Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Cuba: The single party system confronts the crisis

A critical perspective from a Cuban historian

None of the ostensibly post-capitalist regimes established since 1917 has managed to find a way to sustain mass democratic forms of governance and to build the popular consciousness and capacities needed for the transition to socialist society. Whatever their origins, these regimes have come to rely on monolithic party formations that function essentially as a part of the institutional structure of the state, not independently of it. Cuba is no exception, notwithstanding its heroic history of mobilization against imperialist threats and in internationalist solidarity.

In the following article Cuban historian Alina Bárbara López Hernández explores this dilemma in the context of the social protests that occurred throughout Cuba on July 11. She focuses in particular on the way in which the single-Party system has shielded the government from popular concerns and demands, curtailed public political debate, alienated the youth, and fostered the growth of bureaucratic lethargy that hinders efforts at economic and social reform. Although she does not suggest a solution to this problem, she emphasizes the need to open up a debate on it within Cuba, and to encourage all forms of democratic expression within that process.

Alina Bárbara López Hernández is a professor, writer and historian based in Matanzas. She is the coordinator of the on-line publication La Joven Cuba, in which this article appeared. I have revised the English translation published in International Viewpoint. – Richard Fidler

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The single party system faced with the crisis

by Alina Bárbara López Hernández

A political party that governs alone, does not compete with another organization, and does not have to run in an election to be in power, would seem to have a great advantage. Paradoxically, that privilege is, at the same time, its greatest weakness.

Not having to negotiate power, taking it for granted that it will not be disputed, leads politically to a harmful attitude that assumes any hint of social pressure is unacceptable. When it occurs, the consequent reaction shows absolute ineptitude shielded with recklessness.

This authoritarian perspective is also strengthened by the teleological, mechanistic and anti-Marxist approach to history which assumes that the socialist revolution, once victorious, cannot retreat. This over-optimism closes off the possibility of any process of successful improvement or reform.

The collapse of the socialist camp shattered many constitutions that declared it irreversible. It is not the text in a legal treatise that counts, but the involvement of the people who find in that system the embodiment of their aspirations and who can modify it with that objective in mind.

The pressure of the majorities from below is what has made political systems evolve from ancient times until today. In the one-party model of bureaucratic socialism, the real and spontaneous participation of the citizenry in political activity is not allowed. This discriminatory condition explains why, faced with the July 11 social outburst, the Party reacted with brutality, in an authoritarian way rather than politically.

The lesson of thirty years ago was not learned in Cuba. In 2002, more than ten years after the disintegration of the USSR, a constitutional article declared socialism was irreversible, while the 2019 Constitution established that the Party is the “superior leading force of society and the State (...).” From that vantage point, the Party should have been in a better position to see that the conditions for a social explosion existed in Cuba. But not only was it not, but it has also demonstrated its incapacity to interpret the true causes of the conflict and to act accordingly.

The real causes of 11-J

The internal contradictions of social processes are the fundamental and determining factors. This principle of materialist dialectics is not applied by the Party in spite of its declared Marxist affiliation. Therefore, in the face of the social unrest, it has preferred to stick to a narrative that explains what happened based solely on external factors, real but not decisive: the pressures of the US blockade on Cuba, a soft coup, a fourth generation war.

Up to now, there has not been a deep and self-critical analysis by the Party concerning itself and its responsibility for the crisis. If there were, they would have admitted that none of the key proposals that in recent times created hope for changes to transform socialism from above came to anything. They were:

1. A reform process announced in 2007, fourteen years ago now, which promised – clarifying that it would do so “without haste” – “structural and conceptual changes” that we are still awaiting in the Cuban economy. And I say “in the economy” because the reform process never included the political dimension.

2. A Constitution approved in 2019 that, despite the debate it generated and the expectations it raised by including the concept of a Socialist Rule of Law, excluded any approach aimed at the transformation of the political system.

3. Three Party Congresses: the 6th, 7th and 8th, which in less than 15 years actually engaged less and less with the idea of reforming the model. In the last one, a little more than three months ago, a bucket of cold water was basically poured over the people, by perpetuating the thesis of stagnation and failing to address the serious social and political problems that had generated concern, not only among the youth but also in society as a whole.

A socialist system that cannot be influenced from below is a pipedream, and ours is trapped in a flagrant contradiction: we have approved a Constitution that is not viable. One part of it tends to sustain a situation of infringement of freedoms – especially in its Article 5 which declares the superiority of the single Party – while another part recognizes these rights and freedoms under a Socialist Rule of Law.

No exclusively economic reformist process is feasible because, when the citizenry is not actively involved in controlling the direction, results and speed of the transformations, changes run the risk of being dismantled or curtailed. Cuba has been no exception. The bureaucracy has become a “class for itself” within society and hinders changes and reforms that, although it accepts them on paper, it has delayed in practice.

A great unresolved conflict, wherever bureaucratic socialism is established, is that of converting state property into true social property. This aspiration has been utopian due to the lack of democratization, the lack of citizen participation in economic decisions, and the fact that the unions are no longer organizations that defend the interests of the workers.

The arrogant attitude of the Party is typical of a political model that failed. In February 1989, the Soviet magazine Sputnik devoted an issue to the stagnation that characterized the period of Leonid Brezhnev, and it asked these questions:

“Should the Party leadership become a special organ of power, which is above all other organs? If the Central Committee is a special organ of power, how do we control it? Can its decisions be protested as unconstitutional? Who is responsible in the event of failure of a decreed measure? If this superior organ in fact directs the country, then shouldn’t it be elected by all the people?”

In this political model the Party is selective, a “vanguard,” and not a popular party open to all, so that if it declares itself as a force superior to society it also sets itself above the people. For this not to be so, the people should be able to elect those who head the Party, and this is not allowed. If it is over and above everybody, and it is not “an electoral party,” it is out of the people’s control. That’s the political model that must be changed.

The younger sectors have no memory of the initial and most successful social policy stages in the revolutionary process. To them, the revolutionary narrative, the evident transformations and the benefits of the first decades have little impact.

They have known the last thirty years, with its legacy of poverty, a sustained increase in inequality, failed life prospects and the anticipation of emigration at ever-younger ages. The arrival of the Internet has coordinated them as a generation, allowing them to contrast opinions, build virtual spaces for participation that the political model denies them, and to generate actions.

So we must recognize that the main contradictions that led to the 11th July outburst are eminently political. The demands were not only for food and medicine or against the power cuts. These may have been the catalyst, but the “freedom” slogans that swept the island indicate the demand of the citizens to be recognized in a political process that has ignored them up to now.

Bread, circuses… and Senate

The party was totally disoriented by the 11th July events. This was shown by:

  • the brutal scenes of repression against the demonstrators;
  • the declarations calling for violence by the newly appointed first secretary of the Party – later toned down;
  • an urgent meeting of the Political Bureau the day after the events – of which nothing has been revealed;
  • and the usual organized acts of revolutionary reaffirmation almost a week later.

However, although it never acknowledges or apologizes, the Party knows that it made a very costly mistake.

Voices have been raised from sectors of the left and some prestigious figures and organizations, demanding respect for the political rights of peaceful demonstration and for freedom of expression in Cuba. Several governments, and the European Union as a bloc, have criticized the violent repression, surely unconstitutional.

Palliative measures are now beginning to be taken to alleviate the tragic shortages: an increase in the amount of rice, a staple in the standard food basket, effective this month until December; free distribution of products donated to Cuba (grains, pasta, sugar, and in some cases oil and meat products); a price reduction in some services of Etecsa, the communications monopoly.

In addition, long-standing requests that would have served to mitigate the crisis much earlier have now been approved: imports of food and medicines without restrictions and free of customs charges; credit sales in stores. Others may be announced in the coming days.

There is no doubt that the situation will be somewhat alleviated, but the Party must be very aware that none of these decisions will solve the Cuban dilemma which is, as I have already stated, of a political nature.

Perhaps they believe that by applying these palliatives they are discovering a new politics. They are wrong. Thousands of years ago, the Latin poet Juvenal, in his Satire X, immortalized a phrase that designated the practice of the rulers of his time: “Bread and circuses.”[1] It was the plan of Roman politicians to win over the urban plebs in exchange for wheat and entertainments so that they would lose their critical spirit, feeling satisfied by the false generosity of the rulers.

In Cuba we need bread and circuses, we are a suffering people, but – above all – we need to govern from below. We need to be the Senate, since our Senate has disappeared from the political scene. There is not a single statement from any member of the National Assembly of People’s Power, as such, in spite of the seriousness of the violent acts against a part of the people they are supposed to represent.

They have violated the legislative schedule saying it is impossible to meet in the middle of a pandemic. However, under the same conditions, the Party held its 8th congress and, after July 11, massive activities were organised in support of the government in all the provinces.

There has not yet been an official pronouncement from the Party leadership analyzing the facts, offering exact figures of the cities and towns involved, participants in the protests, people arrested and prosecuted. It was of no use to the single Party to have analyzed in the Political Bureau, a few days before the 8th Congress, a report entitled: “Study of the socio-political climate of Cuban society.” They understood nothing of that climate, or those who wrote the report did not portray reality.

Single Party bureaucratic socialism creates a kind of political demiurge that escapes the rule of law, since it places itself above it, accentuates political extremism and separates itself from the citizenry. So far all models with these characteristics, far from leading to a socialist society, have disguised a state capitalism with features of corruption and elitism.

It is time to debate this and organize ourselves to change it. It is possible now. As the president of the People’s Supreme Court declared to the international press, in Cuba the Constitution guarantees the right to peaceful demonstration.

July 30, 2021

[1] “Panem et circenses,” Juvenal suggests, are the only remaining cares of a Roman populace which has given up its birthright of political freedom. https://www.ancient-literature.com/rome_juvenal_satire_x.html. – RF.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Cuba’s Crisis, Our Response

With Cuba at a crossroads, we must respond to recent protests by listening to the Cuban people and recognizing the country’s accomplishments and its shortcomings, its past and its potential.

Margaret Randall is a feminist poet with a long history of social activism in Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua, as well as the United States. In Mexico, she  cofounded the bilingual journal, El Corno Emplumado. Among her best-known books are Cuban Women Now, Sandino’s Daughters, Sandino’s Daughters Revisited, and When I Look into the Mirror and see You: Women, Terror and Resistance (all oral history with essay). In this article, which appeared first on the NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America) website, Randall imparts some well-chosen and necessary advice to everyone sympathetic to revolutionary Cuba and its people.

Richard Fidler

* * *

Cuba’s Crisis, Our Response

By Margaret Randall

The recent protests in Cuba, especially those on July 11, 2021 have provoked consternation in some and hope in others. The protests, which began in the Havana suburb of San Antonio de Los Baños, the eastern city of Palma Soriano, and quickly spread nationwide, are the first examples of visible large scale discontent since the demonstrations that took place in 1994 at the height of the economic crisis brought on by the Soviet Union’s collapse.

By and large, the “news” reflects entrenched positions. Corporate media publishes opinion pieces about a people bravely seeking freedom and treats these protests as if they are the beginning of the end of the Cuban revolution. The virulent Right screams about fake disappearances and invented torture, while remaining silent about countries such as Colombia and Nicaragua where such horrors are actually being perpetrated. Meanwhile, acritical sectors of the Left deny any sort of official violence or justify it in the name of the revolution’s survival. None of these lenses reflect the real story. Unsurprisingly, the most factual and complete accounts come from Cubans who live in the country and have for years contributed to constructing its revolution.

It has been 40 years since I’ve lived in Cuba and, although I visit frequently, I know it makes a difference that I am not there on the ground right now, experiencing current events for myself. When reading the variety of interpretations that have emerged over the past several weeks, it is important to take into account not only the writer’s political position but where she or he lives. A Cuban who resides in Cuba, a Cuban who is part of the vast diaspora, or a foreigner defending a particular political position: each of these placements has its lens. And in a country that has surprised us for so long, any opinion may be nothing more than a snapshot of the moment.

The Cuban government’s response to the mass demonstrations set a disturbing tone for their immediate aftermath. President Díaz-Canel went to San Antonio de los Baños hoping to calm the crowd as Fidel Castro had so often been able to do. But Díaz-Canel misjudged the protest’s importance and temperature. Phrases such as “the streets belong to the revolutionaries” and “we are prepared for anything” met genuine discontent with thoughtless dogmatism. To say that this was a poor response is an understatement. Inside as well as outside of Cuba criticism came swiftly.

Díaz-Canel apologized, and the Cuban government announced conciliatory measures on July 14 in an attempt to address the people’s legitimate concerns. The changes, which included lifting some taxes and import limits on medications and food, announcing changes to the state sector’s salary scale, and loosening some restrictions on food rationing, may be all that are possible given the country’s dire economic situation. However, they probably won’t be enough to placate long frustrated demands.

The Cuban Communist Party has demonstrated its ability to remain in power through decades of crises. And those of us who know and love the revolution fear that the focus on survival at any cost will leave us with a situation that is far from the one envisioned by the revolution’s creators. I speak as someone who experienced the revolution’s glory years: nationalized natural resources, newly acquired literacy, free education and healthcare, almost full employment, an equitable distribution of food and other necessities, a legal system with real input from people who discussed new law at neighborhood meetings, extraordinary promotion of the arts and sports. Cuba also developed programs of international solidarity and disaster relief beyond anything carried out by much wealthier countries. While the rich nations offer their surplus, what Cuba offers often means sacrifice for its own population. During the decade (1969-1980) I lived and raised four children there, these achievements weren’t statistics but the day-to-day reality.

Cuba’s reality today is one in which education and healthcare are still free and universal, but also one in which important constitutional changes and party promises aimed at producing a more equitable society have been enacted in word only. In the midst of tremendous economic and social stress, follow-through has not materialized or been too slow.

It isn’t unusual for politicians to promise more than they can produce. It happens on a daily basis in the United States and in most of the world’s countries. But in Cuba, where a genuine people’s revolution created mechanisms for transparency and change, this contradiction is not acceptable. Not to the old timers who remember what life under the Batista dictatorship was like, and not to the youth who, like youth everywhere, demand justice and demand it now.

In Cuba, the list of challenges seems endless. On top of the extreme economic problems brought on by 62 years of blockade and a difficult transition from a socialist system to one that can function in today’s world, Covid-19 is out of control. The country’s excellent biochemical industry has developed two proven vaccines, Soberana (91.2 percent efficacy) and Abdala (92.28 percent efficacy) and is attempting to vaccinate its entire population. But even with Cuba’s organizational expertise, a shortage of syringes—one outcome of the blockade—has rendered this a slow process. The severity of the pandemic has also devastated tourism, putting an additional strain on the country’s economy. A long-awaited consolidation of the monetary system has been rocky. In July, a major power plant suffered a breakdown, causing frequent blackouts. Scarcities became more acute. Tropical storm Elsa was another blow. Many Cubans are frustrated beyond their ability to wait for incremental change.

Over the past decade Cuba has foolishly cracked down on artists and others whose work has protested the status quo, creating the current complex situation. Despite this pattern of repression, authoritative voices from inside Cuba—including Andrés Perdomo Guanche, Jorge Fornet, Arturo Arango, Margarita Alarcón, and Víctor Heredia, to name just a few—are attempting to situate the protests in context.

La Tizza, an independent Cuban news source that describes itself as “a venue for thinking and making socialism,” in its July 15 editorial wrote: “Those who came out to protest the State and socialism in Cuba were ordinary people….Those who continue to read Cuba as if the Caribbean were the Baltic are excitedly sharing via social media images of Berlin or Prague at the moment of European socialism’s demise. They don’t know that the Cuban Revolution won’t melt like some merengue because it’s never been made of merengue. Not because it hasn’t been sweet, but rather because it’s also had its moments of bitterness, which up to now we’ve been able to transform into strength.”

The La Tizza editorial goes on to describe protests not between the people and the state but between two groups of people with two very different social projects. One group, victim of capitalist propaganda, has given up on its dream of a just society. The other is unwilling to relinquish the revolutionary aspirations it has nurtured for generations, the legality of a socialist constitution ratified by democratic referendum, or the idea of a nation of peace, social justice, and national dignity exemplified by a revolution resting on tarnished laurels rather than opening new pathways to the future.

Beloved singer-songwriter and truth-teller Silvio Rodríguez asks, “who are the comrades responsible for the fact that, after two Communist Party congresses and what is set forth in the Constitution, what needs to change hasn’t changed? Who,” he asks again, “in the upper echelons of government? I want names and positions. And I want to hear what they have to say for themselves.”

Marcia Leiseca, one of the founders of Casa de las Américas, who even at an advanced age is still active in cultural work, writes, “it’s time to speak, to exercise opinions and offer ideas.…We must establish a dialogue with young people, encourage their participation in a new present and future. What happened on July 11 has been manipulated by the extreme Left and the extreme Right, the former blaming the unjust blockade and outside interference, overstating the resultant vandalism and absolving us of all responsibility. The latter exaggerates what took place, invents horrors such as disappearances, torture, and violation of human rights.”

Cuba is at a crossroads, and how the current crisis is handled may well determine the revolution’s survival. The U.S. government needs to repeal its blockade and stop the overt and covert operations designed to destroy the revolution. Cuba’s leaders must issue verifiable lists of detainees and name and punish those officials who beat protestors or otherwise failed to follow Cuba’s own civil guarantees.

Cuba is rightly indignant that the United States continues to interfere in its internal affairs. An analysis of social media bots shows that many, although not all, of the protests are being organized and funded from outside the country, by U.S. government agencies and rightwing Cuban forces. During the protests, people received repeated messages claiming that provincial governments had fallen to the demonstrators and urging people to join a victorious situation that didn’t exist. This is understandably a sore point in a country that has endured attacks from the United States throughout the history of its revolution. I hope the Cuban government will begin to answer the protests with dialogue rather than repression.

Before July 11, dissent in Cuba was sporadic and limited to specific social groups or isolated experiences of censorship or repression. On that day, they were larger and more comprehensive. Thousands have protested excessive government control. I believe they should be heard.

I also believe that the Cuban government has a responsibility to issue information about incidents of violence on both sides, make available lists of those currently being detained, and name and punish police and other officials who have gone against the country’s own constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and dissent. At the same time, I think it is worth noting that Cuba is a nation of eleven million. The recent protests are far from constituting a tipping point.

I urge people on all sides to think about how extraordinary it is that a tiny island 90 miles from U.S. shores has been able to survive for more than half a century against every sort of covert and overt attack. Let us help Cuba become what its revolution has promised rather than try to mold it to some specious image in which profit obliterates justice and equality.

August 11, 2021

For more on Margaret Randall and her works, see Margaret Randall (Wikipedia) and her website: http://www.margaretrandall.org/.