House of Cards and Political Science in Cuba

Armando Chaguaceda

HAVANA TIMES — A few weeks ago, I discovered – and literally devoured – the two seasons of the US TV series House of Cards, offered on Netflix. Anyone interested in political matters (and in the disciplines that tackle them) will find it impossible not to succumb to the charms of the series.

In addition to its high production value and excellent acting, one cannot fail to acknowledge its accurate portrayal of the subtleties, brutality, compromises and disputes that characterize the realpolitik of power circles in the United States (and, I should add, anywhere in the world).

Watching House of Cards, seeing the way in which alliances are forged and decisions that affect millions of people are made on the shores of the Potomac, one arrives at a better understanding of the essence of politics, while simultaneously asking oneself about the true limits and scope of US democracy.

It is a democracy that combines powerful mechanisms for monitoring and checking power with dark schemes that are wholly removed from the interests and knowledge of the population, where the ambitions and compromises of politicians, businesspeople, lobbyists and press magnates become intertwined in a complicated and dynamic political game. It is a system that both threatens the spirit of democracy and is incapable of annulling the rights of its citizens, exercised through the vote, mobilizations at street level and civil society.

The next thing I ask myself every time I finish watching an episode is how it is possible to portray the many low human passions the series explores before such a wide and diverse audience without making the political class panic or prompting it to think it will soon be overthrown by the angered spectators.

I realize that, for such a situation to exist, the society in question, in addition to enjoying a majority consensus about the desirability of a democratic order, must also have certain features. The existence of a vibrant press (which tackles scandals as much as serious, investigative journalism) and a solid academia, capable of addressing the country’s functioning and malaise as a topic of research, are some of these features.

When these are missing, we begin to witness the pathology typical of any organism incapable of processing its infections and creating antibodies – which is what we see, as a general rule, in Cuba’s political and public spheres.

Cuba’s political sciences output over the past few decades has been anything but vigorous.[i] Though some social sciences and disciplines in the humanities (which are also governed by the Party’s ideology apparatus) have taken steps towards a more sophisticated conception of reality and approach to gray areas, Cuban politology continues to be burdened by the very nature of its object of study.

The absence of an association of professionals in the field, the persistence of models that favor the descriptive and normative (if not the downright apologetic) to different extents over the analytical and propositional, are a number of obstacles to be overcome.

Despite commendable efforts[ii], the absence of substantial studies and the lack of public access to such key issues as the makeup of Cuba’s political elite and its real circulation and decision-making mechanisms maintain almost all production in the field at a superficial level, to the point that, today, the closest thing to a Cuban political sciences journal is Espacio Laical (“Secular Space”), a Catholic opinions and editorial journal.

Such a state of affairs does not stem exclusively from the nature of the island’s current political regime – it owes much to the strictly Brezhnevian legacy which subsists among government officials trained in academies of the former Soviet Union and in the conservative official perspective on the subordinate role of the intellectual.

Comparatively, the academia of allies such as Russia, Iran and China are light years ahead of Cuba in terms of dynamism, up-to-date practices and the diversity of their political perspectives. Provincialism (maintaining that Cuba is as unique as it is unexplainable), the reliance on essays as substitutes for scientific articles and the existing confusion between political philosophy (which is, in good measure, what the island produces the most) and absent disciplines such as political sociology, do not paint a very promising picture of the state of development of this area of human knowledge.

While doing my Masters’, one of my professors – a devout Stalinist – pronounced a phrase that perfectly summarizes the state of the discipline in Cuba: “Power does not like to be studied.” A short time later, a friend of mine at the time, reprimanded me for signing my first articles on Cuban politics with the epithet of “political scientist.” “You shouldn’t do that,” he said. “Here, the only people who can call themselves political scientists are – “and he mentioned a number of authorized voices of the island’s academia.

During those years – and up to the present day – government decisions, protests by the opposition, academic opinion and public perception all seem to go their separate ways, showing a degree of fragmentation and de-institutionalization which prevent the consolidation of a public sphere and a properly modern space for political action and thought.

I could end on a pessimistic note, saying that, as long as concrete political praxis – and not vague isms and cracies, divorced from reality – continues to be immune to media exposure and citizen intervention, the field of political analysis in Cuba will continue to suffer the sterilizing burden of ideological censorship and intellectual mediocrity.

A revitalization of the island’s political sciences, on the contrary, would help the active sectors of the population – supportive or critical of the government – to truly get to know the interstices of power and, as such, to evaluate the way in which their rights can be advanced or curtailed by power. It could also potentially make all levels of power more open to worldviews that are less complacent and out of touch with international and local realities.

Today, the civil and transnational Cuba that changes, becomes more and more interconnected and moves forward (despite all blockades and domination) is desacralizing discourse, opening up spaces for debate and, above all, giving rise to new agents capable of forging the future. With their help, perhaps we won’t have to wait too long before “our” Francis Underwoods are unmasked, their crimes exposed and citizens – including political scientists – find better reasons to continue working and living.

[i] I use the terms political science, political sciences or politology in a very loose sense, to allude to disciplines that study the formation, functioning and bases of political power. From this perspective, political philosophy, political sociology and political science (in the singular) all fit this definition.

[ii] Some positive contributions to the field made in the past decade by scholars on the island are works dealing with Cuba’s political system authored Juan Valdes and Emilio Duharte, as well as the foreign policy studies by Carlos Alzugaray. To a greater or lesser extent, these papers – and others not mentioned here – have contributed to the timid rebirth of the discipline that one can discern in institutions such as the University of Havana and in such programs of studies as Sociopolitical Theory, offered in different syllabi in the country. More recently, the works of Roberto Veiga and Julio Cesar Guanche on Cuban institutions appear to follow a promising line of inquiry which connects legal, institutional and sociological analyses to study Cuba’s political system.


5 thoughts on “House of Cards and Political Science in Cuba

  • It is amusing to read how you deign to interpret for the reader what the author “really meant to say” and how you dismiss out of hand those comments, mostly mine, which differ from your views without even a pebble of valid argument as to why. This feigned intellectual superiority reflects a poor self-image. It also reflects a lifetime of supporting failed causes and beliefs. I would hope in your golden years you will be able to find space to understand that your brand of idealism is inconsistent with human nature and will never stand up to vigorous scrutiny. In the meantime, you continue to entertain with opening lines like, “In case an open minded reader….”.

  • In case an open minded reader, interested in seeing the improvement in the lives of ordinary people in Cuba and elsewhere in this troubled world, stumbles on this article and comments, let me distinguish between some facts and fiction. The writer, clearly a serious and positive Cuban social science student compares the fictional and murderous American vice-president with some unnamed Cuban politicians. Clearly this isn’t scientific and if true, a US Francis Underwood would be the far greater threat to safety and well-being of the world and Cuba. The second fact is that in countries not currently engaged in overt war with the US, the biggest military and covert operations source in the world, social sciences are allowed to be more diverse and somewhat professional. If however you look at the financial and legal rules governing these “sciences” in the US, China, Russian and the other developed countries, you will see that they are great differences in scientific freedom, bias, and influence. Contrary to US citizen’s beliefs, the US is neither perfect nor “number one” in many of these areas.

    When ever the US felt threatened, the social sciences which have always been dominated by the wealth and the “national interests,” were effectively constricted and directed. Freedom of scientific study and discourse has historically been subject to these forces in all countries, with the exceptions being as rare as they were important.

    If the author is asserting that social sciences based on humanism and science are vital to any healthy social outcomes, I agree. But to assert that the freedom to portray a monstrous sociopath in House of Cards proves that the US social sciences are rational and just is naive and dangerous. The many good and brave social scientists and entertainment exposes, have not stopped most of the US invasions, torture, vast anti-democratic manipulations and financial poisoning of the world. Science, knowledge and humanity alone will not protect Cuba from the real Underwoods. In my country the Underwoods win and get even richer.

  • Walter, which country in your opinion best legally provides for “citizen applied political science” from all aspects of the political spectrum. In answering this question, I would ask that you include which country best guarantees through rule of law that all citizens may have their particular grievances known through peaceful means. I would hope you answer this question with complete intellectual honesty.

  • Armando wrote:

    “Comparatively, the academia of allies such as Russia, Iran and China are light years ahead of Cuba in terms of dynamism, up-to-date practices and the diversity of their political perspectives.”

    Wow! If it is true that those 3 highly authoritarian states are far more politically diverse than Cuba, it says a lot about the moribund rigid orthodoxy which continues to strangle Havana.

  • Armando, thank you for your thoughtful observations. As a.longtime opponent of social injustices and proponent of human progress, let me point out an ironic implication in your suggestion that Cuba would be more able to remove its Francis Underwoods if it had a healthy and vigorous social and political science profession like the US! Wow! If only that were true. Sadly in the US we do have lots of social science and lots of Francis Underwoods too, but only a few are ever removed. That’s why House of Cards is tolerated and remains entertainment. But I agree, both countries could benefit from more citizen applied political science.

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