An Increasingly Civil Cuba

Mirar a Cuba: Ensayos sobre cultura y sociedad civil
(Looking at Cuba: Essays on Culture and Civil Society)

By Rafael Hernández 139 pages, Havana: Editorial Letras, 1999 (in Spanish)

Participación social: Desarrollo urbano y comunitario
(Social Participation: Urban and Community Development)

By Aurora Vázquez Penelas and Roberto Dávalos Domínguez, eds. 245 pages, Havana: Universidad de La Habana, 1998 (in Spanish)

Perhaps dissatisfied with the impact of a nearly 40-year trade embargo, the U.S. government briefly fashioned a policy in the mid-1990s supporting Cuba’s dissident movements, the Roman Catholic Church, and other nongovernmental entities. The goal: to help foster a civil society that would become more independent from the Castro regime.

The response from the Cuban government was quick and to the point. In March 1996, Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces Minister Raúl Castro (younger brother of President Fidel Castro) read a report on the state of the nation before the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Havana. A key portion of the report focused on the political significance of civil society in Cuba. The minister limited his definition of the country’s civil society to the official mass organizations sponsored by the government and the Communist Party, encompassing groups of workers, women, peasants, students, professionals, writers, and artists, among others. He condemned U.S. policies that sought to promote more independent, nongovernmental organizations in Cuba and also denounced certain Cuban think tanks — particularly the Communist Party-sponsored Centro de Estudios sobre América (Center for American Studies or CEA) — that were echoing “inappropriate” foreign conceptions of civil society and democracy.

As Washington and Havana sparred over policy and definitions, Cuban thinkers were quietly casting light on the theory and practice of civil society in Cuba. Two recent books underscore Cuba’s intellectual debates on the subject. Rafael Hernández’s Looking at Cuba provides the theoretical underpinnings needed to understand the country’s civic associations. The volume Social Participation, edited by Aurora Vázquez and Roberto Dávalos, offers case studies that highlight the complex and nuanced impact of civil society on the Cuban regime.

With his book, Hernández hopes to stimulate discussions among Cuban socialists, including but not limited to his fellow Communist Party members. Indeed, three of the six essays in his book were published in the government-sponsored magazine La Gaceta de Cuba in 1994 and 1995; a fourth circulated unpublished in Havana in 1995. A member of the Communist Party and the former head of the CEA’s team of scholars studying U.S. policy toward Cuba, Hernández has been a skilled defender of Cuban foreign policy during his visits to the United States.

Hernández offers two main arguments about civil society in Cuba, the first addressed ostensibly to foreigners but indirectly (and more importantly) to fellow Cubans: The author takes issue with the common foreign assumptions that the Cuban government suppresses civil society’s autonomy and that only openly dissident intellectuals, activists, or organizations merit the label “civil-society actors.” To the contrary, Hernández contends that Cuban civil society has endured (although its autonomy and independence have varied significantly over time) and that Cuba’s community of nondissident intellectuals remains among its most significant components. Hernández notes that intellectuals are usually lawful participants in the civil arena who seek to reshape the contours of Cuban public life. Cuba’s intellectuals, research shows, tend to support political decentralization, economic efficiency, more democratic political institutions, and struggles against religious, ethnic, or gender discrimination — a social and political agenda that would resonate with reformers around the world.

Yet, the author acknowledges that the political influence of Cuba’s intellectuals remains severely limited. He writes that the national political leadership largely determines the scope of the country’s intellectual debates “from the reinterpretation of Cuban history, to ideas about … culture in the revolution.” As a result, “cultural life [is] boxed in, making it more difficult to generate ideas.” Cuba’s leading thinkers, therefore, have had little impact on public opinion. Hernández regards this outcome as a genuine loss — not only for Cuba’s intellectual life but also for the health of the socialist regime. Cuban intellectuals participate in regime-sponsored institutions and display high levels of political commitment, though they are also strongly critical of procedures “that constrain the creativity of work and foster adverse outcomes such as inefficiency, mediocrity, fraud, and duplicitous behavior.”

Hernández’s message for Cuban citizens is that their civil society can be an agent of change and not inimical to a socialist regime. At the same time, he calls on foreigners to respect forms of expression and change within Cuba and to avoid counterproductive behavior that would provoke government repression.

While Hernández provides a theoretical understanding of civil society in Cuba, Vázquez and Dávalos, sociologists at the University of Havana, gather 18 empirical studies on state-society relations and civil society in Cuba in the 1990s, thus offering the practical foundations for Hernández’s arguments. The most interesting study in the collection, coauthored by Haroldo Dilla, Armando Fernández, and Margarita Castro, treats neighborhood movements in Cuba and features case studies of three community organizations. (Dilla and Fernández once worked at the CEA, and Castro still does.) The authors found that none of the three groups opposed the Cuban government or its policies. On the contrary, each included activists linked to government-sponsored organizations; the community group leaders mobilized local citizens, in part, to better implement existing state programs. In two of the three community groups, most of the leaders were on the government payroll.

Nonetheless, the behavior of these community organizations raised interesting new tensions. For example, a group in the coastal community of Santa Fé (in the westernmost portion of metropolitan Havana) responded to food shortages in the early 1990s by producing fruits and vegetables in their urban environment. Conflict arose with the government when growers began selling the food — rather than consuming it — without paying taxes. The government sought to ban such sales. In the end, municipal officials agreed to let the growers sell not to individuals but to a local consumers’ organization.

Similarly, a community group in Atarés — a poor central-city neighborhood — developed housing construction and repair initiatives. Although many of its members belonged to regime-sponsored mass organizations such as the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and the Women’s Federation, these and other official entities looked on the community group with apprehension and at times obstructed its work. They were suspicious of the group’s international funding sources and worried about the organization’s support for the revival of Afro-Cuban religiosity on the island. Yet the community group openly included Afro-Cuban santeros (religious leaders) among its key members, continued raising foreign financing, and used some of these funds to build a religious and cultural center.

These modest examples of semiautonomous civil society at work illustrate Hernández’s larger points: Cuba’s community organizations do not promote antiregime activities but rather raise issues that can compel the government to alter its behavior. However, these community groups are fragile; their weakness is exacerbated by the mistrust of some state officials. Were the government not a barrier, the participatory, problem-solving actions of each organization could serve socialism in Cuba and its government well. Contrary to a common international view that nothing has changed in Cuba, Dilla and his coauthors demonstrate the possibility of change in a more decentralized, inclusive, and autonomous context in contemporary Cuba.

Nonetheless, the government is often an obstacle to civil society’s democratizing project. The article by Jesús Pastor García Brigos on popular participation in the organization of the Cuban state underscores this challenge. García Brigos, a scholar at the Institute of Philosophy in Havana, shows that the attempt launched by the Cuban government in 1988 to create “popular councils” as a more democratic form of local governance only succeeded in grafting another layer of bureaucracy onto the Cuban state. This reform failed to empower elected municipal and provincial assemblies because real power remained with appointed officials. And although concurrent changes in electoral laws promised more effective popular participation, in practice the capacity and will of the Cuban Communist Party to govern through state organs remained unfettered.

Cuba’s civil society continues to grow and evolve, even as citizens attempt to cope with constraints on public freedoms. The intellectual debate on civil society persists as well; these books were published two to three years after Raúl Castro’s public fulmination. The outcome will probably be neither a stridently anti-Castro civil society, nor one limited to official state-sponsored organizations. Instead, Cuba’s civil society is becoming more genuine and less predictable, emphasizing the goals of local communities, not the fantasies and fears of government elites within and outside of Cuba.

Originally published at https://foreignpolicy.com on November 20, 2009.

Written by

Currently in retirement, Jorge Dominguez most recently served as the Antonio Madero Professor for the Study of Mexico at Harvard University for 12 years.

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