Conjugatin the Cuban Revolution

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  Conjugating the Cuban Revolution: It Mattered, It Matters, It Will MatterAuthor(s): Eric SelbinSource: Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 36, No. 1, Cuba: Interpreting a Half Century ofRevolution and Resistance, Part 1 (Jan., 2009), pp. 21-29Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. Stable URL: . Accessed: 10/11/2014 20:20 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at  .  . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact  . Sage Publications, Inc.  is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to  Latin AmericanPerspectives. This content downloaded from on Mon, 10 Nov 2014 20:20:22 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  Conjugating the Cuban Revolution It Mattered, It Matters, It Will Matter by Eric Selbin If 50 years on it is a challenge to get a clear picture of the place of the process known as the Cuban Revolution, no event in that time has had more lasting impact on so many people in so many places. The Cuban Revolution mattered, matters, and will continue to matter. It enabled and enobled people around the world to stand up and struggle or renew struggles already under way, it continues to stand as a powerful testament to both social justice work and commitment in countries around the world, and it will provide a model?for what to do and not to do?for future actors in popular collective efforts s well as efforts o improve health care and education. The legacy of the Cuban Revolution, its premise and its promise, is deep and wide. Keywords: Cuba, Revolution, Social justice, Change, Popular Despite the title, this is not some sort of clever postmodern or poststruc tural(ist) piece on the Cuban Revolution; either would be beyond my ken. It is, rather, an effort to address what the subtitle suggests: why the Cuban Revolution mattered 50 years ago, why it matters today, and why it will matter for the foreseeable future. The claims herein will break little new ground, but they merit rehearsal; too much of why the Cuban Revolution matters has been lost to the ravages of memory, the vagaries of revolutionary ideals meeting the reality of the actually existing revolutionary process, and relentless partisans on all sides. Fifty years on, it is a challenge to get any sort of clear view of the revolutionary process that occurred and is still unfolding in Cuba. Perhaps, to invoke an almost certainly apocryphal (if delightful) story, after 50 years it is still simply (far) too early to tell what the Cuban Revolution means and how and why it matters.1 Yet no event of the past 50 years has affected so many people in so many places for so much time and continues to do so as the Cuban Revolution. This is a big claim. What of the cold war? The anticolonial, anti-imperial, and liber ation struggles in the Caribbean, the Near and Middle East, North and Sub Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia? The student movement of 1968, Eastern Europe's 1989 color revolutions, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union? The more recent Zapatista/anti-World Trade Organization upsurge? At the core of each of these, to varying degrees, is the process commonly construed as the Eric Selbin is Professor and Chair of Political Science and University Scholar at Southwestern University. His work primarily focuses on matters revolutionary. He thanks Helen Cordes, Kathryn Hochstetler, and the participants in the Transition in the Cuban Revolution Conference held at the University of Texas February 21-22, 2008. LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES, Issue 164, Vol. 36 No. 1, January 2009 21-29 DOI: 10.1177/0094582X08328965 ? 2009 Latin American Perspectives 21 This content downloaded from on Mon, 10 Nov 2014 20:20:22 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  22 LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES Cuban Revolution. Both its inspiration and the fear it and the attendant radical processes it spawned are still, in profound ways, being unpacked (in Uruguay, Southern Africa, North America, and Europe), dealt with directly (in Nepal, Colombia, India, Mexico, and the Philippines), and planned for (and dreaded by) by many governments in many places?the legacy is powerful and perva sive. In no small part this is because rather than simply an event frozen in time and place (and space), the Cuban Revolution has proven to be exactly what most of us who study revolutions (and related processes) in the twenty-first century would suggest a revolution is: a process of deep change that has pro duced a compelling story, a powerful example for others to emulate. This is a big and broad premise, and space is limited. The more modest goal here is to situate the Cuban Revolution in several senses?historically, politi cally, socially, culturally, perhaps even psychologically?and to argue that it is, in some nonintuitive and perhaps even surprising ways, as relevant today and for tomorrow as it has ever been. In the interest of space, let me stipulate three matters up front: (1) It is not possible to understand modern Latin America and the Caribbean without considering the implications and ramifications of the Cuban Revolution. (2) Any effort to explore and illuminate contemporary cases of broadly popular collective behavior, however one may choose to label them, must fully consider the role and place of the Cuban Revolution. (3) No other country of this size and place and almost no other revolutionary process and experience has had such an impact on so many people in so many places for so long. In short, the Cuban Revolution mattered, it matters still, and it will continue to matter. Two other matters merit mention here. There seems little question that the successes and failures of the Cuban Revolution?and there are plenty of both? are (hotly) contested. Much of how one views Cuba and especially the revolu tionary process that has essentially defined it for the past 50 years depends on where one starts from and how one is situated. It can be as simple as where one flies from; Havana looks very different arriving from Miami than arriving from Managua. But it is also complicated and reflects far more about the interests, inclinations, and investments of the analyst. Suffice it to say that I am aware of both the complexities of my position(s) and the many possible interpretations of the myriad realities that make up the Cuban revolutionary experience. And what of revolution ? People across the world and throughout time have their own understanding(s) of revolution, (deeply) rooted in a story/ies of revolution we tell ( we here meant quite broadly). Few concepts are as pervasive in time and place and across cultures and share such great recogni tion as revolution. It is not simply that people know it when they see it but that people carry around in their heads a fairly coherent set of understandings about what revolution is and is not. Revolution is not something people con sider lightly and inevitably with fear and trepidation; it is also associated for many with struggles for food, land, peace, justice, access to resources and to opportunity, a home, health care, and education. For many, revolution sug gests better must come. 2 It is among that category of terms that is instantly recognizable for most people in most places most of the time as applying to a dramatic upheaval involving a group of united people overthrowing their government and, if successful, making profound and significant changes to This content downloaded from on Mon, 10 Nov 2014 20:20:22 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  Selbin / ONJUGATING THE CUBAN REVOLUTION 23 their society. Common reference points include the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Mexican Revolution (the twentieth century's first great social upheaval), the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, and the Cuban Revolution. Academically, the long-dominant third-generation theorists of revolution (Skocpol, 1979; Goodwin, 2001) may be giving way to a fourth (Goldstone, 2001; Foran, 2005, Selbin, n.d.; and Foran, Goldstone, and Selbin, n.d.). Guided by these, the need is to deepen the human and cultural aspects of our think ing about revolution, recentering Tilly's (1978) focus on mobilization with people and what Paige (2003: 24) has described as their metaphysical assumptions. Thus, revolution is understood (Selbin, 2007: 131) as the conscious effort by a broad based, popularly mobilized group of actors, formal or informal, to profoundly transform the social, political, and economic institu tions which dominate their lives; the goal is the fundamental transformation of the material and ideological conditions of their everyday lives. This reflects a process of srcination and subsequent struggle, and an outcome, the effort at fun damental transformation. These are the cases we are most likely to deem great or social revolutions; lesser instances are often labeled as other, related forms of collective action. In the context of both conceptions?the academic and the popular?there is a clear narrative of revolution for some 220 years now (but easily pushed back considerably farther [see Selbin, 2007; n.d.]). This social revolutionary story of revolution (Selbin, 2007; n.d.) begins with the 1789 French Revolution as the archetype?it is grand, it is epic, it is sweeping, and its (brutal) failure is as lost to the mists of time as its more radical elements. This saga wends its way across the nineteenth century to Russia 1917, which never realized its best/better hopes and visions and almost as quickly as France came to be seen as the grand/great failure/betrayal (who, by the ignoble end [or even 1939], wanted to claim Russia?). And after World War II there were glimpses of what might be possible: Guatemala 1950-1954, Bolivia 1952-1954, British Guiana 1954, Vietnam and Algeria in the 1950s.3 But none of these is where the story leads?it is Cuba, and only Cuba, still, that excites discussion, that remains current and seems destined to remain relevant. Despite France's introduction of the modern concept of revolution and Russia's preeminence, it is Cuba that brought revolution to the modern global community, Cuba that suggested as never before that anyone willing to engage in the struggle, make the sacrifices, and take the risks could make rev olution. Indeed, people do not fight, risk their lives and those of their families, or put their hopes and dreams on the line lightly; revolutions are about com mitment, passion, desire(s), and a vision of a better world. In this, while it may be ragged around the edges, it is Cuba that remains our reference point today and in its process and promise the guidepost for tomorrow. So why did, does, and will the Cuban Revolution matter? There is an array of answers to this, but what follows is guided by several factors that might be summarized as the sociohistorical context, symbolic politics, and collective memory/ies. With these in mind, we can see at least broadly why Cuba mat tered, matters, and will matter. This content downloaded from on Mon, 10 Nov 2014 20:20:22 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
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