A regime’s success depends on its dictator
“We have to warn the imperialists,” Fidel Castro thundered at a rally in Camaguey, Cuba, 30 years ago last week, “that they not create so many illusions .?.?. in reference to the idea that our revolution will not be able to resist a debate within the socialist community.”
He was alluding to the political upheaval sweeping the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the wake of reforms by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who had recently visited Havana. Communists had just lost elections in Poland, a portent, many believed, of change in Cuba.
“Never!” Fidel cried. Even in the event of “a large-scale civil war in the U.S.S.R.,” even if the Soviet Union “disintegrated,” he pledged, “Cuba and the Cuban revolution would continue struggling and resisting.”
Seated among other foreign journalists a dozen yards or so in front of Castro, I could not quite believe what the 62-year-old dictator was saying.
Still facing a U.S. economic embargo, Cuba could not endure a cutoff of Soviet subsidies and the hardship it would bring. Refusing to bend to that reality, Castro recklessly courted his own downfall, either through a popular uprising or a fatal split in Cuba’s communist ranks.
Or so I thought: In January, the Cuban revolution finished its 60th year; in 2016, Castro died peacefully in his bed; his younger brother, Raúl, who succeeded Fidel atop the regime in 2006, has semi-retired. And a transition to a new generation of party leaders, including a few influential younger Castros, is proceeding.
There is a lesson here about the relationship between economic factors — often said to determine political outcomes — and the human factor, which may be what really counts.
George Orwell summarized the point in “1984,” attributing it to Big Brother’s shadowy nemesis, Emmanuel Goldstein. As long as a repressive regime avoids foreign conquest and retains “its own self-confidence and willingness to govern,” Goldstein’s fictional treatise noted, it can rule forever.
True, a regime could be undermined by its own mistakes, especially if it incubates “a strong and discontented” middle class. However, sheer will can offset that: “Ultimately the determining factor is the mental attitude of the ruling class itself.”
The mental attitude of Gorbachev was such that he lost confidence in the inefficient, repressive brand of communism in his country and tried to reform the system from within.
As Castro foresaw, Gorbachev’s economic and political liberalization heightened rather than resolved Soviet systemic contradictions, setting off a chain reaction that led to the U.S.S.R.’s collapse.
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