HAVANA TIMES — Watching the congresses held by different Cuban grassroots organizations made me recall an experience I had at Havana’s Lenin Vocational School (1). It had to do with leadership, natural born leaders and those leaders appointed on the basis of single lists that had been drawn up by “the powers that be.” (2)
Carlos Lage (Jr.), who was a student at the time, noticed that most young leaders who were opinionated were excluded from leadership positions at central organizations such as the Young Communists League or the Students Federation at mid-levels of education.
He thought up and set in motion a plan to persuade these young people politically, in view of the fact their voices were the ones other students paid the most attention to. They were baptized as “informal leaders,” but it would have been more accurate to call them “natural born leaders.”
The experiment was interesting and had notable results. It did not last, however, because the initiative required the support of those very leaders whose positions were being put into question by the very existence of these true student leaders.
Leaders or Bosses
The big difference between a boss and a leader is that the former only requires a position to give orders, while the power of the latter lies in the fact he/she is followed voluntarily. A boss is appointed from above, a leader is born and forged among the people.
Former Brazilian President Lula would surely not have enjoyed so much popular support if he had been a “cadre” appointed by a party to lead Brazil’s trade unions. It happened the other way around: workers began to follow him and that made him a national leader.
This comes to mind when I see “cadres” leading a province and are then appointed the head of a popular organization overnight. Are they doing so poorly among the “masses” that the Party needs to send out “professional cadres” to lead them?
It’s hard to believe a country like Cuba is devoid of leaders. It seems, rather, that they are sometimes pushed aside because they are “difficult” people with far too much “independence” and not too prone to following “orders from above.”
My colleagues tell me that, for the election of the chair of Cuba’s Journalists Association, a list of names had been previously drawn up and that changing it, and electing Moltó for the position, entailed bitter debates. There is no shortage of examples as this is a general policy in Cuba.
The question is whether, under the new model, will the “grassroots organizations” continue to be tools to persuade and direct the people or whether they will be transformed into democratic structures, such that all Cubans have a space where they can take part in decisions.
The Pros and Cons of Natural Born Leaders
The “problem” with natural born leaders is that they have a hard time adjusting to Party discipline: they are not unconditionally loyal to anyone, are often disobedient, are not interested in positions and, in order to get them to work in any given direction, one must convince them that the interests of the people are being taken into consideration.
They are feared because they cannot be silenced. They are irreverent, critical, and unpredictable and endowed with a charisma that eclipses that of “professional politicians.” The latter are bothered that the former should naturally possess what they can only achieve through the power of their positions and propaganda.
The great “advantage” is that that people pay more attention to the natural leaders, because their followers consider them one of them and regard them as trustworthy individuals, even after they begin to occupy political positions, as was the case with Lula when he became the president of Brazil.
Havana’s Lenin School took its “informal leaders” to hospitals and showed them the efforts made to offer everyone medical attention. They spoke with public transportation and construction executives, organized film debates and political discussions with Cuban leaders.
The results were soon felt. These young people told others everything they discovered. They did so during hallway conversations, in their own lingo, between jokes, conversations about music, sports or sex, without the need to organize boring activities or political speeches.
Sending out “cadres” to steer civil society appears to be the “fastest” means of influencing people, but, in Cuba, it has become the illusion of a formal activity, a succession of study groups where there is no debate, vacuous meetings and congresses with unanimous votes.
Allowing organizations to choose their leaders would give these more credibility and give their members a sense of belonging. More importantly, it could create a means for the different sectors in the country to communicate with those who govern it.
If, afterwards, political “cadres” prove unable to win over people’s natural leader, the problem should not be sought in civil society or grassroots organizations but in the Party’s policies, or in the selection, training and abilities of its members.
- A post-secondary vocational center that has higher academic demands than all other schools at this level.
- The powers that be are the entities that decide everything everywhere in Cuba. They can include the Party, State Security, local governments and even trade unions.