HAVANA TIMES — When they announced on TV that a Cuban Civil Society Forum was being held in Havana and that panel discussions would take place at Casa de las Americas and Casa del ALBA, I couldn’t help but laugh. I immediately thought about the fuzzy contours of the term “civil society” and how it is subject to different approaches and conceptions.
Despite the abstract nature of the concept, from the beginning civil society has been understood as a group of individuals, sectors or actors united in their pursuit of certain ends. The civil society – State dichotomy stems from this.
Italian communist theoretician and philosopher Antonio Gramsci described civil society as the institutional complex where the ideological and political confrontation between social classes takes place. He conceived of the State or political society as a coercive instrument whose purpose is to dominate and control, on the basis of legality and repressive forces. The formula civil society versus the State is therefore applicable to nearly all modern societies.
The socialist system, and Cuba’s in particular, wants to sell us the image of a harmonic relationship between the State and civil society, a whole devoid of antagonism.
It does so on the eve of the 7th Summit of the Americas, to be held in Panama from April 10 to 11, which will not only see the participation of presidents and foreign ministers but also of civil society representatives from attending countries, and where Cuba will be present. The island’s government is already rehearsing for the occasion, such that those they choose to represent “Cuban civil society” know how to act during the gathering.
According to the government, the nearly 300 people who took part in the forum are the representatives of the more than 170 civil organizations in Cuba. Several issues were addressed, and Abel Prieto, advisor to Raul Castro, said:
“(…) the task of Cuban civil society at the upcoming Summit of the Americas is to break the stereotype that many harbor about Cuba, seeing it as a totalitarian State (…) Cuban representatives who attend the summit must be very well prepared, for they are going to find a heated atmosphere that is the result of years of slander, claims that the State controls everything in our country, that there is no space for any kind of civil society. The ridiculous idea of a monolithic, militarized, totalitarian society, colored by the worst Cold War rhetoric – that, without a doubt, is a caricature of our country. Social actors and the representatives of our organizations must refute that stereotyped image of Cuba (…)”
There is no need to mention who were excluded from the said gathering: many of the real, civil social actors in today’s Cuba, which the State labels unpatriotic mercenaries and many other sad things, only because they do not toe the official, ideological line.
At least in our country, the inherently subjective nature of the term condemns an important part of civil society to a life in the shadows, persecution, lawlessness and government-led reprisals.
This stems from the Cuban State’s refusal to recognize any opposing tendency and its control over all social, grassroots, scientific, technical, cultural, artistic, sports, friendship, solidarity and any other organizations or associations, even when these are euphemistically referred to as non-governmental. The only exception are religious institutions, which are nonetheless infiltrated by false church-goers who are government agents.
Cuban societies and organizations operate under an Associations Law (Law 54) and are recognized by Article 7 of the constitution. We already know how the National People’s Power Assembly (Parliament), the one-chamber legislature, actually operates.
It is clear that everything here is either more of the same or it gets excluded. Where democracy continues to be a dream, the Civil Society Forum in Cuba is a gathering that announces that we all think the same, and it seems like a joke to me.