Cuba & the Nation Builders

Armando Chaguaceda

Havana photo by Caridad.

The recent events in North Africa and the Middle East (which in cases like Egypt have already been clearly classified as revolutions) have destroyed several myths of academia and global politics, thus sowing doubt and fear in all species of opinion makers, movers and shakers.  This has also generated interpretations — more or less daring and substantial ones — on this side of the Atlantic including Cuba.

The rebelling populations didn’t make choices on their menu by selecting between political freedom, social justice and economic prosperity.  They knew that the plate of democracy would have to combine all three ingredients.

They demonstrated that authoritarianism (that privilege of control over consensus and the power to dictate the laws) has been the norm not only in regimes that are enemies of the West, but also in faithful allies that guarantee their interests and from time to time practice pseudo-democratic masquerades for the formal indulgence of Washington or Paris.

This is why the flight shoes of the irate demonstrators kick equally and without distinction against the butts of Ben Ali and Mubarak, or Gaddafi and Ahmadinejad.

The people now in rebellion didn’t want more guardians to veil their dreams inciting the scarecrows of terrorism or fundamentalism; instead, they sought open institutions for participation and universal rights.

They didn’t exhibit the menacing faces of atavistic and fearful communities; instead their expressions were those of transgressor societies that were modern, lay and proud of their best traditions.  They have not gone for the formulas and gradual steps of those conservatives who offered to recycle the faces of their repressors from the day before yesterday (who have become “men who are indispensable for change”) nor were they taken in by the opportunist speeches of the powers that sought — up until the final moment — to swim in all waters.

And if that weren’t enough, the protesters have filled the plazas, factories and cyberspace, combining firmness with creativity (“excuse any inconvenience, we were building Egypt” read a sign by one of the volunteer rubble collectors), and the capacity to sacrifice with the effective use of the new technologies (Facebook, Twitter).

They have taken the control of their lives with the astonishing and exciting self-organizing capacity that they demonstrated when maintaining the safety, food provision and sanitary conditions in the emblematic Tahrir Square, detaining government agents and forcing the positive neutrality of the armed forces.  They have returned the word “revolution” to us, which had seemed exiled from the lexicon of rational post-modernity.

And in Cuba?

In the face of a similar avalanche of events, some have ventured to predict the possibility (and the desire) of other uprisings being produced in today’s Cuba.  However I believe that several factors exist that makes that unlikely in the immediate future.

A revolt requires a collective subject, which in these countries has been the youth, to a good degree well-educated (with university training) but lacking desirable options for their future.  In this aspect in particular, the demographic structure of Cuba has a much smaller number of youths than in the countries of the Maghreb and the Middle East, though the problems of these contemporaries resemble each other to a great extent: high expectations combined with low incomes and limited opportunities for personal realization, etc.

Havana photo by Caridad.

Another key element is the existence of alternative communication networks of sufficient social penetration/coverage.  On the island, access to the Internet (e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and cable TV is precarious, and the mass media are strictly subject to official policies under precise instructions.

Nevertheless, I’ll venture to say that the access to the web will surely be expanded (the cable connection from Venezuela has now arrived and it will ultimately multiply the bandwidth that is available today by thousands of times).  Despite the censorship, this will bring much more information, virtual interaction by people and less government control over their opinions.

Nor can one ignore the differences between authoritarian governments like those that have collapsed in Tunisia and Egypt — supported by West — and Cuba’s.  The island’s government, though having eroded, can still turn to the call for the defense of the nation’s sovereignty in the face of its neighboring power, its traditional oppressor.  In Cuba, the USA is an internal political issue.

This has been absorbed by a more or less broad sector of the population.  Moreover, let’s not forget that by its nature state socialism (what reigns in Cuba) has a greater capacity (and vocation) to control and — like Jurgen Habermas said — to colonize society in a way incomparably superior to African and Arab governments without appealing to actual, massive and naked violence.

Nevertheless, on the island there’s “something cooking,” and its face is to the future.

As long as the announced reforms open a space for private initiative and relieve the cumulative demand for goods and services, they will allow a breath of fresh air for both the national economy and the pockets of many families.  In that sense they are positive.  But when they end up insufficient to absorb the tide of unemployed people who will be swept into the labor market in the short term, this portends a situation that can increase poverty and a pattern of inequality beyond what is socially acceptable.

If that situation becomes irreversible (and is accompanied by a growth in privileges and repression by those in power) it could incite people to express themselves against the policies pursued and the regime in force.

In that direction, with the increased participation of the military factor in the economy and in politics, its behavior towards the population, professional ethos and ideological commitments could become modified.  There could be an increase in the military’s role as a factor of social control, which would be to the detriment of the vision of the army as “the people in uniforms,” a force not apt for repression.

It will be necessary to see the difference in the attitude of young recruits and the officialdom in a conjuncture of social and/or immigration crisis, which is always lying in wait – as was demonstrated in 1994 by the “Maleconazo” [a violent outbreak on the Malecon seawall].

The radical erosion (or dismantling) of the revolutionary social contract established between the Cuban government and the population (which traded massive social services for political loyalty) would drastically modify the terms of legitimacy and governability in Cuba (in fact this has already begun).

Let’s hope that the immediate futures of Cuba do not travel through a perverse swap of autonomy and social justice, sovereignty and development that puts us in the arms of the neighboring power or tears the country apart in a civil strife.

From the responsibility, altruism and creativity of all the actors in play (the government and the opposition, the citizenry and the international community) will depend whether Cuban National Hero Jose Marti’s project of a nation “with all and for the wellbeing of all” doesn’t drown in new “days of anger,” under the burning Caribbean sun.

4 thoughts on “Cuba & the Nation Builders

  • A well balanced analysis of Cuban reality. I well agree that the numerous reasons raised here, including insufficient internet penetation, preclude an immediate repeat of what has transpired in Egypt.

  • This is better than Fernando’s article.
    At least it admits facts. The regime is on its way out.
    Authoritarianism and totalitarism are on the way out.
    Democracy and freedom is on their way in.
    I like to see a Cuba where everyone have a voice.
    Where every voice is listen to. Where nobody is left behind unless they want to.
    A cuba that does not force people to an ideology. Nor that forces them to do what they do not want to do on their own. A Cuba without an Elite that believe they are holders of the truth.
    They have done so much damage to our country. I am referring to this elite in power.
    People wanted freedom back then in 1959. They still want freedom. One day sooner or later they will get it.

  • “On the island, access to the Internet (e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and cable TV is precarious…”

    “Nevertheless, I’ll venture to say that the access to the web will surely be expanded (the cable connection from Venezuela has now arrived and it will ultimately multiply the bandwidth that is available today by thousands of times). Despite the censorship, this will bring much more information, virtual interaction by people and less government control over their opinions.”

    It is not clear when you write “precarious” if you are referring to the technical quality of internet access in Cuba or the alleged “censorship” in your next paragraph (quoted above). Let us be truthful at all times whether criticizing or praising. Beyond fashionable lexicon and theories, when it comes to the subject of internet access in Cuba, there is such a thing as the US blockade and its undisputed effect on the Cuban government’s technical ability – as with so many other things – to provide adequate and inexpensive service for its population. The blockade is real on both sides of the ocean! Circa 1996 we US citizens couldn’t even mail books over 4 lbs to Cuba. With all the trendy accusations of internet censorship lobbed at it from within and without, the Cuban government – you admit – has gone the proverbial whole nine yards to contract with ALBA for the provision of a modern internet and telephone connection for the island (scheduled to be completed in July). It deserves honest praise for that and one must withold suspicions of censorship until it happens. Try investigating internet access in the Third World and see if it’s really as much accessible or affordable or faster as in Cuba. A lot of countries are still using dial-up and Zimbabwe was even reported to be charging pc owner’s an annual tax for modem use sometime ago!

    I have no use for the overglorified Twitter or Facebook myself but I look forward to affordable phone calls from the US to Cuba and…

  • Armando, you said that with the new reforms, there’s “something cooking” on the island “and its [Cuba’s] face is to the future.” You may have no idea how starved we are in the capitalist world for this sort of good news!

    It seems that Cubans writing in HT are focused exclusively on the problems of Cuba and Cubans. But there is and international implication that affects, and is affected by what happens in your country. The bottom line is that Cuba either shows the world that socialism does not and cannot work, or potentially shows it that it does and can.

    I think you put you finger on what Cuba can show when you said “As long as the announced reforms open a space for private initiative . . .” This was what socialism was supposed to do from the very beginnings of the vision in the first half of the 1800s.

    Originally, socialism promised to be much more productive than capitalism because now the workers, by owning the instruments of production directly, would have the entrepreneurial incentive to produce more efficiently and more abundantly, plus with better quality. This surely would have been the case under a cooperative form of socialism.

    Then, the socialist vision was redefined as the state owning the instruments of production. When socialists states came into being in the 1900s and tested this statist principle, the world was shown the results of an erroneous statist mode of production.

    Let’s hope that the new reforms will not only rebuild the small entrepreneurial class and bring these productive and patriotic families fully into the socialist project; and will also build an economy dominated by worker-owned industrial and commercial cooperative corporations on the Gung Ho and Mondragon models.

    That is, let’s hope that Cuba goes from a “state monopoly” form of socialism to a “state co-ownership” form.

    Thanks for a fine article.

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