By Michael C. Herrera and David Palkki
Conflict Records Research Center
Many Americans view Saddam Hussein as an ideological dictator. Emerging evidence from captured Iraqi records stored digitally at the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC), however, confirms the conclusion that Saddam was first and foremost a pragmatist. Research by notable scholars, like Amatzia Baram, highlights Saddam’s willingness to adapt his behavior and his regime to gain advantage. For example, in 1993, when Iraq felt the full effects of the international embargo, Saddam announced the opening of his Faith Campaign, which would transform Iraq’s secular state to a more Islamic state in concert with the growing religiosity among Iraqis.[i] This ability to adapt in order to preserve power was continually employed by Saddam throughout his 24-year reign as President of Iraq. One can further observe his pragmatism in a CRRC transcript of a 2001 meeting between Saddam and Ricardo Largone, President of the National Cuban Association, where they discuss Cuba’s recent economic turmoil.
From the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s until 2001, Cuba’s economy struggled. Tourism remained its primary source of income, while sugar cane production steadily decreased due to a shortage of replacement parts, fertilizers, pesticides, and petroleum, as well as an unmotivated workforce. Largone voiced these concerns during his meeting with Saddam, who urges Cuba to consider adopting a new, more capitalist, approach.
Saddam begins by first identifying the problem with Cuba’s agricultural collective system. He states that when a farmer owns his own plot of land he has a higher incentive to care for his crop. The farmer will ensure a good harvest if it feeds his chickens and cows, which, in turn, feed his family. Consequently, the sense of ownership creates a cooperative amongst his family where everyone, even a child of six years old, will work on the farm. Saddam continues:
However, with a collective this does not happen, if a family member finds work that gives him a little extra, he takes it, as for the wife, she does not work in the fields because she has no share in the cooperative. And the farmer feeds his cow sugar cane secretly because the cow is his and the sugar cane belongs to a hundred other people, and the property is public, it is all there, but the quantity of sugar cane is not specifically known.[ii]
Saddam attributes the lack of sugar production to the theory that, because workers do not own the land, they are more likely to steal from it and less likely to work hard to increase production. He goes on to describe how, over time, the Cuban population has grown out of their initial acceptance of the socialist command economy:
At the beginning, when the Cuban revolution occurred and succeeded in 1959, the Cuban people were poor, with their dignity and nationalism stepped on. At that time if you told him he had one share out of ten, he accepted it because he had nothing else. So, he worked hard and was buoyed by the spirit of the new revolution so he was careful, enthusiastic and responsible with the country’s wealth as if it were his own, but after his stomach was full, and he was clothed, well, he started to look for a new kind of life… Now, he sees the government employee, busy with the news of all the other employees, this one stole and this one abuses public funds and this one skipped work for a few hours because he is a party member. And he sees the occupation in movies and how the American family lives, and he sees the cars or hears about them, but he must live in his country. And if imperialism is as bad as he is told, he does not see those negatives… These generations seek a better situation and secretly, within their hearts, compare their condition and the condition of other systems that took a different road.[iii]
According to Saddam, the new era of information had led Cubans to seek a better socioeconomic situation. At this point we begin to see Saddam’s pragmatism emerge. After identifying Cuba’s problem, Saddam proposes that Cuba consider adapting to its new situation to increase production. He states, “Therefore, if you lease out the land for a high price, that is appropriate for the income, then you will see that the production will double or more.”[iv] He is proposing that Cuba move to a more capitalist system. Much like China has done over the past few years, Saddam stresses that Cuba should rethink the communist model and slowly make an attempt to move toward owning and farming private property.
It seems as though Cuba has begun to show the same pragmatism that kept Saddam in power. In the past couple of years, Cuba has begun to allow its citizens to own small businesses, it has given farmers new profit-incentives, and even allowed for ownership of private property. Although there are still many restriction imposed by the state, Cuba has begun to take Saddam’s pragmatic approach and learned to adapt to save its ailing economy. Analysts seeking to understand the durability of dictatorial rule in Cuba, Saddam’s Iraq, and elsewhere would do well to pay attention to dictators’ pragmatic behavior, not merely their ideological expressions.
[i] Baram, Amatzia. “From Militant Secularism to Islamism: The Iraqi Ba’th Regime 1968-2003”. http://www.wilsoncenter.org/program/histroy-and-public-policy-program
[ii] All quotes from Saddam Hussein are taken from the collection at the Conflict Records Research Center, Number: SH-PDWN-D-000-507
[iii] CRRC: SH-PDWN-D-000-507
[iv] CRRC: SH-PDWN-D-000-507
Michael C. Herrera is currently finishing his bachelor’s degree at Johns Hopkins University. He is in the Army National Guard and is a research intern at the Conflict Records Research Center.
David Palkki is the Deputy Director of the Conflict Records Research Center and hasa recently co-authored a book titled”The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant’s Regime, 1978-2001.”