Fernando Ravsberg

The discussion between panelists and the audience focused on opinions concerning the building of democracy and its institutionalization in the country. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — A group of Cuban intellectuals of various political perspectives presented a collection of essays titled “For a Consensus for Democracy,” which was the prelude to a broader debate organized by the Catholic magazine Espacio Laical.

The authors met with about a hundred persons at the Father Felix Varela Cultural Center to discuss the institutionalization and democratization of the island, each from their own political slant but in an atmosphere of mutual respect and seriousness.

Among the participants were Catholic, liberal and Marxists panelists – even a priest who is a descendant of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, the first rebel who in the eighteenth century stood up for the independence of the island against Spanish rule.

Paradoxically, those most notably absent from this academic consensus building exercise for democracy was the Cuban government (which excludes itself from these debates) and dissidents (who were only allowed participation from the audience).

The end of taboos?

The discussions included topics that until recently were taboo in Cuba, such as the multiparty system, democracy, citizens’ participation in decision making, the unconstitutionality of some governmental actions, and political change.

Despite coming from varying ideological currents, there was consensus among the panelists concerning the need to go beyond clichés; instead they appealed for a form of democracy not limited to the “representative democracy” of capitalism or the “participatory democracy” of socialism.

General elections are held in Cuba every five years, but the truth is that no government institution has the power of the Communist Party. Photo: Raquel Perez

Both systems have failed in building democracy, said sociologist Mayra Espina, adding that this provides an opportunity for Cuba to move towards a new alternative. She maintains that the notion of “citizenship” could give continuity to the discussions.

Most panelists felt that what’s most important is to build a form of democracy in which citizens discuss problems, propose solutions and monitor the implementation of these measures – something that’s possible today thanks to new technologies.

Building democracy

Everyone agreed that any solution to Cuba’s problems must guarantee national sovereignty, popular sovereignty, social equity, respect for civil rights, a viable economy and political, social and economic democracy.

“The construction of rights, the construction of equality and the building of freedoms are interrelated and contribute equally to the building of democracy,” said essayist and University of Havana professor Julio Cesar Guanche.

Roberto Veiga, the editor of Espacio Laical said, “The great challenge before us is to design the structures and mechanisms that the government should have, those that society must have and all the guarantees of political freedom for these to be possible.”

“Debate in Cuba around the construction of a different sociopolitical, economic and legal model is obvious” said Veiga, who added, “There must be the institutionalization of the ideas that are the consensus of the majority of Cubans, for which we need a much broader debate.”

Citizens participate in debates around major decisions but they are not informed about the views from other groups, nor allowed to monitor the implementation of adopted measures. Photo: Raquel Perez

Those absent

The Felix Varela Cultural Center, which is part of the Cuban Catholic Church, is the locale of the most plural debate in the nation. It is a center where people exchange liberal-academic, religious and Marxist opinions. Only those holding the most rigid ideological positions stay on the sidelines.

Nonetheless, the audience included members of the opposition, among them dissident journalist Reinaldo Escobar, who complained that the initial discussions didn’t invite political opponents who “aim not to modernize the system but to demolish it.”

Indeed, among the essayists chosen to participate in the publication and to be panelists at the discussion there appeared no members of any dissident faction. However, they were allowed to ask questions and could comment freely.

On the official side, there were members in attendance from important social research centers very close to power, but no Cuban government official was present – something quite normal since they don’t participate in these types of debates.

Relatedly, one of the recurring criticisms leveled by almost all of the panelists and the audience was the high degree of political centralization that exists in the country and the marginalization of citizens in making decisions about issues that directly affect their lives.


7 thoughts on “Cuba: Discussion on Democracy and Institutions

  • Wrong again, Lawrence W (is that what the W stands for?) The Labor movement in the US regularly involves “conferences” between government officials and flat-out socialists. BTW, it’s nuts to assert that Cuban is more open-minded than the US or Canada. In the US, people who think like you have newspapers, websites, hold meetings in public spaces and have even learned to walk upright. When was the last time the regime in Cuba permitted the legitimate existence of capitalist-minded Cubans, let alone the use of public spaces to hold organizational meetings. Do you remember the Black Spring arrests in Cuba? I guess that was a reflection of how “open-minded” the Cuban government is.

  • Churches play an important role in authoritarian systems like Cuba. On the one hand, they are by far the most powerful civil society institution independent of the one party state. On the other hand, they are always at risk of being co-opted by the state.

    The symposium written about above is a hopeful sign if it opens up debate about topics like multi-party democracy and political change. It is another small example of some Cubans losing their fear of openly challenging the official ideology that has been imposed on the Cuban people by the Castro dictatorship.

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