On this occasion in Cuban Voices we talked with Iván de la Nuez, essayist and art curator, who was born in Havana (1964) and lives in Barcelona. His books have been translated into several languages. Among these are La balsa perpetua (1998), El mapa de sal (2001), Fantasía roja. Los intelectuales de izquierdas y la Revolución cubana (2006), El comunista manifiesto (2013), Teoría de la retaguardia (2018) and Cubantropía (2020).
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?
Perhaps the question is not whether the State “can,” but whether the State “wants.” If it understands that it needs to absorb these demands to expand its social base and its legitimacy, or if it prefers to persevere in the fantasy of homogeneity that a parliament that continues to vote unanimously grants it. If it wants to continue believing that a crisis in society does not go through it directly and from top to bottom or if it assumes that it is also part of the problem. In its responses to J11, we saw a state that considers itself uncontaminated as it frames and attacks critical society as a misguided mass of “mercenaries,” “marginals” or “confused.” Within that bubble, it is difficult to calibrate one of its great contradictions, which is that of a communist state obliged to govern, satisfy and represent a society that is already also post-communist. And that it is post-communist, by the way, not only because the internal opposition says so or because of the influence of imperialism or global capitalism, but because it has been forced to promote liberal measures in socialism.
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?
My opinion has changed little on this matter. I have always been against the embargo and understood that it must be lifted unconditionally. If the U.S. government believes in the superiority of its political model, it should take that step. And if the Cuban government believes in its superiority, it should bet on its democratization without waiting for the end of the embargo. Perhaps Obama tried to bring the blockade to its category of embargo, while Trump tried to bring the embargo to the blockade dimension. The pandemic and the medicine crisis have been devastating for the population and offered an excellent opportunity for a moratorium on that embargo, albeit temporary, by the Biden administration. Or, at least, to return to Obama’s measures by putting the ball in the Cuban field. I believe that the United States lost the opportunity to establish a state-to-state bridge, and that the Cuban government lost the opportunity to open a society-to-society corridor that would help alleviate the crisis.
In any case, together with the lifting of the embargo and respect for sovereignty, the democratization of the political model and the implementation of a competent economic and social policy should be points of departure and not of arrival to reform Cuban society (and here I include the diaspora in its own right, in the same way that it already participates, when it is appropriate, in the economic, cultural and family life of the country).
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?
We Cubans have been state creatures for six decades. In Cuba that is very obvious due to the very high intervention of the State in the ownership of the means of production, education, health, the media and anything else. Although less evident, in the main receiving country for Cubans, the United States, we have not lacked public support, such as the Adjustment Act or different nuances of Welfare, ranging from medical assistance to food stamps, through the use of state funds for all kinds of initiatives. What are we living on each side despite their sometimes abysmal differences? Well, a withdrawal of the State from Cuban lives. A dismantling of that protective awning from the elements, and this, of course, entails several problems, such as class differences or a curious vocabulary in which the State is not always named. In Cuba, for example, it is usually equated with the Party and in the United States, with the government.
The recent protests somehow point to that dual perspective. Discontent with a socialism that does not solve the deficiencies and a rudimentary state capitalism (stores in freely convertible currency, corruption, ostentation of the elites in social networks) that has done nothing but sharpen them in that key of inequality. This asymmetry became dysfunctional when, due to Trump’s measures and the subsequent pandemic, the monoculture of tourism that distributed money and work around each rental, each bar, each restaurant, each business, each small business was paralyzed. So that double dissatisfaction went against a model that was still waiting for the diversification of its dependence on a service economy that, as its name suggests, can only create a country of servants at an economic level and a country of stereotypes at a cultural level. One lesson of Trump’s measures is that the centralization of economic investment in a narrow sphere (in this case the military) made it very easy for the U.S. government to hit where it hurt the most, leaving the country practically without a Plan B in economic policy. On the other hand, it did not take Twitter, Instagram or Facebook to see that while many things were collapsing, hotels did not stop going up.
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?
I can say little about the social sciences, an area in which I was prevented from practicing in Cuba, and the reason why I ended up in the art world, just the world and an enjoyable life. Outside of Cuba, I have witnessed the crisis of the humanities in university centers or the regrettable eviction of philosophy from the study plans at any level of education. That said, social criticism goes far beyond that closed domain and remains a fundamental thermometer for measuring the political and cultural health of any country. In Cuba, it cannot be said that this criticism is scarce or sporadic, quite the contrary. But that does not necessarily imply that it circulates with the dignity of a public good or that it goes hand in hand with the intellectuals. So that social criticism can be found on the networks and in all kinds of media that are not necessarily the traditional ones (the book, the pulpit, the opinion column in newspapers).
Let’s say that the work of intellectuals has become overcrowded, but their importance in society has diminished. This transformation takes place in the midst of a cultural change that neither the political elites have been able to control nor the intellectuals explain. And the fact is that, although it is not mentioned as much as others, a severe crisis of its elites is also taking place in Cuba. The current reorganization in the legalization of trades contributes to this. It is astonishing that in a country with such a high level of schooling and university training, many of these permitted trades elevate the service economy. That you can set up a bar but not a publishing house. Or you find that architects cannot practice independently as a taxi driver can, with all due respect. This situation seems to me more serious than the much-touted “role of intellectuals.” I think the place of knowledge in society is more important than what a group of enlightened persons can give of themselves. Nor is it necessary to sublimate a field where ideological accusations continue to be the order of the day to camouflage petty competitions or using intrigue, slander and denunciation to get better prepared colleagues out of the way.
Which “Cubas” are shown, discussed, questioned, imagined, promised by contemporary Cuban plastic arts?
I know no better cartography of Cuban diversity than that of contemporary art. A cultural system in itself that for four decades has been bringing up all kinds of issues and problems from that location called Cuba. Expanding the boundaries of the nation and the city in the global world. Building iconographies of the new paradoxes of this country. Inserting itself into other realities and drawing mutant maps of the different possible “Cubas.” Proposing virtual spaces for coexistence where politics cannot offer them. Carrying out archaeologies of past decades and breaking the limits between art and other spheres. Welcoming the tense intersection of our belonging to the Caribbean, the former communist bloc and Western culture. Hosting the new identities. Generating para-institutional spaces much more systematic than those of other areas of culture such as theater, cinema or let alone literature. And, above all, being capable of, more than describing all this, anticipating it, provoking it and placing it before our eyes as a range of alternatives to the present.
All the Cubas are contemplated and questioned by an art of centrifugal energy that, in addition, has legitimized the diaspora as a national heritage and not as a mere well of remittances. Also, unfortunately, that art has known prison, as is the case right now with Otero Alcántara or Hamlet Lavastida, as well as the mobility limitations of a few other artists who are often practically locked in their homes. That is unacceptable, both in their artistic and civic condition. And the Cuban cultural field, in full, should demand an end to the harassment and the release of its colleagues if it really wants to have a debate on equal terms about this increasingly cubist Cuba. This would be very important, but not so much for those who agree with these artists whose rights have been restricted, but especially for those who differ from them. When your contenders are in prison, there can be no minimally decent critical debate. In this situation, the advantage of your arguments immediately makes them spurious.
What do you think are the most complex challenges for Cuban socialism at this time? And, which ones for the Cuban nation?
Before answering, I would like to make something clear. Just as I have always thought that Cuban culture goes beyond the territory of the island, I also think that socialism or the left go beyond the territory of the government and in many cases are discussed or come into conflict with it. That is the small place in which I am situated and it is only from there that I can attempt to answer this question.
The tension between the nation and socialism comes from the Bolshevik triumph, which took place in a single, backward country, when it was supposed to happen internationally and in the most industrialized capitalist countries, just as the classics envisioned. Since then, the history of socialism can be read as an adaptation or body work of the original theory of Marx and Engels. Among other things, due to the obligation to balance the internationalist drive of socialism with the protective, even selfish drive of nationalism. Once the Soviet bloc was liquidated — with its CMEA, its Warsaw Pact and its international system of “sister countries” that reached as far as the Caribbean or Mozambique —, nationalism became the refuge of the surviving communism: China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam. These countries coincided in their anti-colonial history and could claim that their socialism was an autochthonous product not imposed by the Soviet Union.
In any case, in Cuba it was not necessary for the year 1989 to arrive for this merger. Here Nation, State and Socialism have been presented for six decades as an indivisible amalgam. So any criticism of one of these classes also immediately put you in front of the other two. Although the government embraced the Socialist bloc with euphoria, or spread its influence throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America, or led the Tricontinental, or played a leading role in the Non-Aligned, the truth is that the patriotic component has been paramount in its political scheme. The proof is that we had the “Homeland or Death” first than the “Socialism or Death” (which appeared in response to perestroika a quarter of a century later). Already in books such as La balsa perpetua (1998) and El mapa de sal (2001), I tried to dissect it by thinking about it, among other things, “dying for the homeland is living” from the national anthem or the same “Homeland or Death,” today so recurrent in this overactive return of patriotism, or jingoism, as a measure of all things.
What can Cuban socialism do today? The first, I suppose, a deep self-criticism and an in-depth assessment of the setback it has suffered worldwide in the last thirty years, since the collapse of the Soviet empire. A setback that, among its most curious consequences, is the fact that, in today’s world, Marxism has become a matter of academic elites while anti-communism has established itself as an asset of mass culture.
Another issue of the first order would be to understand that this critical destiny of socialism, contrary to what the neoliberals who won the Cold War say, does not run against but in parallel with that of liberal democracy as we know it. When the Berlin Wall was torn down, I was one of those who celebrated it. But I was also among a small group of party poopers who warned that the Wall had also fallen towards the West and that this collapse would end up dragging capitalism after the Cold War.
Since then, we have experienced the collapse of social democracy, something that is now beginning to happen with liberalism. So when the reactionary wave that is growing around the world is attacking “the communists,” who are all those who run to their left on the political spectrum including millions of non-socialists, in reality what is being put into that bag is what remains of liberalism and of that time when it was presented as a synonym for democracy. Today we have many variants of capitalism without democracy, which shows the global reach of the Chinese model, which has not exactly remained within the borders of that country (it encompasses Russia, the Emirates, the so-called socialism of the 21st century, several countries in Eastern Europe, Africa and the United States itself, which are not disgusted by that fusion between authoritarianism and the market that sets the tone for a post-democratic world). I am going to repeat myself, but in that tide the possibility that Cuba will go from being a pre-democracy in liberal terms to a post-democracy in neoliberal terms is quite plausible. I always like to remember that the neoliberal shock therapy in Russia was led by a character, Boris Yeltsin, who a short time before was a full member of the Political Bureau.
With these antecedents, you can already guess that for me socialism’s great innovation can only be in combining social justice with a democracy full of respect for the different. The point here is that, if you want to save it, you won’t be able to do it only with communists, and if you want to project democracy, you won’t be able to do it without them. Because socialism will not be original in the market, or in finance, or in anything that is a controlled and promised capitalism like the one there is so much of now. The only thing that could be successful, and be a true alternative to the global right, is in activating a democracy that today is in crisis and that socialism has almost never dared to face as a challenge. In Cuba we all know many people who were removed for allowing, but…how many do we know of those removed for prohibiting? If the carrot is the market economy, and the stick is socialist politics, you have a losing battle.
It does not matter how you adorn the speech because, among the things that this time has taken and that socialism has to recover or consider itself dead is, precisely, that which once made it synonymous with the future.