Probing the intricate Cuban mind
Surprisingly immune to despondency, the people of Cuba are a stark contrast to the sheer wreckage and hardship in their island. However, it takes much more than a stroll around old Havana to look beneath the surface.
At first sight, Cuba might seem a surprising challenge to the norm for anyone associating autocratic rule with political unrest. Ran by a clique of ideologues seemingly oblivious to the suffering of their people and the inevitable megaflop of their design, the island has endured 60+ years of Communist rule showing no imminent signs of a popular breakdown of the type that torn down the Berlin wall on 11/09/89, flooded the streets of Prague a few days later and threatens today to spell collapse in Venezuela.
That Titanic-esque semblance of stability in the face of structural debacle, the eerie sense of normality as life goes on under shockingly harsh conditions, is quick to materialise before the eyes of the incredulous tourist in the first hour upon landing. Ricochets of queries about “la cosa” (the state of things) are consistently met with a surprising tendency to play down the unspeakable indignities of life on the island, always coloured with a distinctively Cuban defiance of adversity. And always the same shrewd omission of any political responsibility of the few who zealously hold all power.
Too thrilled for follow-ups on that first ride from the airport, the impressionable visitor might stop short of a real venture into the political psyche of his taxi driver. Qualified contentment at best and resignation at worst, he will likely conclude, are the defining attitudes of the Cuban public. If such a rotten-looking system has been kept from imploding for over 6 decades of rapid global change, he will ponder, it might not be all that bad and rotten after all.
If he is still left with an inkling of inquisitiveness, however, he might keep pulling that thread and begin peeking at a vast undersurface of complexity that screams all but complacency.
To be clear, 60+ years into its socialist experiment, the Castro regime is still not entirely deprived of popular support. Words of praise for Fidel from the very people who most suffer from his legacy are not uncommon, even less so as affective mourning runs high and his memory begins losing its bitter taste around the one-year anniversary of his death. But Fidel was also cherished for reasons other than his politics — ascertaining that affectional composition would require a polling operation of the kind that would chill his despot buddies to the bone.
In fact, surprisingly little of the regime’s discourse revolves around the continued development of a socialist society. The revolution, a blue-scarved school-kid would recite, was first and foremost a patriotic effort to take Cuba from the hands of a neighbouring empire. To this day, the propaganda goes, the island just 90 miles south that stood up to decades of colonialism in disguise is the living proof that a dignified alternative exists to unbridled capitalism. The core fibre in the minds of Castro loyalists, thus, is patriotism and not rigid ideology.
However, when it comes to politics in Cuba, it is fear far more than any positive attitude that drives the conversation or lack thereof. If he persists in his quest for candid conversations, that same inquisitive visitor will soon hit a wall of self-censure when an otherwise talkative interlocutor will turn down a chance to lay the blame for Cuba’s ills on anything other than the US embargo. Political chats will rarely transcend the narrow framework of one-party rule with no political rights and a centrally-commanded economy. Misinformation and scare of snitches have reduced political discourse to the narrowest, most basic level — a stunning victory for Castroism.
My modest experience attempting to extricate my interlocutors from the taboos and discursive constraints of a totalitarian society has taught me that the average Cuban reasons along starkly different lines than we’re used to in the “West”. A tangle of biases and misconceptions are the hardly delible mark left by 60+ years of Castroist discourse and staunch, paranoid patriotism. Not only has the regime vastly overplayed the merits of its societal scheme — don’t let anyone tell you that Cuba is the paradise of social welfare it is portrayed to be. It’s also taken particular care to instil in people a deep-seated fear of what lies just 90 miles north and across most of today’s world.
As the stubbornness of government elites has aggravated the everyday plight of the Cuban people and tightened the grip on their minds and lives, the failure of the Cuban model has taken farcical proportions. For a nation that claims to exemplify human dignity, it flies in the face of socialist ethic to pay engineers and doctors 15$/month while those lucky or servile enough to ingratiate themselves with the bureaucracy hog the riches. However, that same despotic class has skilfully managed to shut their people off from the world to a surprising extent. At a time when borders become increasingly porous and globalisation seems unstoppable, that is no small feat.