Why Iran's Revolution Matters to Cuba

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About five years ago, when I had a publishing company instead of a blog, I had occasion to edit the catalog of an exhibition of New Iranian Art that took place in Barcelona, Iran sota la pell (Iran Under the Skin), bringing together the work of the latest generation of Persian artists who came of age and were trained after the war against Iraq. A careful reading of the articles in the catalog and conversations with some of the participating artists (Shirin Neshat, Frahad Moshiri, Marjane Satrapi, Farshad Fadaian, Ila Golparian…) helped me to understand how little my preconceived ideas about this country had to do with its reality.

By then, most of the “experts” agreed that Iran was heading toward a Change, and that the tremendous contrasts shown in its society were building toward an unprecedented transformation within the Middle East.

I couldn’t avoid, however, weaving numerous similarities between the “Cuban case” and contemporary Persian reality, encouraged by the plentiful analogies I was seeing between these artists and the so-called "Eighties Generation" of Cuba. So I began to read about it. These are some of my conclusions from that time:

Like the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the 1979 Islamic Revolution represented a kind of historic and ideological break with something that, in short, might be called the “Old Regime.” The enormous transformation of ideological references brought with it not only the emergence of new social actors, but also a new rhetoric and a new political mythology. The social, demographic and urban upheavals, typical of modern societies, as well as the phenomenon of mass education, were quite similar in both cases.

As happened in Cuba, the Islamic Revolution linked the defeated past to the influence of an almost satanic figure: The United States—although this hasn’t prevented a profound American influence, through cultural symbolism in its widest sense, from permeating Iran.

In both countries, the revolutionary breakaway set the stage for a massive and influential diaspora subjected to an intense and exhausting internal debate. (For example, to a Cuban-in-exile the theory of the Iranian novelist Golan Hussein-al-Saedi about the difference between refugees (avareh) and emigrants (mohajer) sounds extremely familiar.)

Both are also unique nations within their immediate geopolitical context (Latin America and the Middle East), having turned a supposed “exceptional nature” into the touchstone of their politics: using nationalism as a basis for confrontation with the West.

With regards to internal political operations, it would be difficult not to see Fidel Castro as a tropical Ayatollah and his obsolete Party Central Committee as Cuba’s Council of Guardians. True, the Islamic regime is a theocracy while that of Cuban Socialism proclaims itself atheistic. But in what way isn’t the Castro mythology that has made fidelity to the Leader its ultimate dogma a substitute for a religious cult? And to what extent is Cuba’s failure to become a true socialist country hiding the generalized dysfunction of its economy behind the worst of State capitalism?

Of course there are also many sociopolitical and cultural differences between the two countries. But while talking with the young Iranian curators and artists, I could see a number of structural similarities between the political crises that threaten both regimes and what seemed to me different responses by the younger generation to these crises.

By that time, as I mentioned, it appeared that Iran was heading toward a more open society. The eyes and hopes of the West were focused on the degarandichan, “those who think differently,” intellectuals bringing a new perspective, people who, from their own Islamic perspective, were questioning the exegetic judgments of the clergy in power. But the analysts and experts were wrong. The ultraconservative candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad capitalized on the discontent and, to the surprise of many, won the 2005 elections; since then he has taken advantage of the popular will to form a populist regime, ever more closed and intolerant.

Aside from this recent reality, the counterpoint between Iran and the “Cuban case” is becoming something more than a personal diversion or a simple exercise in political comparison.

Of course I’m not the first to note these similarities. The first to take note were the political actors on the extreme left of the Cuban ideological spectrum, our tropical Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards. I still remember when, a couple of years ago, Aleida and Camilo Guevara were bent on drawing parallels between Che and Mustafa Chamran before the astonished students of the University of Tehran, for whom “socialism” is almost a dirty word.

Capable of perceiving the profound harmony between Iran and Cuba, many Cuban politicians and people such as Chávez, Ortega and Morales, have unreservedly supported the nonsensical political declarations of Ahmadinejad. Some intelligence analysts have also warned of the dangerous affinity between the two governments, including the last Bush administration with its so-called Axis of Evil.

But the true affinity between both “cases” has to do with the way the regimes in Cuba and Iran have fossilized the revolutionary political tradition and restricted the rights and aspirations of their citizens, who no longer believe in the official rhetoric. Thus, I believe, recent events could offer clues about how a hypothetical massive protest against the Castro regime might work.

A hypothetical scenario

A friend tells me that to understand the political differences between Iran and Cuba you have to be able to imagine the following scenario.

Spring 2014: Raúl Castro dies suddenly of a heart attack. Official mourning. Three days later Fidel Castro, with a completely grey beard but a firm voice, meets with the leadership of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) and they decide to make appropriate changes in the law to call for free elections for the office of Prime Minister. The following year, José Ramón Machado Ventura is named as the official candidate. An electoral process of several months. A climate of popular discontent after the announcement of new economic restrictions. By a motion in the National Assembly of the People’s Power, the reformists of the PCC maneuver and unearth Carlos Lage. Debate between Carlos Lage and Machado Ventura on Cuban television. Moderator: Randy Alonso. Lage accuses Machado Ventura of holding back the reforms the country needs to overcome the crisis and makes a veiled joke about his toupee. Randy gives a hint of a half smile.

The open elections to elect a new Prime Minister are held. Machado Ventura wins with 87% of the vote. Including in Miramar, Lage’s home district. Small outbreaks of popular discontent on the Malecón. Carlos Lage’s son organizes an impromptu rally at the University of Computer Sciences to challenge the election results. Thousands of students attend. Lage himself joins in at the end to ask for a review of the election results saying, “We have to make a change from the inside.” A huge student demonstration, led by Lage Codorniú and Eliécer Ávila, marches down Línea Street from L to el Puente. Students from the Medical School and Havana University join in. There is a call for demonstrations in the following days, in The Plaza of the Revolution, under the slogan, “Where is my vote?” At night shouts of “Revive the Revolu” and “Change from Within” are heard from the rooftops. People beat on pots and pans from the balconies.

Meanwhile, the Cuban Internet is buzzing. Ramiro Valdés has ordered the broadband connection from Venezuela to be limited, and asked for a detailed requisitioning of all illegal satellite dishes. Yoani Sánchez and all the independent blogs on the Island, supported by a network of bloggers outside the Island, denounce the acts of repression and begin a massive use of Twitter and mobile phones to report what’s happening in the streets. Cubacel conducts a mass disconnect of cell phone service. There are hundreds of arrests of “reformers” and dissidents. Felipe Pérez Roque, accused of being behind the demonstrations, is arrested and his whereabouts are unknown.

Police, army, special troop detachments and the “black wasps” closely monitor the disturbances but cannot fully control the situation. There is talk of between one hundred and two hundred dead. Riots in Santiago and Camagüey. Andrew Sullivan puts a Cuban flag on his blog and reports live. Foreign correspondents are told to leave the Island. Fidel Castro publishes a Reflection supporting the results of the elections, condemning the “appalling violence” and asking the public to join him in preserving the legacy of the Revolution against a new onslaught of Yankee imperialism. “Elections must be won at the ballot box, not in the street,” he says.

So much for the version of my friend. (You can add color commentary as you wish.) But while I was laughing at his story as he told it, I was also thinking of other things, much more serious.

Fundamentalism and culture of duplicity

The scenario above is false, but it has been built from real possibilities. Unlike the Iranian theocracy, which allows a multi-party structure within its formally democratic system as a theocratic republic, in Cuba one can only vote for a single party. While praising this “democracy of the whole people,” the Castro regime has been busy eliminating any threat of reform through periodic purges of those who might lead a change from within and systematic repression of all internal opposition.

Nevertheless, there is a strong similarity in the disastrous results the fundamentalism of the Islamic and Cuban revolutions have left in their wake, as well as the way in which the censorship and propaganda of both countries are attempting to restructure and reorganize a reality increasingly less “revolutionary.” Although the Iranian repression also extends its control to public morality following the strict parameters of the Muslim legal scholars—the ulema—in Iran as in Cuba, all gestures, including the most private, are interpreted through a political lens. Social control is designed to guarantee a kind of Brave New World cut to the measure of this omnipresent propaganda. The result has been another undeniable parallel: the way in which both societies operate from a widespread double standard.

In Iran, as in Cuba, people deal with the regime on the basis of lies. Everyone lies when faced with the Guardians of the Revolution: in Tehran they hide satellite dishes, and deny having prohibited books and alcohol in their homes; in Havana they pretend to support the government, attend demonstrations so as not to look for trouble, while meanwhile, they secretly steal, swindle and do everything they can to “resolve” daily survival within an increasingly lax moral code. Outside they wear the veil or behave themselves like “true believers”; inside they survive thanks to the black market and gladly pay the neighbor for a share of the illegal satellite dish so they don’t have to watch the boring official TV every night.

Both faith-based states have established a norm of widespread pretense while treating the idea of human rights as relative. But this culture of duplicity also implies a kind of hedonism relative to things the rest of the world tends to find routine or petty.

It’s difficult to understand the significance that a few chocolates have for Cubans, a pair of stylish shoes, or dinner at a restaurant. The pleasure these things provide not only reaffirms one’s individuality subjugated by the culture of unanimity, but also paves the way for an autonomy with respect to the State censor. It’s the same for the young Iranians described by Azar Nafisi. Capable of rediscovering their own freedom while reading Lolita in Tehran, they thanked the Islamic Republic for giving them the chance to discover and covet, as precious objects, “western” things as simple as a birthday party, an ice cream, a smile in public or a lipstick.

How much of the anti-establishment idealism one breathes in these literary gatherings described by Nafisi is present today in the blogger meetings of Yoani Sánchez and her friends?

In Cuba, as in Iran, openly declared opponents have failed to mobilize the majority of society. Not only because they suffer constant repression, but because they don’t connect to the generalized discontent of the young with their claim of individual freedom subjugated by the double standards of the Castro regime and its ayatollahs. Tired of politics, Cuban youth want to escape from it by every means possible, including this apolitical exile that to the previous generations was, with reason, a contradiction.

In contrast, the Cuban bloggers have initiated a response in which they claim, above all, the right of individuality and difference. And they have done it in just a couple of years with the help of new technologies. Within ten years, when Cuba is connected to the Internet and the number of cell phones has tripled, it’s possible that a new generation of Cubans will discover that the new media can provide effective weapons of collective mobilization against a political system ever more closed and suffocating, one that thinks only of its own perpetuation and that is prepared to use force to prevent any threat of real change. Then it will be enough to ask, “Where is my vote?” for the entire lie to begin to become intolerable.

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