Cuba’s Political Circus: Stunts & Applause

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso 

Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, July 20 — When we go to the circus to enjoy the acrobats, we only give them a brief and courteous applause at the beginning of the act, as if to say we’re expecting something good from them.  The main applause is given at the end…if they truly satisfy us.

It’s like this and it’s always been like this.  Applause is recognition of the quality of the performance itself, not the intention – and much less an intention we have out doubts about.

To applaud before the stunt is to give away the applause.  And to give away applause, in a circus as well as in politics, is to expose ourselves to the disspointing lack of skill of the acrobat.  Moreover, this ends up undeservedly building the confidence of the recipient of the applause.

I repeat: this is as true in the circus as it is in politics.

How this applies to politics   

I will stop with this image, because there exists a sector of analysts — well informed and surely even better intentioned — who express candid enthusiasm for the changes they perceive in contemporary Cuban life.

I am speaking in support of these enthusiastic analysts, because after so much time of immobility, screw-ups, senile tirades and deinstitutionalization, what’s happening in the Cuba under the hand of Raul Castro (who obviously was part of all the above-mentioned) excites the imagination.

Photo: Caridad

Consequently, they are trying to place themselves alongside those changes, promote them, to explain to “those-who-don’t-understand,” and to possibly become the intellectual components of that “change.”

I have several reasons to differ from these colleagues and to consider their applause a waste of emotion.

The first reason is that behind Raul Castro’s supposed fear of making a mistake, invoked to justify his astounding slowness in making decisions, the Cuban political elite are concealing their own inabilities, their internal contradictions in the form of all types of commitments, and the perverse interaction of their commercial interests with their appetite for bureaucratic power.

This has been taking place throughout their five-years in the Palace of the Revolution, although we can simultaneously speak of a calamitous economy sustained by external subsidies and a population that is getting smaller and older, with all of this compromising the future of the nation.

This doesn’t mean that in Havana there are good reformists and bad ultraconservatives.  There is a post-revolutionary political class that is playing its hand and displaying another face according to their needs, and that obviously has a cost.  Vice President Machado Ventura’s guys are not a protuberance on the system – they’re an organic part of it.

The balance after five years  

As a consequence, what we have after five years is very little and, more frequently than desired there are also more negative scenarios.  We have — in the name of the struggle against paternalism and egalitarianism — more poverty, more social vulnerability, greater inequity and more uncertainty in the face of the future.

Photo: Caridad

To make all of this more manageable, we have the same repression as before, the same intolerance, the same lack of freedoms and rights and the same exclusion of the émigré community.  In addition, we have the same state-centered pretense that restricts the number of occupations that can be practiced, the types of organization that can exist and the caliber of criticism one can make.

There is nothing that indicates the slightest sign of recognizing social autonomy, tolerance or respect for diversity.

Those who applaud can argue that something is changing, and they’re right.  There are positive measures, but they continue being non-systemic steps aimed at survival, and therefore trivial before the tremendous crisis that faces society.

There are no coherent proposals that speak of a new project for the country and society.  That’s what we really need, “with all and for the well-being of all.”

What we see changing is the activity of an emerging economic elite at the top of the incipient private sector and from the enterprise-based technocracy supported by the military.  This is an emerging sweet-toothed elite that is seeking to associate themselves with foreign investors in the development of marinas, golf courses, hotels, manufacturing maquiladoras, and probably oil wells in the future.

These stunts that are ultimately applauded involve economic restructuring to the detriment of most people’s consumption and to the benefit of the emerging elite and the subsidiary middle class.  Meanwhile, these minorities have implemented more “spectacular” steps to indicate some changes on the political playing board: the rights to use cellphones, check into hotels, travel as tourists and to buy houses and cars.

Civil society as a corporate operation  

Continuing with the applause, those who clap from the grandstands could believe — according to the neoliberal myth — that when something changes in the economy as a function of the market, civil society grows and the system becomes liberalized.  And here too it’s probable that applauses will be given, because greater space has indeed been generated for civil society, but not necessarily for democratization.

A civil society turned into a corporate operation and delimited by mercantile rules is perfectly compatible with an authoritarian political system, and such an operation even reinforces this autocratic rule if the economy becomes sufficiently dynamic to plug its political gaps with its surpluses.

Photo: Caridad

I recognize that in the Cuban setting it’s necessary to be realistic and pragmatic in the face of these changes.  Personally I find it politically repugnant that Cuban leaders have for so many years wallowed in their inabilities to manage the country, all in the name of socialism.

Equally, the ultra-right wing in exile have made tons of capital — economic and political — out of the issue of anti-Castrism, and all in the name of democracy.

Fortunately we can do without the latter ones, but unfortunately not without the former.  The Cuban political elite — military leaders, technocrats, bureaucrats — is an inevitable piece for the construction of Cuba’s future.

Will applauding produce benefits?

However, if someone believes that by lavishing applauses at the wrong time they will be recognized as an interlocutor, they’re committing two errors.

The first error is in not assessing the moral and political price they’re paying when applauding what doesn’t exist, while on the other hand failing to condemn that which does in fact exist.

The second is failing to keep in mind that if “change” is produced under the current circumstances, the elite wouldn’t need to dialogue, except with those institutions (the Catholic Church, for example) that have already been selected to affect those political changes indispensable for the functioning of economic changes.

With this I don’t want to say that I’m unwilling to applaud, but only after an undertaking that leads to a prosperous, equal and democratic nation.

I will only applaud gymnastics that lead to pluralism, autonomy and social administration, public freedoms for everyone; strict respect for (and the state responsibility over) social, political and civil rights, democratization (understood as people’s capacity to participate in and impact on the making of decisions), government decentralization and the development of varying forms of ownership.

I don’t believe that the Cuban government has taken any steps at all in this direction.

That’s why I don’t applaud.  What about you?

One thought on “Cuba’s Political Circus: Stunts & Applause

  • A very well-reasoned article. Haroldo is grappling with the bureaucratic reality “on the ground” in Cuba, and his reasoning is excellent. I don’t believe however that he quite understands the theoretic origins of that reality. His justly motivated sarcasm therefore is understandable, but doesn’t provide a constructive theoretical critique that might help the befuddled leaders grope their way out of the economic and social mess they’ve made of Cuban socialism.

    Socialism was and is envisioned as a transitional society, a sort of “bridge” that the vanguard designs and uses to transport society, over probably several generations, to a future land with none of the anti-human, anti-spiritual attributes of dog-eat-dog capitalism. The catastrophic error of “statism,”–that is, of socialism as the state owning all productive property–is that the fundamental attributes of the land of the future, the land to which the bridge is supposed to transport the people, is taken out of the far-in-the-future vision and put in place immediately, right after the abolition of capitalist state power. If such a “putting-in-place-right-out-of-capitalism” were functional, no bridge would be needed!

    What I’m saying–and what I’m disappointed that Haroldo did not say–is that functional socialism must embrace private productive property rights and the market, in order to go over a socialist bridge to the classless, without-private-property land of the future. On such a bridge the state would not own everything in sight, and productive people would be the primary owners of their instruments of production.

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