repressive excesses of the
    last half century.

    The state monopoly turned the education system into a tool of political
    indoctrination while the family was relegated to the role of a mere
    caretaker of the children. The profession of teacher was trivialized to
    an extreme degree, and the costs of maintaining this giant apparatus
    became unsustainable.

    Many of the achievements that were put into practice were unworkable in
    the context of the national economy. But the grateful beneficiaries had
    no opportunity to know the high cost these campaigns imposed on the
    nation. The country was plunged in an inexorable decapitalization and
    the deterioration of its infrastructure.

    For decades, the media in the hands of the Communist Party helped to
    cover up such excesses. But with the disintegration of the Soviet Union
    and the end of the massive subsidies that the Kremlin sent to the
    island, Cubans came face to face with their own reality. Many of these
    supposed advantages vanished or were plunged into crisis.

    The Maximum Leader

    One of the hallmarks of populism is the presence of a leader who is
    given full confidence. Fidel Castro managed to turn that blind faith
    into obedience and a cult of personality.

    The merging of the leader with the Revolution itself and of Revolution
    with the Homeland gave rise to the idea that an opponent of the
    Commander-in-Chief was “anti-Cuban.” His flatterers called him genius
    but in his long speeches it is difficult to find a theoretical nucleus
    from which a conceptual core can be extracted.

    In the oratory of the Maximum Leader, a preponderant role was played by
    his histrionic character, the cadence of his voice and his playbook of
    gestures. Fidel Castro became the first media politician in Cuba’s
    national history.

    Voluntarism was perhaps the essential feature of his personality and the
    hallmark of his extended mandate. To achieve his objectives at the
    necessary price, to never surrender before any adversary and to consider
    every defeat as a learning opportunity that would lead to victory,
    served him to conquer a legion of fidelistas.

    The target dates for obtaining the luminous future promised by the
    Revolution could be postponed again and again thanks to Castro’s
    apparently inexhaustible political credit. The demand for people to
    tighten their belts to achieve well-being became a cyclical political
    stratagem to buy time.

    There were some rather abstract promises, in the style of there would be
    bread with freedom, and others more precise, such as the country would
    produce so much milk that not even three times as many people could
    drink it all. The largest zoo in the world would be built on the island
    and socialism and communism would be constructed at the same time.

    In December 1986, after 28 years of failed efforts, Fidel Castro had the
    audacity – or desperation – to proclaim before the National Assembly the
    most demagogic of all his slogans: “Now we are going to build socialism!”

    The Enemy

    Populist regimes often require a certain degree of tension, of permanent
    belligerence, to keep the emotional flame burning. Nothing is better for
    that than the existence of an external enemy. Even better if it is a
    powerful one that makes alliances with the regime’s political opponents.

    From the time he was in the Sierra Maestra commanding his guerrilla
    army, Fidel Castro determined who that enemy would be. In a letter dated
    June 1958, he wrote: “When this war is over, a much longer and larger
    war will begin for me, the war that I will launch against them [the
    Americans]. I understand that this is going to be my true destiny.”

    Between April and the end of October 1960 there was an escalation of
    clashes between Washington and Havana. The expropriation of large tracts
    of land held by US companies, the suspension of the sugar quota enjoyed
    by the Island, the nationalization of US companies based in Cuba, and
    the start of the embargo on goods from the North are some of the most

    During that same period, Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan
    visited Havana, diplomatic relations were restored with the USSR and
    Fidel Castro met in New York with Nikita Khrushchev, who went on to say
    in an interview: “I do not know if Castro is a communist, but I am a

    In the eyes of the people Fidel Castro’s stature rose and he begin to
    take on the outlines of a world leader. The exacerbation of nationalism,
    another characteristic of the populists, reached to its fullest
    expression when Cuba began to be shown as the little David facing the
    giant Goliath.

    Revolutionary arrogance, driven by the conviction that the system
    applied in Cuba should extend to the whole continent, led many to
    believe that fomenting the Revolution beyond the borders was not only a
    duty but a right protected by a scientific truth.

    The populist root of this “liberator of peoples” thinking led tens of
    thousands of Cuban soldiers to fight in Algeria, Syria, Ethiopia and
    Angola as part of the geopolitical interests of the Soviet Union in
    Africa, although wrapped in the clothing of a disinterested
    Revolutionary internationalism with other peoples toward whom there
    supposedly was a historical debt.

    The enemy was not only “American imperialism” but the South African
    racists, the European colonialists, and any element that appeared on the
    international scene that could become a threat to the Revolution.

    Convinced, like the Jesuit Ignacio de Loyola, that “in a besieged plaza,
    dissidence is treason,” every act of internal opposition has been
    identified as an action to contribute to that enemy and by the official
    propaganda every dissident deserves to be described as a “mercenary.”

    However, the beginning of the diplomatic thaw between Cuba and the
    United States in late 2014 has shaken the thesis of a permanent danger
    of invasion. The death of Fidel Castro, the decline of leftist forces in
    Latin America and the announced stepping down of Raul Castro by February
    2018 diminish what remains of revolutionary populism.

    On the other hand, younger Cubans have a less grateful and more critical
    perception of those conquests in the field of education and healthcare
    that were presented as a generous gift of the system.

    The reappearance of notable social differences arising from the urgent
    acceptance of the rules of the market and the growth of the economy’s
    “non-state sector” – the authorities are reluctant to call it “private
    sector” – have rendered unrepeatable the slogans of biased
    egalitarianism espoused by the ideological discourse that justified the
    obsolete rationing system for food products.

    Haute cuisine restaurants and hotels of four or five stars, once
    exclusively for tourists, are now within reach of a new class of
    Cubans. The elimination of the exploitation of man by man, an essential
    banner of Marxist-Leninist socialism, has not even been discussed.

    The widely shared conviction that the country has no solution is one of
    the main drivers of emigration in recent years. But this lack of hope
    for the future, combined with fierce repression, also limits the work of
    the opposition.

    The system that once counted on enthusiasm is now supported by virtue of
    reluctance. The so-called historical generation still in power is fewer
    than a dozen octogenarians in the process of retirement and the new
    offspring are more inclined to business than to the podium. Today’s
    grandchildren of those populists have more talent for marketing than for


    Editorial Note: This text is part of the collective book El Populismo
    del Populismo , which will be presented this Tuesday at the Casa de
    América, in Madrid. The coauthors are, among others, Alvaro Vargas
    Llosa, Carlos Alberto Montaner, Mauricio Rojas, Roberto Ampuero and
    Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo.

    Source: Populism Cuban Style: Conquests, Threats and Leadership –
    Translating Cuba –

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