By Ron Ridenour
Tuesday, 21 April 2009
How much freedom of expression and real (active) power the Cuban working class and the population as a whole, possess and exercise is a vital matter for the very survival of socialism and its development, a question that is being addressed by a few hundred university students, professors and professionals in Havana since November 2007.
“It is not a question of luxury, an alternative which one can choose or not: worker democracy is a condition sin qua non for the normal unfolding of a socialist economy.”
Over the last 50 years, the Communist party and government strategy for survival has focused on unity: unity in decision-making, unity around the top leaders, and unity in the media. This strategy has enabled the country to resist the United States and allied efforts to smash it.
However, this approach has prevented leaders and the bureaucracy from believing that it can afford the “luxury” of allowing any significant active participation on the part of the population to discuss and decide what the nation’s politics and economy ought to be. Nor do the media question decisions taken.
When questioned about the wisdom of this control, officials either ignore the question or respond with examples of how the US intelligence apparatuses intervene in other countries´ processes when they are not in what Washington perceives as its interests.
Suffice it here to note the successful interventions in media organs during the Allende government in Chile (1970-73), and in Nicaragua during the first Sandinista government from 1979-1990.
Hunger for More Information
Cuba’s leadership has maintained that broader freedom of expression can place the nation’s very sovereignty in peril. While there is some truth to this historically, strict government control of the media and other channels of information and debate cripple the ability of the common man and woman from acquiring adequate information and ideas necessary for them to become empowered.
The University of Havana (Photo by Maycgx)
This had led a sizeable segment of the population, and especially the younger generations, to be, disbelievers of what they are told by the media. They hunger for more and open information.
Cuban historian and professor of the University of Oriente, Frank Josue Solar, recently wrote:
“It is not a question of luxury, an alternative which one can choose or not: worker democracy is a condition sin qua non for the normal unfolding of a socialist economy. Without this it is deformed, and finally perishes.”
In the past two years or so some leftist voices have begun to hold indoor workshops to discuss these questions. There are also handfuls of students at the University of Havana and the Cujae University who meet to discuss socialism’s future.
This is the first time in decades that the government has allowed such open critique, albeit confined indoors until now.
A group of university students, professors and professionals formed the Bolshevik Workshop to pay homage to the Russian revolution, at the 90th year anniversary in November 2007, and to discuss its trajectory and collapse.
Some 500 people assembled at the University of Havana. One of the workshop organizers, Ariel Dacal Diaz, a professor of law, delivered a paper on the subject. The English translation is available at Cuba, October, Youth and the Future.
Revitalizing Revolutionary Marxism in Cuba
At this assembly, and at a subsequent workshop, participants viewed the need to revitalize revolutionary Marxism, also in Cuba. The dozen coordinators of the original workshop continued writing but did not organize other meetings in 2008 although they did create a lively Spanish language website, www.cuba-urss.cult.cu. They propose to “contribute to the empowerment of persons and groups in their practice as citizen-subjects within the Cuban revolution as a process and with socialism as its project.”
A sizeable segment of the population is hungry for more and open information (Photo by Caridad)
The website has hundreds of essays and articles by readers and past and current theoreticians and leading activists such as: Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, Luxemburg, and Che…
At the end of January this year, the coordinators organized another workshop by the name: “To live the revolution 50 years after the triumph.” They now meet monthly at the Ministry of Culture’s Juan Marinello Center, close to the Plaza of the Revolution.
The Ministry’s Antonio Gramsci Department and the Superior Art Institute (ISA) are cosponsors. The meeting hall allotted can hold just under 100 persons. It was full at the initial workshop where the theme was: Sentidos y significados de la revolucion en la vida de nosotros. (The significance and meaning of the revolution in our lives).
This lay the basis for the following workshop- “The political system of the revolution: participation, popular subject and citizenship”–which I attended.
In its announcement folder, the coordinators wrote: “This workshop seeks to contribute to the analysis on the place of citizen participation in the political system, its forms of expression concerning sovereignty, the necessity of a political and legal culture consistent with the social protagonism at the moment to create, control, limit and enjoy the political and the law.”
Specific topics were: how does socialism reformulate the concept of citizenship; mechanisms of actual popular participation; how to contribute to empowerment, all within the context of Hagamos nuestra la revolución (Making the revolution ours).
After a brief introduction and a short Cuban film, “The revolution we make,” the filled meeting hall broke into four groups to discuss what experiences we had with active participation and with forced participation, and how we felt as subject-citizens. (My participation was mainly as an observer since I do not currently live and work in Cuba, which I did from 1987 to 1996.)
Frustrations and Impotence
Diverse expressions surfaced regarding active and “obligatory” participation. When people had felt they could participate and, perhaps make a difference they felt positive. The reverse was the case when their experiences were not truly voluntary.
Paulo Freire: “If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed.” (photo by Distant Camera)
A student said that it was possible “to participate but `they´ make the decisions”. A young woman student spoke enthusiastically about this workshop initiative, which allowed her to feel as an active subject, “hoping it can lead to making a difference for the society.”
A Colombian studying here said he felt more as a subject in Cuba than in Colombia but hoped for greater active participation.
An older woman, who classified herself as an ordinary worker, said she felt isolated. “`They´ don’t give me a chance to participate in any real sense. `They´ don’t take our commentaries seriously, so I feel like a crazy old woman.”
During a break, she said she believed the revolution has stood still since the mid-60s. A couple of older professional men, remembering those activist days when peasants and militia still carried weapons to defend the nation-which they did at the Bay of Pigs invasion and against counter-revolutionary groups infiltrated and financed by the CIA (Operation Mongoose)-believed the revolution died after that.
The walls were covered with handwritten quotations by Bertolt Brecht, Roque Dalton, Silvio Rodriguez and others. On one wall were posted words by Paulo Freire: “If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed.”
Summaries of each group’s discussion were read during the last plenary session. The experiences and sentiments were similar. Bureaucratic mechanism’s of control were outlined and criticized during the discussion period.
There was ample self-critique as well. We must overcome self-censorship. We must not yield to the fear of losing what we may have or hope to obtain, such as a better position, and thereby remain silent in face of unfairness or wrong decisions.
One young man said each of us should find ways to improve our own behavior. For example, we must stop throwing trash anywhere we feel like it. We should intervene in all our surroundings with a positive spirit that we can make change.
He said we can make “them” listen to us, because we are the producers, the people for whom the political structure serves. An older professor suggested we invite bureaucrats to meet with us, “because they are Cubans too and we could learn from one another”.
A young professor of law, Julio Antonio Fernandez, gave a brief talk, first giving a brushstroke of revolutionary political and legal history. He then defended the constitution of 1976 as a revolutionary one, and one legalizing an active citizenry for socialism, one that establishes popular control of all mechanisms for sovereignty. The audience was so attentive a pin could be heard to drop.
“We do not seek to regress to before the revolution: we must be designers and controllers… What is most important now is a critique of current state organisms and not the possible creation of ideal institutions,” said Fernandez.
He continued by asking: If a dominating regime is necessary how can it act without alienating the people? How can we democratize power?
We have formal rights of control, Fernandez said, but need to actualize them. The law is not that of the state but that of and for the people. Citizenry duty must be restored. He also spoke against continuing discrimination both of race and gender. The individual and the collective must recognize and confront these ills.
“The danger of imperialism is real and we must find forms to act taking this reality into account,” he concluded.
Participation Leads to Solutions
Following his well received analysis, the body was asked for comments, especially concerning the question of how one can participate in a revolutionary manner. One-fourth of the audience-25 people-made comments and offered ideas to further the revolutionary process, and some called for action.
Several people young and old said that the workshop process and its ideas should go public. There must be ways of involving workers, vital producers. Some said that while laws protect the right to associate and to organize associations, and no law prohibits strikes, the reality is something different.
No one dare try to organize strikes, and many who petition for permission to organize associations are ignored or denied their right.
An older lawyer said he was still waiting, now ten years, for a reply from the Ministry of Justice to his several petitions to organize a harmless, social association of descendants of Slavic people in Cuba.
A sociology professor said that while some professions were allowed to form associations, those in sociology-a study prohibited in Cuba for three decades, which the government reinstated in the mid-90s-were not. Yet no reason was given.
A history professor said it was necessary to define what socialism really is and what it should be. Among other things, socialism must be personal as well as collective. One must feel that he/she is a decision-maker. Without that sense, what occurred in Russia and Eastern Europe could well occur in Cuba.
“Participation leads to solutions and that is liberating,” he concluded.
Another person said that Internet is a liberating tool. The Cuban Ministry of Telecommunications has repeatedly said that broader access will be technologically possible when the Venezuelan undersea cable reaches Cuba later this year or next.
One participant raised doubts about whether a dominating state power was any longer a necessity, especially one in which many leaders retain power positions for many years, even decades.
A young female student said she felt stimulated by these workshops and was optimistic that positive changes could be made. Several youths echoed her sentiment. The last speaker, a Brazilian student, said that it was most important that the group not degenerate into sectarianism as do so many left groups around the world.
The next workshop, open to all, will take place on March 27, at 9:30 a.m. at the Centro Juan Marinello. Its theme will be: state property, social property and the socialization of production.
Originally published in the Havana Times, March 12