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Opposition in Cuba: March Separately, Fight Together

By: José Azel - Apr 7, 2016, 1:21 pm
Women from the Ladies In White opposition in Cuba protest outside of a prison in Havana (wikimedia)
Ladies in White, a movement of political prisoners’ wives, protest outside of a Havana prison. (Wikimedia)

Since its origins in 1959, opposition to the Castro regime has been fragmented, made up of myriad groups lacking in operational unity.

Often, the schisms had political or philosophical roots, but also resulted from tactical differences, revanchism and personal ambitions seeking the spotlight.

This disunity perseveres to this day, often initiated or exploited by Cuba’s ever-present counterintelligence services. Well-intentioned calls for unity consistently fall short of their goal. And that is because a goal of political unity is not only unachievable, but also undesirable.

The politically vigorous and effective role for an opposition is figuratively to march separately and fight together.

The doctrinal effectiveness of the march separately and fight together strategy was dramatically demonstrated by Napoleon Bonaparte in his Italy campaign.

Employing his adapted bataillon carré formation, Napoleon’s innovative, mixed corps d’armée would march separately along parallel roads, but within a day’s march of each other.

The bataillon carré was a diamond formation consisting of an advance guard, a left flank, a right flank and a reserve corps, that provided his army with all around defense and the ability to quickly concentrate an attack in any direction. Tactically, Napoleon’s forces would march separately and fight together with great effectiveness.

In one year, and before his 28th birthday, Napoleon had crossed the Apennines and the Alps, and had defeated six Austrian armies and a Sardinian army. Napoleon took strategic risks, but as he explained it: “When playing twenty-one (the card game), I stop at twenty.”

In the context of political struggles, Leon Trotsky was perhaps the one who best articulated the “United Front” tactic of metaphorically marching separately but striking together.

[adrotate group=”7″]My history-minded readers will not miss the irony that the flawed genius that was Napoleon died in exile, or that I am citing Trotsky who, after losing a power struggle with Stalin, also died in exile in Mexico.

But in today’s Cuban oppositional environment, Leon Trotsky’s theory of the united front represents an effort to bridge the gap among the opposition groups, and between the opposition and the population at large.

In practical terms, it means working with people who may have a range of different political ideas, but who are willing to unite over specific issues and rights.

Trotsky’s idea was to promote unity only along very specific demands and actions.

Opposition groups cannot hope for unity on the whole of their diverging political-economic programs. Within today’s Cuban opposition, the entire spectrum of socio-political thought is represented. It cannot be expected that these differences will be submerged in some unachievable act of ideological unity.

Trotsky understood this, and argued that groups had to be open about their socio-political differences so they could then unite on specific activities where they could agree. Trotsky’s united front theory is about operational tactics that can overcome isolation, and not about compromising political principles.

In a 1931 paper, he put it this way: “…no common publications, banners, placards! March separately, but strike together! Agree only how to strike, whom to strike, and when to strike. Such an agreement can be concluded even with the devil himself…”

Trotsky’s political approach to unity mirrors Napoleon’s military rendering. Calls for unity in political ideology are, in fact, divisive.

The lesson for Cubans today is that opposition, in order to be effective, must be translated into the language of tactics. Unity is not about papering over differences with oleaginous language. Figuratively, unity is about marching separately, but fighting together.

An ideological diverse opposition operating in unity is the paradigm that will bridge the gap between a courageous and unselfish opposition, and a people hopeful for a better future.

Dr. José Azel is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami and the author of the book “Mañana in Cuba.”

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.