Rafael Rojas: “The Cuban Regime Seeks A 2018 Generational Shift Without Democratization” / 14ymedio, Yaiza Santos

The historian Rafael Rojas. (Rodolfo Valtierra / courtesy)
The historian Rafael Rojas. (Rodolfo Valtierra / courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yaiza Santos, Mexico, 11 September 2015 — Rafael Rojas (b. Santa Clara, 1965) has published Historia mínima de la revolución cubana (A Brief History of the Cuban Revolution) in Mexico, where he has lived for the last twenty years. In fewer than 200 pages, the historian covers the events on the island between 1952, when Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship was established, and 1976, the date of the Constitution adopted by the National Assembly of Peoples Power, which institutionalized the process of change initiated in 1959, plus a brief introduction about Cuba since its declaration of independence.

Rojas spoke with 14ymedio, not only of Cuba’s past but also about the island’s present and possible future.

Yaiza Santos. This book serves to demystify certain episodes magnified by Revolutionary propaganda and to recover other episodes that were buried. What “demystified” moments would you highlight?

Rafael Rojas. I would start with the vision of the old regime, totally negative, which the official history has transmitted: that of a neocolonial nation that has no sovereignty, is poor, underdeveloped, backward, authoritarian… over a time covering almost half a century, without distinction of periods.

The first chapter of the book is a reconstruction of Cuba prior to the Revolution, which speaks of the high rates of economic growth; of high social indicators, including the high rate of literacy compared with other Latin American countries; the great development of per capita consumption; and also the level of cultural and political development. And, also, the Cuban State’s elements of sovereignty.

I think it is always important to emphasize the degree of autonomy it once had in international relations. For example, the Authentic Party government, subsequent to the Constitution of 1940, created an alliance with Latin American governments engaged in what is called “Revolutionary nationalism,” very much in the Mexican tradition. It was a foreign policy that was not subordinated to the politics of the United States.

This contradicts Cuba’s current foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, when he said in Washington that “the United States and Cuban have never had normal relations.” He spoke there about the Platt Amendment, which he said was imposed by a military occupation, but that is not true: the Cuban Congress approved it in 1901. Nor did he mention, as Fidel Castro traditionally did in his speeches, that the amendment was repealed in 1934 as a consequence of a nationalist revolution in 1933 that created a democracy quite advanced for Latin America. I detail that: the 1940 Constitution, the 1943 Electoral Code, which is also very advanced, and the whole social policy of the Authentic Party government, including the first Batista government.

“The first chapter is a reconstruction of Cuba prior to the Revolution, which speaks of the high rates of economic and social growth”

Yaiza Santos. In addition to the plurality of parties and the press…

Rafael Rojas. That of the media is fundamental. The Batista dictatorship wouldn’t have fallen without the decisive intervention of the media and public opinion. The most widely read magazine in Cuba was Bohemia, which also circulated in Latin America. They magazine undertook a tremendous defense of Fidel Castro when he was imprisoned on the Isle of Pines and beyond.

Yaiza Santos. Another thing that has been forgotten: at the beginning of the Revolution there was still free opinion.

Rafael Rojas. I would say for the first two years. At the end of the 1960s the media was nationalized, although there are some that continued, such as EL Mundo or Revolución, until 1965, when Granma newspaper was created and the other newspapers were eliminated.

Yaiza Santos. Something very powerful in the Cuban case is how it managed to put itself at the center of the world.

Rafael Rojas. In the middle of the Cold War. A totally deliberate thing. The audacity of Cuba’s revolutionary leaders in placing an island of the Hispanic Caribbean a few miles from the United States in the middle of the Cold War through an alliance with the socialist camp… It was quite an operation! And it subjected Cuba to all the possible tensions of the Cold War, with all the disastrous consequences.

The audacity of Cuba’s revolutionary leaders in placing an island of the Hispanic Caribbean a few miles from the United States in the middle of the Cold War…”

Yaiza Santos. What would the whole continent have been had it not had that bastion there, which radiated and still radiates today?

Rafael Rojas. I think that the history of Cuba would have been quite different. It would have moved toward a regime with authoritarian elements, like every revolution, but it would have been very difficult to create a single party. Certainly a hegemonic party, PRI-like, but not unique, and there would have been greater public freedoms. Not to mention that Cuban economic development would have continued the course that began in the 1940s.

Yaiza Santos. You’re a big supporter of the resestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States, and this has provoked opinions, especially in the exile in Miami. What do you think will happen now?

Rafael Rojas. To start, from a point of view strictly of relations with the United States, normalization does not imply, to my way of thinking, a reinforcement or uncritical legitimization–without tensions, without conflicts–of the Cuban regime. I believe that what it will imply is that the traditional policy of the United States toward Cuba changes directions, methods, without losing certain basic premises, such as the defense of democracy, the rejection of violations of human rights or the rejection of repression.

I don’t think that the United States will discard these premises of its foreign policy. That doesn’t mean that with the opening of embassies a transition to democracy will automatically be achieved. I think that is a slightly magnified view.

With regards to the economic question, the reestablishment of relations with the United States reinforces the elements of state capitalism that have been created in Cuba and will consolidate a new economic class which, as we know, is very interwoven with the military sectors. Of that I have no doubt: this military corporate caste is strengthened with the reestablishment of relations.

But there could also be an element that encourages the emergence of small and medium private business with national capital that is not totally subordinated to the military corporate caste. At the same time, I think that this reestablishment of relations and the integration of Cuba into the international community will greatly activate the civil society on the island.

That doesn’t mean that with the opening of embassies a transition to democracy will automatically be achieved. I think that is a slightly magnified view

Yaiza Santos. And on the part of the Government? Will there be people in the Communist Party who are already thinking about what will happen next?

Rafael Rojas. In fact the official political agenda already provides for the idea of a succession of powers in February 2018. Raul has said many times: he will leave the presidency then, and he has said that the succession would favor the new generations. That would mean a generational transfer of the Chief of State, without democratizing the political system. The regime will remain the same from the institutional point of view: a single party, control of the media, control of civil society, penalization of the opposition – it is this status of illegitimacy of the opposition that justifies, through the laws and the penal code, all the beatings, repudiations, abuses, short-term detentions… Everything we see on the weekends.

But that’s where other actors get involved: there is a real opposition in Cuba, there is a civil society that can gain autonomy and there is an international community that does not ignore the violation of human rights. Starting with the US State Department itself: in its latest global report on human rights the criticisms of Cuba are harsh, and in the diplomatic notes that have been exchanged between the two governments throughout the negotiation, they have almost always mentioned the cases of repression, from the beating of Antonio Rodiles to the harassment of the Ladies in White, and the situation of El Sexto. This isn’t going to go away; the State Department will be in better shape to negotiate with its allies a more effective policy on human rights in Cuba.

“There are sectors of the Government, the State and the Party who have been interacting with reformist intellectuals in recent years”

Yaiza Santos. Is there a figure within the Cuban government who can lead a transition to democracy?

Rafael Rojas. Right now, I don’t see one, but it’s clear that there are sectors of the government, the State and the Party that have had relationships with reformist intellectuals in recent years and who have shown sympathy for some of the reform projects. For example, one reform that leads to a new law of associations, that permits greater development of non-governmental organizations or of autonomous organizations, which I believe would favor the opposition. Or a new electoral law that eliminates the candidate fees and that would allow truly independent candidates, outside State institutions, to present themselves for election and achieve a place in the National Assembly.

Clearly, there are not figures who define themselves from an openly reformist position, because political reform continues to be largely taboo within the regime and it is something that we can say is deliberately delayed by Raul Castro’s government.

Now, I think we will see a diversification of the ruling political class, especially after 2018.

Yaiza Santos. How will the exile be integrated into this process of normalization?

Rafael Rojas. It is very difficult to respond to that question. There is a sector of the exile, that which has been more integrated with the associations and political institutions of the United States, which feels betrayed by the Obama administration. While there are other sectors who don’t follow this line. Very probably we will also see a diversification within the exile.

I think the stigmatization of the opposition permeates a part of the population

My main criticism is that in my judgment, unfortunately, a sector of the internal opposition is frequently subordinates itself to this agenda of resistance to the reestablishment of relations. And then I do think, unlike my colleagues in Miami, that the opposition is a minority.

The vast majority of the Cuban people in effect has elements of disenchantment with the official positions of the Cuban government, and for the most part looks forward to a greater connection to the world. The Bendixen poll is impressive in this regard: 97% of Cubans support reestablishment of relations and Barack Obama got a 80% approval rating compared to 47% for Raul and 44% for Fidel. But I would also say that the Cuban government’s smear campaign against the opposition has been successful. We see it in the lack of solidarity with Tania Bruguera, in the constant support for acts of repudiation, and in the beatings. I think the stigmatization of the opposition permeates a part of the population.