Between Lenin and Bill Gates: Cuba’s Authoritarian NGOs

Armando Chaguaceda

Havana street.  Photo: Juan Suarez
Havana street. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — In Cuba, the discourse used to discredit opposition groups among civil society organizations revolves around two main issues: their source of financing and the way in which their agendas are determined by funders.

As for the first item, the demand for transparency is hypocritical, as those who make it have turned secrecy into an art, operating arbitrarily and as far removed from any notion of transparency and legality that one could imagine, in a context where, in the words of a colleague of mine, the day in which “we find out what money is used for everything and by everyone – from private business operations to the concealed privileges of the governing elites – we won’t be able to keep our mouths shut.”

The second “argument” – as to the manipulation of the agenda – expressed time and time again in the obsessive condemnation of an alleged crime and subservience to foreign powers, brings to mind the psychological concept of “projection.” Many of the associations made by the Cuban government tend to gage the behavior of others through the lens of its own attitudes and shortcomings, particularly from the perspective of its proverbial lack of autonomy and the reproduction, among its rank and file, of the hard-line policies handed down from the top – as well as its poorly-disguised status and privileges.

The problem with this government rhetoric is that it can easily be used against those who espouse it. It suffices to note how the payroll, facilities, means of transportation and everyday expenses of organizations such as the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution or the Federation of Cuban Women, paid for using the State budget, are similar to those of any of the government’s central administrative bodies, and how these “grassroots” organizations, which are as broad as their demands, continue to replicate the same old grandiloquent slogans, entirely removed from the day-to-day of common citizens. Given these entities’ origins, however, their patterns of behavior become understandable, to a point.

What’s less evident is why more contemporary actors, such as non-government organizations (NGOs) whose background and/or referents are not the old Leninist “conveyor belt” model, should reproduce the State’s uncivil discourse. We are talking of people who are more familiar with the Logical Framework Approach than they are with Lenin’s State and Revolution, who are more likely to quote Souza Santos than they are comrade Machadito, who combine the entrepreneurial skills of Bill Gates and the Jacobin zeal of Vladimir Ilich – people who, in order to hoard up on thinkers, live without being harassed and secure the perks offered by their transnational links, do not hesitate to pay their dues to the powers that be. And the political and moral bill is usually high.

This, in fact, has been a direct blow to those of us who once laid our hopes on this sector, thinking it capable of impelling a participative reform of Cuban State socialism from below and to the left. In my case, from 2004 to 2008, as a researcher and project coordinator, I was able to get to know the work of several renowned NGOs in Havana up close. It was an experience in which learning and disillusionment, break-ups and affection all collide in a whirlpool of events and memories.

The problem with this government rhetoric is that it can easily be used against those who espouse it. It suffices to note how the payroll, facilities, means of transportation and everyday expenses of organizations such as the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution or the Federation of Cuban Women, paid for using the State budget…

There is no shortage of examples and I do not think it necessary to mention any specific names or incidents. It suffices to speak of these in general terms; as such situations continue to arise today. These include NGO leaders who privately complain that someone in the Party’s Central Committee vetoed their participation at a social forum and offered that privilege to a competing NGO, but who later stigmatize those who demand rights from that arbitrary and ignorant bureaucracy. There are people who speak of community participation but lead their organizations as though they were royalty, refusing to revise or even broaden their mandates and make their mechanisms more transparent, reacting with intolerance to any criticism or suggestion. We have in-family projects directed by handful of founding members, their descendants and anyone loyal to them, who hold assemblies that are strictly decorative, organizers who compete among one another, with all of the stealth of James Bond, to secure favors from cooperation agencies based in the country, going after resources offered by the United States and Europe (donors who cannot be identified as sympathizers to the revolutionary cause) while participating in acts of public violence like those recently orchestrated in Panama.

These people were once very likely driven by dreams of justice and the honest and courageous wish to change things. Today, however, they constitute a group that refracts all attempts at democratizing their work and internal organization, to assess their promises and the reach of their actions. They have become a small, middle-class sector, whose leaders have higher standards of living than the average Cuban, who share status, circles and consumption patterns with the artistic elites, the diplomatic corps and Cuba’s fledgling business class, combining their domestic practices and foreign policies with the vices of liberal NGO-ism and the authoritarian mentality. All of this would be less perverse (everyone’s got the right to grow tired and try to lead a more comfortable life) if they did not insist, in tune with the government, to discredit others, present themselves as people they are not and deny their comfortable reality.

This does not mean there are no noble individuals and projects in the world of Cuba’s legally recognized associations (or that some characters who have nothing to do with good causes become dissidents, or that the government knows no honest officials or deep-thinking academics). I know a number of organizations, none suspected of conspiring against the government, who address broad social problems (environmental, gender and cultural) with modest resources and with a degree of commitment and expertise that eclipses the performance of many local bureaucrats. Their work plans are not loaded with those words that delight donors and academics – emancipation, synergy, and empowerment – but they work hard, keeping a low profile, at impoverished communities and with young people eager to transform these.

These people, without paying the costs of dogmatic or opportunistic alignment or head-on dissent, seek to improve the daily life of their fellow citizens with small and regular actions. In their anonymity, they are deserving of our full respect for encouraging, in the country and within their associations, more humane, efficacious and decent attitudes and realities. They are people who, faced with manipulation and abuse by others, give a better name to the wasted concept of civil society.

4 thoughts on “Between Lenin and Bill Gates: Cuba’s Authoritarian NGOs

  • The seed of the problem is that the Cuban legal system does not allows for any organization that has ideas different from the government, violating the right to association, as prescribed in UN Chart of Human Rights. With such laws, it is not possible for any illegal organization to solicit finances from the people. Also, with a average salary of $20US per month, there is not much left for donations. It is an unfair and completely uneven playing field so it is not a surprise that dissidents have to rely on US aid.

  • I suppose there is a big difference between groups with financial resources from capitalist countries and Cubans with average earnings of $20.68 per month. The Cuban regime only finances organizations that support its communist policies. In Canada, the Government gives financial support to organizations that publicly criticize its policies – but I guess that reflects a free democratic country. Also, when for example there are disasters like Haiti and Nepal, the Canadian Government makes virtually immediate financial grants and sends medical teams with military field hospitals usually within 48 hours as it did in both Haiti and Nepal. In addition to the immediate Government aid, it also matches public contributions to NGO’s aiding in the disaster. Cuba to its credit, sent a medical aid team to Nepal thirteen days after the earthquake.

  • An ugly display of self interest. But very common. The real failure of leadership is pretending they are above these human frailties. Transparency would go along way to cleaning out the rot.

  • The article evades the issue of US government financing of NGOs. The article says the Cuban government also finances and supports other NGOs. Even if true, I doubt the Cuban govt. can compete with the finances of the US government. The article implies that if the Cuban government does it, so can the US government… A poor defense of US intervention. I work with groups in Latin America that are self-financing i.e. no salaries, etc.

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