Interview with Armando Chaguaceda: “We have a government that has a phobia of self-employment which is adverse to anyone who demands a space.”
By Karla Perez*
HAVANA TIMES — Latin America is green, tumultuous and varied. Within Latin America, is Cuba which is extremely different but also green, tumultuous and varied. When the region has suffered so much because of events that have been born from the Left, trusting its current ideologies can be hard for Latin American people today.
Cuban Armando Chaguaceda, a doctor in History and Regional Studies and a political expert, is considered to be a part of the “new Left”, of democratic socialism, an open and plural political system which has known how to distance itself from failed systems and to make it clear that it isn’t firmly rooted in authoritarianism.
You define yourself as a member of the “new Cuban Left”, in spite of previous experiences within the region. What separates you from the “old” Left, and what are you defending that is new?
Armando Chaguaceda: The separation between the “old” and the “new” is based on the concept that the Left, which has dominated in Cuba in the last 55, 60 years, was a copy of the Soviet single-party model, organizations of subordinated masses, of State ideology and state control of public life. I lean away from this Left because of my ideas that democracy has to be participatory, representative, deliberative, all-encompassing, not in the power of a single party or one political force.
Social justice can’t just be a gift from the State, instead it needs to be considered as something that stems from a series of rights, and while the State is important in any Leftist country – the idea of an important public sector, the idea of protecting the most disadvantaged, regulating the market – can’t just be in the hands of a single party, of a State that controls the nation’s resources without any kind of accountability.
Therefore, it’s the Stalinist nature of the majority of this old Left that separates me from this, and the new Left is basically the idea of having a full-fledged democracy, everyone having all their rights, where defending the public sector isn’t just understood as the State’s responsibility.
Obviously, a question arises from what you have just said. What is failing then in Latin America, where several processes initiated by the Left have led to corrupt and even anti-democratic governments?
AC: Firstly, these are governments which have come into power through elections. They aren’t revolutionary governments, but they resist leaving power when their term in government comes to an end, and then they begin to apply revolutionary logic. That is to say the logic of “I came into power so I’m going to stay here” beyond electoral considerations, beyond any checks and balances. That is to say, Carl Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction and they need to clear the political battleground by eliminating all of their enemies and establishing absolute denomination of their choice.
Great achievements were made in Latin America. There were many different results: for example, Bolivia and Ecuador made important achievements in matters of social inclusion, and development, and Venezuela has had a much more negative balance in every respect. What is going wrong? It’s basically this: they come into power via the polls but most of them are Leninists or Stalinists hiding in the closet deep down and resist leaving their seat of power once the people go against them with a vote.
The current Cuban political landscape is tense. People’s sights are only on one date: 2018. The person who has ruled the country over the last decade is withdrawing from the public sphere, at least. There still isn’t a proposal for a public referendum about the different futures possible for the country today, just 6 months away from the announced “transition”. There is uncertainty and a lack of knowledge about the future.
In February 2018, Raul Castro is leaving his position as President of Cuba. Do you think that this is just a symbolic move? Or could it really bring about real and definitive changes?
AC: I think there could be real changes, like there have been real changes in recent years, but they will have to do with increasing the number of spaces in the market, of private consumption in certain sectors.
This would take place in the socio-economic sphere, therefore there will be more inequality, some new winning sectors connected to the international market, artists, small business owners, of course members of the ruling elite, contrasted with a multitude of workers with little purchasing power who continue to receive depreciated wages since the ‘90s.
I believe that a single-party will be kept in political terms. There might be a joint leadership, there might be a separation of functions which has always been uncertain between the party (the Cuban Communist Party) and the State. Uncertain because the party continues to be society’s driving force, and it’s very hard to differentiate the government’s politics-party politics, and meanwhile, the State has its own ideology where it will be very difficult for social pluralism to be recognized.
Let me remind you of the difference that political sciences established between totalitarianism and authoritarianism: in totalitarianism, plural spaces are at a minimum, while there might be counterbalances in authoritarianism’s business, ecclesiastic and social scenarios, even though they aren’t political. We are going to be a new generation, the first post-historic generation, but I don’t expect great changes.
Yes, but in spite of the changes which took place that you mentioned during Raul Castro’s government, in recent days, we have witnessed a setback in the private sector. What was the reason for this regression?
AC: I believe the regression in the private sector has to do with the perception of risk, the idea to try and receive a larger number of concessions from Trump’s government. Recently I was at an academic event with a member from the US delegation that had negotiated with Cuba, he said that it would be difficult to even receive recognition about the need for a greater space to function in the private sector, guarantees for foreign investment in some details. Cuban negotiators are very unwilling in these matters.
So, I think that with the current state of things with Trump, and let’s say the return to a more hostile stance, at least less verbal and more practical, the same fear and idea that has persisted ever since the time of Obama exists, that an independent sector presents a threat in economic terms to the Cuban political elite. It wasn’t so much them demanding their rights, it was the economic strengthening that scared them and drove them to stop the process.
There is a mix of fear with the political risk of times of transition with regard to what the government is insisting in recent times with regard to self-employment particularly and some cooperatives, that the private sector might continue to grow because it could be a potential independent author of the future and also an ordering of the economy from a most administrative point of view.
That is to say, they know that there isn’t a wholesale system, they know that there are a lot of people stealing from the State and they want to control it in this way. Economist Carmelo Mesa Lage has stated that given the factors in Cuban society and economy, demographic aging, uncontrollable migration, weak economic growth, this restrictive policy on the only sector that is growing and absorbing Cuba’s workforce and supplying goods and services is disastrous.
Cuban civil society is more visible. What has been its greatest victory and what problems remain to be dealt with?
AC: The remaining problem that needs to be dealt with is the political regime, that is to say, the series of institutions and laws that stop this civil society from growing, not only the opposition, but independent laborers, cooperatives, organizations which attend to disadvantaged people, churches, community movements. We have a regime which has a phobia of autonomy: it is not only adverse to an opposition which it can identify as being Rightist, but it is also adverse to anyone who develops and demands spaces for this independent labor.
I believe its greatest achievement has to be that this exists, it persists, but it has many traps, first the regime puts out traps for it, then mechanisms of self-survival that the regime has imposed on this civil society exist. I mean, in order for me to survive, I have to have the government’s consent and therefore if I have a Christian center that provides social care or I have a cultural project in a neighborhood, I’m not going to interact with members of the opposition.
Ironically, this is very complicated because a lot of the time, what happens to a confrontational person, an opponent, who received this label because of personal events – you don’t have to have a different ideology to be adverse to the government – you can be someone else tomorrow.
Cuban civil society has a serious problem, like Cuban society does: of memory, of the build up of experiences, because the government has controlled history, has controlled the past, and it has regularly recreated repressive practices which many new players don’t know were practiced on others. There is a structural weakness within civil society itself. Moreover, it has been inoculated via mechanisms of control, fear, paranoia, mistrust, denunciation, of a Stalinist-Soviet kind of government. However, there are spaces of people who simply want to just change the government in a peaceful manner, or they want to do something good for their community and do something about the unsatisfied demands that come from different types of Cubans who live on the island.