It would profit Cuba to learn Chinese
Cuba approved a constitution in 2018 declaring with absolute certainty that socialism “shall be irrevocable.” This could be a rhetorical flourish, but it likely reflects a conservative mindset among the constitution’s drafters –– and other defenders of the “Revolution” (meaning the government) –– who wish to preserve the status quo: socialism is the end of history.
The only absolute certainties are that whatever lives also dies, the time of death is unknowable, and change is unceasing. Therefore, it is certain that (1) Cuba at some point will be governed by different people; (2) we don’t know when that will happen; and (3) change is inevitable. Changes need to be radical, but should be peaceful and gradual. A permanent “Revolution” is an oxymoron. An ongoing evolution is not only possible, but preferable because it’s not violent and bloody.
Cubans should learn Chinese in the sense of finding inspiration in the transformation of China following Mao’s reign, under Deng Xiaoping. He famously said poverty is not socialism, interpreted to mean that some people might need to get rich to improve the livelihoods of the masses, defying communist orthodoxy. This transformation lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese from poverty and produced a third superpower still on the ascent.
Even more impressive, some measures announced recently demonstrate the capacity of the Chinese leaders and their system for taking comprehensive corrective actions, in contrast to the near paralysis of both Cuba and the United States, to address poverty, wealth inequality, the exploitation of workers and other systemic problems. Xi Jinping’s government has undertaken an entire economic, industrial, and structural rectification, including tightened scrutiny of the super-rich and how they run their businesses. (Lamentably, Chinese leaders also took a number of repressive measures.)
“Marxism is the fundamental guiding ideology upon which our party and country are founded,” Xi said, but “lasting greatness” for China means progressing through “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Chinese leaders coined this phrase to describe how they have adapted capitalist market principles into the economy. Inequality resulted from the original formula. That brought a rectification. It should be applauded and emulated. Cuba, which has gone through a thousand timid rectifications without reaching the roots of its problems, might become prosperous if it could read Deng Xiaoping in the original, so to speak, and then make a bold and free translation incorporating Cuban slang.
It is noteworthy that the Chinese term for “crisis” consists of two characters: wei, meaning “danger,” and ji, meaning “opportunity.” Cuba should not only learn Chinese in the face of its deep crisis; it should consider it an opportunity to become a polyglot country and move beyond old Russian manuals, emulating what works best in the tropics. It should learn better English in the sense of adopting Anglo-Saxon traditions such as holding fair and impartial elections. If any political clarity resulted from Trump’s confusing and chaotic years, it is that this pillar of American society proved to be resilient.
Cubans in fact already speak some English in my intended sense, but it’s a broken English that needs to be perfected. Cubans have long identified with Americans and their culture. They wrote the much-revered constitution of 1940 with the flavor of the U.S. constitution, adding collectivist notions and other progressive and libertarian elements. Even the newer socialist constitution has its roots in the same intellectual subsoil: the liberal ideas of the European Enlightenment and the French revolution, not Russian imperial history. Cubans created a political system formally similar to the one in Washington, and even built a Capitol that is a replica of the one in D.C. It shouldn’t be that hard to come to terms with our kin in the colossus to the north.
Learning Japanese would allow Cubans to read Kanō Jigorō’s The Old Samurai Art of Fighting without Weapons (Jujitsu). This would be very helpful because Cuba has few weapons to meet force with force, and using agility and the refinement of movement could leverage this small country’s strength in its perpetual war of independence against superpowers.
The Cuban character inherited from Spain, however, is one of the worst problems we confront. Whether in Miami or Havana, we fanatically voice beliefs and opinions with the same absolute certainty as declaring that socialism is irrevocable, are not receptive to other views, and don’t really believe in impartiality, but rather in winning the argument at all cost.
It would profit Cuba to learn the idioms of political activists, artists, technocrats, intellectuals, farmers, students, workers, and others, including a loyal opposition, and better tolerate civil discourse and peaceful protests. Cass R. Sunstein, the distinguished jurist and professor of Behavioral Economics at Harvard, aptly reflects this goal in the title of his book Why Societies Need Dissent. “We all pay a steep price when dissent is muzzled,” he warns wisely, and shows how history proves it. Instead, Cuban authorities tend to overreact and reveal insecurity at mild displays of discontent, even within a very narrow Overton Window, for fear of losing control.
It’s essential to have a clash of ideas on everything that impacts the polity or the people. It’s not only that Democracy with a capital D requires it. Political science, which currently goes far beyond Historical Materialism, shows that dissent is more than just desirable as a form of liberty. It is indispensable to extract intelligent results from “the wisdom of crowds,” a concept formulated by the renowned economics writer James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. This is decision-making using a repository of myriad datasets and opinion-givers that acts as a collective brain and works better than the cult of personality or any totalitarian system. It’s not surprising that, as Plato noted in The Republic, only those who do not seek power are qualified to have it.
A Pulitzer Prize winner, Jared Diamond points out in Upheaval, Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, “It is fundamental for any functional democracy [to respect] the right to oppose government policies, tolerance of different points of view, the acceptance to be outdone in the voting and the protection of the government for those who do not have political power.”
Diamond studies how certain countries have survived upheavals, including Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Finland, Germany, and Austria. These nations adjusted with mechanisms for the acknowledgment of responsibility, painfully honest self-appraisal, and learning from models of other nations.
If all nations acted rationally and all people were working together to make a better world, we would not spawn capitalism, socialism, fascism or communism. The only “ism” might be pragmatism focused on the creation of a more just, equitable, and prosperous society, not any asphyxiating ideology.
Cuba could also learn the languages of other countries like Ireland, Singapore, South Korea, and Qatar that transformed themselves from poor to prosperous in a very short period. The transitions occurred not necessarily because they were resource-rich countries, but because of an opening of their economies, investments in the people, attracting commerce and outside capital, and unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit of the population according to the “objective conditions” in each country, to borrow Marxist terminology. In our digital world, it is not essential for a country to possess mineral riches, heavy industry or large amounts of commodities to prosper. Brain power is both necessary and sufficient. Using computers, even money can be created directly out of renewable energy by mining cryptocurrencies.
Meanwhile, plenty of young Cubans who have been educated at significant cost to the state find themselves unable to achieve their life goals or even to obtain medicines or other basic necessities, with no Deng Xiaoping on the horizon. They don’t know much about Fidel nor aspire to embody Che Guevara’s New Man. So they go north, and the island nation continues to suffer brain drain, wasting its investment. What’s the point of holding on to the old Russian manuals if young people have no hope and just want to flee?
Finally, Cuba should learn Spanglish from its expatriates, but that’s a discussion for another day.