Cuba and the Prospects of Democracy

By Kayla Drake

On 13th April 2023, Political Science Professor Laura Tedesco spoke to the Saint Louis University-Madrid campus about her ongoing project on Cuba. The research project studies the economic and political role of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias  (FAR) in Cuba. It also analyses future political scenarios considering the different forms of transition from authoritarian rule to democracy in Latin America. The following article is a summary of what Dr Tedesco talked about based on both the findings of her research project and her assessment of where Cuba and Cubans stand from democratic processes.

Cuban history — often romanticized

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are iconic figures of the Cuban Revolution. Castro was a charismatic leader that helped to overthrow the government of Cuba and established himself as Prime Minister in 1959. Back then, the Cuban communist party was aligned with the Soviet Union and drew the ire of the U.S. government, as shown in the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. The Cuban Missile Crisis soon followed in 1962 and was the closest the world ever has come to nuclear war since.

While leftists and people in Latin America can often romanticize the Cuban Revolution, Prof. Laura Tedesco calls it a myth. She recognizes that she herself once bought into the idea that the revolution worked, and communism helped bring quality life to all Cubans. “As a young person, I romanticized the revolution, but no more… not since I started visiting Cuba regularly.” From 2016, Tedesco has visited Cuba to interview Cubans and get a sense of what life is really like. What she found was a non-existent civil society and poverty everywhere. “There was no inequality because everybody was poor.” However, the myth is still alive in many Latin American and European countries. For instance, the Spanish president, Pedro Sánchez, could only said “Cuba is not a democracy”. He should have said “Cuba is a dictatorship”. Socialist political parties are still reluctant to define the Revolutionary government as a dictatorship.  The myth is that Fidel Castro’s revolution was successful in building up a society on which everyone had access to health, education, and work. A society without economic disparities.  Tedesco called for a more critical examination of Cuba and for politicians and citizens alike to acknowledge that the dream became a dictatorship.

Cuba’s armed forces control the economy through GAESA, a military consortium that they manage directly. Indeed, all businesses in Cuba are in the hands of the armed forces and answer to them, including hotels owned by Spanish businesses. Tedesco witnessed vast economic differences inside of hotels versus the rampant poverty and malnutrition outside of the hotels.

The role of young people

Fidel Castro died in 2016, and his brother Raul took over, then retired in 2021 — marking the first time since 1959 no Castro was in power. Miguel Diaz Canel, a Communist party figurehead, has been president since 2019.

Tedesco saw an opportunity for civil society to start to blossom in the early 2000s. What developed was a rich culture of “artivism,” with young artists engaging in civil society. Artistic expression flourished and was partly made possible through access to technology. However, in 2018, the Cuban government issued the 349 decree to censor and pre-approve cultural and artistic performances. The Movimiento San Isidro sprang up in response to the government’s censorship. The movement involved young people going on hunger strike and the Cuban government evicting them. However, since 2018 the movement has largely fizzled out — as members are either jailed or have emigrated.

On the 27th November 2020, Cuban artists and youth again protested. The 27N movement looked promising at first because after protesting outside of the Ministry of Culture for an entire day, ministry officials met with leaders and agreed to listen to demands. A dialogue opened and 27N leaders requested for independent journalists to be present at joint meetings between protesters and government officials. Quickly after, government backlash followed and officials canceled the dialogue, accusing activists of receiving support from the United States.

So far, the 349 decree, aimed at cracking down on dissent, has successfully hindered artivism. A huge exodus followed 27N and within 11 months, 180,000 Cubans had left, according to Tedesco. Now, the future is uncertain since many Cubans who resisted the government emigrated. Without leaders, there is little hope of being mobilized. What has happened instead is a generational divide — a chasm between children that believe the revolution is a myth and parents that tout the revolution’s success. Tedesco said she’s witnessed many broken families because children tell their parents that the revolution didn’t work, and they consider Fidel Castro a dictator. The older generation cannot admit that their entire life was dedicated to someone who was lying to them. As a result, there is a clear cut between young and old generations. On top of this, Cuba is the most aging country in Latin America, raising open and hard-to-answer questions about the extent to which young generations can be really a driver for active change in Cuba.

Future prospects

Tedesco outlined three major problems in Cuba today, which include: the revolutionary myth’s strength especially outside Cuba, the lack of civil society, and the lack of political parties. “Cuba is a dictatorship with one political party,” she said. And now since a massive youth emigration, Tedesco is pessimistic about youth generating change soon.

Part of the problem is that extreme poverty doesn’t make civil participation easy. “When you are waiting two or three hours to buy bread, you have no time for politics,” Tedesco said. That said, despite the rampant poverty, Tedesco would not label Cuba a failed state. During the coronavirus pandemic, the government produced and provided a vaccine for COVID-19, and the state remains the main actor, with a strong monopoly on the armed forces. Still, at the end of this long revolution, Cubans remain poor; so, in Tedesco’s eyes, it remains a Latin American country plagued by poverty and is a long stretch from the vision Fidel Castro touted during the revolution.

This summary was written by Kayla Drake, a Master’s student at the Department of Political Science of Saint Louis University – Madrid Campus and research assistant at the Observatory on Contemporary Crises (OCC).

To quote this article, please use the following reference: Laura Tedesco (2023), “Cuba and the Prospects of Democracy,”

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