The Cuban New Left: Purist and Alone?

Harold Dilla Alfonso* (photos: Caridad)

HAVANA TIMES — A few weeks ago, some members of the Observatorio Critico (Critical Observatory, or OC), a group of intellectuals and activists who are a part of what has been called the “Cuban new left,” turned their attention to the “Call for a Better and Possible Cuba” (Llamamiento por una Cuba Mejor y Posible), which was signed by several hundred Cuban emigrants and residents on the island.

Some OC members signed it, considering it to be a good way to validate their positions and to build bridges with other people and groups who — while not sharing their ideology — do agree with certain concrete steps for a better future for the nation.

I think this concurrence was a very interesting qualitative aspect of this document, one that speaks to the political maturity of the signatories. I think it honored all of us.

Others didn’t sign it. They believe (in the case of at least two articles I read that were signed by Karel Negrete and Rogelio Diaz) that it is a kind of liberal democratic document from which the “alternative left” (as the OC is also referred as) must distance itself if it wants to be just that – alternative.

Instead of issues such as multi-partyism or the exercise of civil liberties, these two writers from the OC reminded us that among the left is the goal of moving towards the organization of the rank-and-file and the grass roots, wherever they might be, and to do all that from an anti-capitalist perspective.

Of course I respect their reasons, and the fact that they didn’t sign the appeal isn’t particularly relevant. This is a document that deals with a particular situation and its acceptance or rejection doesn’t mean the end of the galaxy.

I think the document was something positive given the range of positions it encompassed — from neo-liberals to socialists —  as it spoke of the political evolution of an entire segment of transnational Cuban society.

I think it would have been interesting for the OC as a network to have signed this document of consensus, especially because if the appeal leaned in any one direction it was precisely to the left. Perhaps this was because most of its promoters were of that inclination, and obviously it leaned in that direction because no one objected. But again, it was a simple document, not the “last Coca Cola in the desert.” Certainly there will be other opportunities for understanding and misunderstanding.

What really concerns me is the kind of argument used by the writers and the cost that this sort of puritanical sectarian position can have, given how the left has been historically prodigal, while leaving behind nothing but the rubble of its testimonies of defeat.

I must make it clear that if I’m dwelling on this this point, it’s simply because I feel that both the emergence of a so-called “new left in Cuba” and the existence of the Critical Observatory are two very important facts in the complex present of our transnational society.

Frankly, I think that at this stage of the game, to continue believing that liberalism is a viral compound as deadly as Ebola is a fatal political mistake. Democracy is a complex entity that involves many things, many of them inherent in the liberal creed: free and competitive elections, transparency, participation, freedom and rights, political pluralism, etc.

According to one’s doctrinal preferences, one component or another can be emphasized, hence from these sprout different formats of democracy. But to omit liberal values as transversal ingredients is to denaturalize democracy.

To the most obfuscated anti-capitalists, it’s worth reminding that liberalism is a sociopolitical construct that preceded capitalism itself, and that it began to take shape in those early times when the Greeks began to separate positivist morality from positivist politics, the people from the legislature, and the individual from the community.

Marx himself was a product of that evolution, and often took a seriously liberal position, such as when he proclaimed that the realization of all depended on the realization of each individual – and not vice versa, as was desired by the not so illustrious constructors of “real socialism.”

Without democracy there’s no alternative that functions. It’s really encouraging that one of the OC writers advocates “working directly in the neighborhood and in the community, as well as advocating power consciousness among all citizens.”

I too think this is important. It’s only that my personal experience suggests to me that what today is referred to as “empowerment” cannot be achieved in the long term outside of a democratic system.

Twenty years ago I tried to work “directly in the neighborhood,” and with a great team, and I think we did very well. Between 1990 and 1996 we established links and shared community experiences related to self-management and empowerment in places like Atares, Santa Fe, Condado and Libertad, while at the same time working with progressive and reform-minded municipal leaders.

Significant steps were taken, and tangentially we wrote several articles and a couple books that are still read on the island today, at least something more than what is cited. We conducted several workshops on the topics of self-management that were attended by community leaders, social activists, academics and municipal authorities.

No less important were the contacts between our people and Central American counterparts who could show the value of autonomy.

But in 1996, when there came the counter-offensive by the Political Bureau of the PCC, which decimated the Center for American Studies, the first thing they did was to totally shut down those studies and to sever those ties. Those organizations were then sterilized, split up or converted into auxiliary mechanisms of the respective municipal apparatuses.

There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, simply because there were no spaces dedicated to rights and freedoms – whether bourgeois, proletarian, liberal or anarcho-syndicalists, but sufficient to ensure social autonomy.

The problem of democracy in Cuba — from the rights and freedoms of citizens, to political pluralism as an organizing principle of the system, to democratic renewal through free and autonomous participation of society — cannot be placed on a waiting list. Staring closely at utopia for too long isn’t the best way to look at the thorny realities that we have to solve.

No rhetoric about “Cuban social movements” or the “conscious forces of the working classes” can serve as a pretext for continuing to imagine that we’re doing something while actually doing nothing other than leaving a testimony of good intentions.

Similarly, no statement of solidarity with the global anti-capitalist struggles legitimizes the silence called for by a part of our new left with respect to the systematic repression suffered by fellow citizens who want to exercise their political rights in the land of their birth. It doesn’t matter whether those who are repressed are social democrats, pro-capitalist neo-liberals or Christian Democrats: they all have rights and these are being denied. As long as they don’t have them, no one does.

Capitalist restoration in Cuba is inevitable. It is not possible to regenerate socialism where it doesn’t exist. Nor is it possible to believe that Cuban society — exhausted and tired of inflated goals — is in any condition to carry out epic feats.

The question is whether Cuban society will have to witness the restoration of capitalism with its hands tied, or if — instead — there will be room for social, labor, feminist, environmental, racial, regional, and other struggles in defense of the republican and revolutionary social achievements and for the establishment of new norms of entrepreneurial social responsibility and the functioning of markets.

All this inevitably involves the establishment of a democratic order and liberal principles that protect the autonomy of society. If at the end of this story we succeed in establishing a social-democratic order in Cuba, I think we will have achieved much more than what lofty rhetoric holds.

I know this last point must sound like a terrible betrayal. I know that social democracy has backed peddled so much that at this point I don’t know if it remembers how to move forward. But I also know that it has made historic achievements in the redistribution of income through taxation, in the handling of corporatist regimes and establishing states that are governed by the law and that have strong social content.

It didn’t do what it said it would do, but I think it did better than the other left that was led by the experiences under the so-called “socialism” of the Soviet Union. The contrast was evident between Willy Brandt and Erich Honecker.

It’s time for the Cuban new left to advance without the shrouds of remorsefulness, dogmas, doctrinal rigidities or slogans in which no one is interested and that only serve to promote our masturbatory recreation.

Let’s preserve utopias as references, but let’s also look at what’s happening on the corner. To want to hoist utopia above and beyond reality is a sure sign of defeat for the left. It means the left heading out alone, very alone, and by virtue of its triviality, I would say completely alone.
(*) Originally published in Spanish by

10 thoughts on “The Cuban New Left: Purist and Alone?

  • I absolutely do mean it, Griffin, when I state that a modern cooperative, state co-ownership form of socialism would be based on democracy and human rights. You see, we believe that, in order to have true democracy and human rights, there first must be economic democracy.

    Economic democracy means free enterprise, and free enterprise can only exist if those who do the work of society–whether small business owners or cooperative workers–own the enterprises through which they work.

    Marxian state monopoly socialism was a perversion of the original socialist movement. Its purpose was to penetrate into the originally cooperative movement and destroy it from within–and it has done a catastrophic wrecking job!

    It also smuggled the Utopian dream of jumping directly to a classless society without private property into the workers’ cooperative socialist movement. Unfortunately, most people, probably including yourself, still believe that socialism means government ownership of things productive.

    Now however the tide is turning. State monopoly socialism has proved unworkable, and now the theoretical task is to discard the bogus Marxian ideology that foisted it onto the transformationary movement.

    Whatever you might think, Griffin, the cooperative republic we advocate, in Cuba, the US, and in all countries, can win and ensure democracy, human rights and prosperity for all non-parasitical citizens.

  • Grady,

    I do trust that you mean it when you say your scheme includes democracy and human rights, which are not included in Fascism or in Marxist dictatorships like Cuba.

    However, I am deeply skeptical of any scheme that aims to build a perfect society. Perfection is never possible. The pursuit of utopia leads inevitably to the Gulag, the Killing Fields, the Holomodor or to Auschwits.

    That is why I prefer liberal democracy. It’s not perfect, far from it. But it is optimal, responsive to human needs and does not murder it’s citizens in pursuit of utopia.

  • Michael, could you read the 2012 book “Hope for the Future: Foundations of the Cooperative Republic Movement,” by Grady Ross Daugherty (from east-Santa Monica)?

  • Thanks, Paul. What I keep hoping for is a re-grouping of the Left in the US and Canada, et cetera, around a modern cooperative, state co-ownership maximum program of socialism.

    If there is no such regrouping, and if the Left continues to chase its own tail for another couple of decades, it’s all over for us and for civilization. Cheers.

  • Griffin, it’s fairly certain that you do not understand fully what fascism is. That’s okay, but I do wish you would not confuse it with a “cooperative, state co-ownership form of socialism.” This form is, as yet, a theoretical construct. No country has ever put it to the test.

    More relevant to your comment, this new, theoretical form of socialism is not at all like the post-Mao reforms in China. The Chinese basically–as I understand it–allowed both domestic and foreign capitalists to have at their half-billion workers who were grossly under-utilized, so long as the country was being catapulted out of their historic isolation and lack of development. This whole process has brought about both positive and negative results, but the possibility remains that it might all come crashing down, due to one factor or another.

    You may be correct, Griffin, in what you say about what what the Cuban government is planning to do with Cuba (although Fernando Ravsberg has told us in an HT article reprint that it’s going to be more like the Vietnam model). If they do indeed opt for the Chinese model, it will be an enormous disappointment for me, and for the socialist cooperative republican movement. All I can do is speak the truth as I see it, and hope for the best.

  • And today we experience the destruction of democracy by neoliberal forces. Could you read the book “Postdemocracy” by Colin Crouch?

    Saludos cordiales, Michael, from (east-)Germany

  • Grady,

    This “cooperative, state co-ownership form of socialism” you keep talking about has been tried before, usually under its original name: Fascism. This is the system China moved to after the demise of Maoism. Raul Castro has made it clear that’s the direction he plans to take Cuba and Chinese advisers are already working with Cuban officials crafting the plans. If this plan goes through, the Cuban people can look forward to a future as slaves of the state-owned corporations, such as GAESA, in partnership with foreign tourism & mining corporations. Sadly, democracy won’t be part of the plan.

    Is this the future the revolution fought for?

  • Great points Grady.

    I’d only hope that with more democratic openings, people themselves (along with the non-authoritarian elements of the PCC) will be able to introduce the changes you’re talking about.

  • As might be expected, Haroldo, I cannot agree with the statement, “Capitalist restoration in Cuba is inevitable.”

    I believe it would be more accurate to say that the fall of state monopoly socialism in Cuba is inevitable. This would be because it is unnatural and is, especially in the long term, unworkable and self-destructive.

    This does not mean however that state monopolism will inevitably be replaced by capitalist state power. There is still the possibility that the PCC will come to its senses, jettison the Marxian state monopoly stupidity, and opt for a modern cooperative, state co-ownership form of socialism. Only history will tell.

  • A brave and thoughful essay. While I completely disagree that any further energy expended toward reforming the socialist character of the economy in Cuba is worthwhile, as a pluralist, I heartily support the inclusion of these ideas in a democratic Cuba. Even as the debate in my own country seems to fear any idea that presents a whiff of socialism, Cuba is in an ideal place to open up the discussion to come what may with the end result being what will work best for the Cuban people. But alas, if the name-calling and close-mindedness as exhibited many times by commentors to this site indicates, I fear only more of the same for Cuba. Whether it is the new left or the annexationist right, everyone deserves a seat at the table in the new Cuba. Ojala!

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