Cuban Voices continues to search for meanings, perceptions, reflections and hopes about today’s Cuba.
Each day that goes by opens new questions, new challenges are posed and events unfold at a dizzying speed in a Cuba that seems to be walking on telluric earthquakes of emotions, of reaffirmations, of voices of change, of visions of the future, of rescue, of redefinitions of the cards to play.
Any problem or matter to be discussed has many paths to travel. However, there is a coincidence for many in also putting on the table, under any circumstances, the role of Cubans in the future of their homeland without foreign tutelage of any kind, the need to find solutions to our problems among Cubans, the forms or ways of democratizing Cuban life, the rejection of Platt Amendment mentalities that make our entire destiny orbit around the will of our neighbor to the north, and what it intends or allows us to do.
At the same time, and raised in the worst scenarios, is the debate on a number of problems that affect spaces or spheres of Cuban society increasingly hit by a major health and economic crisis. It could not be alien to our future that the constitutional process that led to the 2019 Constitution pass without that “constitutional spirit” lurking and being present at least to prosecute or compare its compliance with certain state or social actions.
Of course, at the bottom of everything is the perennial discussion about the limits or possibilities of the current political model; on whether it has made a Constitution, with all its problems, greater than all those in charge of enforcing it and ensuring its compliance; whether it is worth, and how, to bet and fight for a left alternative. Cuban Voices talks with Wilder Pérez Varona, philosopher and researcher of Cuban thought, on some of these questions.
For some time, Cuban society has been transforming socially and economically, and demands of various kinds are seen by various sectors of society. Is the Cuban design in tension to absorb and manage these demands?
More than arguing about the limitations of our political system, I want to dwell on the elements that the question puts in relation to it.
Both Cuban society, in general, and its model of socialism have changed since the 1990s. In many ways, what we assume as current, our current conditions, began three decades ago. As in any transition, social time is fractured, divided, is not contemporary with itself. Since then, several processes have converged, with different rhythms and signs, which have not ceased to create tensions in the entire social fabric.
On the one hand, there was a maturation of internal social dynamics, the result of decades of socialist organization. This process accumulated impressive achievements in terms of national sovereignty, equality and social justice, values that articulated the revolutionary consensus of the 1960s. It also reproduced structural deformations that threatened the sustainability of the model. In the mid-1980s, the latter raised the alarm and unleashed reforms that, although truncated and different from those we are experiencing today (e.g. with regard to mercantile and ownership relations), set out to make transformations that would retake the national foundations in the project socialist. This was expressed in the intellectual production of the end of that decade.
Then comes the outbreak of a crisis whose scale far exceeded the scope of the economy. Of course, it offers verifiable, wide-ranging indicators and evident impacts on Cubans’ quality of life. I will note here some implications of a crisis that, I reiterate, still defines our present time.
The collapse of the Soviet system and the revival of U.S. interference legislation exacerbated the rise of Cuban nationalism. The deterioration of an imaginary whose universal, messianic vocation identified the socialist paradigm, then heightened the connotations of a culture of resistance, in order to survive and “preserve the conquests of socialism.” The need for reintegration faced contested capitalist market relations for decades. It is known that at the end of the 1980s the Cuban State offered 96% of the employment of the labor force. This suggests the violence of the symbolic and cultural readjustment, in the face of the new conditions and the practices that it enabled. The delay in reforms approved by the 4th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) in 1991 demonstrate the difficulty of facing values and representations rooted in a social fabric in sudden deterioration.
Since then, we have been more diverse and unequal. For decades, there have been studies on the crisis and the reforms, which did not impact equally on territories, groups and social sectors and institutions. There have been studies on the fall in indicators that the State’s social policies had sustained for decades, whose universal imprint and coverage, in addition, have been insensitive to differences. There has been debate about the expansion of spaces for dissent, about the revival of Cuban civil society, the recomposition of relations between civil society and the State, changes in the class structure, the emergence of a fragmented but public sphere but no longer subject to state institutions, the politicization of culture, and the diversity of vindications of collective identities (racial, gender, sexual, generational, environmental, religious, etc.) that do not find a cultural or legal channel for their canalization. The production and dissemination of values and representations of social groups has pluralized their places of enunciation, as well as their referents, contents and interests.
It is frequent to affirm that the changes in Cuban society have found a barrier in the institutional body of the Cuban State, in its reluctance to adjust, to keep up with or take charge of social changes that the State has co-produced. But, is the State exhausted in its apparatus, in its system of institutions? If Cuban society has changed, so has its State. For example, the conditions for exercising politics in Cuba today, the rules of the game of what is considered legitimate and pertinent have changed.
And such conditions are no longer, strictly speaking, internal. Not only because the weight of U.S. geopolitics has weighed heavily on Cuba, on our national makeup and our projects of society for more than two centuries. For three decades, the transnationalization of Cuban society, its patterns and all kinds of referents, have increasingly impacted the national situation. Also in politics. The issue of democracy could serve as an example. We have, on the one hand, a hegemonic form of government that presents itself as the guarantor of universal political and civil rights, nucleated around the exclusive right to private ownership, and that uses cultural and technological devices to naturalize the capitalist compulsion to annihilate life on the planet. On the other, the regional deployment of social movements and governments, of different types and scope, that have reconfigured the relationship between socialism and democracy, disputing the liberal roots of the latter, and pluralizing the road maps and resources of the former.
In such a situation, the socialist destiny of Cuba is today a difficult problem, but not only for the international left, but also for the national one.
The design of the Cuban political system has been problematized by national studies from various positions. From limitations of mechanisms accepted by historical socialism (binding mandate and its expressions, accountability and revocability), to criticism from alien references, challenged or not recognized by the socialist tradition to which Cuba is attached. The dispute over the meaning of the current reforms may converge on three axes of related problems: the centralization of decision-making, the representativeness of the institutional order, and the role of the law to regulate social relations and processes within the State, and between the State and the citizenry. Such problems do not only concern political institutions, but the entire project of society, since 2019 defined as a socialist state of law.
Strictly speaking, they are old problems under new forms. They have been a burden on the model of socialism that prevailed in the 20th century. From a model that assumed the State as the demiurge of socialism, as its source, representative and guarantor. In practice, it promoted the uniform bureaucratization of social relations and monopolized the representation and work of society in the name of an official ideology. Ultimately, this model failed as a cultural alternative to the conditions it inherited and wanted to overcome. The form that such problems take in Cuba today are due, of course, to the peculiar way in which the conditions of dependent capitalism were modified by the revolution and the resulting socialist order.
Therefore, I think that today in Cuba there is a tension between politics understood as the administration of a society, as a way of organizing it, of assigning hierarchies and functions, on the one hand, and the politics assumed as intervention in that social order, as plural vindications of equality (of conditions, rights, opportunities) that institute new freedoms (political, economic, social). In this contradiction the legitimacy of the system is disputed, its capacity to seek consensus, its very nature. Despite what the constitutional text affirms, the compatibility between socialism and the rule of law is at stake today.
In the Cuban context, what do you think would be the role of the intellectual in Cuba today? Is there a need for critical discourses in our society?
I want to bring up a scheme, an inventory of the way in which traditional socialism conceived the role and function of intellectuals.
The model of socialism of the 20th century manufactured the figure of the intellectual as an object of permanent suspicion and surveillance. It framed this figure in an intermediate social position and function, ranging between antagonistic classes, from an economism that only addressed their relationship with the means of production, their type of work activity. Politically, it bestowed on them a kind of original sin, an ambivalent attitude towards class antagonism: the individualism intrinsic to their work forced them towards past petty-bourgeois positions, for example, towards delight in the generic and the normative, as opposed to the practical and concrete, attributes of the working class. This suspicion remained even when the new socialist state had recruited a new intelligentsia among the popular classes. Such reductionism went further, and divided the intelligentsia into two groups: one scientific-technical, lacking an ideology, responsible for the development of the productive forces, and another that only had a place in socialism as reproducers (propagandists) that legitimize forms and contents of previously established political lines. The role of intellectuals was thus relegated to practice: theory was subsidiary and complementary, secondary and subsequent to practice (ultimately political), determined by those who ruled the state and party apparatus.
To what extent does this representation that reduces the intellectual to an instrument and apologist of the established order still predominates in today’s Cuba?
Since Marx we know that intellectuals do not exist in a heavenly sphere of ideas that only dialogue with themselves, sanctioning truths for all times and places. Marx placed the class character of the production of ideologies on a double plane, that of representations and that of social relations of production. And by historically conditioning the production of ideologies, he conferred on them a function par excellence: that of constituting the power of the State. Producing, reproducing, disseminating ideas is taking a position in a symbolic plot, in the logic of a given social order, which plays a role in its legitimation or challenge. Thus, Gramsci was able to expand the idea of the intellectuals to understand the challenge of changing a set of social relations where the capitalist market and the bourgeois state made individuals mere instruments and things. For such societies need to constitute individuals who, with their practices, reproduce the conditions of that social logic. Hence, intellectual activity is evicted from the grounds of high culture, and placed in functions of political and cultural direction, of organizing life in common, of creating structures and representations of that life and that social order.
An idea dear to socialism inspired by Marx is the nexus between theory and practice. And in this union the theoretical, conscious moment, producer of concepts and organizer of social practices, of representations of such practices, is fundamental. It is the only way in which the idea of a political avant-garde is justified, as an act: subversive articulation, creation of new horizons, promotion of a new culture of emancipation. What, then, can critical intellectual practice mean in a socialist transition? What legitimizes this critical activity? First of all, that it is self-critical. Self-criticism of the social relations formed and managed by the same intelligentsia (state leadership, senate, press, enterprises). Criticism necessary for a project of society to promote collective management, to reveal, make intelligible relations of oppression and inequalities that are (re) produced in the new conditions. Oppressions and inequalities that articulate tensions, repertoires of resistance and struggles whose meaning and intelligibility, whose political capitalization, is always disputed.
Different positions decide today on the meaning, legitimacy and future of our project of society. The socializing work of the Cuban State can and should also be expressed in the promotion of a pedagogical criticism of learning by teaching and serving by commanding. It can and must be expressed in its ability to metabolize political interventions and demands that foster alliances between popular classes in order to manage common affairs, to stimulate new voluntary associative forms between production centers and communities, to manage a permanent democratization of their own structures, in order to seek, in short, an economic stability that guarantees the basic living conditions of Cubans, and that makes everything else possible.
Today there is a great debate about the foreign financing of projects aimed at subversion in Cuba. How to understand this phenomenon in the Cuban political and social context? Can sectors, groups and media be delimited in this field? What are the limits of legitimacy in citizen action in Cuba?
The question of opposition or dissent in Cuba carries the heavy burden of the history of counterrevolutions in the country. The year 1968 perhaps marked the symbolic junction between the 19th-century project of a sovereign nation, the catalysis of the national constitution process, and the program deployed by the triumphant revolution. The identification between Homeland, Revolution and Socialism was endorsed by the very historical exceptionality of the revolution, both anti-capitalist and anti-neocolonialist, as internally dependent conditions of the process. It brought together the national imagination and consensus and legitimized revolutionary politics.
This phenomenon is organically linked to relations with the United States, that “external constituent” of our national process. The “revolution of counterattack” was marked in its rhythm, radicality and evolution, in its possibilities and limitations, by the interventionist repertoires and the systematic siege of U.S. imperialism, as well as by the historical conditions of dependency, oppression and injustice that it set out to overcome. The counterrevolution then generated by the revolution itself resulted from these conditions of interdependence. Its composition, referents, modalities and mechanisms have been determined by this bilateral conflict: by its opposition to the revolutionary process and the resulting socialist order, as well as by the U.S. political context and its “regime change” strategies.
I consider these historical conditions as necessary to understand the phenomenon to which the question points, to which I would add what has already been stated about the current context. The debacle of the Soviet system and the crisis of the international left encouraged the U.S. to rebuild its world hegemony, and the promotion of (its) democracy as a spearhead for this purpose. The general deterioration brought on by the crisis in Cuba fractured the identity between national sovereignty and the really existing socialist order, in a more differentiated and transnationalized society.
Such processes have led to a pluralization of our political spectrum. Among those who adhere to the recolonization agenda of “democratic transition” for Cuba and those who affirm national sovereignty as the guiding axis of any future project of society (majority on both sides of the Florida Straits), in the last decades a range of positions, demands, interests and subjects that represent them have been deployed. The proliferation of channels and means of expression and dissemination, of social actors and referents, find unequal opportunities for deployment, scope or legitimation at the national level. A priori, many are constrained by the current regulatory system and institutional framework.
U.S. interference has undoubtedly conditioned the stereotypical accusation of foreign financing for those who oppose or disagree with the government. In the absence (due to non-existence, ineffectiveness or postponement) of a legislative framework adequate to the current conditions, they have appealed to old mechanisms, by various means, that pursue a common objective: to externalize, marginalize dissent, expel it from the social, symbolic body and institutionally.
Preserving national integrity in the face of subversion projects financed by foreign powers or entities—the effects of which have been suffered by generations of Cubans—is an inexcusable right. As such, it requires a robust and efficient legal framework capable of discerning, through a public process, the nature and scope of such threats. In a context of crisis and multiplication of political positions such as the one we are living in, appeal to discredit and criminalization, to indiscriminately deny the right of dialogue, hinder a new consensus around a project of society and fuels the polarization of representations, affections and wishes. The traditional logic of antagonistic confrontation, effective in the past, does not fit well with the task of constituting a socialist state of law. The new Constitution, the result of an unprecedented popular deliberation, can and must be a political horizon for the change of times we are living, for the creation of a new civic spirit, for the realization of a more properly national sovereignty, because it is inclusive.
Wilder Pérez Varona: Doctor of Philosophical Sciences. Researcher at the Cuban Institute of Philosophy and Assistant Professor at the University of Havana.