In a recent article on U.S. foreign policy doctrine, one commentator claims that it should move from America First to Dissidents First. According to this logic, that would be the way not only to “revive its moral leadership,” but to rebuild its strategic foundation in the face of “powers that cannot be militarily overthrown,” such as Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela and…Cuba.
This New York Times opinion columnist maintains that “if it hadn’t been for Sakharov, Solyenitsyn, Sharansky, the USSR would still be there.” So if the Chinese want trade tariffs lowered, they must release their imprisoned dissidents; the same as the Iranians if they aspire to renegotiate the nuclear agreement; just like the Russians, if they want their entrepreneurs to not be blacklisted. Because all those imprisoned dissidents (including José Daniel Ferrer, from Cuba), are well worth it to “force our adversaries to choose between their material interest and their habits of repression,” which “would provide a margin of security and maneuver for the dissidents that we would like to see one day in power. When it comes to foreign policy doctrine, it is more than decent. It’s smart.”
I have quoted this recent text at length, not precisely from the National Enquirer or any libelous article, because it lends itself as “study material,” due to its peculiar features in addressing this controversial and under-researched subject.
A first feature is that it refers to dissenters as if they were a planetary race of rodents or insects. I wonder, with all due respect, what are the possible terms of comparison between the brilliant nuclear physicist and socialist political thinker Andrei Sakharov or the great narrator Alexander Solyenitsyn, both Nobel Prize laureates, and the mentioned dissidents? The second is the one that points to the political qualities attributed to these figures, and that would make it desirable “one day to see one of them in power.” I wonder if this journalist really knows them to be so sure.
Faced with these questions, however, one might object that it is not really about people, but about principles. In other words, of the civic principle and the legal norm that it grants to all citizens, subject to whether or not they are ethical models to follow, their integrity, or as a recent statement by Catholic clergy members and laypeople says, “of their positions and even their personal sins,” the right to express themselves and behave according to their conscience, beliefs, ideological preferences, moral ideas. This argument, however, does not differentiate actually existing dissent from another expression of dissent, such as that which can be exercised by any ordinary citizen. I wonder to what extent, politically speaking, this is exactly the case.
A second objection could point to, for example, the double standards with which dissidents are treated with respect to other expressions of opposition. If instead of being political dissidents, they were, say, clerics or religious leaders, would they be denied the right to preach doctrines that many might consider misogynistic, homophobic, conservative, or downright backward and barbaric? Should a commonly accepted moral or political norm prevail, over that religious minority’s right to express themselves and to organize? Would it be legally justified on the basis, say, of the “common good”? Who and how is it defined? To put it like my jurist friends, are these questions clearly, distinctly and exhaustively answered in the Constitution? Etc.
Recognizing the importance of established legal norms and their consistent application in the current constitutional framework, if it’s a question of characterizing the phenomenon of dissidence in its concrete social, cultural and political nature, it is necessary to analyze and discuss it from its own background and context, both national and international.
Heretics, converts, renegades?
One cannot speak of heretics or converts without referring to the tradition of the Catholic Church since the Middle Ages. The heretics had fundamental discrepancies with the interpretation of the doctrine of the faith, but not in the manner of the apostates who abandoned it, but when they proposed to refound it. Heretics like Luther, for example, not only reinterpreted the scriptures and reformed the liturgy, but also contributed decisively to transform Christianity, update it and enrich it, and although they were persecuted by the Holy Mother Church, almost always by fire, they ended up influencing spiritual renewal and the practice of the Catholic faith.
Instead, the converts were, or rather, are the ones who broke with their faith, abandoned it, and adopted another that opposed it. Among the traits of the convert, according to the psychology of religion, is radicalism. When, for example, Martí and Fermín Valdés Domínguez called upon their former comrade of class and ideals for having crossed over to Spanish fundamentalism, they did not call him a heretic, but an apostate, that is, a renegade. Carlos de Castro had not decided simply to move away from independence, but he entered the Volunteer Corps. In other words, he had gone from a radicalism that set out to build a freer and more just order, although still only imagined, to another that denied this along the whole line.
Socialism and left-wing culture, like religious faiths, have their own history. As I mentioned before, Isaac Deutscher, whose great work on Stalinism and the history of the USSR is little known among us, called heretics and defended those who dissented from verticalism, hyper-centralization, locked doctrinalism, and defended the right to think differently, renewing revolutionary thinking and mentalities. At the same time, in his essay “The Ex-Communist’s Conscience,” he would call renegades those who renounced all their previous ideas, and stood against them, with the same dogmatic and sectarian attitude of Stalinism.
In the case of Cuba, for example, it is not uncommon for many first-generation dissidents to come from hardline militancy, inspired by the Marxism-Leninism of the Soviet vulgate, and even the influential worker-and-farmer Maoism in Latin America in the 1960s. I refrain from giving names and events, not only for lack of space, but because it seems unnecessary, since I don’t intend to write a history of the subject here, but only to establish some elements of judgment. Suffice it to say that, historically, the first dissent began by confronting the Revolution from an orthodox left, and rather in tune with the USSR, and denouncing it for deviating from the correct path. Confusing it with the formidable armed counterrevolution that was launched to overthrow it, in alliance with the United States, and calling it the “first Cuban opposition,” as some have called it, is not only historically unjustified, but also mixes avocados and melons, just because they are green.
Since its emergence during the second half of the 1970s and early 1980s, at the height of the U.S. human rights policy, this first generation would be characterized by ideological heterogeneity and political fragmentation. The document that best illustrates these features is the letter from Carlos Alberto Montaner, an anti-Castroist of the old guard, where he recommended to those Cuban dissidents that they join the international organizations of social democracy, Christian democracy and liberalism. It is not uncommon for the efforts to unify that dissidence, which have lasted until today, have failed to overcome individual leaderships, or present a coherent political platform, beyond opposing the government and the system itself.
The second generation: more of the same?
A second generation was made up of those who, after emigrating, at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the Special Period, became dissidents. Artists and writers for the most part, these had been the prodigal children of real socialism and of the Marxist-Leninist dogmatism in which they were raised, whose culture and mental and intellectual habits they repudiated, for good reasons, when that Soviet socialism that was never able to exorcise itself from Stalinism was already beginning to creak. Before leaving the island, they had been linked to established institutions and their spaces, published in their magazines and publishing houses, and participated in cultural and academic dialogues. Some of those who emigrated, in the midst of that crisis of conscience, would convert to liberalism, others continued to call themselves “left-wing” (as they say in Spain), others joined what the poet Omar Pérez called “the industry of the international right,” others were assimilated into cultural and academic circles whose guideline was post-Soviet anti-communism. Once in emigration, that process of assimilation led some, one day after another, to an increasingly radical antagonism with their past.
Given their social composition and occupational profile, I will mention a couple of general features that would serve to characterize them. The first is the predominant artistic-literary approach to almost everything they write. This could be explained by the predominance of artists, writers, art critics or professors, essayists on cultural subjects (art and literature). But even when it comes to philosophers or historians of academic training, their vision of chapters of national culture, and of historical characters and events, is built based on deciphering symbolic discourses and codes, the sphere of ideas and their own architecture. This is not a defect or a virtue per se, of course; except when the object of analysis is politics and society. In the words of one of its most brilliant commentators, “if I were a political scientist, I would have no choice but to do that, die of boredom and study a state whose model has barely changed in half a century. But as a critic of culture, I can look at society, which is much richer and increasingly cubist.”
This reading of real Cuban society not only assumes the works of visual arts and theater as its polished anthropological mirrors, but also makes dispensable at a stroke the analyzes of sociology and political science that investigate it along the way. According to these views, the dynamics of this society and its tenacious interaction with real politics (inside and outside the “frozen state”) would be more perceptible through the Porno para Ricardo rock group and the performances of some visual artists than in the studies on social structure, and debates on economic and political changes that circulate in the academic circles and the Cuban public sphere.
A second feature of this thinking is bipolarity. Although the effect produced by a postmodern discourse dedicated to deciphering codes and hidden nuances, imperceptible to the majority of the commons, seems the opposite of black and white, in the end the tendency prevails to reduce the complex social reality to a certain construct of rather simple ideas. These tend to convert society and especially politics into a succession of ideological bipolarities, and the evils of socialism into a series of “regularities” reminiscent of those of Dialectical Materialism. Perhaps attributable to this basic intellectual rekindling, its anti-totalitarian discourse returns to a set of ideological and moral lessons, almost always the same, that recur in their interpretations of politics, which is limited to qualifying it as immobile, ritual, repetitive, in the antipodes of real society.
Although founded by ex-revolutionaries of the 1960s, the organ par excellence of this second generation of dissidents was the magazine Encuentro de la cultura cubana (1995-2009), which addressed especially literary and artistic issues, as well as historical and philosophical, and naturally, political. From its origin, the magazine declared itself open to all tendencies and at the same time opposed to the politics and ideology of the Revolution in power. It wasn’t necessary to be against the Cuban government to publish in Encuentro, although probably most of its authors were, and this bias was evident in its pages. Although the intellectual quality of a good part of its essay content on cultural and historical issues was unquestionable, bringing together authors from outside and within Cuba, if it was about political issues, their approaches had the unmistakable and visceral mark of opposition to everything linked to the Cuban government. This lens corresponded with an editorial policy that, contrary to its pluralistic and open vocation, claimed the exclusive right to represent Cuban culture “both on the island and in the diaspora,” and in fact disqualified as “authorized” all cultural and social science publications in Cuba, for being “monitored from the Plaza de la Revolución.”
However, when Encuentro stopped being published, it didn’t blame the harassment of the Cuban government, but rather that it had run out of funding from its sponsors. If it was able to close its last issue proclaiming that it had been “an initiative based on democratic debate and respect for the other and not on systematic disqualification and confrontation,” the publications that would come later would move away from both the profile and the political scope it had come to have.
As can be seen from its origin, this post-Soviet intellectual dissidence did not come from either the hardline counterrevolution or the first generation of dissidents. To what extent could their genetic code then be identified in the third generation? To what extent are they mentors of the one represented by the current anti-government media, and the political groups that emerge in the context of the ongoing transition? What is the difference between them?
To answer or just get an idea about these questions, internet access, the legion of opinions and tough confrontations that are taking place right now in the media and on the networks are not enough. Paradoxically, this territory contains more dark areas, unanswered problems and confused ideas than critical and balanced reflections.
How do these dissidents, their political projection and actions, differ from the critical dissent expressed by artists and intellectuals recognized by Cuban institutions, and which would be called “authorized,” such as Fernando Pérez, Carlos Varela, Leonardo Padura, Aurelio Alonso, Carlos Celdrán? What characterizes the dissidents of this third wave—their youth, their ability to convene, their willingness to dialogue, the merit of their work, their effective management of the networks, their commitment to national culture and professional journalism? What are their relations with foreign governments and anti-communist organizations? Is it just the source of their funding, or what they do with those funds, or resources of power that go beyond money? Do they follow instructions or are they aligned with the objectives of those governments? Are they trying to attract their sponsorship, the interests and objectives of those states, and play with the official Cuban interest in relations with them, to pressure them to grant them a space that is not only for freedom of expression and association, but of political belligerence? Do they want to become the sponsored people of the new U.S. administration, its allies, in order to gain a space for freedom of information and opinion? Does their degree of commitment to the Cuban nation and their criticism of the ills it suffers include the United States’ Cuba policy?
Finally, how adapted to the sense of the historical moment and to what extent is the way in which the Cuban government and its media deal with this dissidence effective, in political terms? To return to our initial quote, what would be, in the particular case of this Cuban government, the foreseeable political effect of a U.S. Dissidents First policy? What impact would it have on the national climate, on the road to the 8th Congress of the Communist Party in just ten weeks, and beyond? Approaching this landscape through Facebook, tweets or bugle blasts can only help cloud this.