Haroldo Dilla Alfonso
HAVANA TIMES — Raul Castro is not likely to go down in history as a daring and innovative politician. He may in fact be remembered as one of the most fainthearted leaders ever to govern Cuba. The general and his retinue of octogenarian and fiftyish officials say they are making “slow but sure” progress, as though they had all of the time in the world to deliver the glass of milk promised every Cuban child, as though every delay didn’t have a huge impact on our society.
Every delay, in fact, prompts pessimism, deception, annoyance and many other negative feelings among observers, converging into a familiar idea: with the exception of a few, superficial changes, no significant transformations are taking place in Cuba.
That, however, is not my opinion. Though I acknowledge the highly capricious nature of Cuba’s political class, I do believe there have been concrete changes and that some are highly relevant and positive. In contrast to the system’s apologists – the soft, the hard-liners and the semi-critical – I also believe that a good many of these changes are a sort of unplanned “collateral damage,” and that a no less significant number of these are the result of the elite’s inability to govern the way it could two decades ago.
About 12 years ago, 75 dissidents were given long prison terms for writing critical articles in the foreign press. Today, they continue to do so and even have an online newspaper. Generally speaking, their private activities are tolerated, or harassed only minimally (at least when we compare the situation to the repressive brutality of years past).
As an example, the migratory reform is a relevant and positive change. It is insufficient, failing to recognize a number of civil rights, excluding the émigré community and several other things. It is also true that, in the short term, it serves to take social pressure off the regime and to increase its dividends. But it is also unquestionable that it favors family ties and helps Cubans come into contact with realities they have only been exposed to through caricatures published by Granma. The authorization of small private businesses is another incomplete measure, but I consider it vital that Cuban society begin to become acquainted with other forms of property, that the market should become a means of assigning value and that 20% of Cuban workers should no longer be State employees.
As I see it, the most important thing is that these measures – and others we could mention – point towards the strengthening of two social virtues that totalitarianism deprived Cubans of: diversity and autonomy. As a result of its own social and cultural sophistication and of the new circumstances created, the island’s society is today more varied and autonomous than it has ever been since the second half of the 1960s. For this same reason, and because the State is losing its capacity to control every aspect of society, Cuban society is freer today than it was twenty years ago – and not because the revolutionary leadership (the anti-democratic clique par excellence) wants it this way, but because it can no longer do things the way it used to.
About 12 years ago, 75 dissidents were given long prison terms for writing critical articles in the foreign press. Today, they continue to do so and even have an online newspaper. Generally speaking, their private activities are tolerated, or harassed only minimally (at least when we compare the situation to the repressive brutality of years past). Only their public presence is fiercely attacked, and less severely than in the past (through express detentions that last a few hours). This does not make the Cuban government noble or speak very highly of its legal structures, but we must acknowledge that the situation favors the development of an anti-establishment movement more than it did in the past.
The Cuban State is no longer capable of asking every citizen for their soul, and contents itself with requesting obedience. The totalitarian regime that, during the “Soviet” era, was sustained by the State’s monopoly over the economy, politics and ideology, today retreats to a less ambitious position…
Something similar is happening in the sector that I refer to as the system’s “critical accompaniment.” When the Catholic leadership dismantled the journal Espacio Laical (“Secular Space”), its main proponents sought other forms of religious support to found Cuba Posible (“A Possible Cuba”), a project that seeks to encourage debate among intellectuals and activists who harbor critical perspectives that would have met with a severe government response not long ago. The new journal is tolerated, as other small spaces for popular participation are tolerated.
To get a sense of the changes, suffice it to compare this situation with what happened in 1996 at the Center for American Studies and later with other autonomous projects, such as Habitat Cuba. If the system’s critical companions had declared they were a “loyal opposition” in the year 2000 (as they do today, wherever they can), they would have found themselves in the bitter situation of being dubbed the opposition plain and simple, or of exhausting whatever loyalty they had left in exercises in political obsequiousness.
The Cuban State is no longer capable of asking every citizen for their soul, and contents itself with requesting obedience. The totalitarian regime that, during the “Soviet” era, was sustained by the State’s monopoly over the economy, politics and ideology, today retreats to a less ambitious position and is forced to share spaces with the Catholic Church and the market, formally, and with society in general, informally.
In the now distant 90s, I heard Jorge Dominguez say that we were witnessing the transition from a totalitarian to an authoritarian regime, and it struck me as an exaggeration. But Dominguez was right and that transition is today more evident than it was at the time – and it will become even more so as social diversity and autonomy gain more and more ground.
That is why I consider positive developments the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States, the lifting of the blockade/embargo and the complete normalization of relations. Not because I believe Cuba’s governing elite is going to liberalize the country politically of its own will (it won’t), but because the road to liberalization inevitably leads to the intensification of contradictions, the maturation of explicit forms of social diversity and autonomy and to broadening those spaces that the political class can no longer control or can control only marginally.
In short, it is true that the walls of government repression and intolerance still stand – but it is also true they now have holes in them, and, as I see it, the holes are sometimes more important than the wall itself.