John Kerry’s visit to Havana on Friday — the first by a U.S. secretary of state since 1945, is not solely symbolic pomp. It represents the crowing achievement thus far of Barack Obama’s policy shift on Cuba, which followed 55 years of open U.S. hostility that failed to pry Fidel and Raúl Castro from power.
That the Castros have survived for so long is a testament to what the CIA has called the revolution’s reservoir of loyalty. That allegiance was strengthened in the early years of the Cuban Revolution by widespread disgust with the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who was overthrown on Jan. 1, 1959. To great extent, popular support for early revolutionary figures, particularly an engrossing Fidel Castro, helped fuel initial support for Cuba’s ideological about-face toward Marxism.
And it has been sustained by the so-called conquests of the revolution in education, health care and agrarian reform — a distribution of wealth in which the most disadvantaged have benefited most. Cuba’s literacy rate, which was among the worst in the Western Hemisphere before the revolution, is today among the world’s highest, according to the United Nations. The U.N. also lauds Cuba’s health care expenditures — the island has 67 doctors per 10,000 people, among the highest rates in the world — which have contributed to its life expectancy and infant mortality rates surpassing U.S. figures.
But the Castro brothers also have Washington to thank for their longevity. The fervent nationalism that was born during the island’s 19th century battles against imperialist Spain has since been directed at the U.S., helping prop up the Castro regime despite its authoritarianism and often disastrous economic policies. Nationalism is perhaps the strongest pillar of Cuba’s revolutionary ideology, more so than Marxism. And 10 successive U.S. administrations have stoked Cuba’s patriotic fire through bumbling assassination attempts on Fidel Castro, the CIA-led Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crisis and the 1999 Elián González custody saga, which saw hundreds of thousands of Cubans rally on Havana streets for his return to the island.
“It has been one of the strongholds of the Cuban government,” said Jorge Duany, the director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, referring to the Castros’ use of nationalism. “It’s not something that Fidel and Raúl invented, but clearly they took advantage of nationalistic sentiment among large sectors of the Cuban population, to the extent that the United States represented a military threat, especially in the 1960s, and more recently an ideological and economic threat.”
The use of force, no doubt, has also contributed to the Castro regime’s long life. A repressive machinery has seen sham trials convict thousands of dissidents since 1959. Hundreds more continue to languish in prisons for trying to exercise basic freedoms. The Cuban Constitution, furthermore, codifies repression by prohibiting the existence of any political body other than the Communist Party. The despotism has continued since Raúl Castro took the reins of power from Fidel Casto in 2008. Just this week, ahead of Kerry’s visit, 90 activists were detained for calling on the U.S. to do more to curb human rights abuses on the island.
When simmering internal tensions have erupted, in the face of food and energy shortages, for example, the Castros have resorted to migration as an escape valve. That was the case in the 1980 Mariel exodus, when some 120,000 Cubans fled for Florida shores, propelled by housing and employment shortages that typified a sickly economy. In 1994, when violent anti-government protests shook Havana, Fidel Castro allowed roughly 35,000 Cubans to sail to Florida on rafts, taking full advantage of the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act, which grants permanent residency to Cubans who reach the U.S.
But loyalty to the revolution is a limited commodity, as Raúl Castro seems to be recognizing with Havana’s rapprochement with Washington, announced in December. The pact points to better economic prospects for the island, in the form of increased tourism and fewer restrictions on remittances from the U.S., which accounted for $2 billion in 2014 and could double under normalized relations, according to Cuba watchers. The move is a response to growing dissatisfaction in Cuba with the economic and political systems. In an April poll of Cuban residents, 79 percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with economic conditions on the island. The poll — which showed higher approval ratings for Obama than for the Castros — found that Cubans expect the economy to improve in five years as a result of normalized ties.
Better relations with the U.S. pose potential risks for the Castros, of course. Among them is losing the ability to stir up nationalist fervor in the face of “Yankee imperialism.” The re-establishment of embassies and diplomatic ties blunts Havana’s ability to inspire Cuban unity in the face of U.S. aggression. That, according to Duany, is already visible on the island since the December rapprochement. Public notices denouncing the U.S. have been taken down. And politicians have toned down their anti-U.S. public discourse.
“The symbolism and rhetoric,” he said, “seems to be moving in the direction of a post–Cold War kind of understanding that relations are necessary in order to promote each other’s interests.”