A Cuban Thought Experiment: Applying Philosophies of the Revolution to Leadership Today

The Cuban Revolution effected drastic change in Cuba that remains in place today. This article identifies some key philosophies underlying the revolution and their manifestations, and applies them to current national leaderships.

Antonio Beatrice
UCL Law student and part-time Fidelista

On the second of December 1956, a young and idealistic Fidel Castro did the unthinkable. With 82 like-minded rebels aboard the infamous “Granma” vessel, El Comandante landed and set foot upon an unfree Cuba. In January 1959, after two grueling years and 70 deaths in the contingent, the rebels led by Castro overthrew the dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and instituted a nationwide revolution.

What happened next has been praised for giving the sick free, first class healthcare, giving the illiterate access to quality education and giving the hopeless a sense of hope. It has also been criticized for promoting the depletion and heavy rationing of the island’s food reserves, driving nationals across borders to fend for their lives and heavily skewing the meaning of “freedom of the press” in favour of the government. In either case, supporters and critics alike of the 1959 Cuban Revolution (“the Revolution”) must agree on one point – that the principles and ideals upon which the Revolution was based were simple, groundbreaking and effective in stimulating change in Cuba. I would like to extend this point to argue that the application of a handful of principles and philosophies of the Revolution could serve as solutions to key issues which we as a global community seem unable to presently address.

Glory

The backbone of the Revolution was absolute detachment from worldly glory, fame and prestige, and total assumption of one’s duty in pursuit of the completion of one’s objectives. Indeed, Castro has often attributed the following prophetic words from Cuban revolutionary thinker José Martí as being the most important factor in the success of the Revolution: “Toda la gloria en el mundo cabe en un grano de maíz.” (All the glory in the world [is worth so little that it] can fit into a single kernel of corn).

Imagine this philosophy informing the decisions of global leaders today. Some of our contemporary leaders seem to engage in their presidential stints as if they were the feature attraction of a high-end reality show, making decisions which, even under the most generous scrutiny, can only be interpreted as deliberate attempts to further position themselves in the spotlight. Or, even worse, these leaders see their main responsibility as playing the trump card (pun intended) on the press, rather than performing their presidential duties. An application of the anti-glory revolutionary ideal would prevent our leaders, to as large an extent as possible, from being susceptible to these defects that accompany their prestigious positions. It would lead to honest evaluation and progress-based approaches to challenges, rather than quick fixes for problems such as corruption and the burying of head in the sand to ignore pressing issues.

The Narcissism of Small Differences

Another challenge which may be addressed by the philosophy of the Revolution is “The Narcissism of Small Differences,” inherent in the context of leadership in many of our nations. This phenomenon, as established by Sigmund Freud, relates to hypersensitivity in a population that has developed in a (relatively) small, clearly defined territory over a long period of time. The result is a society where, say, person A feels a sense of superiority over person B because of a “small” fault or disadvantage that person A perceives in person B. This effectively breeds a culture in which people pride themselves and feel glorified in criticizing and finding fault in others, and where they will go to great efforts to identify flaws in others. In terms of political leadership in many Caribbean countries today, for instance, the result is that politicians take an excessively adversarial approach in their party responsibilities, feeling a sense of accomplishment and “glory” only when they find fault in the opposition rather than in building solutions to pressing issues. It is obvious that cultivating a more genuine sense of disinterest in “glory”, a basic idea underlying the Revolution, would do wonders to prevent the erosive political cycle described above from arising. It is also clear that if this situation did not arise, the political systems of many Caribbean countries in which the syndrome prevails would greatly improve.

Education Targeted Towards Change

The Revolution further embodied the art of weaponizing intelligence and education, actively targeting it towards addressing – and solving – problems. Many are the instances in which Castro himself used his intellectual acumen to outsmart and outmaneuver Batista’s military personnel in order to infiltrate and take over the dictator’s garrisons which were spread across Cuba. In accordance with an article on CNN, he also applied these analytical thinking skills to escape 600 assassination attempts by the 11 presidents of the United States of America who he outlasted, each of whom saw Castro and his regime as perpetual thorns in their side.

Rather than seeing education as a means to end, many regions in the world breed a culture which sadly sees education only as an end in itself. Many youths of this current generation see a university degree somewhat as a fashion statement rather than as a tool to effect positive change in their countries. Indeed, university students have admitted to pursuing already saturated professions such as medicine and law primarily because of the social prestige associated with the occupation, rather than pursuing an occupation that will help propel humanity forward in the right direction.

It seems obvious that a generation whose academic decisions are informed by this utilitarian philosophy would strengthen any country’s economic situation. For example, many countries whose economies are based largely on finite, non-renewable resources like petroleum and coal (such as Venezuela, Iraq and Trinidad and Tobago) could begin to tailor their educational agendas and put initiatives in place to encourage their youth to explore underdeveloped, alternative niches in order to diversify their economies. Potential sustainable alternatives include agriculture, maritime occupations and entrepreneurship. In addition to lessening our dependence on rapidly diminishing reserves of coal, natural gas and petroleum and providing a viable solution to oversaturation in the job market, we would be taking steps in the right direction to combat global warming without forgetting our most valuable asset in sustainable development – people.

Equity and its Effects

The pioneers of the Revolution also grounded themselves in a societally penetrating version of equality and equity. Cuba has since made quality education accessible to all members of the population, and enviously possesses a 99% literacy rate. It has also created a truly accessible healthcare system which assumes fiscal and administrative responsibility for its citizens. One result of this is that the average Cuban citizen lives to 80 years – a figure impressive when compared to the 69.2 year life span of the average European. Cuba is the first country in the world to eliminate mother to child HIV transmission and has also engaged in groundbreaking research in lung cancer, having developed a vaccine to treat the spread of cancer in the lungs. The long term result of this is that world class Cuban medical experts are regularly requested by foreign nations.

It goes without saying that making education accessible to the wider population is a very worthwhile investment in the socio-economic future of any country. Perhaps more national governments could allocate their resources and push for fiscal adjustment in order to place even greater emphasis on education. Costa Rica, for instance, has followed suit by redirecting all the resources which would have been put into its national military entirely into promoting its biodiversity, and to a lesser extent, its education agenda. As a direct consequence of this, the biodiversity of its ecosystems ranks among the best in the world. More countries could adopt similar approaches, tailored to meet their national needs.

On the other hand, however, the Castro regime arguably takes equality of treatment too far in the Cuban context. Ever since the US placed an economic embargo on Cuba in the 1950’s under Kennedy, the Caribbean country has been treated as an economic outcast. The Special Period in 1990, which involved Russia cutting economic ties with Cuba, forced them to depend more heavily on their mono-crop agriculture and tourist industry. Rather than taking a free market approach to managing the economy and stimulating economic production, the Castro regime has further clamped down on economic viability by trying to equally ration what little food reserves the country possesses. The end result is that Cubans are at best able to survive, rather than thrive.

Discrimination

In spite of this undeniable setback, patriotic proponents of the Revolution may boast that Cuba ranks well in terms of its negligible levels of discrimination. Indeed, it is an impressive side effect of its high level of literacy and quality education that Cuban nationals have become practically immune to racial and gender-based discrimination, which come primarily from forms of social ignorance.

Regrettably, however, this is not the case. Cuban nationals who have sought refuge in other Caribbean territories such as Trinidad and Tobago have confirmed that a clear social divide exists, not amongst nationals, but rather between the nationals and foreign tourists. Firsthand accounts from Cuban refugees have asserted that visitors are given access to exclusive beaches such as Varadero, which are off limits to the ordinary Cuban citizen who is not directly involved in the tourism industry. Some have even expressed their disgust at tourists forming a grandiose opinion of Cuba, after being barred by government officials from visiting the poverty-stricken areas of the island (which are many) and restricted to the lavish areas (which are few).

20148776_10208513728953923_2019578663_o.jpg
Varadero, a Cuban beach that only tourists can access

Some final analysis: it is clear that the principles and philosophies which embodied the essence of the Cuban revolution have some merit to them. In principle, a handful of these ideals may be useful in informing national leadership in our world today. However, we must not turn a blind eye to the impracticalities of some concepts of the Revolution (as seen only in Cuba, at least). Perhaps the ideals of the Revolution would fare well if implemented in a piecemeal fashion in different parts of the globe today, as opposed to superimposing all of ideals the Revolutionary regime of on another country. In the latter case, it is clear that the country would collapse on all fronts. With socio-economic adjustments and a transition period, however, I think some of the philosophies of the Revolution would serve as useful solutions. As such, perhaps some of the founding philosophies of the Cuban Revolution should be revisited.

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