Civil Society in Cuba?

By Alejandro Armengol

Cola en la cafetería. Photo: Juan Suarez
Cola en la cafetería. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Cuban-American dissidents, activists and legislators continue to make contradictory statements which the press eats up and amplifies without questioning: they speak of strengthening or fostering Cuban civil society while referring to the regime’s totalitarian nature, calling the changes implemented mere “cosmetic” touchups.

If there’s a totalitarian regime on the island – and on the one hand there’s little to suggest this is not the case – there’s little hope of developing said civil society, which would rather be one of the tasks required to rebuild the country following a transition. This is what history teaches us: there was no civil society in the Soviet Union or in Nazi Germany.

If we regard the situation from a different perspective, and acknowledge a slight change on the island, from a totalitarian to an authoritarian regime, where certain parcels of autonomy – granted by the government or secured circumstantially – allow for independent development, then we must be more precise in our pronouncements, to avoid repeating empty phrases.

The mantra of civil society serves to legitimate the most diverse interests and aspirations. Invoking Cuban civil society has become a fad or a means to get points politically. Beyond a discussion about the concept, however, it would be worthwhile to analyze what progress is being made by tactics seeking to establish this type of society under Cuba’s current conditions and to venture a guess as to its future.

The fundamental problem is that totalitarianism, by definition, implies the complete absorption of civil society by the State. This happened in Cuba, where so-called “mass organizations”, and the satellites around them, were for decades proudly defined as mere driving belts for Party “orientations.”

Divisiones. Photo: Juan Suarez
Divisiones. Photo: Juan Suarez

This hasn’t prevented them from shamelessly demanding a civic role and even aspiring to be acknowledged – and financed from abroad – as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Though they now wish to sell themselves with son music for tourists, they are still the same puppets they were when they were first created in the likeness of Soviet institutions.

If the Cuban regime’s attempt to get on the civil society train is rather clumsy, the US government and those it supports as dissident organizations haven’t shown much originality either.

Before all else, because it is not a novel initiative. Such efforts first emerged in East Europe, where repressive regimes similar to the Soviet Union, though not as absolutist, existed, when dissidents in those countries began to speak of the possibility of reestablishing democracy through the resurfacing of civil society.

In practice, such a society was never established and did not have a fundamental role in the disappearance of “real socialism.” Opposition movements were short lived: some spent a fleeting moment in government and went on to live in nostalgia, as well as to raise false hopes.

Cuba has seen a long string of attempts to import foreign models. Down the road of transition, many espouse the fallacy that there are political constants in such processes and neglect to analyze specific circumstances.

Over and above such considerations, there is the noteworthy fact that some of those calling for the “empowerment of civil society” refuse at the same time to devote greater resources to the development of what could be essential or at least important factors: the promotion of private businesses, support for private initiative and other processes that would aid in economic reforms.

Hair cuts. Photo: Juan Suarez
Hair cuts. Photo: Juan Suarez

We have two different – and sometimes contradictory – conceptions of a potential civil society in Cuba. One emphasizes the political dimension and underscores the existence of groups devoted to reporting government abuses, organizations that, in good measure, justify their existence through a rhetoric of victimization and rely on financing from Washington and Miami to operate. The other points to the economic dimension and sees the emergence of a labor sphere independent of the government as the foundation needed for a more open society.

In both cases, limitations far outweigh current achievements.

As long as the promotion of Cuban civil society by dissidents does not break out of the discourse of Miami-based groups and fails to underscore the needs of the population, both its scope and goals will be extremely limited.

On the other hand, the emergence of a reduced private sector in a society with extreme degrees of State control does not guarantee a future of independence from the government, as people continue to be dependent on the government to maintain their new labor status and for something as simple as walking down the street.

We are therefore left with a fundamental limitation which the establishment of a genuine civil society would seek to eliminate: the maintenance of double standards, where public hypocrisy constitutes one of the regime’s main survival mechanisms.

Published originally in Spanish by

9 thoughts on “Civil Society in Cuba?

  • Cuba’s internal affairs require meddling by Americans and other foreigners of good will or the system that exists will not provide prosperity. Lifting the embargo on investment will only lead to improvements if the Cuban state becomes as flexible as places like China and Vietnam. Investors hope for a profit and Cuba’s current labor regulations as well as a shortage of well trained and motivated employees for the tourist industry will slow development. The current infrastructure of hotels and other tourist facilities are not able to serve the hoped for influx of visitors, as they will expect higher standards. The “charm” of crumbling Cuban cities will not bring ever large number of tourists. A more modern Cuba may be disdained by romantics who want to see Havana and Cuba “before it changes”. The Dominican Republic may have been more charming 30 years ago, but at least most Dominicans have benefitted from economic progress.

  • The economic embargo keeps Cubans poor. State centralized socialism keeps Cubans poor. People who are poor don’t have the wide options available to those who are not, and are driven to do things they wouldn’t do if they weren’t poor.

    So … end the embargo, and other American meddling in Cuba’s internal affairs, and let a discussion begin in Cuba about ways to have an economy that brings prosperity, and a state system that guarantees the conquests of the Revolution.

  • Mexico began its relationship with the US as a poor and uneducated population. Cuba is indeed poor but hardly uneducated. To compare Cuba’s future to Mexico’s present is inaccurate.

  • Cuba has moved from totalatarian to more authoritarian as failure of Soviet Socialist model has been unmasked by reality. Certain freedoms have reluctantly been introduced to survive the destructive forces of extreme socialism. A second more troubling aspect has emerged in Cuba, the acceptance of petty theft from state enterprises as a coping mechanism. The food ration book provides 40% of monthly caloric needs. The $20 to $40 a month salaries are insufficient in state sector. So theft and barter are now the norm to survive. The black market rages in Cuba. The sooner people can earn a decent living in Cuba, the sooner this society begins to heal. Those that support extreme forms of socialism are clueless to it’s destructive power.

  • These kind, considerate, modest Cubans (of which I count myself one) are literally dying to leave Cuba. And where are they going? The good ol USA.

  • I agree with you Brad. The Cuban people I have met and interacted with were kind, considerate and modest. It is a beautiful country. You can be rest assured that the Cuban Government will never allow the Americans unfettered access into the country. They know full well what the American Right Wing is up to and what can happen. Just look at Mexico to-day. Drug cartels, poverty, murder and mayhem. I used to enjoy going there. As soon as the Embargo/Blockage is lifted Cuba will welcome American tourists.. .

  • “clumsy” this is Britain’s insurance. By force “unlike” Israel by choice. I will say one “good” thing about the British. “THE NHS” is created by the Labour government victory “first” 26th July 1945 “and the internet was invented by Stafford Beer”

  • Change for the better will come at a price. If you hope that Cuba remains your personal “human zoo”, your fears are merited. What will a prosperous Cuba look like? Miami.

  • Don’t trust the americans. Cuba is a beautiful country. I love the people dearly but fear all will change once the US gets its hands in there.

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