Cuban Voices continues asking about the space for criticism in the current national process, about its possibilities in shaping the present, about the need to ask ourselves the best questions regarding the conflict with the United States, inequality, class composition, rights of the LGBTI community or the problems of Cuban socialism.
These are dialogues that should be opened more widely across the national spectrum.
In this, it is necessary to refuse the vicious spiral proposed by those who live off the “complaint” regarding each space for debate or dialogue, disqualify everything that does not fit in their doctrine, seek with their campaigns to divert attention from national problems, prey on the public debate with their exclusions, and obstruct the demand to be able to put in the collective arena real problems and plausible alternatives. The Cuban present has too many problems to fall into these morasses.
It is the responsibility of intellectuals to improve and correct themselves through critical reflection on their own work, in relation to data and social discourses. It is their need to refuse arguments, clichés, slogans, “universal” apothegms, when they are ruled out by the facts.
It is their obligation to dare to look at reality, contribute to actively produce ideas, think and participate in practices, expand the field of social possibilities, help build collective agendas and develop imagination, in solid connection with the world of the social and the cultural universe of those who participate.
In this effort to contribute to the national debate, understood as a demand for informed political participation, Cuban Voices talks with Rubén Padrón Garriga, a graduate in Social Communication and a teacher in Social Development from the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (Flacso-Cuba).
Padrón Garriga has investigated issues related to cultural policies, communication for development, city discourses, among others, and has published essays, articles, interviews and reports in serial publications. He is also an independent activist for the rights of the LGBTIQ+ community in Cuba.
For some time, Cuban society has been transformed socially and economically, and demands of various kinds are seen by various sectors. Is the design of the Cuban State capable of absorbing and managing these demands?
Most social changes — when they don’t involve the repeal of the State — are achieved through a connection between the plaintiffs in civil society and people who have real power to influence policies to transform them.
The case of the Cuban State is peculiar because thanks to the “militant discipline” demanded of the majority of politicians, it gives the impression that only activisms independent of the State have demands and contradictions with the status quo.
Most of the large political and mass organizations, as well as those who hold positions within the state structures, are very suspicious when speaking in favor of any demand that is not on the legislative schedule or implies a criticism or disagreement with the practical application of some policy, or simply a different criterion from that of some state cadre.
However, I believe it is possible to identify diverse tendencies within Cuban politicians and more or less identification with the demands for social transformation demanded by the various groups in civil society.
We have become accustomed — or they have accustomed us — to act based on “order and command” while the highest political spheres don’t agree on how to solve the structural problem.
Although in theory there are many spaces for civil society to raise their concerns, the possibility of real transformation of these spaces is quite limited.
Therefore, the first thing we would need is to quickly recognize those demands and work together on possible solutions for them — not “the ultimate solution” — from the moment they are formulated and begin to be shared by a significant number of people.
It is also necessary for citizens to feel that politicians and/or parliamentarians support or reject their criteria — since the demands of some may be contradictory to those of others — and that these revitalizing debates are taking place in the spheres of power; in addition, a greater participation of activists and scholars of these problems in the solutions is unavoidable.
Today there is greater awareness of this need than a few years ago, but I don’t know to what extent the State is willing to change that “disciplined” tradition in politicians and make their debates or discussions with the public transparent.
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 on the country?
The sanctions came to break the beginning of a dialogue, not only between two governments, but between two peoples that had been isolated for decades.
On the other hand, they have affected many Cuban families, not only in terms of travel and remittances, but also in the possibility of accessing a basic food basket and other necessities in the midst of a health crisis.
Although for a long time wages have not been enough to live in Cuba, today we don’t have clumsier internal measures than five years ago, I would even dare to say that transformations have recently taken place, which, although insufficient, are probably the most daring of this century in the country. However, the hostile economic and political context has frustrated its operationalization and direct effect on the family economy.
The difference between the standard of living of the population on the island before and after the sanctions is evident, even prior to the well-known Task of Reorganization.
Propaganda in Cuba has been clumsy when it comes to the U.S. blockade and sanctions. It has been loaded with slogans and sentimentality against a policy and action that have many rational ways of being combatted in terms of communication, since they violate several international principles and are rejected every year at the UN by countries with administrations both on the left and on the right.
Information on the real effects of the blockade and the sanctions does not reach all social sectors effectively, although it affects all of them. Using it as a wild card to justify any problem we have has led to their undeniable impacts being naturalized and minimized in social imaginaries.
Therefore, an intelligent strategy is urgently needed that puts all the cards on the table and, beyond the propaganda, allows us to honestly specify which limitations cause the blockade and which are our deficiencies and errors.
We must ask ourselves and answer the uncomfortable questions asked by its defenders or deniers: why, despite the blockade, are packages of chicken with the American flag sold in Cuban stores and why does the vast majority of chicken consumed in Cuba have to be imported? What exemptions, prerogatives, exist for trade with the United States? How and why are Cuban products exported to Europe despite the sanctions that transcend U.S. territory? Why does it affect the entry and production of medicines, even though there are no direct regulations against this sector?
Political communication should try to dialogue more, not only with those of us who suffer its effects in Cuba, but also with those who can do activism in the United States and the rest of the world to eliminate it or make it more flexible, even when they don’t agree with all the aspects of the Cuban political system.
It is also important that Cuban Americans can fully assess how much it affects their family members here and how irresponsible it is to ask for it to be made worse. If they really know it and they do it, it is an act of cruelty not towards the government, but towards those of us who live in Cuba.
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?
The main problem is not the current economic dynamics, but to carry them out as if we were in the 1980s.
A distinction must be made between equality, egalitarianism and equity. Citizens have different starting points, different conditions for taking advantage of the gratuities, different capacities and abilities; therefore, if we distribute equally, a few will be left with a lot, some with enough, and others with almost nothing.
For me the first thing is to recognize the inequalities and inequities in all spaces, favor methodologies for proactive studies and draw up targeted policies for those who are most disadvantaged.
The ONEI for years has applied a national survey on the economic situation in households that allows the extraction of important indicators, such as the Gini coefficient, which measures inequality. However, although the questions are public, the results are secret.
This secrecy, despite having been criticized many times, prevails in some information necessary to make, not only decisions, but awareness of the problems. Conducting and publishing research with large population samples throughout the country is also extremely cumbersome.
Even so, we have researchers and academicians who have approached inequalities in Cuba with scientific rigor — although most of the published studies are methodological — but there is no connection with decision-makers that allows public policies to be dynamically and systematically adapted to those changing unequal contexts.
Right now we don’t have a clear comprehensive strategy to lift out of poverty those who most urgently need it. The closest thing to that need in recent years was the “Battle of Ideas,” which had very well-known deformations, but provided alternatives for study and work for several of those most affected by the inequities that became evident as of the 1990s.
When the program was dismantled, it was not replaced by a better one, and those people were once again in no-man’s-land.
The July 11 protests brought to light several long-standing problems that had not received enough attention. Some had a simple solution, such as the ration book for people without a regularized address in their current residence, but others are not resolved with a decree, but need a comprehensive program against poverty and for social equity, which even today we don’t have in a well-delimited or structured coherent way.
In such a complex economic and social context, what is the space that social criticism has today? What space does citizen activism have, and should have, such as that aimed at defending the rights of the LGTBIQ+ community?
Survival is an urgency for the majority, and therefore we postpone other necessary conquests. However, I would dare to say that today there are more spaces for social criticism than there were some years ago, and they have not been “crumbs of power,” but citizens’ conquests.
On the other hand, activism remains an enormously complex and exhausting terrain. Although I don’t like static divisions, I would delimit in this area those that are made from the State, generally — although with few exceptions — in a “disciplined” way and without taking a step that is not approved by the bureaucratic apparatus; to those who seek the destruction of said State, for which reason they are incapable of recognizing any success in government policy, in addition to generating — on occasions — toxic alliances with the most reactionary area of international politics; and a third group of activists who, although they pressure state power for its transformation and democratic development, don’t seek its disintegration but rather its democratic development.
Placing oneself in a group often implies enmity with others, especially when the mistakes made by state institutions against markedly oppositional activists have generated an empathy that shields them from criticism.
How does one position oneself — without looking like an insensitive monster — against the ideas of a person who has been surrounded by a patrol car for four days and doesn’t let him leave his house? This takes away the moral strength to refute positions that are really harmful for a democratic development on the island, since our privileges and their lack of protection will outweigh any argument.
LGBTIQ+ activism is a clear example of these contradictions.
Those who criticize homophobia or transphobia only when it comes from the Cuban State, juxtaposed with those who are experts in analyzing exclusions in capitalist societies under right-wing administrations but are silent or treat them with half measures when we have them here, coexist, and not always fraternally; others swim between the two poles fighting to achieve citizen rights that have been historically denied up to the present.
Maintaining coherence becomes increasingly difficult when you are attacked from both ends, because for some you are condescending with power and for others you play the enemy’s game. I have seen this, for example, in the administration of a left-wing Facebook group called Revolutionary Utopia in which I was recently invited to participate.
What do you think are the most complex challenges for Cuban socialism at this time?
The first is to revolutionize economic policy, taking into account the blockade and deformed structural conditions of development that we inherited from colonialism.
On our side, it is necessary that workers feel stimulated and that they innovate, and for this we must make the management of enterprises more horizontal, create spaces to listen, and above all apply their criteria.
To this must be added a cadre policy that stops separating from the management processes those who question their reality. Capitalism is as strong as a system, among many other factors, because it manages to include — even to absorb — useful and necessary people, even if they don’t agree with the party in power or even with the system.
It is something that we must learn and apply if we want to avoid the draining of our brains because they collide with a very convinced, disciplined and even self-sacrificing leader, but with little insight and intellect, and sometimes even corrupt.
Added to this, it is essential to unblock what is related to SMEs and their economic revitalizing nature, and to encourage those that can directly influence the solution of first-order problems for the country.
On the other hand, we must stop seeing the private sector as a “capitalist island” within the Cuban socialist model, and detach ourselves from the logic of the 20th century to understand socialism as the system that must guarantee that everyone lives with dignity from their work. Therefore, integrating SMEs into the Cuban social system implies ensuring that their members have the same labor rights as others.
I recognize that a second challenge is to create — and allow — better spaces for a transforming social criticism in the midst of a symbolic war of egos and hysteria, added to a hostile international situation that has reinforced the spirit of a “besieged plaza.”
It is also urgent to manage antagonisms and differences in order to build consensus, with all those who are committed to a free, sovereign, prosperous and democratic Cuba.
The third challenge would come from there: trying to heal wounds and dialogue with those who think differently from the official discourse, and those who don’t live in the country.
When an average Cuban leaves Cuba, he carries the pain of separation from his family and friends, the disappointment of not having found a viable project with them, plus a suitcase of ideas that he never expressed here because they were considered problematic.
The right knows that, hence it encourages its ruptures, pains and frustrations. As a result, we have the caravans calling for a war of unimaginable consequences.
The dialogue must be based on the recognition that we were not able to make them feel included in the Cuban social project, and try to ensure that the next emigrants have less things in store because they were not wanted or they could say them in their land.
Lastly, but not less important, there is everything related to the cultural policy, which is not only art and literature, or encyclopedic knowledge, but all the symbolic and ideological production and exchange that is expressed in habits, beliefs, worldviews, positions.
We must remove cultural policy from publishers, theaters, cinemas and concert halls, to mainstream it into schools, the media, social networks, workplaces, communities, streets, buses.
This must imply putting in crisis our dogmas, our class values and of the last century, our “morality,” stop assuming as correct discriminatory patterns towards different identities, and not only in matters of gender or race, because culture also implies a huge diversity to choose our clothes, our gestures, our favorite words, to modify or not our bodies, celebrate our parties, express our affections….
And all this must also be understood as an inviolable citizen right by any rule or institution, because without this diversity it will be impossible to build Marti’s dream of a republic “with all and for the good of all,” and fight for a world where we are “socially equal, humanly different and totally free,” as requested by Rosa Luxemburg.