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Cubans here and there still hope for better future

Posted on Thursday, 01.01.09
Cubans here and there still hope for better future

Fifty years ago Cubans rejoiced in the downfall of Fulgencio Batista.
Today joy isn't the overriding emotion. Other feelings — such as
apathy, anger, despair and rancor — dwell in our hearts. Loss and
sadness — over the lives lost, the families sundered, a people's broken
faith — are overwhelming. Only official Cuba revels and marvels over
the decades since that long ago Jan. 1.

Why Cuba had a revolution in 1959 is an enduring question. Though not
inevitably, Cuban history made the revolution possible. National
sovereignty, social justice and democracy had been long-standing
aspirations. Between 1902 and 1959, the Cuban republic met them
unevenly, an unsurprising fact since progress is never pristine.

The Platt Amendment (1901-1934), which allowed U.S. intervention to
maintain order, saddled the early republic. After the Spanish-American
War, the United States occupied Cuba and then imposed the amendment as a
condition for leaving. In a fitting display of pragmatism, the
constitutional assembly accepted it.

On May 20, 1902, Cubans embraced independence joyfully. Tomás Estrada
Palma, Cuba's first , had lived in exile in the United States
for three decades. He returned to a three-week passage from Gibara in
eastern Cuba to . With flowers in hand and resounding shouts of
¡Viva!, people thronged to meet him everywhere. Not until 1959 would
Cubans be so moved again.

Gulf between urban, rural areas

In the 1950s, Cuba ranked high in Latin America on indicators such as
literacy, urbanization, graduates, life expectancy and infant
mortality. We were more modern, albeit not uniformly so. Progress, in
fact, rendered more conspicuous the growing inequality: most pronounced
between Havana and the rest of Cuba but a gulf also divided urban and
rural areas.

Employment and the sugar industry lay at the heart of the Cuban .
Unemployment averaged 16 percent a year, while less than 70 percent held
full-time jobs. Sugar no longer sustained growth, but economic
diversification proceeded slowly and mostly around Havana. Sugar still
accounted for a third of all industry, more than half of all
and a quarter of the labor force.

Job creation and higher economic growth, thus, hinged on
diversification. A single indicator — sugar tonnage per capita —
captured Cuba's predicament. From a mid-1920s one ton per capita, sugar
production had declined to .86 per capita by the 1950s. A National Bank
report said it best: “If we do not structure our economy to secure a
just and adequate standard of living for our people, unfortunate days
await us.''

Even so, the economy didn't do the old Cuba in. Politics did. In 1933,
Cubans rose against dictatorship and the United States. For years, the
island was convulsed by social upheavals and political repression. In
1940, the political class came together to enact a new constitution that
enshrined civil liberties and social justice. Batista, who'd emerged
amid the convulsion, was fairly elected Cuba's president.

From 1940 to 1952, Cuba was a leading democracy in a Latin America
littered with dictatorships. Cubans enjoyed more freedoms than ever,
before or after. All was not well, however. Politicians didn't break the
habit of malfeasance, which quickly disillusioned the citizenry. In
Havana especially, political gangs fought one another over turf and favors.

On March 10, 1952, Batista's coup further fueled the electorate's
dispiritedness. At first, the opposition banked on negotiations to
restore the Constitution of 1940 and hold new elections. For a bit in
1955 a peaceful exit seemed possible. But Batista didn't negotiate in
good faith, and the opposition abandoned the strategy of mass
demonstrations that might have changed his mind. Thus, 's
claim that only bullets — not ballots — would overturn the
dictatorship gained ascendance.

After 1959, the revolution galvanized the Cuban people. Even after it
had turned dictatorial, most Cubans still hoped for a better future.
Opponents met the firing squads, suffered long imprisonment, went into
exile or were forced into silence at home.

Cuba now has a domestic opposition entrusted to peaceful means. Exiles
have largely renounced as well. In contrast, official Cuba
depends on repression to remain as it is. Yet, down the road,
opportunities for meaningful dialogue may arise. If so, I hope we've
learned the importance of politics to get it right this time.

Marifeli Pérez-Stable is vice president for democratic governance at the
Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., and a professor at Florida
International University.

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