Critical Discord in Cuba

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

1952 Habana postcard. Photo: Mihai Alexandru Pop

HAVANA TIMES, August 10 — All political systems, even the most authoritarian, coexist with a certain degree of critical discord. All of them, even the most democratic, also attempt to trivialize those disagreements and reduce them to the symbolic/token plane.

One of the qualities that distinguishes one type of system from another is that in authoritarian regimes, tolerance of critical spaces acts inversely proportional to the level of security of the system. In democratic regimes this relationship is directly proportional.

The history of post-revolutionary Cuba has experienced various stages of expansion and contraction in relation to its threshold for of tolerance of criticism, with this tolerance depending on the degree of uncertainty of the system.

Between 1975 and 1985 — the golden epoch of totalitarian rule — the threshold of tolerance was severely reduced, not only by repression and the recurrent export of dissent through emigration, but also by the tremendous capacity of the regime to administer social mobility, offer expectations, and ideologically anathematize differences.

This allowed it to use an entire series of diversionary tactics (journalistic distractions, emotional manipulation, the presentation of false problems, the irradiation of a feeling of self-guilt) amid strict control of information and without allowing public scrutiny.

This began to change in the ‘90s when the terrible crisis (euphemistically called the “Special Period”) demolished the models and reduced action by the government because of a lack of resources as well as the bewilderment that the crisis caused within a political class (they had believed themselves to be forever destined to march through life hand in hand with the sacred laws of history and profane Soviet subsidies).

Though the Cuban state was able to mobilize diverse political/ideological resources in its favor, and survive, it saw itself obligated to tolerate critical spaces never before known. It was then when Cuban society experienced a pale and ephemeral spring.

Although it never admitted the existence of an organized opposition, Cuban leaders were forced to coexist with an unusual level of criticism from artistic and academic sources, and — what would be even more significant — they had to put up with the emergence of non-governmental organizations and community associations that sought social negotiations through various and autonomous methods and paths with regard to the state.

Actions around the Fundacion Felix Verela, Magin, Habitat Cuba, Centro de Estudios sobre America (CEA), community movements in depressed neighborhoods of Havana and other cities, anti-establishment theater and cinema (Marketing, el Mar de los Sargazos, Guantanamera, etc.) were parts of a complex process that many of us believed in and were committed to: a socialist and democratic regeneration of the system.

Faithful to our history. Photo: Nicole Moore

However the pale spring of 1990-1996 was not a deliberate opening but tolerance by the omission of policies. When the political class barely began to feel the economy beginning to recover and itself overcoming its astonishment before the havoc it had created, the critical spaces began to be repressed one by one. In some cases these were destroyed, others were tamed, and yet others made invisible. By 1997 there was very little of that left, and at the same time was inaugurated the most mediocre and flawed period in all of the nation’s brief post-1959 history.

Hypothetically, I would suggest that a new period opened up starting in 2005. First there was the pronouncement by Fidel Castro on corruption, a brief mention in the middle of a long and disjointed speech in which he spoke of many imaginable things, including his two supposed achievements of the moment: the energy revolution and hot chocolate.

But in authoritarian regimes the sneezes of the bosses send the people to bed. And here it was like the sounding of a bugle that put the whole Cuban intellectual world — recalling the title of a book of that time— “al borde de todo” (on the edge of everything).

Then Fidel Castro’s retirement and the ascent of his brother along with the technocratic/military faction inevitably opened a new space of uncertainty marked by partial relief of the leadership and an attempt at economic re-composition before the unstoppable deterioration of the economy, despite hefty subsidies from Hugo Chavez.

And though the general/president has been very clear that change refers only to the economy and that the only permitted targets are the bureaucracy and paternalism — nothing more — it’s also quite clear that when a door that has been jammed shut finally opens, it’s very difficult to guarantee that only those invited will enter.

That’s what’s happening now as each day the system suffers a new political scare, today with a impertinent article from an old party guy and tomorrow with a youth who’s not a party activist at all and doesn’t aspire to be. The system is experiencing continuous breakdowns due to its inadequacies at coopting and integrating.

Those in power are unable to convince the population with the same refrains that speak of a revolution and a form of socialism that these same leaders have been in charge of redefining periodically in accordance with the politics they’re pursuing and their own megalomaniac fits, to the point of making themselves unrecognizable.

This was what somehow what happened two decades ago, but there were very marked differences from today. The first has to do with the generational position of this population: youth who were generally born after the First Congress of the Communist Party [December 1975], with many of them socialized amid the hardships and cynicism of the Special Period crisis.

They found the table (poorly) served, with no one having asked them what they wanted to eat or how to prepare it. Probably because of this, and because youth relate more to their own epoch than to those of their parents, this new critical disaccord possesses an agenda, without impairment from other ideological definitions, presentist or immanentist.

It’s an agenda that speaks to those of a profoundly bored generation; youth who are trying to control their daily lives and simply be happy without having to wait another millennium. It is not basically a position that is confronting the political regime, though it possibly implies that. It’s especially a new cultural vision.

Motorcycle in Havana. Photo: Ruben Risholm

Another characteristic of this critical threshold of tolerance is its weak institutionalism, be it in the realm of the opposition or criticism within the system (what we find here is more of a movement than an organization). At the most these are minimal settings for coordination to amplify outcomes or to prevent external risks. But there is nothing resembling the organizations of the past (like CEA, Habitat Cuba or the Fundacion Felix Verela), whose activism was unable to survive the disappearance of those organizations.

Because of all of this, I believe Cuba’s leaders will have many problems if at some moment they plan to close spaces again, like they did in 1996. I don’t doubt that they will try it once more, because they don’t conceive of any other way of thinking about their relationship with society than the subordination of each and every activist and all their spaces. Nor do I doubt that they could again be able to achieve another one of their miserable victories over a crushed and fragmented society.

But it will not only be a morally worthless victory, but distressingly temporary as well. The national setting is very different. It’s not true that Cuban society is tired of politics, as some technocrats note; they’re only tired of a specific form of politics.

Times are also bringing other signs, ones of youth from Madrid to Santiago de Chile who are trying to make changes in many things. I’m sure that in this regard, Cuba will not be an exception.

Published in Spanish by Cubaencuentro.

2 thoughts on “Critical Discord in Cuba

  • Of course regrettable that hopes which could be perceived in some “artistic and academic circles” in the early nineties about a “socialist and democratic regeneration” failed. But it remains an almost napoleonic achievement of the Cuban leadership (you may like them or not) that they overcame the crisis.

    By the way: the crisis was not, contrary to what Haroldo Dilla states, result of “the havoc [the Cuban leadership] had created”.

    And what should we believe, when we are told of a “beginning economic recovery” in the late nineties and three paragaphs later of “the instoppable deterioration of the economy”?

    Mr. Dilla’s considerations deal very little with Cuba’s international setting. The opposition movements which overthrew the regimes in Eastern Europe were supported by nationalist feelings. In Cuba it is the opposite: nationalism is in favour of the regime. And nationalism is a strong force everywhere.

    So I don’t believe in “youth taking to the streets” as in Spain. Even less that such a thing would bring anything constructive, neither in Spain (where it will only bring the conservative Partido Popular back to power) nor in Cuba. The manifestations in Madrid make me remember Goethe’s account of his travel by ship from Palermo to Naples, where an incompetent crew was very close to cause a shipwreck. The passengers began loudly to abuse the crew. The great German writer told his fellow passengers to implore the Virgin instead of hinder the crew, on whom their salvation depended. And he comments: “From my earliest youth I have feared anarchy more than death.”

  • Haroldo’s article is stimulating. It is perhaps the distant thunder of a new generation worldwide gathering strength and advancing toward stormy change. But what will this change be?

    Let us hope that revolutionaries around the world will have learned this lesson from the bitter past: Primary ownership of the instruments of production must be by the creative people, not by a Marxian state. World socialism must be understood as a network of cooperative republics, or humanity is lost.

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