The future of Cuban society raises different hypotheses about what course to follow.
The J11 poses a before and an after in many fields, but some of its origins and causes are still valid today amid growing social complexity.
If variables, trends, and overviews are taken into account, possible scenarios and various analysis perspectives can be seen. Understand the characteristics of current Cuban society, the essence of its political model, how it behaves demographically, what its symbolic production is like, how diverse it is in its reality, how ideology is disputed, as well as understanding that there is a struggle over the concepts themselves and categories that are used in political, economic and philosophical language to explain Cuban socialism, and “socialism” itself, continue to be demands and urgencies of today.
Questions about the Cuban political system and State are questions that at the same time try to trace the transformations that have taken place over decades in relations between this State and civil society, about the shrinking or lengthening of the state apparatus in the outlines of economic and political life, and what is the best way to channel and manage the demands and needs of Cuban society in general and of its people specifically.
The series Cuban Voices, with the idea of continuing to contribute to Cuba’s current debate, is talking today with Juan Valdés Paz, sociologist, member of the editorial board of the Pensamiento Crítico magazine and for two decades a member of the Center for Studies on the Americas. He received the National Prize for Social Sciences for his life’s work. Among his books, La Transición Socialista en Cuba (1993); Procesos Agrarios en Cuba, 1959-1995 (1997); El proceso de organización agraria en Cuba. 1959-2007 (2009); El espacio y el límite. Ensayos sobre el sistema político cubano (2010); and the two volumes of La evolución del poder en la Revolución Cubana (2018), can be consulted.
For some time, Cuban society has been transformed socially and economically, and demands of various kinds are seen by various sectors. Is the Cuban State capable of absorbing and managing these demands?
I would like to begin by clarifying the question, which more exactly, in the Cuban case, should refer to the political system — made up of sets of political, state, and civil institutions — and its capacities. So I will refer to the State, a subsystem of that, made up in turn by various institutions in charge of the functions: a) legislative; b) the production, implementation and control of public policies; c) public administration of these policies; d) the external and internal security of national society; e) the administration of justice; etc.
The question about the capacities of the State would refer to all these functions, with different answers.
On the other hand, and as can be seen, let us say that no State has the capacity to absorb and manage all the demands that its respective societies pose to it, although its basic needs do; and the capacity it has and the number of satisfactions it can give is a temporary variable affected by various conditions, some of which it can control and others it cannot.
Returning to the Cuban scenario of the question, I would say that the Cuban State has managed, with variations over time, particularly in the first three decades of the revolutionary period, to gradually satisfy, in each sphere of the State, a large part of the demands of society, as well as satisfying the basic needs of the great majority, through an offer of public goods and a free and universal social policy.
As is known, trade relations with the socialist camp in general and the USSR in particular made it possible to sustain this offer and ensured a certain rate of development. The collapse of Eastern European socialism impacted the country severely, giving rise to a “special period” from which it managed to recover only in part.
This raised the need, present until today, to initiate a period of reforms aimed at establishing a new socialist economic model; a rule of law; and a new stage in its democratic development. The delay in these reforms, the resistance of leaders and officials from all spheres to implement them, as well as the worsening of the internal scenario caused by the U.S. offensive of “regime change” and the COVID-19 pandemic, has affected the capacities of the State and the incipient private sector, to sustain its offer of public and cultural goods; of greater democratic development; citizen security; and a higher standard of living for the population.
The capabilities of the Cuban State have certainly not only been restricted by the current scenario but also by other more structural conditions, of which I want to highlight at least three: a) the model of State socialism, which makes this institution an absolute power in all social systems; b) a design of the State, characterized by the centralization of attributions and resources, the leadership’s verticalism, the bureaucratization of its functions, the manifestations of corruption; and c) very low democratic control over its performance.
From the foregoing, it can be deduced that the Cuban State retains a potential to develop its capacities, by overcoming its design and management deficiencies. Numerous and transitory campaigns — anti-bureaucracy, against corruption, more representative, etc. — have been promoted without lasting effects and, above all, without influencing its institutional design.
The implementation of the new Constitution of the Republic and its complementary laws seem to be an extraordinary opportunity to overcome some of these limitations. In this regard, the proposals for effective territorialization or municipalization of the functions of the political and civil systems take on special importance.
What is your opinion on the intensification of sanctions against Cuba that took place during the Trump administration in the midst of this crisis aggravated by the pandemic and its consequences for the country?
The U.S. economic, commercial and financial blockade on Cuba, conceived in 1960 and formalized in 1962, has its own history, characterized by its intensification over time, as part of political strategies in which its geopolitical, more general, interests are contained; and its immediate political objectives, such as the subversion of the regime or its unviability. The impacts of the blockade have marked Cuban society in its evolution for more than six decades. Cuban society has had to absorb such impacts, survive them, compensate for them, and sustain its development.
Specialists have characterized the blockade in different ways: as an element of pressure on the behavior of the Cuban State and government; as a resource for an unconventional war; and eventually, as a weapon in a conventional war.
But the blockade acquires a new meaning as of the second term of the Obama administration, once the Cuban government declares and promotes a program of economic and political reforms to its socialist model. Obama admits the failure of the strategies developed towards Cuba by all previous administrations and proposes and initiates a cycle of normalization of relations with the island. Ultimately, what is involved is the perception that the political reforms created unusual conditions for a greater penetration and influence of the United States in Cuban society, as well as to settle its obsession to once again be an internal actor in it. But let’s not forget that Obama’s normalization was limited by the permanence of the blockade, although his measures compensated it in part.
The Trump administration, on its own initiative or under the influence of sectors of the Florida electoral right, broke this cycle of normalization and resumed the traditional policy of pressure, taking the blockade to its extreme form, under the perception that Cuban reforms could make the Cuban regime viable and ensure its continuity in the long term. The unpredictable and long-standing COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the effects of this policy, unleashing a new crisis in the country.
The opposing positions of both administrations — change of strategy in Obama’s, radicalization of the blockade in Trump’s — were also linked to the respective strategies of hegemonic recovery in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the conflict with Venezuela.
I believe that without the blockade or assuming it as an invariant of U.S. policy towards Cuba, in the case of the Biden administration, the implementation of the reform programs to the Cuban economic model, already approved and agreed upon, would make it possible, through greater growth and development, to have the ability to meet the basic needs of the population and part of the demands of its different strata. Many Cuban economists have insisted on the peremptory nature of these reforms.
The current socioeconomic dynamics generates changes in the class composition or of sectors of Cuban society and its dynamics of inequality. How do you see this problem and its possible solutions?
Cuban society of 2021 is different compared to that of the 1980s, except in the official discourse. The accumulated changes in the social structure condition public policies and they should take such changes into account.
We could summarize these structural changes as: a) a frozen and aging demographic structure; b) a generational structure of seven coexisting political generations, with the last three linked to experiences of successive socioeconomic crises; c) a socio-class structure modified by the rise of a farmers sector in rural society and of an urban mercantile bourgeoisie; an occupational structure that includes a growing self-employed sector; a modified social status structure in favor of authority, ownership and income; a pattern of inequality that has doubled and whose lower term of inequality includes poorer and more marginalized people; etc. In other words, in the second decade of the 2000s, Cuban society has become more stratified, more differentiated and unequal.
Only a schizophrenic vision would not see the changes that have occurred in Cuban society and would not notice some of their economic, social and political consequences. Only such a vision would not admit the objective nature of a new social center — age group between 30 and 50 years old; middle layers made up of leaders, professionals, officials, technicians and businesspeople; intellectuals, etc., for which it is necessary to establish differentiated public policies, expand the conditions of consensus and rebuild the hegemonic discourse. Likewise, the need for recovery policies, focused on risk areas and groups.
This evolution of the social structure has not been accompanied by sustained development or a sustainable egalitarian pattern, but by alternating situations of crisis and economic recovery. This has implied the need for a new socialist strategy, based on the emergence of a new model of economic and social development “with a market” and the move to a pattern of greater inequality, partly offset by equity policies.
A central issue is that, unlike the previous “socialist” model, this one that is being promoted now involves a less homogeneous social bloc, with more contradictory real interests and with greater ideological diversity. The consensus required on the model of society is situated, more than in the social conditions and shared expectations, but also in the identity with a sovereign political community, more inclusive, egalitarian and participatory, which is protected by the rule of law and accompanied by uninterrupted democratic development. In other words, by the passage from a state socialism to a socialist republic.
In such a complex political, economic and social context, what is the space that social criticism has today, what is the role of the social sciences and what is the role of intellectuals?
“In such a complex political, economic and social context,” such as the Cuban one, of permanent siege and hostility by the hemispheric superpower, the space for social criticism becomes restrictive, given that: this criticism includes the most diverse actors and currents; a part of this criticism is engaged in the strategy of subversion of the regime promoted by the United States; and another part of it is in opposition to socialism, the government or the laws. But the biggest problem is that such restrictions, when necessary, may not be transparent, public and consensual. It should be said that the historical experience is that of a discretionary use of these restrictions by institutions and officials.
Obviously, this restricted space is in part a variable of a defensive context, but this does not prevent the need to have a space free of restrictions, demarcated and protected by the Law, which is the critical space of citizens. Criticism, as freedom of opinion, is protected by the Constitution of the Republic and against it there are no more restrictions than those established by the Law. Paradoxically, this space has been limited not only for the “anti-socialist” currents but also for the critical voices and currents that pass to the revolutionary regime from the left, that is, they claim that it is not sufficiently revolutionary or socialist.
The theoretical and practical lack of definition of whether it is a socialist “public sphere” or a socialist “civil society” contributes to the promotion of restrictive policies and to limiting the contribution of citizens.
A particular case in this panorama is that of the social sciences, institutionalized in fact, which in theory are assigned the role of favoring the conscious construction of the “new society,” through the production of knowledge, techniques and good practices.
All of the above supposes the existence of public policies oriented to the development of the social sciences and the implementation of their results. In the socialist, foreign and Cuban experience, this role of the social sciences has been hampered by the lack of such policies, by their subordination to state ideologies, by hegemonic discourse, secrecy, unanimity, political inconvenience, etc.
All the experience of real socialism has shown a high misgiving, suspicion and rejection of express or implicit criticism in the results of the social sciences, attributing to them political intentionality or a subversive character. In this outlook, policies towards the social sciences have tended to be containment measures. It should be said that the current position of the leadership of our country seems to be one of overcoming these conceptions.
The role of intellectuals has been the subject of discussion for centuries; until it became a specialty of the social sciences. Conventionally, it is accepted that its social function is, in general, to produce by different means knowledge, representations, regulations, imaginaries, identities, to testify to the times, etc.
Of the intellectuals, or better, of the Cuban intellectual workers, it must be said that they represent the social sector of the creators, innovators and critics of the established order, but without possessing any angelic nature. They are not “the soft parts of society” but neither are they the custodians of its destiny. Individually or collectively, they are citizens of a Republic in which they have shared rights and duties, as well as loyalties and commitments to the political and social order chosen by the great majorities and at their service.
In other words, the problem of the actors who fulfill these functions is the degree of individual and collective engagement, with the projects of the nation and of society, endorsed by the great majorities. Faced with these projects they position themselves not only as intellectuals but also as political actors.
What do you think are the most complex challenges for Cuban socialism at this time?
I prefer to represent what we call “Cuban socialism” as the conjunction of two different projects: a national, stable project of independence, sovereignty and self-determination of the Cuban nation-state; and a changing project of society, of socialist inspiration.
The nation project, the absolute priority, has had to face the resistance, mediation and hostility of the United States as an imperial and imperialist power. For its part, the project of society has been strongly influenced by the context, depending on whether it has been more or less favorable to the national project, to the permanence of the revolutionary power, to national security and to its economic and social development, over time.
In these perspectives, Cuban socialism today shares the same historical challenges of the last 60 years, but in a more adverse and uncertain international context. Under these conditions, the imagined socialist society project is faced with new internal restrictions and external constraints that impose on it the necessary changes so that its constitutive power is reproduced, its economic, political and social development becomes viable and its legitimacy is sustained.
In other words, the Cuban socialist project has to be, in the short and medium term, reformed; and in the medium and long term, rethought and redesigned.
But right now, with this situation, Cuban socialism has to: a) control the pandemic and overcome its most serious effects; b) promote economic reforms that allow it to overcome the current crisis in Cuban society, as well as its own management limitations, paying attention, as my colleague Aurelio Alonso said in the 1990s, to promote a new economic model without desocializing, that is, carry out the necessary reforms and at the same time socialize each sphere of society more; and c) although the emergency is economic and social, overcoming the current scenario is political, which implies: implementing without restrictions the rule of law as stated in the new Constitution of the Republic; establishing with full guarantees the constitutional order prescribed in it and in its complementary laws; as well as rebuilding the majority socio-political consensus on a more autochthonous and viable project for a society.