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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!”
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
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 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 –