The Challenges of the New Cuban Scenario / Dimas Castellanos


The exhaustion of the “model”, united with the interaction of a mixture of internal and external factors, has formed a box which — paraphrasing Lenin — is a result that those from below don’t want and those from above can’t follow indefinitely. In that context, the death of the political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the repressions against the Ladies In White (Damas de Blanco), the hunger strike of Guillermo Fariñas, and the mediation of the Catholic Church — among others — sharpened the Cuban crisis and put the limits of immobility into the order of the day.

Nature and society change constantly; the difference between one and the other form of change consists in that the those of nature respond to objective laws while the social changes are performed by men who, although they can accelerate or slow History, cannot stop it. The Cuban Government, based on the absurd concept that Cuba changed in 1959 — truth that converted itself into a lie through trying to convert a temporary event into an eternal one — opted to conserve an exhausted model, obsolete and unviable and managed to postpone (natural) transformations for decades. The resulting scenario of this retarding action began to yield with the transfer of power carried out in July 2006 and the election of a new Council of State in February 2008, to the point of admitting the failure of immobility, a reality that the recently announced reforms explain.

The decision of the Government to undertake reforms doesn’t mean that sufficient political will exists for the democratization of Cuba, but the democratization takes the reform path, which creates a certain common tactical platform for the change in a new state with better possibilities than the previous one.

Totalitarianism, a point of departure

The revolutionaries who assumed power in 1959, being unaware of diversity, imposed a centralized organization under the tutelage of Father State, which gradually led to the loss of consensus and was flooded by social complexity. The present situation demonstrates that when temporary changes fix themselves into a concrete social organization and this form is declared definitive, one is on the path to totalitarianism; from the loss of public spaces and the conversion of the State into the only concern.

About totalitarianism, José Martí, in “Future Slavery”, said more or less the following: if the poor are accustomed to losing everything to the State, they will stop working for their subsistence and like public necessities, they would come to be satisfied by the State. Thus, the functionaries would acquire an enormous influence and the poor would go from being slaves of the capitalists to being slaves of the functionaries. And he pronounced: A slave is anyone who works for another who has dominion over him; and in this socialist system the community would dominate the man, who would turn over all his labor to the community.[1]

For Ortega y Gasset, the biggest dangers that today threaten civilization are “the ‘Statification’ of life, the intervention of the State, the absorption of all social spontaneity by the State; that is to say the cancellation of historical spontaneity, which in the end sustains, nurtures and drives human destiny”[2] … That which is summarized in the thesis of Benito Mussolini, ‘Everything for the State, nothing outside the State’.”[3]

Fortunately, even under the iron control established by the State, as Hanna Arendt would express it, the faculty of citizens to act politically would not disappear completely. And she added: “A revolution that proposes to free men without raising, in parallel, the need to create a public space to permit the exercise of that liberty can only lead to the liberation of individuals from one dependence to lead them to another, perhaps more of an iron fist than the previous”.[4]

Entering into the new stage, the challenge consists in converting the Cuban into an active subject who effectively participates in all aspects of his interest, including national definitions. In this sense, the question becomes: “Why did previous changes lead to the deep structural crisis in which we are immersed?” From my point of view, the principal cause has its roots in first, the weakness, and later the disappearance, of civil society, understood as an interrelated system of associations, public spaces, rights, and liberties, that constitute the base for an interchange of opinions, of shared agreement on conduct and decision-making, without the added authorization than emanates from law. The former leads us to the process that swept Cuban civil society, whose seeds reach back to the claims of the Havana Creole oligarchy of the first half of the 18th Century, approaching the place its class occupied in colonial society, although the legal existence of civil society was embodied by the Pact of Zanjón in 1878.

That civil society carried out an estimable work in our history and existed until its liquidation by the revolutionary power which, in 1959, together with the first means of the people’s democratic character, started a process of concentration of property of the hands of the State and power in the hands of an elite headed by the Chief of the Revolution, who swept out existing associations and substituted, for them, others created initially, for, and at the service of the Revolutionary State until — with the Revolutionary Offensive of 1968 — the last vestiges of Cuban economic independence were ultimately liquidated.

This process of dismantling took place against the backdrop of the Cold War between the great powers of the time within which the disagreements with the U.S. led first to the deterioration of relations between the two governments, and later to confrontation. The effect was logical, since conflicts between states tend to weaken the conflict between them and their citizens. In addition, if one state tries to assume a leading role in the other, the legitimacy of the promoters of internal change are affected; this worsens when the country trying to assume this role has a bulging file of intentions on the other — as is the case with the United States with respect to Cuba — which offers enemies of change a priceless historical argument in their defense.

For this reason, among others, the commercial embargo imposed by the United States, instead of contributing to the strengthening of our spaces, made them more scarce; instead of protecting us from the arbitrariness of the State, collaborated with it; instead of promoting climates of trust for the advancement of human rights, made them step back. The dispute with the United States became a factor that worked against whatever institution, personality or country tried to come to binding agreements with Cuba that would have implied the restoration of the civil society. Thus it happened in 2003 with the possible entry of Cuba into the Coutonou Agreement; in 2009 with the rejection of the accord which would have conditioned the re-entry of Cuba into the OAS agreement that conditioned the reinstatement of Cuba on the acceptance of the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter, which demands respect for human rights and fundamental liberties; and most recently, in 2008, with the signing of the two UN covenants of human rights which haven’t yet been ratified. External conflict served as an argument for Government to justify the absence of civic rights and liberties of its citizens. So important is this fact that Cuba — a Western country which had made progress on civil and political rights to the point of creating and enforcing the Constitution of 1940, which served as a basis for all subsequent civic and political struggles, including that of revolutionaries who seized power in 1959 — after seventy years (still) lacks such a vital institution.

The update of the model and democratization

As the update of the model requires external sources of finance, access to the same happens by claims of democratization of by the holders of these sources, which explains — in part — the present process of prisoner release. The challenge in this direction consists in converting the liberation of the political prisoners of the 2003 Black Spring into, first, a moment which should be complemented with the liberation of the rest of the political prisoners, and with other measures aimed at the rescue of fundamental liberties of the citizens. It is a question of a difficult, but not impossible, process. The new stage differentiates itself from earlier times in which change arose not only as a claim of the opposition or from some external power; but rather also from the need for self-government to conserve power, which made retrogression much more difficult — as happened with other opportunities. Now the proposition to update the model is growing, but in an unfavorable international context, at a time when the international community is showing growing attention to the state of civil liberties in Cuba, which will contribute to making the road towards democracy difficult.

Among the first announced measures are labor reform which will leave more than one million workers unemployed and the widening of the variations of self-employment, including the contracting for cheap labor in some of its activities. Nonetheless, said measures demonstrate that the State has not renounced the totalitarian vice of deciding everything.

The exclusion of sectors or social groups in decisions has been a constant of our history. Since the claims hoisted by Felix de Arrate in the mid-18th Century, until the revolutionary process which assumed power in 1959 — with the exception of Father Felix Varela and afterward Jose Marti, who conceived the modern republic with and for the good of all — different movements and figures staged various events toward the end of improving the relative conditions of Creoles vis-a-vis Spaniards, improving the condition of the Spanish province, increasing its autonomy, and achieving independence; but always from and for the social class they represented, to the detriment of other classes or sectors of the Island. The difference lies in that the totalitarian model, far from resolving this injustice, ended up reproducing its evil in its most developed form: the exclusion of all society by the State.

Labor reform is a consequence of the errant policy of “full employment”, which imposed itself against all economic logic to artificially exhibit before the world the superiority of the Cuban system, while the extension of self-employment responds to the intent to diminish the impact of current massive layoffs and the disaster of absolute state ownership. Both measures, before and now, were implemented by the State with no citizen participation and both are pregnant with insufficiencies and limitations.

The official press has published a list with 178 self-employment activities, within only 83 of which can the self-employed person contract for the labor of others; 29 already existing were not granted authorization; another 9 will remain limited and only 7 appear to be new, which demonstrates the announced enlargement is reduced to giving legal form to what already existed. For a person who opts for self-employment, the wholesale market needed to support this activity will not be able to create itself within the next few years, and the bank loans that would be required to put such activities in motion are still in the “analysis phase”; thus, they are starting, once again, without having prepared the minimum conditions for success, and ignoring the negative experience of Decree Law 259 of July 2008, which was condemned to disaster at birth. This Decree parcelled out idle land in usufruct — that is a “loan” of public lands to individuals for a set time period, but not a granting of title — without any consideration for bank loans or wholesale suppliers of necessary equipment and supplies, which guaranteed that more than half of the land parcelled out remains unused. In the case of self-employment, that which remains well-defined is that taxes will have to be paid “on personal income, on sales, public services, and for the use of a labor force, besides contributing to Social Security”. Nevertheless, nothing is said about the right of association of these workers, who enter into a scenario without organizations independent of the State to represent them, and much less is said about encouraging small and medium-sized businesses.

What permits the State to keep deciding the destiny of the nation all by itself? In the first place, that fact that it is almost the sole owner of all the means of production, which permits them to introduce reforms without opposition from other ownership interests and without depending on external forces; in the second place, as I expressed in ‘Towards a new February 24th‘[5], social changes are generally produced under the direction of new forces that assume power, while in Cuba, the initial subject is the same force that has retained power for more than a half-century, which makes it easier for them — in the absence of an independent civil society — to determine the starting point, the speed, the depth and direction of changes; in the third place, since logical alternation — that is periodic changes in who controls the government — have not existed with respect to power, the force that has governed during the last half-century is responsible for all the good and all the evil which has occurred; in the fourth place, because this force has contracted certain personal or group interests that influence its conduct.

The foregoing explains why errors were committed in the Revolutionary Offensive of March 1968 aren’t recognized, which eliminated in a single blow tens of thousands of small proprietors, many of whom employed contracted manual labor and offered services and products that the State could never manage to supply. By eliminating small proprietorship, besides the appearance of inefficiency, the State enterprises became estaticular — a term which can be defined as “the property of the State for the profit of the individual,” or, in simpler language, “corrupt”[6] — provoking the surge of a network of products and services on the margins of the law, those which, not being able to count on provisions of raw material, tools or replacement parts, led to widespread thievery, baptized with the verbs ‘escape’, ‘fight’, and ‘resolve’, which designate actions whose goal is survival. That measure was a product of the desire to control everything and prevent the formation of a middle class, ignoring that in Cuba — from the Bishop Juan José Díaz de Espada at the beginning of the 19th Century until Julio Sanuily in the 20th Century, through José Antonio Savo, Francisco de Frías, Enrique José Varona, and José Martí — countless thinkers argued the necessity of encouraging a diversified economy of small agricultural producers as well as, simultaneously, a national middle class.

From all the foregoing one deduces the need of a social structure which guarantees the participation of all citizens with legal rights and a concept of ownership in which its various forms might coexist and live together, then property — be it individual, family, cooperative, private or of the State — should have the social function of mobilizing the potential and initiative of people to produce; therefore, each of its forms has every right to exist and coexist as long as it accomplishes that function.

Human Rights: Guarantee of Success

The guarantee that the changes projected by the Government might have a positive effect has its roots in the implementation of human rights, based on dignity of the person. Nevertheless, owing to the absence of an independent and legally authorized civil society, the advance from the release of the prisoners to the re-establishment of civil society will have to depend — to a certain degree — on the support of the international community, which must include in the agenda of its dialog with the Cuban government the ratification of all human rights treaties signed since 2008, along with making domestic law consistent with these documents. Our political history precisely constitutes an in vivo demonstration that changes, in the absence of citizen civic participation, take us directly back to the starting point, which explains that in matters of civil liberties we may have returned to the state in which Cuba found itself in the second half of the 19th Century. That story tells us that economic changes are as unavoidable as in the subject of human rights.

Towards this end Cuba has a long and rich history in the subject of rights, from the Plan of Self-Government For Cuba[7] — prepared in 1811 by Father José Agustín Caballero — to the Constitution of 1940. The Constitutional Plan For the Cuban Island — prepared in 1812 by Joaquín Infante, the lawyer from Bayamón — already distinguished the division between the Legislative, Executive, Judicial, and Military powers, as well as the observance of the social rights and duties directed at equality, liberty, property, and safety. The Instructional Plan for the Economic and Political Self-Government of the Overseas Provinces — prepared by the presbyter Félix Varela in 1823 — considered that putting political liberties and rights into effect exclusively for Creole whites constitute prejudice[8]. The Constitution of Guaimaro, of 1869, endorsed the classic division of powers and sanctioned that no legislative Chamber could attack the freedoms of religion, press, peaceful assembly, teaching and petition, nor any inalienable right of the people. The Constitution of La Yaya, in 1897, included for the first time a dogmatic section — dedicated to individual rights and political rights — where it reads that all inhabitants of the country remain protected in their religious opinions and in the exercise of their respective religious worship, and have a right to proclaim their ideas with freedom and meet and associate among themselves for the legal goals of life.

In the Republic, the 1901 Constitution recognized the freedoms of expression — written or oral, by means of the press or other process — and also the rights of assembly and association “for all legal goals”, the freedom of movement to enter or leave the country. The 1940 Constitution maintained those rights recognized in 1901, and added others, such as: the right to demonstrate and form political organizations contrary to those of the regime, the autonomy of the University of Havana, the declaration as a crime all acts of prohibition or limitation against the citizenry’s right to participate in the political life of the nation, as well as the recognition of the legitimacy of resistance for the protection of individual rights, and with respect to property, directly recognized the legitimate existence of private property in its highest concept of social function.

The 1976 Constitution, the first since the 1959 revolution, recognizes the freedom of speech, of press, of assembly, of association and of demonstration. The difference with its predecessors stems from that fact that all these rights are subordinate to Article Five, which recognizes the Communist Party as the superior directing force — as much for society as for the State — to build socialism and advance towards communism. In 2002 this Constitution suffered a new modification, in the year the majority of Cubans “approved” its “irrevocable” character such that the current system — obsolete and unviable — could not be reformed, and also prohibiting the necessary adaptation of the fundamental Law in response to changes that occur in every society. With this last reform, the government succeeded in converting the Constitution into a social braking mechanism, and in the era of globalization and information this meant anchoring the country in the past.

The challenge consists in being able to convert present governmental reforms into a step towards democracy, that which puts in first place the implementation of human rights and fundamental liberties, and guarantees the participation of all Cubans in the destiny of the nation. And above all that the subordination of the individual to the State disappear from our scene, a proposition that the daily newspaper Granma just rejected again, on Friday, September 24, noting that self-employment “is one more alternative, under the watchful eye of the State”, which is to say under the watch of the same institution responsible for the stagnation in which we find ourselves.

1. MARTÍ, JOSÉ. Complete Works, Volume 15, pp 388-392.
2. José Ortega y Gasset. The Rebellion of the Masses. El País. Classics of the Twentieth Century. Madrid. 2002, p 164.
3. José Ortega y Gasset. The Rebellion of the Masses. El País. Classics of the Twentieth Century. Madrid. 2002, p 166.
4. Schmitt, Carl and Arendt, Hannah. Consensus and Conflict; the definition of politics. Colombia, Editorial de la Universidad de Antioquia, 2002, p. 147
5. Toward a New February 24th, published in the digital daily Encuentro en la Red, February 22, 2008.
6. Estaticular (property of the State and profit of the individual), Today’s Cuban Morals, published in the digital daily Encuentro en la Red, in March 2001.
7. H. PICHARDO. Documents for the History of Cuba, Volume I, p 210.
8. J. IBARRA CUESTA. Varela the Precursor, a Study of the Era. Havana, Editorial de Ciencias, p 72, Sociales, 2004.

Translated by: JT

(Originally published Tuesday, September 28th on the website

Published on Dimas’s Blog on October 15, 2010