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Cuba: Three Sad Scenarios

By: José Azel - Dec 21, 2015, 9:46 am

Dedicated to the heroes of the Brigade 2506 and the resistance.

Tres tristes tigres — literally “three sad tigers” — is a Spanish tongue twister, and the title of Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s masterful novel published in English as Three Trapped Tigers. Written in Cuban Spanish, the work is a linguistic experiment of chaotic events, apparently discrete, but integrated in a way that the reader must discover for himself.

The narrative takes place in pre-revolutionary Havana and frames the tragic reality and sociopolitical outlook of Cubans of that generation.

The colorful characters and language games of Tres tristes tigres came to mind when I sought to envision Cuba’s future in light of President Barack Obama’s new US-Cuba policy, and my analytical exercise produced three sad scenarios.

The new policy — consisting of Cuba’s withdrawal from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, the reopening of embassies, a campaign to end the economic embargo, and more — has created what analysts call a “new reality on the ground.” This new reality calls for rethinking how events in Cuba may unfold over the next five to 10 years. Future possibilities are infinite, and thus forecasting the future is the ultimate exercise in oversimplification. The three scenarios that follow serve mostly to focus our thinking.

If General Raúl Castro is able to orchestrate a relatively smooth succession with no significant changes in Cuba’s political or economic model, we can expect (1) continuity.

If the death of the Castro brothers results in a power struggle and a loss of coherence in the military/party elites, we may witness a (2) fractured solidarity of the ruling elite.

If this weakened leadership engenders deteriorating economic conditions and widespread popular discontent, there might be a reform-oriented new leadership (3) transition, which would be the best-case scenario. The most likely outcome is some form of authoritarian rule. In the worst of cases there would be a failed state.

Each of these scenarios will be determined, in some measure, by US policy responses to the unfolding of events on the island and in the United States. The US federal government can enact policies that either facilitate or obstruct developments in Cuba.

I leave that examination for another day. Also, my statistically minded readers may wish to assign probabilities of occurrence to each one of the scenarios. I will refrain from that exercise.

If we posit that change in Cuba will not come about as a result of some US or international intervention (outside-in change), nor will it come about as a result of some bottom-up event, such as an Arab Spring-type revolution, then we are left with top-down change. That is, change that originates within the Cuban leadership.

But the Cuban leadership lacks a democratic culture. Moreover, the Cuban ruling class has a built-in incentive to resist any democratic reforms. In any genuine transition, the nomenclature fears its institutional extinction and the disappearance or dilution of its privileges. This is not equivalent to forecasting that nothing will change in Cuba. There will be change, but a competitive, pluralistic, and democratic process appears very unlikely.

Of course, the imponderable, the possibility of a black swan event is always present. One such black swan occurrence may be an unknown Václav Havel or Boris Yeltsin in the midst of the Cuban military who is able to emerge and consolidate power as a true reformer. However, at this juncture, it is hard to visualize how any of these three scenarios could offer a realistic path to a liberal democracy, or how Cuba’s future may break out of this Gordian knot.

This new reality should sadden all freedom-loving people, but it is particularly painful for that generation of historical Cuban political exiles who have fought so valiantly for a democratic outcome. We are the sad tigers.

True, my scenarios do not offer much hope for a genuine democratic endgame in a reasonable time frame. However, towards the end of Tres tristes tigres, Cabrera Infante teases the reader with a chapter titled “Some Revelations,” where the reader anticipates answers to the perplexing conundrum of the narrative.

As if to remind us that the future is unknown and unknowable the “Revelations” chapter consists of several blank pages and indecipherable typography. The same is true for my three scenarios. The hope for freedom remains in the pages yet to be written.

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.