Dimas Castellanos, 10 April 2015 — If by “civil society” we mean a group of autonomous associations, public spaces, rights, and liberties by which citizens exchange opinions, make decisions and participate in political, economic and social matters that interest them–with no more authorization than what emanates from the laws of the land–then we need to agree that this institution existed in Cuba since colonial times, developed during the Republic, disappeared after 1959, and is now in a process of resurgence.
Starting in the first half of the 19th century, illustrious figures such as Father Félix Varela, who called the constitutional studies program at the San Carlos seminary a “curriculum of liberty and the rights of man” and strove to provide an education in virtues; José Antonio Saco, who from the Revista Bimestre Cubana (Cuban Bimonthly Magazine) generated debates that fostered civic consciousness; Domingo Delmonte who, when this medium and other spaces were closed down, found in conversational gatherings a way of continuing the debates without official authorization; and José de la Luz y Caballero, who devoted himself to civic education as a premise of social change, with their labors forged the field for citizen participation.
Upon this ground, in 1878–when Spain, in compliance with Pact of Zanjón, granted Cuba freedom of the press, assembly and association–there sprouted Cuban civil society: political parties, newspapers, labor unions, societies of blacks, fraternal organizations, and other diverse groups.
With the birth of the Republic in 1902, civil society, having spread throughout the country, took part in the struggles of labor unions, peasants, and students, and in the intelligentsia’s debates conducted via the print press, radio, and television, about the problems afflicting the nation.
The importance of civil society was highlighted by Fidel Castro during his trial for the assault on the Moncada Barracks in 1953, when–referring to the limitations suffered by civil society with Fulgencio Batista’s coup d’etat in 1952–he said, “There once was a Republic. It had its Constitution, its laws, its liberties; a President, Congress and Courts; everyone could assemble, associate, speak and write with full liberty. The government did not satisfy the people, but the people could change the government, and there were only a few days left to do so. There was public opinion that was respected and heeded, and all problems of common interest were freely discussed. There were political parties, educational hours on radio, debate programs on television, public acts, and the people could sense enthusiasm.”
Having become a source of law, the 1959 Revolution–instead of fully reestablishing the Constitution of 1940–substituted it (without public consultation) with the Fundamental Law of the Cuban State*, and thus began a fatal process for Cuban society: the concentration of power, the elimination of private property, and the dismantling of civil society.
The organizations that fought against the Batista government were merged into the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations, which in 1963 became the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution, and later, in October, 1965, the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).
The diverse youth movement disappeared to give way, first, to the Young Rebels Association and, later, the Communist Youth Union. Women’s organizations of all types became the Federation of Cuban Woman. The associations of university students became the University Students Federation, and the pre-university-level ones became the Union of Secondary-School Students.
The labor movement was taken over, while the principle of university autonomy, endorsed in Article 53 of the Constitution of 1940, disappeared under the University Reform of 1962.
Organizations of employers met the same fate. The Landowners Association of Cuba, the Association of Settlers of Cuba, the Tobacco Harvesters, and the National Peasants Association, were substituted by the National Settlers Association, which was later renamed the National Association of Small Farmers.
The print, radio and television media, the enormous network of cinemas, the publishing domain, and cultural institutions were limited to the boundary set by the regime, with the intervention of the Chief of the Revolution during the 1961 Cultural Congress, when he asked, “What are the rights of the Revolutionary and non-Revolutionary writers and artists?” and he answered himself thus, “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, no right.” And there would be no exception to the law for artists and writers. This is a general principle for all citizens.
The organizations that made up civil society before its dismantling were not subordinate to the State nor to the administration in power at a given time. They were autonomous, a necessary condition without which they would have been unable to carry out the role they played in the Republic.
The subordination took practical shape with the adoption of the Constitution of 1976. Article 5 stipulates that the Communist Party is the supreme driving force of the society and the State.
Accordingly, Article 53  recognizes freedom of speech and of the press insofar as these conform to the aims of the socialist society, and Article 62 provides that none of the liberties accorded to the citizens can be exercised against what is established in the Constitution and the nation’s laws, nor against the existence and aims of the Socialist State.
The resurgence of a civil society movement emerges from the stagnation and regression in the economy; from the generalization of corruption caused by the inadequacy of wages; from the growing exodus of Cubans and the aging of the population due to the diaspora, and the reluctance of Cuban women to bear children in those conditions; to the point of bringing the country to a dilemma: either change, or erupt in violence.
It demonstrates that the structural crisis in which Cuba is immersed has its root cause in the absence of fundamental liberties, in the decimation of autonomous civil society, and the non-participation of the citizen.
Even so, during the process normalizing relations with the United States — and on the eve of Cuba’s participation for the first time in the Summit of the Americas, which will take place in Panama [April 2015] — the Cuban Government, instead of recognizing the role parallel to the State’s that corresponds to an autonomous civil society, insists on proving the obsolete, absurd and unprovable: that any association that does not respond to the objectives of the Communist Party is an external creation and its members are paid operatives of the Enemy.
During the Third Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), in Costa Rica, on 28 January 2015, Cuban President Raúl Castro asserted that the US counterpart should not try to relate to Cuban society as though there is no sovereign government in Cuba. A retrograde statement intended to continue denying the existence of civil society sectors that are not under Government control.
And during the Ninth Extraordinary Summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which took place on 17 March in Venezuela, Castro reiterated that “Cuban civil society will be the voice of the voiceless, and will unmask the mercenaries who will present themselves as being the civil society, as well as their sponsors.”
In accordance with the conduct, the Party and the State have in recent days mobilized hundreds of official associations in the “Forum for Civil Society of the Seventh Summit of the Americas,” and in the forum, “Youth and the Americas We Desire,” among other events, to defend an indefensible past, without understanding nor accepting that, even in these official associations, as was evidenced in the above-mentioned events, voices were heard declaring that it was necessary to create an atmosphere conducive to debate, and create sites where the views of civil society can be confronted, so as to derive a collective interpretation of the country’s issues.
Normalizing relations with the US will not be enough to pull the country out of crisis if it is not accompanied by the reestablishment of fundamental liberties. There should be no doubt that these relations will contribute to citizen empowerment and to the reestablishment of autonomous civil society and of citizenship.
 Article 53 reads, “The University of Havana is autonomous and is governed according to its Statutes, and to the Law to which they should conform.”
From Diario de Cuba
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison
*Translator’s Note: Also referred to as “The Fundamental Law of the Cuban Revolution”