Cuba's Growing Crisis
Address at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis on May 27, 1987. Mr. Skoug is Director of the Office of Cuban Affairs.
Thirty years ago, two remarkable revolutionary figures were struggling for existence in the Caribbean region. It was an era when the democratic ideals of the wartime and postwar period were challenging military dictators and oligarchical, tradition-based societies.
One of these individuals, Romulo Betancourt, was eluding the grasp of the Perez Jimenez dictatorship in Venezuela, a state which had known the rule of strongmen throughout most of its century and one-half of its existence. On January 23, 1958, with the help of progressive military officers, the regime in Caracas was overthrown and parliamentary democracy rapidly introduced. Betancourt was elected president, served a 5-year term, and then permanently left office, living modestly thereafter as a leader of the socal democratic political party and as a symbol of limited, constitutional government until his death in 1981. His legacy has been six free elections, four peaceful transitions of the party in power, a military subordinate to civilian authority, an independent judiciary, freedom of the press and assembly, human rights, and the rule of law.
Betancourt's spirit lives on in Latin America today. Brazil's President Sarney told the UN General Assembly in September 1985 that Latin America's extraordinary effort to create a democratic order is the most stunning and moving political fact of recent years. There is, in fact, a trend running in that direction. It stems from that legacy of the democratic pathbreakers of the 1950s and 1960s, like Betancourt, who demonstrated that freedom and self-government flourish after all on Latin American soil. The trend is notable in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. It enjoys our enthusiastic support, even though we may and do strongly disagree with some of the views and policies of democratically elected leaders in Latin America, just as we must elsewhere.
The future of Latin America is today at the crossroads, pulling away from the past but not yet certain of the future. If the model of the future is Venezuela or the traditionally democratic Costa Rica, we will all be well served. Democratic societies tend to make good neighbors.
The Power of the Gun
The other chief revolutionary figure in the Caribbean 30 years ago was Fidel Castro in Cuba. Like Venezuela, Cuba then enjoyed a comparatively high economic and social level, akin to Argentina and Uruguay and well above that of the other states of the Caribbean or Central America. Its only experiment with political democracy had ended badly in 1952 with a military coup led by Fulgencio Batista, a military leader who, ironically, once had been the victor in democratic elections and had peacefully left office. Regrettably for the future course of history, Batista did not leave peacefully or permit free elections the second time around. He fled only when his authority vanished, leaving behind a political vacuum in Cuba. Almost all Cubans cheered his departure. Few Cubans and even fewer foreigners knew what was coming. The U.S. Government, which had embargoed military assitance to the Batista government early in 1958, also knew too little for too long. It saw no communist threat in Fidel Castro.
On January 1, 1959, Cuba lay at the feet of the revolutionary liberator whose own hallmark had been violence but who had pledged to restore democracy. He himself was still at the other end of the long island, in Santiago, where, prophetically, he told a crowd that night that they would not lack weapons, that there would be plenty of weapons, although he did not explain for what purpose the weapons would be needed. Prophetically, too, he told the women in the crowd that they would make fine soldiers. They did not know, nor did his countrymen know, that 6 months earlier he had pledged to lead a longer, larger war against the United States, a war which he said would be his "true destiny.' This was not hyperbole. It offers a key insight into the subsequent development of Cuba and U.S.-Cuban relations.
Since January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro has been the only leader Cuba has known, making his the third longest reign in Latin American history. There have, indeed, been plenty of weapons, weapons which self-styled Cuban "internationalists' have since carried to other countries and to other continents. If Venezuela is a model of sorts for the remainder of Latin America, Cuba has also been a model of another kind. The differences between the two models are multiple and fundamental. One of the most significant differences is the fact that Cuba has consistently engaged in stimulation and support of armed revolution aimed at the creation of like-minded societies. When opportunities have presented themselves, Cuba has moved swiftly to take advantage of them for both ideological and strategic purposes.
It was Mao Zedong, not Fidel Castro, who first observed that all power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Actually, this is, no doubt, a very old idea. But Castro has been a case study of the application of the thesis in practice. He was and is, first and foremost, a caudillo, a classic man on horseback, even if his military campaigns were Fabian in nature. Whatever support he may have enjoyed or may now enjoy in Cuba--and he is a charismatic leader, highly effective one on one or with multitudes--he has never put his legitimacy as ruler of Cuba to any other test than that of the gun. The way he himself described it in an inverview with the Spanish news agency EFE on February 13, 1985, was as follows:
The secret of remaining in power is not to be found in constitutional mechanisms or electoral systems . . .. It is a matter of holding on to the support of the people, …