Debating 'The Boys from Dolores' II: Civil society in Cuba, and the future of a stormy relationship
Read Part 1 of this discussion.
The election of Raúl Castro as president of the “Councils of State and of Ministers,” and therefore head of state of Cuba, on Feb. 24 marks the formal end of the reign of Fidel Castro, the most famous of the “boys from Dolores.” Since the latter fell ill in July 2006 speculation has been rife concerning Fidel’s ongoing role and the nature of the transition currently underway. Developments over the last eighteen months have suggested that while change is afoot in Cuba, it will be gradual and carefully channeled.
Patrick Symmes’ book emphasizes the degree to which the Jesuits at Dolores inculcated in their charges a sense of responsibility as privileged individuals to work for the common good. In his interview some years ago with Frei Betto, Fidel referred to his Jesuit education as a stimulus for his concern for socioeconomic justice. What separates Fidel and Raúl from most of the other boys of Dolores is the means they adopted to achieve the common good, namely a Communist regime that centralized political and economic decision-making in the party elite. This precipitated an ideological and political battle in Cuba that resulted in an exodus of one-tenth of the population, including most of Fidel’s schoolmates. What Fidel has styled as the “battle of ideas” raged within Cuba during the 1960s, and since then among Cubans on and off the island and with the United States. Fidel has stated that he regards his current role as evaluating the past in order to distill its relevance for the ongoing battle between communism and liberal capitalism.
In this struggle, civil society in Cuba has until recently played a relatively limited role, although that may be changing. Historically civil society in Cuba was active and highly diverse. As early as the nineteenth century, civic associations and special interest groups were common. Today the non-governmental sector on the island is relatively weak. However, if you look at the combination of state, quasi-state and non-state sectors that are actually discharging the traditional functions of civil society, such as pressuring the state for effective delivery of services, then civil society in Cuba is fairly pervasive. Indeed, “amphibians” are alive and well in Cuba, that is, individuals and groups that move between the state and non-state sectors in an effort to have more influence on public policies.
Mass organizations such as the Cuban Confederation of Workers (CTC) have since the early 1970s lobbied to modify government economic policies, as has the National Association of Small Agriculturalists (ANAP). Recently, representatives of the ANAP pressured Raúl’s administration for debt relief. Research centers and other “government organized non-governmental organizations” (GONGOS) have been among the most active in generating alternative proposals to those of the government. These groups were involved in the Academy of Sciences task forces that studied crises areas in Cuba, including poverty among the elderly, anti-social behavior and criminality among youths, as well as deficiencies in housing, transportation and food production. Not infrequently experts forced out of ministries or research centers for being too heterodox are solicited for advice by their former colleagues within the state structures. All these elements combined exercise the functions of civil society, although they violate strict definitions of it.
However, the unique nature of civil society in Cuba does limit its cohesiveness and hence its capacity to generate a consensual agenda. To date no element of civil society in Cuba has generated a mass base. Nevertheless, as the government of Raúl Castro has encouraged discussion within the mass organizations and the Communist Party, there has been increasing debate and criticism of public policies and programs. Indeed, some of the sharpest critiques have emanated from party cadres. In addition, in recent months high school and university students among others have become more vocal in expressing their discontent, particularly given the declining purchasing power of the Cuban peso. Ferment is on the rise in Cuba, stimulated in part by the government’s own actions. Raúl’s move to undertake some reforms may be an effort to burnish his brother’s legacy as a champion of socioeconomic justice. A good number of the classmates would challenge the validity of such a claim. However, the “boys from Dolores” may very well not be the final arbiters of that. It is their children and grandchildren who will have the task of reconciling Cubans both on and off the island in the future.
Patrick Symmes has little to say about Cuban society in general before 1959 or even after. Moreover, the importance of national sovereignty is barely even acknowledged. The same is true with Cuba’s history. Let me mention some of the unique features:
Pre-1959, Cuban political thought was dominated by a search for national self-determination. The history of the wars of independence, from 1868-1898, were uniquely Cuban in the sense that the country united two different processes: the struggle for national sovereignty was tied to social revolution. In the United States these two processes were separated (1776, 1867): independence and the emancipation of the slaves. In Cuba the two processes took place at the same time. These two factors made Cuban history much more radical than the United States experience. In Cuba, national independence and social revolution went hand in hand. (Only Haiti had a similar history in this hemisphere.) And the reverse is also true: social revolution goes hand in hand with a defense of national sovereignty. This remains so, up to the present. Jose Marti elucidated both processes. Cuban children learned such things from the 1920s on.
Thus, when Fidel and Raul went to Dolores, they were educated in a milieu where national history was very important. Moreover, the Jesuits also taught Catholic doctrines that were anti-communist as well as anti-capitalist. Indeed, the ideas of the Counter-Reformation were anti-capitalist as well as anti-Protestant. Therefore, it would be erroneous to assume that “liberal” capitalism ever entered Cuba.
What’s more, the 1934 sugar quota system fostered the establishment of a highly state-controlled and planned sugar economy. When the United States government informed Cuba’s government that it would purchase a set amount of sugar at a set price that meant that the Cuban state had to allocate the sugar quota to sugar cane producers and to sugar mill producers at a fixed price. The laws of supply and demand were set aside, since 1934, and the not-so-invisible hand of the U.S. government and the Cuban government determined the actual economic logic of the nation’s economy. As a result, the “free market” never really operated in Cuba.
One should also mention that Cuba had one of the most unionized labor forces in the hemisphere before 1959, more so than in the United States. The labor unions were organized into federations that had a fairly progressive leadership, at least until 1952. Cuba’s unions since the 1920s to the 1950s were dominated by the communists. Moreover, all political parties—even Fulgencio Batista’s—favored a strong labor movement. Thus, the “civil” society that American academics have imagined for Cuba since about 1989 had very different characteristics and origins in the island.
Once the revolutionaries attained power and began the process of changing Cuban society, a whole new set of social organizations appeared. In fact, in the whole hemisphere the Cubans were the first to create a national organization of women, which touched the lives of women all over the country. That began in 1960 even before anyone dreamed of NOW in the United States. Cuba also created a national organization to represent every neighborhood in the country: the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. None such had existed anywhere in Latin America. The labor unions were extended to every work place. And similar national organizations were established for students as well as peasants.
(As a not-so-minor aside: The United States might have some things to learn about Cuba. For example, Cuba had an elected black president in 1940. Fulgencio Batista won an election, fair and square. Moreover, the 1940 Constitution, a more advanced Constitution than the American version, was written by a Constitutional convention that had black senators playing prominent roles. In fact, the leader of the Cuban equivalent of the AFL-CIO between 1936 and 1951 was a black man. Thus, Obama might be making history in the U.S., 68 years after the Cubans did so.)
Of course, since American academics and policy makers do not see the civil society that they wish to see in Cuba, U.S. foreign policy attempts to finance the creation of one—one that is tailor-made to American needs. Although funded from abroad, we in the United States tend to call this segment of society “independent.”
One point the discussion of Cuba always fails to mention is that any development within the island is always shaped by the overwhelming presence of the political, economic and military threat that the United States government represents. Typically this is dismissed in the United States. This is odd. The American people have not experienced anything that could approximate the systematic onslaught imposed on the island by the United States since 1961. Yet we expect Cuba to act as if such policies were not in place.
Since 2000 the United States government has allocated no less than $70 million dollars to foster the development of “civil society” and “dissidents” in Cuba. This is the publicly acknowledged figure; it does not include the money used by the intelligence services. Seventy million U.S. dollars equals roughly $1.6 billion Cuban pesos. Cuba has a population of 11.2 million people. Thus, the United States spends $6.25 USD per capita in subverting the island. That is 150 pesos per Cuban or about 45% of the average income for an entire month of a regular household. Now, imagine if an adversary of the United States were to provide a similar amount to American citizens that a foreign power described as “dissidents” and “independents”!
Indeed, Americans seem to forget our sedition laws* Moreover, we expect that Cubans simply follow what the United States government tells them to do. The Torricelli Act of 1992 and the Helms Burton bill of 1996 clearly define that the United States claims for itself the right to determine what institutional arrangement Cuba should have. In fact, the Native American reservations in the U.S. will likely enjoy more sovereignty than any future government of Cuba.
Of course, it is doubtful that Raul Castro or any nationalist Cuban will ever accept such terms.
It is a mistake to assume that the problem between Cuba and the United States is a mere misunderstanding; or that the United States government has the best interests of the Cuban people in mind. The problem is not a disagreement among Cubans either. Some Cubans, who were unwilling to accept revolutionary changes, went abroad and aligned with an adversary who historically has opposed the independence and sovereignty of Cuba. However, all exiles are not supporters of the policy the United States government has followed for over 45 years. There are some of us that know that the constant external threat has made conditions in the island ever more difficult. James Madison in federalist paper No 8, stated:
“Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.”
Those who wish to see “freedom” in Cuba, then ought to call for an end to the policy of blockading, embargoing and external threats and dictates. In other words, let Cuba be Cuba.
*Alien and Sedition Acts, 1798; the U.S. Sedition Act of 1918; U.S. Code Section 2385: Advocating overthrow of Government; Espionage Act of 1917; The Internal Security Act of 1950 (also known as the McCarran Act); Smith Acts of 1949.