Cuba: Leave, Protest or Surrender

For those loyal to a repressive regime, leaving or protesting are the only, and mutually, exclusive options. (EFE/Archive)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, José Azel, Miami, 17 March 2021 — Exit, Voice, Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States* is the title of a book published in 1970 by economist and political scientist Albert O. Hirschman. The author was born in Germany in 1915 and lived a full and adventurous life. After receiving degrees from the Sorbonne and Harvard, he volunteered to fight on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War.

During WWII Hirschman helped many prominent European intellectuals escape from occupied France across the Pyrenees to Portugal. He served in the U.S. Army’s Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.

Hirschman held distinguished academic posts at Yale, Columbia, Harvard, and the Institute for Advanced Study. In 2001 he was named one of the 100 Best American Intellectuals. He died in the United States in 2012 at age 97.

Exit, Voice, Loyalty became an influential and must-read book for social scientists. Hirschman’s thesis proposed that an individual in an unfulfilling or failed relationship has three choices: he can walk away, complain or suffer silence.

The choices are applicable in business, personal and political relationships. Though Hirschman focused mainly on organizations, political parties and consumer choices, his work is essential for understanding how immigrants and exiles choose between escape, opposition or silent resistance.

According to Hirschman, “exit” means walking away, leaving one’s country, moving to another nation state. “Voice” is akin to protest, choosing to articulate discontent. And “loyalty” implies submittal, pledging allegiance to a governmental regime or its ideology. It is worth reflecting here on the alternatives available to the citizens of oppressive regimes such as those of Cuba, Venezuela and other countries where the option to protest has been curtailed.

Bear in mind that, even in repressive regimes, there is always a certain loyalty to the government. All regimes need at least a modicum of acceptance from some sectors of the population to maintain the legitimacy and operational capabilities of their institutions. If there were no loyalty, the political and economic institutions of the regime, such as the armed forces, could not operate or survive. This leaves to “leaving” and “protesting” as the only, and mutually exclusive, options.

In Hirschman’s analysis, protest is an effort by citizens to change the regime’s practices. He defines it as any attempt to change, rather than escape. Protest is a complex concept because, he write, “it can manifest itself from weak complaints to violent protests.” He also points out that if those with the most influence escape, the protest loses its most important voices.

When leaving is not an option, then protest become the only possible choice. In Hirschman’s view, “protest increases in importance the opportunities to leave diminish.” On the other hand, the easier the option to leave is, the less the incentive there is to protest. “Therefore, the possibility of leaving can stunt the development of the art of protesting.” Knowing this, oppressive regimes have sought to remove their political enemies and critics from the national conversation.

Hirschman’s formulation of leaving, protesting, or submitting is powerful and valid. However, it overlooks the possibility of staying and resisting without protesting. For example, working as little as possible in the socialist system. He also did not mention the option of leaving in order to mount a more forceful protest. This was the case with my generation of Cuban exiles who left the country in search of the means and opportunities to return and overthrow the oppressive regime in Cuba. The landing by Brigade 2506 in 1961 and other actions undertaken in the 1960s and 1970s are examples of this approach.

Today our voices are older older and muffled. But we remain loyal to freedom.

*Translator’s note: For this article the book’s title was translated into Spanish as “Marcharse, protestar o someterse” (Leave, Protest or Surrender).


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