Father Varela, Man of the Present / Dimas Castellanos

The accords of the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), along with those emanating from its five previous congresses, have demonstrated not only their inability to solve the serious problems of Cuban society, but also to enforce the approved guidelines.

The separation of the functions of the Party from those of the State, one of the basic lines drawn in the Congress and upon which depends the rest of the approved projects, seems unachievable. The mentality of the political-administrative cadres, formed under a prolonged totalitarian leadership, is incapable of fulfilling its own accords.

After having recognized the errors committed, and agreeing to change their methods and to separate political functions from administrative, the 15 provincial assemblies of the PCC held after the Congress, seemed destined to reject this change in methods, as each of them called for a “change in mentality” but then continued on doing the same things as before.

The assemblies concentrated a call to its members to change the language but keep the facts of the previous methods: “The Party has to know what everyone is doing, with names and surnames.” “We need to know in advance what each farmer will plant and harvest.” Or, “We must demand from those who don’t make the land productive.” These were some of the approaches, whose real effect is nothing more than to undermine the interests of the producers and keep them tied to the constraints that prevent them from producing efficiently.

But the exclusion, a problem that has much to do with the dismal state of Cuban society, remains. Civil liberties, without which none of the problems we face can be solved, remain absent. And everything indicates that those who wield the power of the ship are no hurry to amend this direction, as shown by the above provincial assemblies of the PCC.

One of the disparate consequences of this behavior is that in addition to the decline and stagnation suffered, Cuba stands apart from the processes taking place in the world, taking us ever further from contemporary reality, at a time when events that are taking place in different parts of the world that point to greater citizen participation. A process objective, universal, unstoppable and complex requires ways of thinking and acting that enable the coupling of each country to the exigencies of its era.

In short, the most vital is still lacking: the conversion of Cubans into citizens, active participants in the changes, because the implementation of human rights, the starting point for that purpose, has no place in the government agenda. This reality shows the urgent need for a change in mentality, first in political conceptions, a sphere related to decision making, with a relationship between people with common interests and public activities that decide the fate of the nation.

In political matters it is a waste and a contradiction to have valuable contributions of different Cuban thinkers and not to draw from the all they contain that is useful for today. It is even more contradictory that the Central Report to the Sixth Congress of the CCP mentions founding figures of culture and politics such as José Martí Cuban, Father Felix Varela and José de la Luz y Caballero without considering fully their ideas, contributions and definitions on such crucial issues as freedom, democracy, inclusion and civic participation.

In edition No. 8 of Voices magazine, I devoted an article to the major nineteenth century politician, José Martí, under the title: Cuba: the wrongs of the single party. At this opportunity, I write of Father Varela, the first in a logical and historical order, because it was he who first dealt with the need for changes in the way of thinking because, to paraphrase the historian Eduardo Torres Cuevas, we find him necessary and essential because, across the distances of time, his political teachings remain in full force.

Felix Francisco José María de la Concepción Varela y Morales (1778-1853), was born in Havana and died in St. Augustine, Florida. He studied at the San Carlos Seminary and the Royal and Pontifical University of San Geronimo de La Habana. In 1810 he was ordained as a deacon and in 1811 as a priest (1). In the Seminary he met José Agustín Caballero, who exerted a significant influence in relation to the scholastic and autonomous.

In the Seminary he held the chairs of Latin Language and Culture, Philosophy and Constitution. He was the first to speak in Cuba of the nation, including the whole national territory; the first who developed a project for the abolition of slavery in Cuba; the first thing who followed his own direction in Cuban thought and set out to teach us to think; and also the first to introduce ethics in scientific, social and political studies. Thus, José de la Luz y Caballero defined him as our true civilizer and José Martí called him the overarching patriot.

Every age and every generation has its historical mission. If the native Havanans of the mid-seventeenth century, led by Felix Arrate, addressed the claim of island politics of equality before the Spaniards; and the Creole-Cubans of the same century, with Francisco de Arango y Parreno in the lead proposed to convert Cuba into the largest producer of sugar and coffee in the world, and succeeded; to the generation of the early nineteenth century — that of Father Varela — were touched by the impact of the bourgeois revolutions that marked a change of era in the history of mankind. Thus, like the two preceding generations, and those that succeeded him, he addressed the adequacy of the forms of thought to the new challenges posed by that time.

Varela was born at the height of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, at the time when a republican constitutional system was introduced in the United States; at the time of the outbreak of the French Revolution that globalized the ideology of bourgeois revolutions; at the time of Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and of the French constitutions of the late seventeenth century; at the time of the death of the enlightened monarch Carlos III, with which the splendor of Despotism was finished. A context imposed by the need for a different politics, followed by Arrate or Arango y Parreño.

In 1801, returning to Cuba after nearly 13 years living with his family in Florida, Varela enrolled in the seminary of St. Charles, where a cultural movement began to take shape in Havana, fueled by the liberal Bishop Espada, who, as happened later with Rafael María de Mendive with respect to José Martí, gave him books from his own library and introduced him to the gatherings in which they discussed the philosophical, political, legal, artistic or scientific work emanating from the historical events mentioned above.

A few years later, when Spain promulgated the liberal Constitution of 1812, Felix Varela assumed the chair of Philosophy San Carlos Seminary, from where he deepened the critique of the structures of thought already begun by Jose Agustin Caballero against the Scholastics; a criticism directed primarily toward the liberation of thought. His philosophy was characterized by freedom, and on being freed he created the basis for a path based on our reality, “our own way of thinking emanating from the physical, cultural and ethical aspects of emerging and still not clearly defined Cubanness” (2).

From this emerged his political position toward the colonial power, forming what might be called an insular proto-political science, because political science is that, the science that studies the relationship between power and the State toward current social networks.

Eight years later, as a result of Spain’s 1820 return to the liberal Constitution, the Constitutional Chair was established in the St. Charles seminary, where Varela, responding to the request and advice of Bishop Espada, assumed it with an inaugural address saying: “I would call this Chair the chair of freedom, human rights, of national security, of the regeneration of the illustrious Spain, the source of civic virtue, the basis of the great building of our happiness …. ” (3).

His philosophy lessons, Torres Cuevas explains, were composed of three parts:

1-The theory of knowledge (ideology or study of the production of ideas),

2 – The application of that theory to the nature of man and society (ideology applied , ie, ethics and politics), and,

3 – The physical (study of the natural generation of ideas and the only producer of true knowledge).

But the focus of his philosophical concern, in line with ethics, was what constituted man, so that, in addition to having initiated the path toward independence of thought, he gave a solid ethical basis to the aspirations of the Cuban people, whom he considered an actor in social events. He assumed the ethics of his primary character, elemental and essential in social relations, because it also carries the principle of absolute equality of all human beings and because it constitutes the foundation of rights upon which are erected dignity, civil society and civic participation.

For Varela, one of his basic political principles was to do at every moment what it is possible to do in that moment, and to adapt the means to the end, which explains the evolution of his thinking and practical action. Hence the order of events on which he insisted: creating one’s own thought; training in civic and patriotic virtues; fighting for the autonomy for the island and the abolition of slavery, for he which elaborated an Autonomy Project for the Island of Cuba, liberal and progressive in nature, and another project for the abolition of slavery, in the heyday of the sugar plantation.

These were reformist projects that, without breaking abruptly with the existing system, were proposed, in keeping with the historic moment, as the possible: expanding the rights of those born in the island without excluding those from Africa; demonstrating the need for independence and when he understood its momentary unviability, giving himself over to an effort more directed at preparing the minds in which to gestate a conspiracy.

From this new vision he devoted all his efforts to teaching how to think of the island’s needs in national terms. According to Jorge Ibarra (4), this produced for the first time “in the island’s thinking the fusion of national and social aspirations of the classes and strata that constituted the people/nation in 1868.”

It is from this moment, from El Habanero (5) to Letters to Elpidio (6), he focused on what is a rarity in our political action: the formation of conscience and virtue in the future subjects of change, men capable of thinking about the problems of a nation in formation, which explains the phrase of Luz y Caballero: Varela was the one who “taught us first to think” and therefore, said Pope John Paul II, in the Auditorium of the University of Havana, he generated “a school of thought, a style of social interaction and an attitude toward the country which should illuminate Cubans, even today,” adding, “This led him to believe in the power of the small, the efficacy of the seeds of truth, in the desirability of changes made with the appropriate gradualness toward great and genuine reforms” (7).

Many of the current stumbling blocks are related to the ignorance of this source of knowledge and virtues. So, beyond mentioning that Father Varela must be considered in all his political and human dimension, and therefore, like him, considering the Cuban people as a political entity and actor in social changes; like him, starting from the value of freedom as a base of societal functioning; like him, recognizing that the inclusion of everyone is an inviolable principle of coexistence; like him, accepting that the absolute community of property is a delusion, because the very nature of society requires individual differences; like him, accepting that social equality must be understood in terms that all individuals are subject to the law, having a same rights if they proceed in the same way; and like him, in so many other aspects that are pending in our society; but above all because Father Varela, along with the promotion of values ​​and the forging of virtues, was determined to teach us to think, which is not a phrase devoid of content, but consists in seeing that the individual is free of constraints, finding the truth first which is within and from him, with freedom of spirit, to act accordingly to promote social change, for, as he emphatically expressed: there is no nation without virtue.

All this makes Varela not a relic of the past to mention in speeches, but a man of the present.

One can infer, from the above, that the possible solutions to current problems of Cuba, demand a new way of thinking, a thought emerging from our own roots in close relation to global processes to produce a new quality, new thinking . The challenge lies in the transformation of individuals into citizens, into political actors. A transformation that has its starting point in the party of universally recognized human rights, particularly those of the first generation: civil and political rights; since the process of civic education and the formation of a non-existent public opinion, requires action starting from the ethical-moral principles associated with being human as an end, not as a method, as indicated to us by Father Varela.


1 Sacred level immediately before the priesthood.
2 Torres Cuevas, Eduardo y otros. Obras de Félix Varela. Tomo I, p. XX. La Habana: Editora Política, 1991.
3 C M. DE CÉSPEDES. Señal en la noche, p.84
4 Ibarra Cuesta, Jorge. Varela el precursor, un estudio de época. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2004.
5 El Habanero, Political, Scientific and Literary Paper (1824-1826). The first Cuban newspaper promoting independence. Its first three numbers were published in Philadelphia and the other four in New York. The Crown forbade its introduction in Spain and adjacent islands.
6 The Letters to Elpidio, constitute a system of ethical and political ideas of the greatest use that were intended for youth, whom he viewed as the only ones disposed to understand, accept and love the freedom of Cuba. Elpidio, taken from Greek, means hope. They are therefore, Letters of Hope.
7 JUAN PABLO II. Discursos de su santidad en su viaje apostólico a Cuba, p.15

(Published in No. 9 of the digital magazine VOICES on Friday, 29 July 2011, on the site VocesCubanas.com)

1 August 2011