Cuban Voices continues to inquire about the bases that contribute to explaining the capacity of the Cuban State to absorb and manage demands, given the interfering content of U.S. policy towards the island, due to the current socioeconomic dynamics that the country is experiencing in relation to its class composition, the phenomena of social inequality, the gender demands in the current Cuban context, the challenges of the nation and the socialist system, among other issues.
It is an effort to understand ourselves better, on a par with efforts that from other media (state and non-state) also seek to generate participation and debate. Since its inception, this series has been conceived with the intention of incorporating academicians, workers, scientists, activists into the public conversation. Hopefully many others will join in this endeavor — they are already doing so — and will allow us to continue sharing ideas, proposals, and continue to monitor our society in search of better alternatives to the problems of the Cuban present.
On this occasion, Cuban Voices talks with Claudia Riestra López, a Psychology graduate from the University of Havana, Master in Public Policy and Gender from FLACSO-Mexico, and who is a social researcher and psychology professor.
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 think that in order to answer this question, it would be necessary to start first by defining what we understand by the Cuban State, what the main institutions that make it up are and what roles they play in the current context.
In article 5 of the current Constitution, approved in 2019, it is established that the Communist Party is “the higher leading political force of society and the State,” thus limiting the role of the State to the representation of the citizenry based on a certain political ideology, specifically Socialism. What happens then with demands from the sectors of society that do not identify with Socialism as a political ideology? How can they be represented within the Cuban State?
If we take into account the raison d’être of the State, as a representative of the common good of all citizens, we would have to analyze how it is possible to achieve this level of representativeness in the case of Cuba.
In recent years, as part of the processes of change expressed in the “Economic and Social Policy of the Party and the Revolution Guidelines,” a series of openings have been generated in the recognition of other forms of ownership such as private and non-agricultural cooperative ownership.
With regard to private ownership, its operation has been approved at the level of small and medium-sized enterprises. With this opening, it was possible for other forms of ownership to have legal representation through the State. In this sense, an attempt has been made to respond (even with some contradictions and legal gaps in terms of workers’ labor rights) to some of the demands of different sectors of civil society in relation to the decentralization of the State in the control of the means of production.
However, regarding the demands that have to do with political expression based on other ideological references, the Cuban State does not have the created mechanisms to absorb and manage these rights, with which it is not possible to achieve the representativeness of sectors of Cuban citizens who do not identify with Socialism or have critical views on the way it is managed in Cuba.
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 intensification of sanctions against Cuba by the Trump administration meant a break in the dialogue process that had been achieved, both at the government and civil society levels, between Cuba and the United States.
I remember that December 17, a date of special religious celebration in Cuba because it was the day of Saint Lázaro, when the official media announced the beginning of the process of reestablishing diplomatic relations between the two countries.
There are dates that are specially remain in memory, for me that is one of them. Not only was it a significant moment for both nations, but it also had a wide international media coverage.
The sanctions imposed by the Trump administration not only included the economic and political measures adopted, but also implied, on a more symbolic and subjective level, a rollback of earlier moments in history between the two countries in which polarization between Cubans prevailed. and Cubans living in Cuba and the Cuban diaspora in the United States, among those who support the Cuban government and those who don’t.
These sanctions have deeply affected Cubans’ family ties due to restrictions on access to visa procedures to travel to the United States, as well as setbacks in family reunification processes. Added to this is the closure of the main routes for sending remittances from the United States to Cuba.
For many people on the island, remittances represent their main source of income, with which, in this context of a global pandemic, these sanctions imply an even greater asphyxiation.
The current socioeconomic dynamics generate 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 issue of the socio-class structure in Cuba and social inequalities has been studied by Cuban social sciences for several decades, with the aim of contributing to the generation of public policies that respond to these inequalities.
The research carried out has shown that the issue of social inequalities has a long history, even though its greatest exacerbation occurred in the 1990s with the greatest socioeconomic crisis experienced in the country.
Talking about inequalities in any context, not only in Cuba, involves carrying out a comprehensive analysis that takes into account gender, skin color, sexual orientation, territory, income, among other mainstreaming axes.
If we analyze the composition of university students, taking into account their social origin and socioeconomic situation, inequalities can be observed in access to higher education. How can this social inequality be explained in a country where education at all levels is public?
The experience of Latin American countries where education is also public at different levels (as is the case of Uruguay) allows us to understand that access to education, and especially to university, is not only possible due to the fact that it is public, but other factors such as the cultural and socioeconomic level of the families have an influence, which allows students to be inserted in a context that implies high levels of academic exigency and study time.
In the case of Cuba, it happens in a similar way. There are sectors of the population that cannot access higher education because their economic situation does not allow them to have private teachers to prepare for the university entrance exams and who cannot dedicate hours of the day to study because they need to work to sustain family income.
The most recent measure of opening stores in freely convertible currency for the purchase of basic necessities such as food and toiletries has deepened the already existing inequalities, with the added aspect that in this case it is about basic needs that for those sectors of the population that do not have access to this currency remain unsatisfied.
Attention to these and other social inequalities implies, in the first instance, the recognition at the public policy level of their existence and the empowerment of Cuban civil society so that it can participate in the process of elaborating these policies that contribute to the elimination of said inequalities.
At the same time, I believe that it is necessary to develop targeted policies to guarantee greater access to educational and employment opportunities, among others, for the sectors that are currently in a greater situation of socioeconomic vulnerability.
This field of inequalities, how does it affect, specifically, Cuban women?
In order to talk about inequalities that specifically affect Cuban women, I think it is first necessary to understand that they are gender inequalities and what they mean. Gender inequalities are structured due to the patriarchal system that has prevailed and that has formed the basis of societies in all parts of the world. Patriarchy is an institutionalized domination system that places women and everything considered feminine in a subordinate role with respect to men or the masculine.
In the case of Cuba, beyond the achievements regarding the elimination of gender inequalities, the patriarchal system still prevails, as in the rest of the countries of the world. However, while in other nations March 8 (International Women’s Day) has become a date on which marches are held to make these inequalities visible, in Cuba it I not so. I take it only as an example, but it is related in turn to the impossibility of legitimizing feminist movements, due to the lack of the right to association in civil society organizations.
While decades ago, Cuba had been a benchmark for Latin America in advancing the elimination of gender inequalities, as is the case with the achievements in relation to sexual and reproductive rights, including access to legal, safe and free abortion, in recent years there has been a stagnation with respect to the region in terms of the approval of public policies aimed at eliminating these inequalities.
An example of this is the lack of a comprehensive policy to address gender-based violence. Talking about comprehensiveness implies taking into account the different types of expression of violence against women: street harassment, workplace harassment, sexual abuse, domestic, political, obstetric violence, among others.
At present, the Cuban Penal Code does not recognize gender-based violence as a specific crime, and neither femicide (violent death of women due to gender-related issues that constitutes the most extreme form of violence against them), therefore, the numbers of femicides are not systematically published, nor are there sufficient institutional mechanisms to guarantee the protection of women who suffer gender-based violence in its different forms of expression in daily life.
There is an urgent need to take action on the matter because we are talking about the right to life of women, first and foremost, and to an existence free of gender-based violence.
Even though women have played an increasingly big role in Cuban scientific development, as well as in access to higher education, in the case of political participation, the number of women holding positions at different state and government levels is still low.
The issue of women being overburdened with care responsibilities continues to be another pending issue regarding the design of comprehensive policies for the eradication of gender inequalities.
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 the humanities and what is the role of intellectuals?
I believe that in any context the role of social criticism is essential, it is not possible to generate transformation processes without systematic feedback from citizens.
In recent months, there has been an increasingly active role of different sectors of civil society in Cuba in presenting demands to political powers. The July 11 protests were the greatest expression of these demands. Much has been debated, both inside and outside of Cuba, about their legitimacy and the various interests behind them.
Focusing on the analysis of the diversity of reasons and needs for which the demonstrations occurred can lead us to distort what I consider is essential in what happened and it is the exercise of citizens’ right to demonstrate in Cuba.
Here we would enter into a deeper debate that has to do with the role of the government in any country in the world, beyond its political ideology, which is to be a public official at the service of the citizenry. Therefore, criticism of its management is not only a right of citizens, it is necessary to sustain the governance of a country.
Regarding the role of the social sciences and humanities, I consider that it should be directed towards the critical and systematic analysis of the Cuban reality based on its multiple aspects and in all its diversity. Ideological positions are always involved in this process, but this cannot mean the denial of certain realities because it does not fit with our political positions.
With regard to intellectuals, I think their participation in social criticism has been more visible, at least at the level of society. Through the different forms of artistic expression in Cuba, a growing movement of political expression has developed that has made it possible to make visible some of the social problems in Cuba at a faster pace than what we have been able to do from the social sciences.
What do you think are the most complex challenges for Cuban socialism and the Cuban nation at this time?
In order to answer this question, it would be necessary to start by rethinking what socialism means in the 21st century, with the dizzying and increasing technological development and in times in which a person from home can generate content and share it with everyone through social media. Talking about socialism today means analyzing what we understand by social ownership in an increasingly globalized world.
I believe that one of the fundamental axes for the debate on socialism in Cuba is the definition and establishment of social ownership and based on what means of production, based on the fundamental ones or on most of these. If in Cuba the mechanisms of citizen participation in the different processes for the elaboration of public policies are still deficient, can we speak of social ownership?
Does socialism imply state control over most of the means of production or over those that are essential for the country or that allow guaranteeing access to universal rights?
Another of the essential central points has to do with the discussion about the exercise of political rights, such as freedom of expression, the right to organize in civil society groups or to demonstrate. Why would the construction of socialism have to mean renouncing these rights? How can people with different political ideologies be represented by the state?
The construction of socialism today implies assuming transversality in the defense of human rights, that is, assuming as one’s own the fight for the rights of women, of Afro-descendants, the rights to sexual diversity, in the protection of the environment and natural resources, among others.
As part of inhabiting this new globalized world and this new century, we are facing an increasingly diverse and complex Cuban nation with multiple economic, political, social and cultural needs and demands. Therefore, there is an increasingly urgent need for the spaces of power and decision-making in Cuba to diversify, expand and democratize so that society can be represented in all its complexity.