Thursday, November 25, 2021

Rafael Hernandez Essays from Cuba Post November 15


Antinomies and conflict in the Cuban political situation (I)

  by Rafael Hernandez

The so-called “March for Change” and its ups and downs have highlighted the spectrum of ideas in Cuba’s society today. That spectrum mirrors a civic consciousness of the common sense, with ranges and shades that are not so new.  As is typical in many other societies, the Cuban common sense personalises and sentimentalises political events, supporting them or criticizing them, agreeing or disagreeing, giving them labels, even when possibly not understanding them.

In the ranges of this spectrum we can find antinomies which leave a mark on the Cuban political situation. By discussing these antinomies I am not trying to show “what most Cubans believe,” but just intending to illustrate the complexities of our consensus.

That common sense is aware of the heavy burden the US blockade imposes on our life as a whole; and knows that the US has always sponsored the political opposition. But these truths tend to blur, especially when they are used constantly in official speeches as the explanation for almost everything.

The Cuban common sense highly supports all efforts to enforce law and order. But the very civic culture fostered by socialism makes people perceive violence as an abuse of power, even against those who break the law.

Cubans have always disapproved the usual practices of the political opposition and its ultimate goals, although they do not necessarily think that everything they say is false or disagree with everything they propose.

Even when Cuban citizens share the basic principles and goals of socialism, they may disagree with some of the methods and justifications on which the State bases its policies.

They know that security is key to the national interest. But when national security is used for dealing with political problems, they may not agree with its effectiveness.

These antinomies are nothing new. Some observers have mentioned these contradictions and some others. However, they don' t dissect the underlying problems that characterize the political situation. Their criticism thus remains within the same common sense box, particularly when they try to advise the government or the opposition "what they should do."

Instead of opinions and advises, the political implications of current and alternative policies should be considered, without losing the specific context of these problems, in the here and now. Doing so would help to gain clarity, and perhaps to foster a civic consciousness of good sense, as Antonio Gramsci would say.

By sketching out a map of our political situation, my sole intention is to facilitate analysis and fostering debate. I will focus on the three actors and their interaction, but also their own dynamic: the political opposition, the Cuban government policy and the US factor.

The opposition

The three main structural weaknesses of the opposition, over time, have been the feuds between groups; the lack of leaders with political experience and capacity; and its convergence with US hostility.

The armed organizations of the 1960s, especially the anti-communist dissidence within those who opposed the dictatorship, including the Catholic Youth (Juventud Católica), gathered tens of thousands of active militants, willing to follow its leaders and pay the cost of that struggle. That is not the case of the current organizations. Although the social networks and the media contribute to making them seem bigger than they are, the leadership capacity to mobilize active members and to drive coherent policies is much less effective.

Unlike the opposition in other countries, their leadership has not held positions of representation in large organizations, or in government functions. They lack a realistic notion about political problems and the exercise of power. Dissidents who were cadres of the State, the mass and political organizations, the Security or the Party apparatuses, do not stand out as opposition leaders, even less in the latest generations.

Leaving aside the opportunists and adventurers who join the opposition as a way of life, most of its leaders with some intellectual level and a real political conscience are academics, journalists, artists, writers, even former teachers of Marxism, who one day declared themselves activists for the anti-government cause. These are book-based political animals, who, in order to learn how to combat the system, organize 100-hour seminars on Hanna Arendt's works, and the like. In general, the organic intellectuals of the opposition, who view the "Party-State" as a single bloc, do not understand very much about politics, nor do they believe that it is worth wasting time seeking dialogue or negotiation.

Repeating as a mantra to justify their struggle the unpopularity and repressive nature of the system, the majority of that leadership convinces itself that the State is unable to regenerate consensus with its own resources. They do not realize that, in addition to the coercive force to deal with subversion, that State enjoys a political capital, which is not just ideological. It has political mechanisms to neutralize the opposition maneuvers, even when more creative and sophisticated.

One strategic error of the opposition has been to believe that the use of force, in any degree and form (including "non-violent"), triggers the ring of national security. That alarm-bell has counterproductive effects for their goal of breaking up consensus and legitimizing themselves as a viable option.

Taking advantage of a fragile economic situation and the weakening of the public consensus to wrestle with the government, to try to extract concessions, and capitalize on these concessions to swell their ranks, increase political polarization. That wrestling also contradicts their own call for dialogue, reconciliation, national unity, peace, etc., but above all it fuels a volatile situation. In this particular context, the government is much less likely to react with the same disposition for dialogue and conciliation as they would with other social, and even political, demands.

As we very well know, a situation of instability and its consequences would be more threatening than any economic crisis, not only for the system, but also for society and the national interest, beyond ideological differences.

Furthermore, even if Cuba is not risking a political crisis that really threatens the control of power, the impression that the situation may be getting out of hand is already risky enough. Indeed, the mere perception that the opposition can wrench concessions under pressure may be interpreted as an inability of the government to deal with the crisis at hand. We must remember that this opposition is preaching a dialogue that, under the pretense of peace and understanding, is demanding pluralism with the groups that have the least interest in dialogue, those in die-hard exile and their leading sponsors.

The evolution of the Cuban situation in recent years suggests that the promise of reconciliation is a beautiful idea, but that when it is taken to its limits, it is a voluntarist dream of reason. Calling for a national dialogue with no boundaries should be , at best, a utopian project. A viable and sustainable republic based on the coexistence of old and new opponents, with veteran communists and the new left, militants of the anti-communist youth and of reformed socialism, the American politicians Díaz-Balart and Marco Rubio and the representatives in the Cuban National Assembly, the electorate of Coral Gables and of Mantilla, is unlikely, however many Martí quotes are pronounced to invoke it.

At the end of the day, with that seven-headed interlocutor, the key pre-condition for negotiation is not met: trust in what the other side will do.

The political culture of this opposition is illustrated by what they understand as human rights. They assume that true freedom of expression is dictated by the American way. They believe that the right to demonstrate on the streets is the essence of political participation; that a plebiscite is the fullest expression of democracy; that preaching the autonomy of the judiciary is equivalent to "the separation of powers;" that democracy is equal to a party system such as those prevailing in the Western Hemisphere; that political freedom involves all types of organizations regardless of their ideology; or that artistic freedom without boundaries is the measure of a society’s civic culture.

Among the dissidents I have known (some very close), there are those who became fed up with the liturgies of real socialism, suffered the effects of sectarian or extremist policies, lost faith when the Berlin Wall collapsed, and went into retreat or exile. Some of them take socialism for what they have experienced since the Special Period, or they inspired by the rhetoric that saturates the Cuban press and television. They were no longer interested in changing things and decided to throw in the towel; or they never even tried. There are also those who deserve a place on the podium in a universal history of opportunism.

Could the case of Yunior García mean something different within the leadership of these groups? How do you explain that, in just a few months, he went from dissenter to dissident? Has he enjoyed a dialogue within the system conferred greater legitimacy on his public march? Did not coming from the organized opposition give Archipelago greater credibility? What do the meanderings of his project and its outcome reveal?

We would need more room than what we have here to discuss these questions. As does understanding the US factor in this landscape. Do their policies towards Cuba respond to their commitment to the opposition? To the promise made to "freedom fighters," from 1960 to 2021? Is it that the compass of the national security organs which have always guided the relationship with Cuba, has been skewed off-course by the Miami magnet? What mystery could explain that in their policy towards Cuba, a tail like this could wag a dog like that?

Finally, is it that Cuba’s policy towards the US, and its willingness to resume the normalization process, may now depend on how they perceive the threat regarding the opposition groups and their allies? What other lessons and experiences could inform that policy?

I would say that this is already a hefty load of problems for a first round.

Antinomies and Conflict in the Cuban Political Situation (II)

   by Rafael Hernandez

My grandmother, a first grade teacher in a public school in Cabaiguán, used to receive Bohemia magazine. I got used to reading it from back to front, starting with the graphic jokes. The only thing I skipped was the section where Jorge Mañach, Herminio Portell Vilá, and other prominent intellectuals wrote, because at my 10 years of age I did not understand nor was I interested in the topics they dealt with.

That intellectual journalism, which dealt with all topics, is not very frequent today among us. Every time someone tells me that the average reader or the average TV viewer does not understand or is not interested in those topics, that they are too complex or sensitive, or that they are not prepared for political analysis, I wonder if they are talking about an island and a world inhabited by 10-year-old children.

Analyzing the political situation is not the same as enunciating the Cuba that the very diverse Cubans imagine or would like. Although I also have one, I have limited myself here to commenting on the complexity of a consensus shared by those diverse Cubans, which does not consist of "almost unanimous support," but of a social base with contradictory common sense, tensions and disparities aggravated by the crisis, as would be normal anywhere. To confuse the scale of consensus with that of oxygen in the blood, such that a 97% support indicates a "healthy" state, and one of "barely 80% or 75%" indicates "critical," would be a joke anywhere.

From that mixed consensus that sustains the system right now, I try to examine the political situation, starting with three actors: the new political opposition, the new government, and the new US administration.

However new they may be, these actors and this conflict cannot be understood outside of history, without links to the past, to factors of power, structures, institutions, and without the interaction of opposing interests between two States, that of Cuba and that of the United States. However, it is essential to identify what these actors bring with them and differentiate them from their predecessors, their own problems, and especially, their particular context. To understand them with a sense of this historical moment, of the fundamental change of circumstance that characterizes it, instead of thinking of them as islands that repeat themselves, as a famous Caribbeanist would say. Without discerning those problems, in relation to the conflicts they face and to the current Cuban society, it is not possible to reason about the political field, beyond ideological antinomies -as common sense tends to do.

Criticizing some postulates of that common sense that circulate in the media and even in the intellectual discourse does not require getting philosophical or even having read Gramsci. It is enough to put them to the test.

As a sample button, here are the following. "This political system has no chance of change, because it is dominated by a Leninist scheme." "The Party-State is a block from top to bottom, immobile and immovable." "National reconciliation depends on the political will of the government to dialogue with the opposition." "The Catholic Church is a particularly gifted actor to mediate in that reconciliation." "We are living through black years for freedom of expression." "The dissidence of artists responds to the lack of freedom of the guild and the closure of cultural policies."  "Young people have deserted the camp of the Revolution, and want to go and live outside." "The disappointment of the poor and the blacks with socialism has turned them into the social base of the opposition and its new leadership."  Et cetera.

In the substratum of almost everyone is the question of democratic functioning and citizen participation. To address it, it would be necessary to consider not only the so-called mechanisms of direct democracy -street demonstration, plebiscite, etc.- or voting every five years, but above all, systematic participation in decision making, control of policies, channeling of public opinion, dialogue with the government. Is such participation possible without a more democratic system, including the Party itself?

A few days ago, in an open letter to the President of Cuba, a Spanish Jesuit reproached him for not recognizing the total failure of the Revolution and the system of dictatorship of the proletariat. Some have not noticed that in 2022 it will be 30 years since the reform of the Constitution which erased the concepts of dictatorship of the proletariat and vanguard of the working class. And that this current year marked three decades of the elimination of religious beliefs as contradictory to Marxist and Leninist ideology.

I wonder if anyone presumes that being a private businessman disqualifies to hold office or join the Party. And that publicly criticizing Party policies by any militant makes him commit a flagrant violation of democratic centralism.

All the concepts underlined above are in the decalogue of Leninism. To this list of heresies should be added others, considered incompatible with the ideology by the previous political education. For example, the end of the teaching of atheism in schools, the introduction of a constitutional article allowing families headed by same-sex couples, the dismantling of the system of compulsory work-study scholarships in secondary education, the freedom to reside abroad without losing one's citizenship rights, etc. Perhaps the current problems of the Party are not precisely those attributed to a certain Leninism.

On the contrary, some Bolshevik practices could inspire greater democracy in Cuba. For instance, the struggle of the rank and file militants, the soviets and the trade unions to control the bureaucracy; the legitimacy of discrepancies in their ranks, such as the Workers' Opposition; the application of a New Economic Policy (NEP) with market and mixed economy; the encouragement of systematic debate below and above; the possibility of exposing in Pravda the criteria of all the militants, not only of some.

To legitimize democratic changes in the Party, here and now, could consider what Raul Castro himself said almost ten years ago: "if we have sovereignly chosen the option of the single Party, what corresponds to us is to promote the greatest democracy in our society, starting by setting an example in the ranks of the Party." So the PCC is not above the reforms, nor is it only a leading subject in their implementation, but also the object of a policy that calls to "change everything that must be changed."

Although we know that politics is not contained in speeches, the struggle to turn those words into reality has today more support than ever. What, however, is the yardstick for measuring that democratization? Recognizing, dialoguing and negotiating with political organizations such as those that predominate in the Cuban opposition, on the Island and in exile? I think that a most suitable question, congruent with the very Constitution of the system, would be: is it desirable for a socialist system to make room for a "loyal opposition" (defined by its purpose of improving the system, not liquidating it)?

Interviewing seven years ago a group of subjects with institutional responsibilities, this same question produced dissimilar answers.1

A former president of the National Assembly supported "the "parliamentarization of society," the constant discussion, in factories and collectives, of problems and proposals to address them," not the "manipulation of dissent into more or less loyal 'oppositions.'"

An acting General Secretary of the UJC stated that "a dissent among revolutionaries is very necessary." "In Cuba we still don't know that [loyal] opposition, because people financed by a foreign government to overthrow the Revolution cannot be called anything but mercenaries." She added, "I don't believe either that we have reached the ideal democracy...I don't rule out any formula for more socialism."

A popular educator from a religious NGO opined, "It is necessary to make clear the points that do not enter into negotiation; that is, what to be loyal to...There is loyalty to the principles of social equity, personal and national dignity, sovereignty, socialization of power, of the economy and of happiness; loyalty to popular power exercised by the people. If the bet is on these [principles], loyalty to political forms becomes more flexible, since it would be to the government that enforces those principles."

An academic jurist defined it as "an opposition that complies with the law of all, that does not pretend, through intolerance, to demand tolerance to the State; that does not use flags of excluding and inhuman ideologies, that respects the public order and the rules that we have given ourselves in democracy, is loyal to the Rule of Law, and therefore itself is indispensable."

A delegate of the People's Power in Marianao responded, "We have to give possibilities to that kind of opposition; the one that does not agree with the things that are badly done, and that can propose how to solve them...If it is in good faith, opposing things that do not give results helps to improve the socialist system, which ultimately is the people...Sometimes we criticize those who speak the truths, and we consider that they have political problems, but those people what they want is to see results."

An acting president of a cultural institution considered it "an antinomy. Because the opposition is a real opposition if it shows a certain level of organization, if it constitutes an alternative to the established powers. A revolutionary who opposes" a particular policy "is not an opponent; he is just someone who disagrees."

The editor of a Catholic magazine said that "one should act to improve the established system by consensus and not to liquidate it...Those who possess other ideological preferences should accept it with humility, but without ceasing to contribute their criteria and projects, although subordinated to the realization of the interests of the people. Thus we could enjoy a socialism capable of integrating, even ideological diversity...An opposition would not be loyal order to achieve its political purposes,...allies itself with foreign powers,...that possesses organic links with national or foreign instances in charge of promoting subversion, that does not care for the sovereignty of the country nor for social concord."

In these interviews, not only is it possible to observe the difference in nuances within the institutions of the State and within civil society, but also, between their visions then and now, in some particular cases.

A dozen years ago, in an official Cuban media, I mentioned the question of loyal opposition: "Will Cuban socialism be able to admit in the future, together with a renewed democratic institutionality, a decentralized system, a non-state sector, also a loyal opposition, within the system itself? That is not a question for U.S. congressmen and Euro-parliamentarians, but for Cubans living their future on the Island."

Curiously, while the Catholic magazine Espacio Laical celebrated the concept some time later, to the point of convening an event in 2013 where it was debated, the editorialists of Cubaencuentro considered it a crude ploy, "a padlock," behind which peeked the hairy ear of officialdom disguised as "liberal loquacity," aimed at "refreshing" the totalitarian discourse.

They seemed to ignore that those who coined it, in the mid-nineteenth century, did not conceive it as a formula to "seize power" or change the British system, but to make it politically more effective and broaden its consensus. They did not seek precisely to "pander" to dissenters, but to incorporate them into the complex task of governing. This explains why the U.S. partycracy never assimilated it, given its two hundred years of staunch bipartisanship.

I have expanded on this point because it illustrates the gap of a national reconciliation that some dream of resolving in one leap. It also shows criteria within the Revolution, below and above, that support a realistic democratization. Reformulated seven years later, that question would be read today as follows: to what extent would a policy aimed at expanding consensus, integrating the loyal opposition into the political space, be congruent with the new style of government? And one could add: is it in the national interest that this loyal opposition within the system, in favor of a more democratic socialism, be an option for those who advocate change, instead of leaving them out, and that some would end up being dragged along by the anti-communist opposition?

I can guess a reader who is already asking: And what would the US do? It would take a third round to comment on that.


 1 "Making socialist politics: a symposium," interviewer Daniel Salas, Temas # 78, April-June, 2014.

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