Haroldo Dilla Alfonso (*)
HAVANA TIMES, August 18 — Taken from one of the most recent speeches by General/President Raul Castro, the little phrase “Say what you think or want” traveled the world. Some viewed the matter with bitter skepticism, others with infantile contentment.
The skeptics think this could be the fiftieth plus time that RC himself has called for discussion and criticism, only to wind up branding as a CIA operative anyone who sincerely does speak up. The second group, the more naive, argues that this is a new moment and that the climate is now right for this call for critical debate.
It’s possible that they are both right to some degree, but also both wrong. I don’t have the answer, but I believe that it’s worth trying to understand what is the scope and limit of this latest attempt being made by the general to sound the alarm.
Without a doubt the Raul Castro is now moving hurriedly, he is simultaneously pressured by the time that’s running out on him, the requirements of governance (which equally imply keeping rice in the ration book and the Ladies in White out of the news), the demands of a nascent bourgeois class skulking in the crannies of a market economy strictly regulated by the military, and a generally slow-moving and sluggish system.
These are all substantive problems, ones inherent to the way the system functions. This is to say — recalling those distinctions raised by Soviet Marxism — these are objective problems, but ones whose solutions inevitably shift to the subjective side.
That’s why the president reminds one more of a Pavlovian psychologist than a political leader when he calls for the cleaning up of “all types of foolishness from people’s heads” – certainly an arduous task. This is especially so if we keep in mind that, according to RC himself, the system faces a powerful “psychological barrier formed by inertia, immobility, simulation and double standards.”
In other words, he is not calling for a national debate or for any citizen to say what they think. This is the message wished to be heard by technocrats as well as organic and leftist intellectuals who never miss a chance to applaud such imaginary stunts.
But this wouldn’t be a realistic deduction, and that is understood by RC, who knows perfectly well that a type of political regime like Cuba’s — rigid and fragile — cannot allow itself much flexibility without braking in the attempt.
What RC is proposing is greater space for dialogue and differences within the elite. This is a necessity if he really wants to mobilize the cumbersome government apparatus — plagued by padlocks and bolts — and to add to his mission not only the elite (which has basically secured), but also the political class and the entirety of the island’s frozen functionaries. And to reach this road requires a more agile government, one able to respond to the demands of the market in timeframes that are shorter than the “mastodontic” five-year plans.
This is also a requirement for the future reproduction of the system. All political classes need clear norms and rules for recycling. They require agreements that discipline (Bousset now comes to mind) those who wish to enter as well as those who don’t want to leave.
Under Fidel Castro’s aegis all of this was impossible due to his anti-institutional leadership style, which caused frequent bloodletting among the elite and the aging that smacked RC in the face during the recent Sixth Party Congress.
In this sense, like in others, RC is attempting to correct the mess he inherited from his big brother. To do this he has fixed his attention on the Chinese model and its peculiar manner of achieving elitist consensus and formulas for movement in an authoritarian political system that essentially does without the electoral factor.
I believe this is positive, especially if we compare it to the situation that existed up until 2006. A more agile bureaucracy and more innovative functionaries are conditions for national development; therefore it is necessary to welcome any attempt to accomplish this. Open settings for discussion are also positive, even in the sparing way in which Cuban leaders administer these.
However, it’s difficult to speak here of a democratizing advance. The population, according to the official version offered by the general/president, has already discussed what it had to discuss. It gave all its opinions during the analyses of that incomplete shopping list referred to as “The Guidelines” (Spanish: Los Lineamientos).
The political style continues to be top-down and restricted. We can point to the description given by RC himself in his speech where he referred to dissatisfaction and ideas that go up and down through a narrow tube and that culminate in the super-commission presided over by reform czar Marino Murillo – there was nothing about public debate.
There is no discussion about autonomous social organizations, with the exception of the few elected positions that are being relied on for an “orderly transition,” where order is subordinate to the transition. There is nothing with respect to the formation of public opinion, which is a quality inseparable from democratic societies, be these the ones existing under capitalism or dreamed of through socialism.
What finally remains is the matter of the issues that are permitted. The idea that each person expresses what they think is not only limited because it is bounded by the political and the functionary class, but also because it is restricted to an economic agenda established by the elite itself.
This is not a call to debate the range of questions that affect Cuban society, but only those that would bolster economic efficiency. It seems the “pragmatism” that separates politics from the economy — a characteristic unmistakable of the neoliberal credo — could also be the ideal landing spot of the Cuban post-revolutionary elite in its desperate attempt to be part of the world.
I should clarify that the fact that the discussion agenda set by the Cuban government is in a strict sense aseptically economic, doesn’t mean that it is not political in the relaxed sense that life imposes on us.
The political elite and the emerging managerial class are imposing an agenda on the Cuban people that implies a radical transformation of the rules of ownership and distribution of revenue, as well as the ideas of public services and control over resources.
A significant part of the population is swelling the ranks of an impoverished army of losers called on to prolong their miserable existences in the “updated” model.” Relatedly, a much smaller part of the population is becoming the new bourgeois class, appropriating — in collaboration with international capital — significant parts of the surplus.
All this is not solely political by nature; rather, it’s possible thanks to the absolute control that the elite exercise over political power.
(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published by Cubaencuentro.