High noon at the socialist corral

0018a516Governmental Reorganization in Cuba and the Solidarity Shootout

By Ángeles Diez (and Eduardo Hernández)

English translation by Ana Atienza, revised by Machetera

The ministerial reorganization in the Cuban government, Fidel Castro’s letter explaining the reasons for such changes, and the publication of self-inculpatory letters from two significant officials belonging to the political leadership of the country have triggered a blind shootout within the Cuba solidarity movement which should be analyzed in order to avoid what has come to be usual practice in the European left: permanent atomization around superficial issues and the rejection of reflection and debate.

In this article we have summarized the general opinions taken from multiple published articles and opinion pieces from different sectors: What had happened? What was behind those changes? Why was nothing reported? These questions were not made solely by groups close to the Revolution, but also by those clearly against it. Surprisingly enough, such confusion has placed all of us in the same space: the void which, as we all know, relentlessly tends to be filled with value judgments. And that’s where we’ve engaged, some for the better, some for the worse.

Cuban institutions have not tackled this confusion, nor did they take the time to fill that void. But, should they have? The only certainty is that accomplished facts have been the only available explanation, thus leading to proliferation of the most surprising and contradictory hypotheses, thus resulting in a new fragmentation of solidarity.

Since no interpretation has been provided by the Cuban government (within or outside), all kinds of hypotheses have been proposed: some of them highlight the generational issue (changes that allegedly increase plurality by adding “valuable youth”). Others say that the decisions taken point to a certain economic direction for the country (towards China for some, towards Vietnam for others, towards a liberal opening, in the sense of search of economic efficiency, for still others), whereas some suggested that it was a circumstantial response against the USA.

In this article we do not intend to categorize or sanction the various positions taken, on the contrary, we think connections should be reorganized in order for us to put ourselves on a new more serious and solid, less melodramatic playing field, as well as elucidate whether, in this specific situation, a qualitative change has happened regarding Cuba’s expectations towards those in solidarity with it, or from the Cuba solidarity movement itself–avoiding a more demanding, less personalized solidarity.

Common to all views published has been that they were merely opinions. It could not have been any other way, since no official information was available to back them. The puzzlement of Cuba’s friends was evident, as they lacked additional data and were unable to reply to demands for more information, because it hadn’t circulated around the island either.

So, it was almost natural that the dismissals and subsequent communiqués brought forth a solidarity tending towards their being a “superficial issue” which diverted attention from the structural changes that may be happening in Cuba.

Some decided to show adherence to the country’s leadership without questioning its form or substance, in the faith that there must be powerful reasons to explain and justify the measures taken. Criticism towards any formal or substance aspect – they thought – would contribute to destabilize the Revolution and favor its enemies. As on so many other occasions, the set criterion has been that the best way to defend Cuba in the continuous war in which it is immersed is an unconditional alignment with official data, since the island – this is an indisputable historic fact — has been the flagship defense of socialism against capitalism. Some friends of Cuba also took this stand, but for more pragmatic reasons: trusting the leaders under the assumption that they, better than anyone, know how to tackle issues of economic and daily survival, as reflected by the island’s persistence as a socialist country. Others, nevertheless, have made their criticism explicit – something rare in these sectors, which, until now, had never felt the need to make such criticism publicly. This criticism was mainly focused on “formal” or “procedural” aspects (lack of participation, institutional absence, etc.). These people even “asked for explanations,” revealing the need of a certain recognition for the hard work of defending Cuban revolution in a hostile environment, sometimes at a high political, social and professional cost.

A third position was less evident; that of those who chose not to take a stand, and, consequently, discreetly retreated – which in Spain is known as “going home”. For these, the aim of not hurting the Cuban Revolution comes from the awareness that this is what we’ve got (despite its contradictions), i.e., the only surviving socialist project, and this conviction is stronger than the pressure they may receive to take a side.

Taking a sociological distance, this picture is the result of an ideologically heterogeneous, organizationally atomized, dispersed and unconnected left, which acted as usual: individually, according to their own intuition; with no chance to compare information or to reflect collectively. A left that abandoned its critical weapon – collective reflection – and preferred to give an opinion instead of reasoning. In the face of any reality that requires political judgment, the way out is not usually the search for consensus, but individual positioning.

In this logical context, the most probable outcome was what finally happened: crossfire on a friendly field, but this time aggravated by the passage of time, without the appearance of new data to explain, with Cuban support, the position taken. On the other side, it’s been years since many intellectuals and militants in solidarity with the Cuban socialist project stopped wondering about the complex Cuban reality and – all too often – assumed the standard replies. It wasn’t always this way, neither in the solidarity movement nor in Cuban institutions, which during the worst years of the blockade always tried to find support on the grounds of reason and the knowledge of what was happening in Cuba.

For years, and especially since the mid ‘80’s, when the first symptoms of the loss of Soviet support became noticeable, Cuba tried not to remain isolated, since this was part of its blockade-breaking strategy. Until 1995, the choice was to nurture a strong sense of solidarity based on the knowledge of the issues faced by the island; the bet was on political solidarity, and this required knowing the economic issues, the characteristics of political power, and the social implications of the measures adopted. In the same way that withstanding the economic crisis would entail unorthodox measures and also require Cuban consensus, debate, reflection and analysis, this need for consensus was also transferred to external solidarity and support. In the case of Spain, at the beginning of the ‘90’s, remarkable Cuban politicians, sociologists, lawyers, members of youth groups, etc., launched a campaign throughout the country enrobed in solidarity in order to talk about the Cuban electoral and health care systems, youth politics or the blockade. Groups in solidarity with Cuba started “solidarity tourism” campaigns, supported publications regarding agroponic culture, decentralization, basic production co-ops, etc. One did not wait to be informed about what was going on in the island, but looking for information was part of the practice of solidarity.

So, with the current events – reaction of the left to the government changes and Cuban response to the disconcerting occurrences — two background issues are visible: a terribly fragile and dispersed solidarity universe, and a Cuban policy towards solidarity based on unconditionality.

This may sound somewhat pretentious – for those who think only Cubans are allowed to talk about Cuba – but the moment in history that this “apparently superficial” debate has emerged about changes in the Cuban government is within the context of capitalism’s crisis – systemic or cyclical – which raises an unavoidable emergency: starting or resuming the intellectual battle for socialism.

Rebuilding –or in case it never existed, building — a culture of debate around socialism should be a priority. A lot of time has been wasted in claiming the parenthood of true socialism and positioning it with respect to the decisions of others, and almost no time or brainpower (or none at all) have been devoted to analyze what a socialist project is, wherever we think this option is at stake.

As a Cuban sociologist puts it, thinking, to be critical, should be in the border between the constituted and the constituent, a thinking developed in the margin (not marginal), but with a horizon, a compass always pointing North: to the socialist project.

In these days we have been pushed toward the wrong playing field: giving opinions and judging the decisions of both Cuba’s president and its historical leader Fidel Castro. This debate cannot generate anything but an exercise in self-indulgence, performed by intellectuals playing to see who’s right.

From our point of view, the border in which we should have placed ourselves, the playing field, is that in which we might analyze, together with the Cubans and after historically contextualizing the process, the spirit of the measures and/or changes implemented in the island during its socialist transition.

Since Fidel’s retreat as the president of the Cuban socialist republic, the exercise of power is, on the one hand, blurred, and on the other, the political project has lost consistency – which could be a possible approach. Both project and power were amalgamated in the great historic leader who encompassed authority and full legitimacy, barely touched by the passage of the years. However, this unity of Cuban socialism was also the result of the complex consensus building which always characterized governmental practice and led to the huge accumulation of revolutionary power that the island has had – a consensus built through institutions, but also through mass organizations, the party or the workplaces. The economic crisis of the ‘90’s fostered measures that worked against the socialist logic of parity and equality, and that, as would be seen later on, would create significant social imbalances (dual currency, tourism, mixed companies); these were “guerrilla” measures to deal with the economic battle and would allow for the necessary build-up to sustain the socialist social justice project. The whole country had to reach consensus to implement them. Let’s remember that the starting point of consensus is always dissent (disagreement points, because not everyone will be equally affected by the decisions, not all of them will have the same responses, etc.). The means for consensus are discussion, debate, and the necessary time to reach a common agreement. Only unity acquired through consensus building may be qualified as such; unanimity is the opposite. Cuban politics in the ‘90’s required, despite being proposed as a combined measure, acceptance by the majority of Cubans.

In recent years, neither economy nor social conditions, political project nor power exercise have remained frozen. It’s been the opposite. Fidel Castro’s retirement from the political scene revealed the complexities and contradictions of a project that, as the song goes, “is made by women and men”. The analysis of these changes, the diagnosis of its effects, and its contribution or harm to socialism should be our daily bread in the fight for socialism within and outside the island.

Then we get into the second derivative of the consensus: About what should consensus be sought? Which projects seek unity or demand solidarity?

Some of the changes which happened during the crisis of the ‘90’s –known as the “special period” — may have led to structural transformations despite a merely circumstantial approach. Some are evident, such as changes in values and expectations of the youngest generations, less conditioned by the revolutionary history of the country, which – perhaps influenced by tourism, parental overprotection and search of self-identity — started to replace the concept of “being” with “having”. The president himself, Fidel Castro, perceived the depth of this ideological turn when he launched the “battle of ideas” and gave youth the resources with which to participate in the country’s politics. Other changes may be perceived in the social-economic structure of those years, such as the increase in poverty, which is no longer an egalitarian condition of crisis and has acquired features of real social imbalance (dual currency, differentiated access to hard currency through tourism or remittances, or by professionals traveling abroad). A dual economy gives way to informal systems, a parallel market which is subsidiary to, or parasitical of, state resources, but unavoidable in crisis conditions.

The ‘90’s were a laboratory; those years tested the strength of the Cuban revolutionary project, new ways of relating to nature, institutions and work were invented. They were times of scarcity, but also of possibility. The big material and cultural accomplishments of the revolution were tested. Health, education and culture showed themselves to be up to the required level; despite dysfunctions introduced by the “survival” measures, they resisted the onslaught with scarce resources, proving that the availability of material resources to solve problems is secondary to organization, design and strategy. However, food availability, housing and wages, those areas in which the Revolution proved unable to successfully respond, not even in boom times, have been badly damaged, affecting in turn their associated institutions .

In recent years, after the retirement of the Cuban president, the exhausted “dual model” which characterized the crisis period has come up for review. The distortions created by the “informal market” which threaten to become hegemonous, have been added to the lack of economic structural transformations according to socialist parameters; furthermore, if we review the proposals conveyed in official speeches, [1] the goals inspiring the measures taken are remarkably economic (increasing productive efficiency, fostering productivity, social security reformation, delaying of retirement age, reducing excess prohibitions), and may be interpreted in the context of a political logic which abstains from resolving problems through socialism (housing, purchasing power of wages, land productivity, etc.), and chooses economics, or to be more specific, money, to find solutions.

It is in this context where we raise the blurring of the Cuban project and the difficulty in reaching a consensus regarding “Cuba’s socialist transition.” The ‘90’s and the first years of the new century showed great consensus. The image that better illustrates this stage is that of a sailing boat which, in order to get to its destination, has to take advantage of a headwind. With no resources other than its sails, sailors and captain’s skill, it “tacks:” the sails use the wind from its side, a zigzag course is set which apparently takes us farther, but allows us to advance, and the sails are turned again to correct the course and keep on advancing, always without losing sight of the place to which we are bound. Currently, envisaging the destination is difficult. If the socialist project loses its borders, blurred by the taking of decisions which are no longer comprehensive, consensus won’t find the horizon.

There is no doubt that everyone agrees on the need for structural changes. But such need of transformation may open the debate about the socialist nature of these changes or may take for granted (through accomplished facts) that the solution to basic (material) needs cannot be solved through socialism.

In these moments, the relevant question is whether this is a process of building consensus or, on the contrary, a search for unanimity; as much for the Cubans as those of us who champion Cuban socialism. We think redirecting this confusing situation both inside and out is possible and necessary, opening debates about the issues dealt with and how they are tackled. Cuba has more than enough mechanisms to deepen its revolution, since there is a discussion, analysis and consensus-building framework for debate prior to the party congress, as widely, deeply and clearly as possible.

Outside Cuba, we have the chance and the responsibility to stop shooting in the air hoping vainly to hit any target, instead fostering analysis and discussion, devoted more toward organized reflection instead of giving opinions. What is happening now in Cuba is the result of a history running against the current and one in which the country has been the executor of revolutionary principles. If we have leaned on Cuba for years, the time has come to contribute something. Our responsibility is not judging the Cuban Revolution, but working in support of socialist revolution – wherever we think it is at stake, and that can only be achieved from the power raised by unity and criticism.


[1] Speech given by Raúl Castro at the conclusion of the constituent assembly of the VII Legislature of the National Popular Power Assembly, February 2008. Presentation made at the VI Plenary Assembly of the PCC Central Committee in La Habana, April 28th 2008. Speech given by the President of the Republic of Cuba during the National People’s Power Assembly, December 27th, 2008.

Ana Atienza and Machetera are members of Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity. This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author, translator and reviser are cited.  This article is also available at Tlaxcala.

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