The Rise and Fall of a Cuban Think Tank

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

Havana Balconies. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, March 27 — Although the issue has been dealt with many times (there are two books referring to it, one by the Italian writer Mauricio Giuliano and the other by two Cubans, Gerardo Gonzalez and Alberto Alvarez), I think that it is worthwhile to discuss the significance of the dramatic end in 1996 of the “Centro de Estudios sobre America” (the Center for American Studies, or CEA).

We are now marking 15 years since that repressive act which spelled the end to the boldest and most competent center for social research that existed in Cuba after 1959.  The CEA functioned under the auspices of the Communist Party, where it was protected by Manuel Piñeiro.  For a long time it carried out its task of researching Latin America and the United States, and organizing exchanges with academia in the hemisphere.

The researchers prepared reports on the countries that they studied — these were actually produced and published as articles and books — which were read by senior-level officials, generally with little interest.

The institution also organized academic conferences in which the Americas Department (AD) always introduced guests sharing their particular interests, as well as many others of greater academic interest but less political appeal.  At any time it might happen that some researcher would be given the task of making some report or document for use by the Cuban leadership.

When a researcher was required to engage in some longer-term activity specifically for AD, they would usually be transferred out of the institution.  In this sense Manuel Piñeiro had the ability to maintain the academic profile of the institution removed from all the hustle and bustle, such as that of the diligent young people working at Linea Avenue and A Street (with whom any professional contact was absolutely prohibited).

Another precaution he took was to prevent the development of relationships with academics from the East European bloc, not only because of the political implications that this had, but also because the only way to establish a stable relationship with Latin American academia was to do it without the embrace of our Soviet siblings.  It was a very pragmatic political safeguard, but one that had the virtue of not contaminating the young researchers at the institution with Marxist-Leninist dogma.

Engagement behind ‘reification’

Although in its original profile the CEA achieved important contacts with academia throughout the Americas, its real relevance was produced starting in 1986, when some researchers took on Fidel Castro’s invitation to seriously think and debate about the future of Cuba within the framework of the “Rectification” campaign.

Starting then, studies on Cuba were intensified and the CEA’s journal, Cuadernos de Nuestra America, began to reflect this new perspective.  This demanded economic reform aimed at decentralization and the market but directed toward elements involving the creation of an efficient economy within the socialist system, the expanding of spaces for democratic participation within the political system, greater political and administrative decentralization, a competitive electoral system and greater social autonomy in general.

The old presidential office at the Museum of the Revolution. Photo: Rafique

CEA organized events with a level of debate unusually high for the country, and ones from which sprouted books that are still remembered today.  It participated in state technical commissions; it related to emerging community movements and with municipal leaders; and when its members were invited to give presentations and participate in university forums, the halls usually turned out to be too small to accommodate all the listeners.  Finally, many high-level officials (right now those who come to mind are Roberto Robaina, Pedro Ross, Armando Hart, Abel Prieto, Jose Ramon Balaguer and Ricardo Alarcon) visited the center and were each given their shower of flexibility in an epoch when being flexible was politically sexy.

Of course there was a price to pay for having the opportunity to design these approaches, to debate them in the interior of society and to publish them.  That price was to accept three very precise limits, with exceeding them meaning to sink into the limbo of invisibility.  These three were: the one-party state, Fidel Castro’s leadership and the hard line towards the United States.  It’s possible that some of the researchers considered these to have been healthy limits, while others must have believed they amounted to an unpleasant price but were minor.  However, I believe that we were all convinced that what was important was to take advantage of the marginal space for action to contribute to creating public opinion; to impact on the intellectual sectors, officials and social activists; and with all of this to advance the society and politics.

We also knew how to take advantage of another benefit: the institution’s inclusion within the Cuban Communist Party structure.  This protected us from intimate enemies, and at the same time it gave us a space for action that we occupied with the blessings of those who enjoyed hearing us say what they would have liked to have been able to say.

But by the ‘90s it had become an illusion; the CEA really only survived thanks to the daze of the political class confronted with the immense crisis of the 1990s, which it itself had created.  There were no politics of opening or openness, but a sort of tolerance by omission for politics, and that’s why nothing was safe.  We were not organic to anyone, and for four years — after the dismissal of Piñeiro — nor did we have a godfather.

Under attack

In 1992 Carlos Aldana tried to dissolve the institution.  But, intoxicated with political narcissism, he wanted to do it elegantly; therefore he organized several cloy meetings in which he revealed to us how the world really was and reason we were explaining it poorly.  But suddenly he was ousted, which was what saved our lives for four years – the best four years.  Because of all this, at the beginning of every year we would go through several weeks of suspecting that something definitive was being plotted.

Our fears increased after Fidel Castro’s speech in July 1995, when he clearly announced the end of the weak reform campaign and the muted echoes of opening from the Fourth Congress of the PCC.  We all began packing our bags until in February 1996 we received a letter from Jose Ramon Balaguer congratulating the CEA on behalf of the party leadership for its meritorious scientific work and approving almost all the projects proposed for 1996.

The happiness lasted only a few days.  On March 9 (the same day that we concluded an intense workshop on how to transform self-employment for pure survival into autonomous spaces within the popular economy), we learned of the prohibition on all research, study and publications on Cuba by CEA.  In addition, a new director was appointed (though he had been only a fourth level functionary, he had academic aspirations and had been able to survive the ouster of Carlos Aldana — his old boss — thanks to his insignificance).

On March 27, without prior warning, Raul Castro — in his habitual role as the Doberman of the system — read a report on television from the fifth plenary of the Central Committee of the PCC describing the CEA as a fifth column of imperialism in the service of the CIA.  Suddenly all the political doors closed, and the same leaders who had made use of the works by CEA either joined in the repression or simply hid in persistent silence.  Though we obtained some personal support from individual Cubans and foreigners, and from institutions involved in international and academic cooperation (which proved vital for putting brakes on the repression), on the internal plane we were left isolated.

Holding firm

I believe that in what happened back then — and not in its lucid research — there rests the principal message that the CEA passed on to Cuban intellectuals: that it was possible to resist and counteract the offensive of the party bureaucracy.  For several months all of the researchers and workers at CEA resisted the pressures/threats that we produce a “self-criticism” that recognized “the errors committed.”

Store in eastern Cuba. Photo: Caridad

The board of directors, of which I was part, held several meetings with officials from the Ideological Department of the PCC (led by a colonel from military intelligence who seemed to have been created in Lombroso’s laboratory) and with Political Bureau member Jose Ramon Balaguer.  One by one the accusations leveled against us were clearly demonstrated to have no foundations, yet time and time again they repeated the same abusive slander while shielded by the impunity of absolute power.

As next to the last step they tried individual meetings with each member of the institution, but no one gave in under the pressure.  Finally a general meeting was held with all the workers of the institution, research-related or not, in which each person was asked to speak and give their opinion.  Again, no one backed down.

Nor did we back down when Raul Castro sent a message in which he apologized and requested everyone to cooperate to solve the problem.  Our answer was that if the accusation had been made in public, the sole acceptable apology would have to be public.

In the conclusion of the case, the bureaucrats of the Central Committee of the PCC limited themselves to reading the same report that they had presented the first day, though it had been thoroughly picked apart by the participants in the meetings.  They did however add a single sentence that recognized that CEA had made “some academic achievements.”

The CEA was then dismantled and in its place an institution was set up bearing the same name but without the sparkle.  It finally succumbed to the “updating of the (economic) model.”  Other emerging institutions particularly related to Cuban civil society were also dismantled, as in the case of Habitat-Cuba, but in these cases the repressors took special care in doing it with silk gloves.  Academic debate was also repressed, though it couldn’t be carried to the extremes of the 1980s.

The former members of CEA have pursued successful professional careers in other places and in accordance with their academic interests and talents, some in Cuba and other abroad, some in important international organizations and others as émigrés/exiles.  Some have abandoned academic activity and others persist in it, trying to do the best thing possible in agreement with their personal convictions and priorities.  I believe that all of us played a small role in history and that we did it well.

There is one sole person who is no longer among us: Hugo Azcuy.  He died in the first days of that tragic process, from a cardiac attack on a weakened heart that for the third time in his life had been subjected to a repressive process for the exercise of thinking freely and saying what he thought.

In 1970 Azcuy was part of Pensamiento Critico (Critical Thought), also dismantled by the current general/president, and a few years later he was removed from his teaching position at the University of Havana for his critical opinions.  They say that his informant (a lawyer who later posed as a free thinker until Hugo’s recent death) knelt down in front of him and begged for forgiveness.  If that’s true, it speaks well of the informant if it is possible to do so under some circumstance.  The band of repressor agents who led to Hugo’s death should do the same thing – as should Raul Castro himself.

Our role is to continue demanding this.

2 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of a Cuban Think Tank

  • Haroldo, I was not familiar with your personal history. After reading this article I also look and found this entry for you on wikipedia for you

    I find your writing very stimulating and interesting. Many of your analysis are right on the point. I think it has a lot to do we experiencing the Cuban system on your own flesh and blood that gives you that special six sense to be able to talk about it.

  • Congratulations! Never back down!

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