By Samuel Farber*
HAVANA TIMES — The cultural and, to a certain extent, political liberalization that has taken place in Cuba, particularly since Raúl Castro assumed power in 2006, has been mostly limited to certain circles, such as the cultural-political milieu of the Catholic Church, and, to a lesser extent, the academic and artistic milieux of the island.
Publications such as Espacio Laical reach the practicing Catholics in Cuba, but have limited circulation and influence. This is even more so in the case of, for example, the Temas journal, a much less critical publication than Espacio Laical that circulates almost exclusively among intellectuals, artists and academics.
Meanwhile, the mass media continues under the control of the Ideological Department of the Cuban Communist Party headed by Rolando Alfonso Borges. Given the Internet’s limited penetration in the island, the overwhelming majority of the population depends on the official press and television to find out what is happening in Cuba and the world at large.
The government’s small concession that allows Cubans access to Telesur, the station sponsored by the Venezuelan government, does not significantly alter the very poor and distorted information that they receive on a daily basis. It is clear that in Cuba there is no equivalent of truly critical publications, such as Argumenty I Faki and Ogonyok, that widely circulated among the Soviet people during Gorbachev’s years. Rank-and-file Cubans therefore lack exposure to cultural and political criticism, and information about much of what is happening in their own country and in the rest of the world.
The existence of spaces, however limited, where the social and political problems confronted by the Cuban people can be more freely discussed is doubtlessly a good thing, However, their current ghetto-like existence is worrisome, because they can easily be turned into isolated zones of tolerance used to pacify and neutralize actually or potentially discontented sectors of Cuba’s intellectuals.
These tolerance zones may even be extended to include an occasional street event provided however, that it is presented as a cultural expression devoid of critical politics, as appears to be the case with many of the activities organized by CENESEX (National Center for Sexual Education).[i]
As a retired academic living in New York, I certainly lack authority to tell my compatriots in the island what they should or should not do, since it is they who are risking their necks.
Nevertheless, I believe that my reflections, based on my political experiences and research, may be of some use to them. And it is from this vantage point that I dare to express my concern that the nascent critical left in Cuba is running the risk of becoming trapped in the political ghetto that has until now been its principal milieu.
If this left wants to gain strength, it is urgent that it anchors itself more in Cuban society at large, particularly in light of the socio-economic changes that are taking place in the country that place center stage the defense of the security and interests of the working people.
Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and if popular discontent does not take a progressive path it will manifest itself in other ways, like as a demoralization that leads young people, in particular, to see emigration, if not crime, as the only way to resolve their problems.
How can the common people defend themselves from having the transition towards the Sino-Vietnamese, or towards any other model, being implemented at their expense, as it will inevitably happen if there is no resistance?
That is where workers’ control can place a critical role in practical and immediate terms at the workplace as, for example, by resisting the procedures that were ordered a few years ago to establish “proven fitness” (idoneidad demostrada) and to lay off the workers who “are unfit” (no idóneos).
That legislation did not respect the old union principle of seniority and much less any special protection for black people and women. An intervention by the nascent left in these sorts of matters, opposing practices that are clearly against working people, could more deeply anchor it in the Cuban society.
I am aware that I am generalizing and even simplifying the current situation given that there are New Left groups and individuals involved in important activities well outside the political ghetto, such as the protection of the environment. But I think the left could develop new priorities that would serve it well.
On one hand, these new priorities would anchor the new left more solidly in the working class and, on the other hand, allow it to confront the hard core of the regime, as obviously is the case with the administration of the economy, but at a local and therefore feasible level, and not as a generalized challenge at the national level that at this moment would crush it.
That is the only kind of action that is possible at a moment when the relationship of forces incline the balance very markedly in the regime’s favor, and when people may be repressed.
The same tactical and strategic reasoning could be applied to more strictly political matters outside the workplace. Black people and gays, and especially young people, are constantly exposed to police harassment that ranges from constantly having to show their ID’s to being victims of police brutality. An organized protest against such abuses could do a lot more for the self-determination of those groups than the carnival-like congas organized by CENESEX.
It is worth noting that in China, even the government itself has had to acknowledge that it has been confronting protests by peasants and workers.[ii] Although these protests have generally been local in nature and have not been aimed at systematic changes in society, they have significantly helped to push up wages, forced the regime to pay more attention to the needs of internal consumption and, of course, to increase the self-confidence and empowerment of the people involved. This could establish the basis for a more generalized and political opposition in the future.
Progressive change towards a genuinely democratic socialism is not going to happen just because a wing of the Party or a section of the ruling group comes over to our side. This sort of thing has repeatedly happened throughout history, but generally as a reaction to a real and powerful opposition. The critical and democratic left is too weak to contend for power, but it can strengthen the self-confidence of the people through popular mobilization.
Obviously, this is not the agenda of the Plattista (after the Platt Amendment) right interested, above all, in the material help it can obtain from the U.S. Interest Section Office in Havana that has made it dependent on the empire as a substitute for its own efforts to solicit and organize the support of other discontented Cubans.
Regarding the Catholic Church, it is clear that it is playing an ambiguous role. On one hand, it is sheltering a diversity of critics, including the critical left and the democratic proposals of the Laboratorio Casa Cuba. [iii] But, on the other hand, when it speaks in its own name, its lay spokesperson addresses himself to the Armed Forces – whom he characterizes as the only institution aside from the Catholic Church likely to remain “untouched” for “two hundred more years” – and tacitly invites them to enter into a political pact, arguing that “the Armed Forces, like the Catholic Church, have the patriotic and moral responsibility to watch for and facilitate the best of possible futures for Cuba.”[iv]
It is here where the agency of change becomes especially important. Keeping in mind that the democratic change we want is inexorably related to the agency and manner in which it is brought about, the option is clear: We either promote change “from above” as proposed by the Catholic spokesman, or we promote change from below, remembering always what Karl Marx held: that the emancipation of the working class is not the work of a Messiah or any other “benevolent” agent from above, but the exclusive task of the workers themselves.
(*) Samuel Farber was born and grew up in Cuba and has written numerous books and articles about the island. His last book is Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959. A Critical Assessment published by Haymarket Books in 2011.
[i] This tendency can be noted, although in a very different context, among gays in the USA, many of who have in recent years developed a strong cultural, consumerist and apolitical current. It was shocking that among the marchers of June 2012, the giant parade celebrating the anniversary of the Stonewall riots of 1969, was Raymond Kelly, the Police Commissioner of New York City, who has “distinguished” himself for his harassment of Latinos and Blacks through his “Stop and Frisk” program that has affected tens of thousands of innocent people.
[ii] The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has estimated that there were more than 90,000 protest incidents in 2006, and the professor of Sociology Sun Liping estimated 180,000 incidents in 2010.
[iii] Laboratorio Casa Cuba, “Cuba soñada – Cuba posible – Cuba futura: propuestas para nuestro porvenir inmediato”, Espacio Laical, Suplemento Digital No. 224/marzo 2013. https://blu162.mail.live.com/default.aspx?id=64855
[iv] Lenier González Mederos, “Las Fuerzas Armadas y el Futuro de Cuba,” Espacio Laical, Suplemento Digital No. 224/marzo 2013. https:/blu162.mail.live.com/default.aspx?id=64855