Cuba: Discussion on Democracy and Institutions

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.

  • Thank-you Fernando for your very welcome report on the conference. There is no equivalent to a conference like this in my country, and certainly not in the US, which is a graphic illustration of the state of brainwashing that exists here regarding capitalism. We could never have a multi-perspective public discussion that considered anything other than a system of capitalist representative democracy.

    As I write this, I’m struck with having never considered it before. I just took it for granted. It’s possible to HAVE a conference like that, but it would never take place. At this point in time, Communist Cuba is more open-minded than capitalist Canada or the US, which is another startling observation! And in an ecclesiastical environment as well!

    I’m less surprised at the Catholic component as I’m familiar with the Liberation Theology Movement and have marched alongside and talked to priests from Pax Christi in peace demonstrations. The core values of Christianity, in common with the core values of all religions, are idealistic. Implementations, involving religious hierarchies, are another matter. With the secularization of our society we have lost that idealism. It’s not surprising that Cubans, with a government based on idealistic principles, would sooner or later ally with religion – carefully.

    The comments made above, ranging from right-wing pro-American to left-wing pro-Cuban, all from folks living in capitalist countries, illustrates how backward we really our in comparison to what this conference represents.

    ‘Grady’ lays down a basic tenet of socialism, one of the “baby steps’ ‘Michael refers to. ‘Grady’ habitually carries the ‘eternal flame’ of reason on this website, not able to get beyond the size of a candle, in the face of the continuous propaganda that stifles meaningful discussion.

    ‘Michael’ shows the most insight, reminding me of when political candidates actually were required to have equal time, now long gone. He writes the two main parties in the US did away with the rule and the same happened in Canada as well, shockingly excluding our Green Party leader from candidate debates. Cuba has one party, the US has one party with two factions and Canada and Britain have one party with three factions.

    But ‘Michael’, writing, “what are the alternatives?” can’t even begin to imagine an alternative. How could he when we never have conferences like the one Fernando covered? We are thoroughly brainwashed.

    ‘Moses’ writes carefully. All of the ideas discussed at the conference will be highly repugnant to his ideology but he has to be careful to service his oft-repeated “I support divergent groups” mantra. It’s actually a half-sentence. The rest of it is, “…as long as they don’t threaten US policy”.

    Never missing a beat, ‘Moses’ sees an opportunity to criticize Cuba’s government by asking “Does the absence of a government official suggest that the government is uninterested in the views expressed by these groups?” No US or Canadian government official would EVER attend a conference that entertained a socialist, Communist or participatory democratic government.

    Does this mean capitalist governments are uninterested in these views? Yes, if the conference was sufficiently marginal to not be a political force, and would definitely be of interest otherwise, represented by an undercover security presence as is customary.

    ‘Griffin’, posting immediately after ‘Moses’, takes up the theme and like ‘Moses,’ fails to point out the non-presence of government officials at the conference is exactly the same as what takes place in his country.

    ‘Griffin’ also attempts to make propaganda ‘hay’ out of dissidents being excluded at the conference. Considering what a dissident said that Fernando quotes, that he aims not to modernize the system but to demolish it”, the wisdom of the conference organizers is apparent.

    Not unexpectedly, ‘Griffin’ is put out as the statement is what ‘Griffin’ advocates.

    ‘Griffin’ refers to “police informers” at the conference without noting the same practice here, or worse. He should be well aware of the routine use of undercover agent provocateurs in his country, used to provoke civil disobedience in order to have an excuse for mass arrests.

    The best rejoinder to ‘Griffin’ is to note what ‘Michael’ pointed out – that in current capitalist practice, even loyal capitalists, hardly advocating demolishing the system, like the head of Canada’s Green Party, are routinely excluded from public debates.

    ‘Griffin’ quotes the last paragraph, finding it ironic. Rather than ironic, it continues the parallel of what occurs under capitalism:

    “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”.

    Too right. I can certainly relate to that in my country.

    Back to the question ‘Michael’ asks, “what are the alternatives?” A good place to start looking, I think, is back in time when indigenous cultures were universally functional, using a cooperative model, not that long ago. They didn’t go extinct, or fail due to an inherent flaw, but rather were overwhelmed by Europeans, driven by greed and a desire for conquest due to the dysfunction that existed in that area of the world.

    I have relatively easy access to examples of how that cooperative model worked as I live just down the road from Six Nations, Canada’s largest native Reserve. I am a regular visitor. I go to learn, and I have learned a great deal. The model has been corrupted by the occupiers of course but there are still enough remnants left for learning.

    One of the key phrases that is still alive and quoted, has become core to my beliefs, that “No one stands above you or below you”. There are many other principles and practices that native culture is based on that are in harmony with the basic definition of socialism and with participatory democracy.

    The native population in Cuba has been wiped out but perhaps Fernando could suggest that at the next conference, native speakers from Canada, the US and elsewhere be invited. Before looking at what is “possible today thanks to new technologies”, as Fernando writes, Cubans could look at what has worked for millennia, more time-proven than the new technologies, many of which will prove to be ephemeral.

  • “!Baby Steps!” As Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfus) says to his patient, Bob Wiley (Bob Murray) in the 1991 film, “What About Bob?” The Cuban people just have to be as persistant as Bob, and their dreams will be realized. Just be careful of what you wish, however, for you just might receive it–in spades!
    I vaguely remember when there was a law requiring radio and tv broadcasters up here to offer equal–and free–time to minor political parties during local, state and national elections; it was refreshing, and sometimes amusing, to hear the ideas of socialists, prohibitionists, etc. Of course the Dems. and Repugs. nixed that doctrine a generation ago, and now all we have is Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum (i.e. “friendly” fascists –the Dems., vs the not-so-friendly fascists–the Repugs). Occasionally, when there is someone with personal wealth who could get is message across, but this is becoming less common. If we look back, as did our founding fathers, we could see the same patrician monopolism of political power in the late Roman Republic, which ultimately led to the Empire. No doubt the process will repeat itself again in our own republic. There is no real democracy anywhere in the world. It is as “cloud-coo-coo-land” utopian as communism. Still, what are the alternatives? (at least the palatable alternatives).

  • Social and political democracy in Cuba, just like in the United States, will never happen until most of industry and commerce is owned primarily by those who do the work. Thus it has been, and thus it will always be.

  • It says something about the Cuban political scene when a low key discussion about maybe considering multi-party democratic representation is too cautious to invite actual dissidents while it’s considered to extreme by the the government to bother sending any officials. Aside from police informers, of course.

    Thus, the closing paragraph above is ironic:

    “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.”

  • It would be nice to know what the next steps to be taken are. Do these meetings resolve anything or iniciate further action? I support divergent groups coming together to simply share ideas but after all that sharing if nothing changes, what is the point? Does the absence of a government official suggests that the government is uninterested in the views expressed by these groups? What does it take to get the government’s attention?

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