By Alejandro Armengol
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.”
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.
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 cubaencuentro.com