Fear and Loathing in Havana and Miami

MIAMI — As most people who have grown up Cuban in the United States over the last six decades would attest, asking their parents about the Cuban Revolution tends to elicit one of three reactions: silence, suspicion or enthusiastic invocations of gratitude that you are not in Cuba.

As a Cuban born in New York and raised in Kansas and Miami, I would ask questions of my parents, who just responded with questions of their own: “Who have you been talking to?” “Which of your teachers is a Communist?”

Later, as a scholar, I discovered that the complexity of Cuba’s history explains why talking about the country remains largely inconvenient, if not entirely forbidden, both in Cuba and in my home state of Florida.

For both island Cubans and American Cubans, history is the central axis of identity, and yet it is also the primary taboo that shapes, limits and defines us.

One reason is that for decades, favoring Fidel Castro’s version of the revolution required endorsing the Communist state’s view that his rise to power did not just represent the culmination of all Cuban history until that point, but its conclusion as well. This left citizens with little to do besides defend, enjoy and obey.

For Castro’s critics and opponents, however, Cuban history offered no relief from revolution or fiery forms of nationalism. Discussing the past often entailed dredging up inconvenient facts about how the United States’ pre-1959 role in Cuba help explain why Castro came to power and why he stayed in power. This is why such facts remain taboo.

Throughout most of the 20th century, being a nationalist, criticizing the United States and considering oneself a “revolutionary” were essential aspects of what it meant to be Cuban on the island. Equally essential were the rights to protest, to organize without fear of reprisal and to dissent, clearly and loudly.

While the exiled Cuba of Miami often condemns any criticisms of the United States because they echo Castro’s, the leaders of Communist Cuba criminalize any criticisms of themselves. Yet generations before them fought to fuse anticolonial nationalism and protection from American machinations to liberal democracy — not the one-party Fidelista dictatorship of Communism or the relentless ideological homogeneity characteristic of right-wing Trumpista.

Being a revolutionary before Castro came to power in 1959 meant being committed to building a nation even more democratic than the United States. Revolution — as a goal, a history — became folded into the fabric of daily political life and Cubans’ personal identity long before Fidel.

Cuba’s oppositional culture and its citizens’ belief in their country’s exceptionality were forged in three wars for independence from Spain in the 19th century. These wars unleashed the dream of a meritocratic nation founded on the promise to reverse four centuries of genocide and colonialism.

The United States stole this dream by occupying the island and denying Cuba a victory over Spain in 1898. The United States also began a century-long policy of near-constant political intervention and support for dictatorship that engulfed not only Cuba until 1959, but also most of Latin America until the 1990s.

By the 1950s, a radical political culture and belief in the rights of citizens to control their government and create a more equitable economy had not gone away in Cuba. What the country lacked was a sovereign and accountable state that would fulfill their visions. From 1902, when the first American military occupation ended, and 1959, Cubans launched no less than five armed revolutionary movements against a corrupt state more beholden for its existence to American businesses than to the people.

Remembering this history became tantamount to treason among exiles in Cuban Miami, but the anti-imperialist nationalism it produced on the island was a powerful weapon for Castro. For decades, the Cuban state has relied on this weapon to justify the silencing of critics and create a vast Soviet-trained security apparatus and culture of siege.

Through block organizations established in 1960 called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, for example, the Cuban state demanded and enforced loyalty to itself. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of its over $4 billion annual subsidy forced the Cuban government to pass reforms, one could not run a nail salon or organize a chess club unless it was owned or authorized by the Cuban state.

Since the early 1990s, the state, strapped for cash, has reversed its condemnation of neoliberal capitalism in favor of million-dollar joint ventures with foreign investors. Today, Cuban Army officers have become wealthy running Gaesa, a conglomerate that owns Cuba’s tourist facilities and operates free trade zones. Yet at least 80 percent of ordinary Cubans rely on government jobs that paybetween $17 and $44 a month and food rations that don’t meet basic needs. Why don’t Cubans rebel? They have a ready answer: “¿Cómo vas a manifestarte si hasta los hombres aquí se encuentran dezcalzos y embarazados?” (How can you protest when even the men here are barefoot and pregnant?)

After the 1959 Revolution, Cubans who arrived in the United States had to abandon in most respects the very principles that had defined what it meant to be Cuban in order to justify living in the United States. They had to reconcile the facts of Cuba’s fight against the United States’ control before 1959 with their abandonment of that fight and its outcome: the rise of a Communist state under the leadership of Fidel.

The Cuban government called those who left “deserters” and even “anti-Cubans.” The Cold War created a with-us-or-against-us paradigm for both Cuba and the United States, and the absence of debate or even friendly discussion left the average Cuban with official narratives. Exiles’ narratives argued that Castro had either betrayed the moderate revolution Cuba really needed or, that in 1959 there was no need for a revolution at all.

From 1959 to 1972, Cuba lost roughly 8 percent of its population to exile.

The first and wealthiest of these groups not only opposed the Revolution but also supported the Batista dictatorship. The politics, money and historical amnesia of the First Wave Exiles thus quickly became the foundation of Miami’s political culture.

From 1960-1965, the University of Miami became the site of the world’s largest C.I.A. station, outside of Langley, Virginia, employing several thousands Cuban exiles a month. The C.I.A. also subsidized Cuban-owned businesses in South Florida. It funded front organizations and newspapers to promote right-wing views. Simultaneously, the Cuban Refugee Program provided direct cash payments to families, bilingual education programs, Spanish-language recertification exams and university scholarships.

Being a Cuban American meant being everything that an island Cuban was not. Still, the notion of Cuban political unity in the United States is as false as it is on the island. It is an illusion that is the result of trauma, amnesia and a regularly renascent fear of defying and confronting one’s neighbors.

Today, about half of the two million Cubans in the United State live in Florida. While 60 percent are American citizens, only 18 percent of all Cubans who have arrived in the United States since 1990 are citizens. These Cubans represent the least prosperous segment of the community and the most connected to the island. They have the most to lose from right-wing Republican administrations that disdain public spending almost as much as they despise exchanges with Cuba.

So why don’t the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who are not members of the Miami exile generation rebel? One reason is that the vast majority of Cubans in South Florida resist the hyperpoliticization that surrounds them by retreating into apathy. Similarly, on the island, Cubans have a saying: “Hay que ser ápolitico para sobrevivir esta locura.” (One has to be apolitical to survive this insanity.) Florida, where Republicans have controlled all branches of government for nearly three decades, can sometimes seem not so different from that other one-party state.

These paradoxes explain why questions about Cuba are often so hard to ask, let alone answer.

So long as Florida and Cuba’s political cultures share many of the same features, they will also share the same political fate. That fate must change, for the sake of democracy in Cuba and the United States.

Lillian Guerra is a professor of Cuban and Caribbean history at the University of Florida. She is the author of “Heroes, Martyrs & Political Messiahs in Revolutionary Cuba, 1946-1958,” and “Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption, and Resistance, 1959-1971.”

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Author: New York Times