(Click here for part I of this interview with Cuban intellectual Julio César Guanche)
The Cuban government often accuses the independent press on the island of being a “mercenary of the empire.” Beyond simplistic and cartoonish visions, the existence of plans to destabilize Cuba, with large U.S. funding for the fight for “democracy” and “human rights,” is a fact. We also know the serious problems that capitalism poses to democracy and its great media capacities to export its ideas. With the process of “perestroika” in the Soviet Union we were victims of a wide-ranging manipulation that ended up establishing the most savage capitalism. If the idea is to improve and democratize Cuban socialism, how can this trap be avoided?
That discussion has several aspects, here I list only a few.
The official policy of the United States handles a concept of democracy that naturalizes capitalism as its only possibility. However, democracy redistributes power, while capitalism concentrates it. Seen in this way, they are incompatible.
The incompatibility between democracy and capitalism has been argued not only by Marxists, but by a wide range of feminist, anti-racist, environmentalist and decolonial approaches. They find in patriarchy, racial hierarchy and the expulsion of production costs towards the environment, structural dynamics of reproduction of capitalism, incompatible with practices of reproduction of human life in conditions of equal freedom for all. For that logic, the opposite of capitalism would not be some kind of “collectivist” socialism, but democracy.
This is an example: if the global capitalist chains of production of goods respected in all their links the political, social, labor and environmental rights already recognized at an international level, the result would be an economic crash of unimaginable proportions.
Such “inefficiency,” generated by access to rights, finds an enemy in democracy conceived even in terms as accepted as “the right to have rights.” The record of U.S. governments against democratic experiences in the world, and specifically in Latin America (the Guatemala of Arbenz, the Nicaragua of the first Sandinismo, or the Chile of Allende) show the type of democracy that these interventions defend.
The purposes of the U.S. federal “pro-democracy” funds don’t lie when they say they defend democracy, but they defend a particular concept of it. If it is understood that democracy is something more than shielding the capitalist mode of production, and based on it regimenting social life, the criticisms of the purposes of these funds are understood.
The aspiration of a democratic republic is the self-determination of its community of citizens. It is incongruous to pose this possibility as a horizon, while accepting arbitrary interference from another State—in the Cuban case, specifically the United States—on the community of citizens itself.
This argument extends to the U.S. blockade, opposed to the Cuban demand for independence. In my opinion, you can choose between supporting the blockade and defending freedom, but you cannot defend both at the same time. Freedom is incompatible, at the very least, with arbitrary interference by third parties. National sovereignty is incompatible with any policy of unilateral intervention by third parties. In this, sovereignty must be defined in the face of an external policy with an imperialist profile and towards internal politics: the sovereign has to be equally external and internal.
However, we read defenses of this type of federal funds with the argument that they contribute in turn to combat the “illegitimacy of the Cuban system.” What is your opinion?
It is one thing to have a very severe diagnosis of the Cuban system and another is to naturalize any recourse to confront it. That all roads lead to Rome is a metaphor, not an imperative of political ethics. This is about commitments to the democratic and republican culture.
The commitment to Cuban sovereignty is an autotelic commitment: something that is done by itself, by its own merit and its own need. It doesn’t depend on the profile of the behavior of others. It responds to the political virtue of the autonomy of a person and to the thesis that “human beings are ends and not means.”
In contrast, “regime change” and blockade/embargo policies take human beings—here, Cubans—as means to their ends.
In simpler words: if your opponent does it wrong, it doesn’t improve you by doing it wrong. For a democratic culture, the legitimacy of the goal depends on legitimate means to achieve it. This is what Martí did: he defended a war of “republican methods” in anticipation of the development of the future Cuban republic. It is a fact that doing non-state press in Cuba involves serious problems, but naturalizing its right to exist with U.S. federal funding is a different matter.
And on the Cuban side, what are the problems you see in this matter?
The Cuban political system combats the existence of a huge and very diverse spectrum of non-state media, confuses partisan media with “public” media, controls public information to a very high degree, and punishes critical public expressions in various ways—from personal pressure to reaction and police repression.
The Cuban Constitution (2019) regulates only “freedom of the press,” without considering the right to communication or information within a framework of public service. The new text contains advances with respect to the 1976 Constitution, and its reforms. The current article 55 regulates that the “fundamental means of social communication, in any of its manifestations and supports, are the socialist property of all the people or of the political, social and mass organizations; and they cannot be the object of another type of ownership.”
This is why it authorizes the existence of non-fundamental means of communication, which could be, for example, community or cooperative media, and even small and medium-sized private communication enterprises. It is the same thing that is already allowed in the field of economics—no less strategic than that of communication—, for which exclusive state ownership of the fundamental means of production is regulated, and the rest is left open to other possibilities.
However, none of this appears today as possibilities to be developed as part of the national communication policy, in its practice. What is understood right now by socialist in this policy is to consider the partisan media as the legitimate means of public communication, and to promote non-state media that reproduce the profile of the former in full.
Rejecting U.S. federal funding for “pro-democracy” programs is necessary. At the same time, it is necessary to reject the way in which almost the entire Cuban spectrum of non-state media is covered, by the official discourse, as if they were “dependent on the Empire’s agenda.” It is also necessary to reject the existing silence on the impediments to developing journalism, including that of a public nature, in Cuba.
The commitment to the right to communication goes through the approach of the country’s security, but it is impossible to reduce it to that dimension, without renouncing the very existence of that right.
One of the favorite tools for the manipulation of our conscience in the years of “perestroika” was the famous phrase of British writer Evelyn Hall, sometimes attributed to Voltaire: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” After living capitalism in the post-Soviet space, we know that no one will “defend to the death” our right to express uncomfortable ideas for power. How to try to solve this manipulation?
A legitimate vision on this point would require creating material conditions for freedom of expression (to create and sustain communication media), offer guarantees to the right to communication and communicators, protect pluralism in communication as a public good and a right of citizens, distinguish state, partisan and governmental media, advance in the truly public character of those that are, prevent communication monopolies, regardless of their form of ownership, promote professional codes of ethics for all forms of communication, and establish an operating framework that includes transparency, the verifiability of information, accountability to the public, and the legal possibilities of financing.
I understand that what I say can be answered in this way: “It may be, but none of this exists. Then what to do here and now beyond writing a wish list?” And also: “Have not legitimate financing mechanisms been tried, such as crowdfunding, which have also been harassed?”
Faced with a situation that doesn’t seem to have a prompt way out, the honest thing is, first, to recognize the magnitude of the damage that this scenario of deficiencies causes to the rights of expression and information of the Cuban citizenry, and then to enhance the political imagination that explores citizenry avenues to develop the exercise of this right.
The fact is that without considering all of the above, reducing all discussion to “enemy financing” distorts the analysis of this problem. Left out, for example, is how it is possible and necessary to use the Cuban public budget, and open legal possibilities of financial support, whether they are their own, of international cooperation schemes, citizen financing mechanisms, and reader subscriptions, to give expression to national diversity in its own media.
In a non-peaceful context of political action, such as the Cuban one, several of the previous possibilities are not “neutral” by themselves, and some are susceptible to being mediated. But something must be done. It is a duty of the Republic to distribute the power to speak, and to give specific impulse to the visibility of the “weaker” voices (with less power and capacity for expression).
The right to expression and information has to be at the center of a political program that takes socialism seriously. If the Republic intends that the common good be a collective construction of its citizens, it must establish the rules of the game, and policies for the allocation of resources, which prevent the accumulation of the right to express themselves from dispossessing all others.
What are the context and the main citizen challenges in the Cuba of today within the extremely complex national and international scenario that we live in, which doesn’t seem to present us with prompt solutions?
First, Cuba is experiencing a scenario of various reforms. The economic reform is more visible, but there is also one within the political.
The 2019 Constitution establishes a path to reform that has legitimacy and problems. In favor, it has the debate after which it was approved—not exempt of conflicts—, but also with very restrictive regulations, such as Decree Law 370, or has postponed the appearance of others, such as the norm for the protection of constitutional rights and the new Family Code.
The economic reform also has an elaboration process that gives it legitimacy—it has been planned for a long time and agreed through many official documents—but it has also shown great delays, poor decisions and many problems to face crucial issues such as poverty and inequality.
That there is a verifiable course of reforms in the country says something about the Cuban “immobility” thesis, but it also shows a large number of uncertainties and serious questions about social, family and personal life in the country.
The “Cuban regime,” from the point of view of its institutional organization, is a political system that has more diversity than is usually recognized. To begin with, the State itself has a public administration system, with government structures, with business management systems, with security and police apparatuses, with territorial levels, which are expressed in common as the “revolutionary power,” but which in fact have differences in behavior, social integration and professional cultures.
Ignoring these differences produces visions of the Cuban State that are not very perceptive to understand how real policies work, and the range of consensus and dissent that they generate. Added to this is the existence of the Party—the Communist Party of Cuba, the only one—placed by the Constitution “above” the State and a set of Cuban institutions and social organizations.
In this way, seeing the Cuban civil service as a block—be it as a group of “revolutionaries who sacrifice themselves for the people,” or as a “band of corrupt people”—doesn’t seem to me the best way to understand what exists, where there are some and there are others.
Today’s Cuban society is diverse, and it doesn’t have a completely homogeneous state in front of it. This means something concrete that should be more taken into account: criticisms of a type of policy, and of a type of institutions, don’t in any way imply, for various social zones that are related to that State in several areas at the same time, the crisis of state legitimacy.
In this sense, such behavior is not very different from what happens in other political systems, which build “zones of legitimacy” that underpin the whole, beyond the dissonances generated by its most critical fields of operation.
On a cultural level, are there many changes in current Cuban society compared to the last decades?
The multiplicity of evaluative referents in Cuban society —associated with traditional militancies, such as political or religious— is shown today as a pluralized, variegated and contradictory field of demands based on different perspectives (class, gender, race, religion, ideology), with very diverse political affiliation.
Every belief and interest system seeks channels of expression. Except in fields such as the religious—which has more possibilities for action—, other political, social and cultural interests have few legitimate channels of circulation, which they may experience as injustice with respect to the possibility of representation.
The current Cuban scenario combines at least three areas: the re-politicization of the political, the politicization of the social, and the socialization of the political.
These areas can be translated as follows: 1) there are specifically political demands that go far beyond the institutional channel that the political system offers for their representation, 2) there are issues considered “social” that have translations in political agendas (race, gender, inequality, etc. ), and that have very few channels of their own for their deployment, 3) there is a plurality of paths and recourses within Cuban civil society to demand and produce politics, impossible to resolve in the state-civil society officially self-defined as “revolutionary.”
There is a hiatus between official discourse, social discourses and the best international references regarding the ability to represent and process social demands. The strategy of treating critics as enemies and narrowing the spectrum with whom one dialogues accordingly, has very limited political results, because it produces new enemies, generates more conflicts and accumulates discontent.
What do you think will happen after the events of November 26 and November 27?
For various reasons—personal, police action, internal differences, etc.—it is likely that both the San Isidro Movement (MSI) and the 27N will experience changes.
This would not mean the end of what began to be expressed in November. In fact, it is probable that new citizen projects that already exist, or those that start emerging, will further delimit their fields of demands, and the differences between the protagonists of last November will become more visible.
This type of emergency is also likely to increase in number.1 This is due to the existence of a “complex” context that combines the economic crisis, the profile of the reform, the COVID-19 scenario, the accumulated sanctions of the Trump administration, the time it will take to rechannel new relations with the Biden administration, and the list of demands from before and after November.
The current official strategy doesn’t seem to provide great answers to the political consequences that a scenario like that can produce.
How does the Cuban left react to these events?
In the field of the left, there are demands to draw a demarcation line with MSI contents. At the same time, some of these lefts will defend issues that this group also claimed (such as freedom of expression and creation) and will defend principles that must be defended by themselves because they are universal.
These are also autotelic principles, defensible even when there is proven guilt, as is the case with the right to personal integrity and due process. This fact is part of a greater commitment to the Law as the language of justice and to the principle of dignity in the treatment of human beings.
How do you think difference and dissent need to be treated today in Cuba?
It seems to me that they require another prism of analysis. Violating the constitutional framework doesn’t constitute a right. However, the existence of a constituted State makes it necessary to consider the issue of how to process the difference in a framework of rights and duties within the citizen-State relationship.
After being framed in an institutional regime, which took no less than twenty years to establish and another forty to deploy, the Revolution is also, in fact, a process transcribed in a State to whose constitutional letter it is bound.
If it incarnates in an institutional regime, as is the case, the Revolution has to be translated into rights, duties, policies, exercisable and enforceable. If it keeps its momentum alive, it can relaunch them politically as part of its project.
What it cannot do is excuse the obligations of the State in the name of the Revolution, and claim the legitimacy of its defense without dependency on citizen rights. It is not possible to do it without canceling the institutional order or without attempting against the catalog of rights to which the State and the Revolution are owed.
In this light, the type of state response that actors linked to the events of November have received should be analyzed, and what is the space the expression of the difference in Cuba has. That is, seriously considering how pluralism and difference are processed, how resistance is exercised against what is experienced as unfair, what is the legitimate space to dissent, and what right exists to participate in the public space.
U.S. interventionist policy continues, how to understand today the reaction to it?
The aggression against Cuba, its State and its society is real. Denying it, or minimizing it, falsifies that problem. Not knowing that Cuban economic, social and political strategies since 1959 have had to be designed under this pressure is unreal. Placing all national problems in the state denatures this dilemma.
The enormous asymmetry between the U.S. and Cuban systems generates a great imbalance of power and perspectives, an enormous imbalance in the consequences of the relations between the two governments for their respective nations. The United States accepted the Bay of Pigs defeat (1961), and continued on its way. However, a defeat, not only in the military but also in politics, for Cuba in relation to the U.S. government has much greater consequences for the life of the Cuban nation. Then, the perception that “closing the door” in advance to everything that could turn into defeat is relevant in several ways.
Faced with such a possibility, however remote it may be, large Cuban social sectors, and not only its political system, “entrench themselves” with their own reasons faced by what “losing everything” would mean. On the other hand, the notion of “besieged square” also becomes justification, which prevents legitimate democratic claims. Beyond uses and perceptions, it is a fact that the US government deploys broad-spectrum Cuba policies, with objectives that combine scales, such as “regime change,” along with ongoing projects of political destabilization and naturalization of its influence.
These objectives are inscribed in the nature of its system, in its political conceptions, in its needs for control of resources and its geopolitical priorities. They don’t change at all with the change of administrations. What appears as such “continuities” favors the hardening of the Cuban political system and gravitates on a scenario that thus becomes eternal under the epithet of “complex.”
But changes matter a lot in turn. The election of Joe Biden will bring several desirable courses for Cuba. Regarding that administration, Cuban priorities should be to redirect the process of normalization of relations and the weakening of the blockade—if its lifting were no longer possible—rather than producing internal enemies en masse, a task that occupies some national actors all the time today.
The possibility of modifying the Cuban scenario has as its subjects, then, not only those of the Cuban State, but also U.S. politics interested in being an internal actor in Cuban politics. It is a fact that the latter has not brought more “democracy” to Cuba for sixty years. It is not a slogan to affirm that the democratic needs of Cubans are a matter for Cubans.
In this context, how do you understand the relationship between revolution and counterrevolution?
The discussion “revolution vs. counterrevolution” requires, it seems to me, to be framed within a cultural framework that updates both notions according to the references of today’s Cuban society, and doesn’t mechanically assign them to the position that is maintained with respect to the State, since it doesn’t have a monopoly over revolutionary values.
To give an example: the public research policy that has produced several COVID-19 vaccine candidates, is a clear example of the revolutionary commitment of the Cuban State to support basic science, and the preponderance of health and human life above market logic. Supporting that state decision—even all of them—is not synonymous with being a revolutionary, disapproving of and being critical of state decisions is not synonymous with being counterrevolutionary. To think that the revolutionary only inhabits the State, brings to mind what Gramsci critically called “state rule.” Political action is a right. What is sovereign is the people, not the State.
You have written about the “friend-enemy” approach as contrary to the democratic needs of Cuban politics. Can you elaborate on it?
The problem of the “enemy” will remain an issue. The question is to prevent the notion of the “enemy” from becoming the logic of all political construction.
There are no democratic solutions in the “friend-enemy” logic, which understands politics as war. War is its prism to understand the notions of sovereign people, conflict resolution, the will and containment of power, the space of the adversary, the ethics of citizenry, the structure of social life and the constitutional and institutional dimensions. It is a structurally anti-pluralist vision.
What would be the democratic solutions?
Democratic solutions go through the citizen-state relationship. Socialist solutions go through the popular configuration that acquires power. They are both there. Its possibilities cannot be demarcated by the space provided by the “enemy,” but by the capacities produced by the dynamics between citizens, the popular and the State in favor of political equality and social equality for the national group.2
The defense of the revolution in Cuba, and of socialism, has to be the defense of democracy. It is an ambitious program in today’s world, amid U.S. belligerence and within a pro-elite controlled capitalist global system, but aspiring to less is already accepting too many defeats.
It is not enough to say that the Revolution exists because “it has come this far.” It is imperative to identify with what quality “it has come this far,” with what desire, with what moralities, with what defeats, with what virtues, with what type of victories, with what meaning for its actors, on what notion of the people it is based, and with what capacity it has today to relaunch and accept the demands of freedom and justice of current Cuban society.
1 This text was delivered when the events of last January 27 occurred in front of the Ministry of Culture. I have given my opinion on the saga of events that began in November 2020 here and here. (Note from Julio César Guanche of January 28, 2021).
2 I understand political equality as political freedom with the capacity for self-organization, contestation, creation and participation with respect to state decisions, with power of decision of citizens/workers on the processes that affect their lives; and social equality as the deployment of social justice, the fight for the elimination of inequality and poverty, and not some kind of repressive egalitarianism. (Note from Julio César Guanche)