Cuba’s Black Elephant: challenges to a democratic transition

Decades of totalitarian rule have left a society in taters



cuba's black elephant
Cuba’s elephant in the room is its “incivility” that came about after years of Communist rule

A “black elephant,” as described to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, is “a cross between a black swan – a rare, low probability unanticipated event with enormous ramifications – and the elephant in the room: a problem that is widely visible to everyone, yet that no one wants to address, even though we absolutely know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.” For me, the term “black elephant” aptly describes the challenges to a democratic transition in Cuba after six decades of totalitarian rule.

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When contemplating Cuba’s future, in terms of a genuine transition from totalitarian rule to democratic governance, many observers perceive some sort of popular uprising not unlike the Arab Spring revolutionary wave that began with the Tunisian Revolution of 2010. That movement of violent and non-violent demonstrations, protests, riots, coups, and foreign interventions quickly spread to Libya, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and elsewhere in the region. Unfortunately, hopes that the Arab Spring movements would result in greater democratic participation proved unfounded. As of this 2018 writing, only the uprising in Tunisia has resulted in a transition to democratic governance.

At this point in time, the expectation of a popular uprising in Cuba is as unlikely as a black swan- a metaphor for an event that is beyond the realm of normal expectations. The term is based on an ancient saying which presumed black swans did not exist and was often used as a statement of impossibility. When black swans were discovered in Australia in 1697, the term took the meaning of a perceived impossibility that might later be shown to occur. Hopefully, this will be the Cuban case.

But, one reason why I theorize that a popular uprising in Cuba is unlikely flows from the political physiognomy of today’s Cuban population: its elephant in the room-an allegory for a controversial or emotional topic, which although obvious to everyone, is deliberately ignored because open discussion will cause embarrassment or sadness. The idiom also implies that the problem will not solve itself.

Cuba’s elephant in the room is its “incivility.” Incivility is a general term for social behavior lacking in civic virtue. Cuba’s deficit of civic virtue has developed as a result of decades of totalitarian rule. The attributes that constitute civic virtue is a concern of political science, but, in essence, by civic virtue, we mean personal living habits that are critical for the success of a nation such as tolerance, kindness, respect, humility, gratitude, honor, industry, courage, fidelity, and more.

Indicators such as marriage and divorce ratios, single-parent households, abstinence among teenagers, abortion rates, religious attendance, etc. are often used by social scientists to measure the civic culture of a population. This civic culture mirrors the core beliefs that shape how we live our lives and how we regard our civic duties. It is the “moral ecology” (Michael Novak’s term) that determines whether a free society thrives, or destroys itself. There is a paucity of reliable Cuban social data, but what is available does not speak well for Cuba’s present-day civic culture.

Jorge Luis Borges, in reference to his countrymen, once remarked that “the Argentine tends to lack a moral, not an intellectual culture; he is less concerned to be seen as immoral rather than as a fool. Dishonesty, as we know, enjoys the veneration of all, it is called creole wise-guy (vivenza criolla).” Similarly, among Cubans this vivenza criolla attitude, which ignores rules and looks for loopholes, is almost a source of national pride.

The success of a free republic hinges on the civic virtues of the citizenry and consequently, civic virtue became the moral compass of the Founders of the United States.  John Adams put it this way: “Public virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private Virtue, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.” And James Madison stated: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”

This lack of civic virtue is Cuba’s black elephant that stomps painfully on my Cuban heart.



Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Reflections on Freedom.”



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