In Cuba, half a loaf is not enough
BY JOSE AZEL
In the second half of the 19th Century, during the inter-war period
between Cuba's Ten Years' War (1868) and its War of Independence (1895),
a reformist political movement emerged in Cuba under the rubric of
Autonomismo. Frustrated by the failure of the Ten Years' War, and
convinced that no other viable options were available, some Cuban
intellectuals and businessmen sought to obtain a greater degree of
political and economic autonomy from Spain while remaining under its
rule. They were encouraged by a measure of tolerance shown by the
then-Spanish Captain General of Cuba, Arsenio Martínez Campos.
Some Autonomistas believed that Cubans would be better off as Spanish
citizens, but with a greater degree of economic autonomy. Others held
that partial reformism was a better alternative to a prolonged struggle
for independence from Spain. In any case, they postulated that
Autonomismo was not incompatible with Spanish sovereignty and sought to
gain political "space" from the Crown.
Although the political stance and ideological elitism of the autonomists
disturbed José Marti, who championed Cuba's full independence,
autonomists were not traitors or anti-nationalists. Some had fought
bravely in the Ten Years' War for independence but were now convinced
that times had changed and a new strategy was needed to fight Spanish
Fast forward some 130 years and we find a similar divide in the Cuban
nation. The label autonomist no longer applies, but the contemporary
approaches to Cuba's future correspond with those of the 19th Century.
The "neo-autonomists" of today, both in and out of the island support
gradual change that does not alter the command and control structure of
Cuba's totalitarian system. They view the minimalist economic reforms
proposed by Gen. Raúl Castro with the same sense of encouragement that
the Autonomistas attached to the apparent forbearance of Spain's
military commander in Cuba at the time. Some seek to "actualize" the
communist system; others see the purported reforms as political space or
a strategic opportunity to undermine Cuba's totalitarianism over the
long term. Not unlike the frustrated ethos that permeated the Cuban
nation following the inconclusive Ten Years' War, "neo-autonomists" They
perceive gradual reformism as the only viable course after 52 years of
communist rule and many failed efforts to overthrow the dictatorship.
Not unlike the Autonomistas, they will also eventually realize that the
Castro government, like the Spanish Crown, has no intention of allowing
legitimate reforms that will undermine its totalitarian rule. One of the
lessons we have learned in the study of totalitarian systems throughout
the world is that such systems do not generate truthful or useful
knowledge regarding the causes of their own malfunction. Thus,
totalitarian systems are ontologically incapable of reforming
themselves. Simply put, Cuban communism is not able to reform. It must
The "neo-autonomists", as their predecessors, believe that economic
progress is an essential antecedent to civic empowerment and must come
first, if at all; popular sovereignty is not a priority. Central to
their argument is that change should originate with an enlightened
autocratic government and not with the will of the people. The
democratic counterargument is that civic empowerment is the foundation
of progress and its necessary precondition.
These divergent approaches may seem to differ only in the sequencing and
prioritizing of polices. However, the differences are philosophically
fundamental. The eradication of personal freedoms is incompatible with
human dignity and the pursuit of happiness.
The contemporary Autonomistas look to economic measures undertaken by
the Castros without democratic empowerment as useful to foster
prosperity. This belief embodies the elitist and despotic notion that
the "special knowledge" of the few should rule the activities of the
many. This conviction is particularly noxious to Cuba's future, because
democracy will fail everywhere when there is no appreciation for its
decisive role in good governance.
The citizenry empowerment camp values individual freedoms as essential
to living meaningful lives. They do not consider political rights and
civil liberties as superfluous luxuries to be perhaps appended following
a program of economic reforms. As Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen, an
economist from India, has noted, "People in economic need also need a
In Cuba, that's the reality.
José Azel is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Cuban and
Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami and the author of the book,
Mañana in Cuba.