Saturday, July 21, 2018

Harold Cárdenas: The Revolution’s illegitimate children

What kind of president will Miguel Diaz-Canel turn out to be? It's early days, and time will tell. In the few months since he took office, Cuba's new president has set a blistering pace. He has toured the country, Fidel-style, talking to people in the streets, visiting factories, schools, hospitals, cultural centres and mountain villages to take the pulse of the country firsthand. Meanwhile, back in Havana, he has been busy assembling his ministerial cabinet and holding a seemingly endless series of high-level accountability meetings dealing with such pressing matters as hurricane recovery, housing construction and foreign investment. 

Nobody can fault his work ethic. But while Diaz-Canel's closing speech to the congress of the Cuban Journalists Union (UPEC) on July 14 pleased some Cubans, it alarmed and dismayed others. What sent a small shock wave through Cuban cyberspace was the fact that Diaz-Canel quoted from a July 10 diatribe tapped out by one H. M. Lagarde, who runs the Cuba-based blog Cambios en Cuba (Changes in Cuba). The target of Lagarde’s brief post, titled sarcastically “The ‘new revolutionaries’ of the internet in Cuba’, is certain unnamed “so-called ‘independent’ websites” based in Cuba and their unnamed authors. 

According to Lagarde, those who write for these websites call themselves revolutionaries because they oppose the US blockade of Cuba; are “more revolutionary than Fidel”, yet have nothing but criticism for Fidel's key legacy, namely “today’s Cuba”; are harshly critical of state-centralism, yet never criticise the government directly; know that the blockade exists, yet blame everything on the bureaucracy; complain that they don't get published in Cuba’s state media, yet insist that that media is boring, repetitive and thus nobody reads it; claim that they are not “hirelings of official thought”, yet accept scholarships to study at US universities and take journalism courses in Holland, “where they are surely taught to defend socialism in Cuba”; are economic experts, so they advocate neoliberalism for an underdeveloped, blockaded country; are experts in Cuban history, so they hide the fact that Julio Antonio Mella founded Cuba's first Communist Party and they “turn him into a rebel without a cause, a kind of James Dean”; call on people to be disobedient, when what is needed is unity; are democratic and respectful of contrary opinions, so they call those with views different to their own, “submissive, sheep, obedient, mediocre, Talibanists,  Khmer Rougers, Stalinists, officialists and repressors.” Their key aim, Lagarde concludes, is to cause division. 

Lagarde's 510-word commentary is not a serious contribution to Cuban public debate. It is a crude, amateurish, unsubstantiated and nasty diatribe of the kind that abound on social media platforms. That Diaz-Canel, an intelligent, cultured and experienced politician—and Cuba's president—not only cited it approvingly at length, but urged his audience to read it in its entirety, is not merely surprising. It is astonishing. In the same speech, a few paragraphs on, he dropped in a cryptic Shakespearean reference: “To be or not to be, ever since the times of Shakespeare”. It's not entirely clear what Diaz-Canel meant by this, but some saw it as a further endorsement of Lagarde's line of demarcation between the real revolutionaries and the fake ones. Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat and academic whose essay 'Continuity and political change' I translated for this blog, reacted to Diaz-Canel's speech by noting the striking similarity between Diaz-Canel's binary exclusive ‘to be or not to be’, and George W. Bush’s ‘you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.’ What is going to happen to those who, like him, disagree with Lagarde and Diaz-Canel, he wondered? He later withdrew the comment, saying it had been taken out of context and someone was putting words in his mouth. 

One young Cuban revolutionary who accepted a merit-based scholarship to study at a US university is Harold Cárdenas, co-founder of the La Joven Cuba website. La Joven Cuba was set up by students at the University of Matanzas, in central Cuba, as a digital platform for young Cuban revolutionaries to both defend the Revolution and speak their minds. It publishes a wider spectrum of pro-socialist opinion and analysis than that permitted by the ideological gatekeepers—in the Ideological Department of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party—who decide what can and can't be published in Cuba's mass media. With more than 4 million page views and a digital magazine that is emailed and passed around on USB drives, the website has a substantial Cuban readership. In 2013, university officials withdrew the site's internet access. The connection was only restored, and the website relaunched, after Miguel Diaz-Canel, then Cuba's first vice-president, personally intervened in support of the young revolutionaries. In comments to the Cuban media around the same time, Diaz-Canel said that with the development of information technologies, social media and the internet, "prohibiting something is almost a chimera". His comments were reported on the TV news but did not appear in print in Cuba's mass media. La Joven Cuba relaunched without fanfare, but with a photo that said a thousand words: a smiling Diaz-Canel, with his arms around the shoulders of the website's founders, with portraits of Fidel Castro and Raul Castro in the background.

Miguel Diaz-Canel with Harold Cárdenas (right) in 2013
The sharpest and best response so far to Diaz-Canel's endorsement of Lagarde's divisive rant is that of Harold Cárdenas in La Joven Cuba. I would like to thank Harold for taking the time to clarify a few points in the interests of translation accuracy. Please see my translator's notes at the foot of the translation.

The Revolution’s illegitimate children


By Harold Cárdenas Lema


July 17, 2018

Translation: Marce Cameron

Heterodoxy is the least comfortable and most honourable stance for a revolutionary in Cuba. Ever since Julio Antonio Mella was expelled [in 1925] from the Cuban Communist Party he founded, innumerable revolutionaries have known friendly fire, the intolerance of their own comrades, parametración and labelling.[1] Pushed to the edge of the abyss, no few have fallen into the arms of the right, thus proving their accusers right. Others have taught their executioners a lesson in ethics, but it takes decades to clear one’s name of the mud thrown at it light-mindedly by some functionary or other for one reason or another. No few children of the Cuban Revolution have been rejected by what was considered to be the revolutionary vanguard at the time; in fact, the great heroes of the last century were at some point excommunicated from the communist movement or the party. To find oneself in these circumstances today is almost a tradition.   

On Sunday, the president coined the new phrase to distinguish revolutionaries from non-revolutionaries in Cuba: ‘to be or not to be’. Perhaps our experience with ambiguous phrases is insufficient; perhaps we are not wise to the ways of enthusiastic functionaries who want to earn their stripes when they appear to have government approval for any excess. The allusion to Shakespeare could hardly be more inappropriate. In his third-act soliloquy, Hamlet refers to the dilemma of life or suicide, yet this phrase is now being used to talk about political definitions. I’d like to know who is exerting this influence on the president, who it is that is passing on nebulous notions and a distorted view of things, but we have no idea who his political collaborators and advisers are.

Socialism in Cuba has always had two roads: one of excesses and dogmas, the other of heresy and liberation. The president takes office inheriting distorted ideological institutions in a country that has been on the defensive for half a century. Moreover, he assumes the presidency in the context of a purging of national public life, led by a fundamentalist sector ensconced in the structures of power. Much of what is decided in terms of ideology is permeated by personal relations between functionaries and aspirants to political positions who, by rubbing shoulders at national events and private social gatherings, can act as a lobby group and influence decision-making. Those of us who are distant from these circles, thanks to our youth or the whims of geography, cannot compete with this day to day influence on the president.    

The Cuban Revolution is not unique in having rejected its own. This is almost an historical norm of communist models, beginning with the Soviet Union where Trotsky was exiled but continued writing. Trotsky was assassinated because his very existence was a danger to the Stalinist current that aspired to impose a sole revolutionary road and model. From Siqueiros to Mercader, several people tried to assassinate him. It's noteworthy that the assassins always found sanctuary in Cuba, protected by the adherents to a hard line within the Cuban communist movement that is trying to survive today.[2]   

If we were to enumerate the acts of heresy within the Cuban communist movement, we’d have to begin with the expulsion of Julio Antonio Mella. The sectarianism was such that [the Communist Party leadership] went so far as to write to the Mexican Communist Party claiming that Mella, who had just arrived in Mexico, was “a perfect and shameless saboteur of the communist ideals, someone you must have nothing to do with … a stray leader who does not rest in his efforts to sabotage our heroic work by myriad means.” It goes without saying that the Mexicans did not heed this advice, but the language of this letter bears a striking resemblance to the dog’s breakfast of epithets hurled at the disobedient in Cuba today by those who try to discredit them, lumping them all together whether they happen to be counterrevolutionaries, revolutionaries or others who felt that, until recently, there was a space for them within the Cuban political project.

After the 1959 Revolution, the debate between Alfredo Guevara and Blas Roca ended in a victory against dogma among the Communist Party membership.[3] These years were not error-free, but there was still an aspiration to build a distinctly Cuban socialism, Fidel kept the fanatical elements of the Popular Socialist Party on a short leash and Che Guevara spoke out against socialist realism. The young lecturers of the [Havana University] Department of Philosophy began to give classes in the Schools of Revolutionary Instruction, under the guidance of a Spanish-Soviet they soon left behind. The striving for a Marxist nationalism, distant from Soviet manuals and dogmas, coincided with the conflict between Fidel and the Soviets following the Cuban Missile Crisis. The fact that Fidel, too, was condemned by the Communist Party must have given him perspective.[4] From then on, he made sure to surround himself not only with political cadres, but also heretics—something that the current president could learn from.  

When the Soviet model began to be installed in 1971, after the failure of the [1970] sugar harvest [to reach the ambitious target of 10 million tons on which Cuba’s industrialisation was staked], the orthodox current began settling old scores, and that was the end of the homegrown revolution. The closure of [the heterodox Marxist theoretical magazine] Pensamiento Critíco (Critical Thought) and the disbandment of the Department of Philosophy were a clear message to our grandparents’ generation. Luckily, José Miguel Miyar Barruecos (Chomi), as vice-chancellor of Havana University, had the good sense to make room for the philosophy department’s refugees at his own study centre. The fact that this would be impossible today, even if we had a Chomi, speaks volumes of how much ideological space has been lost in Cuban institutions. In the 1980s, other factors such as glasnost and perestroika ushered in new problems; then there was the crisis of the fine arts community. Many ended up emigrating.  
            
In 1996, there was another purge with the closure of the American Studies Centre (CEA). The CEA was too penetrating and heretical at a time when the expectations aroused by the Fourth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party [in 1991] were already waning, and being politically incorrect was no longer sexy in the eyes of the authorities. They couldn’t do much more to them because the Centre’s coterie of devoted intellectuals had ways of surviving, but several of those who are today our finest thinkers were accused of being a fifth column of imperialism and of working for the CIA. Today, young film makers and the [Cuban state’s] cinematic institutions are at odds with each other, people are pushing for a film industry law that doesn’t materialise and there is no Fidel-like figure with the authority and willingness to take the bull by the horns and bring everyone to the table to find a solution. The current notion that flirting with the enemy, or the enemy’s influence, lies behind every disagreement is simply a convenient excuse to avoid debate. It’s shameful to look back on our history and see how, in years of invasions and nuclear crises [i.e. in the early 1960s], there was a greater capacity for internal dialogue.        
       
The most conservative sectors of the ideological apparatus were never quoted by Raul [Castro]. Ever since the current president took office, these sectors have sought his support in order to utilise his symbolic capital. Now they have got what they wanted. That Diaz-Canel trusts in the functionaries and structures that surround him was to be expected, in fact, what he has just said will no doubt calm the hard-liners who feared they were out on a limb. Unfortunately, his words are, today, a green light for new purges and the repetition of old errors. To reduce the Cuban political spectrum to a ‘to be or not to be’ dichotomy, as do the most orthodox members of the government, is not only a radical departure from Fidel’s line of giving space within the Revolution to everyone other than militant counterrevolutionaries, it is also a serious theoretical and political error.       
  
The text cited by the president lumps together real phenomena with [ideological] crusades and thinly-veiled personal vendettas. According to the text's author, Lagarde, ‘the hirelings of official thought’ do not exist. He finds the allusion so uncomfortable that he makes it seem as if Che were not referring to our [party-state] bureaucracy, and he tries to divert attention elsewhere.[5] Accustomed to bureaucratic funding allocations, he talks of ‘accepting’ a scholarship as if it were a gift from a superior. He has no idea just how many young Cubans are studying abroad, nor of the sacrifices involved in obtaining a scholarship on the basis of academic excellence. He talks about unity, yet calls for purges. He does not mention support and links with international left movements because he wants to make accusations of hypocrisy. His totalitarian stance is aimed at the annihilation of anyone who disagrees. He is unaware that Cuba needs both himself and the ‘new revolutionaries’ he denounces; that in the absence of either the one or the other, the jigsaw of the Cuban Revolution would have a piece missing.  
   
Cuba’s ideological fundamentalists are experts in harming, marginalising, excluding and labelling others, insinuating that they are acting on behalf of the US. They do harm to not just you, but also your family and friends, so that you end up alone. All in the name of the Revolution. The modus operandi of Cuba's orthodox camp is to turn a person into what they are not, by radicalising them [i.e. pushing them into the arms of the counterrevolution] through marginalisation in order to demonstrate that their accusation was justified. Today, they enjoy the access [to the political leadership] and the insider information that come with institutional support. They want a public sphere with a military rather than a parliamentary discipline. When they are unable to impose their views, they appeal for those views to be legitimised via the president or the mass media to which they have access. They want a top-down blogosphere modelled on La Pupila Insomne, a controlled blogosphere, and a left that they hegemonise.[6] To secure their influence, they ingratiate themselves with the holders of political power. 

José Martí spoke of a republic ‘with everyone and for the common good’, a principle retained in the draft of the new Cuban constitution. In a Communist Party Central Committee meeting, someone heard the president suggest that everyone must do together what Fidel did alone. La Joven Cuba wants to be included in this ‘everyone’, but today they accuse us of each being our own Commander in Chief. In the past few months, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez has been talking to the people in the streets, confronting corruption, promoting transparency on the part of public functionaries and he has now announced that there will be a presidential Twitter account. His closing speech was to congress in which journalists elected president of the Cuban Journalists Union the person whose promotion we have been proposing for years in La Joven Cuba.   

I can live with the president becoming a mouthpiece for Cuban fundamentalism because he believes—or is led to believe—that this will bring about a degree of unity in Cuba. Reading his citation of Lagarde’s commentary brought to mind a young Abel Prieto [Cuba’s culture minister since 1997] admonishing Fidel: “you don’t know how seriously people take your jokes.” While this is not a joke, I have sufficient perspective and conviction to continue supporting the leader who I met as a child in Santa Clara. If they keep on making things more difficult for me: I am 32 years old, I am of the third generation of revolutionaries in my family and my life’s political purpose is to demonstrate that Cuban socialism need not be orthodox. Do what you will.* 
______________________________________________

Translator's notes


[1] Parametración is the practice of setting certain narrow standards, or parameters, by which people are judged by the party and the state. They must conform to these parameters in order to be considered revolutionaries.

[2] Trotsky's murderer, Ramon Mercader, died in Cuba in 1978.'

[3] Blas Roca was a leader of Cuba's Moscow-aligned Popular Socialist Party. I have introduced Alfredo Guevara to readers of my blog here.

[4] On July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro led a group of young Cubans to storm the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba with the aim of seizing weapons and calling on the Cuban people to overthrow the Batista dictatorship. In military terms this audacious action was a failure, but it became the political catalyst for the guerrilla war and urban struggle that culminated in the 1959 revolution. The first Cuban Communist Party, founded by Mella in 1925, was later renamed the Popular Socialist Party (PSP). The PSP condemned Fidel's attack on the Moncada barracks as adventurism and distanced itself from his actions.

[5] In his 1965 essay 'Socialism and Man in Cuba', Che Guevara wrote, referring to the cultural and journalistic spheres: "we must not create docile hirelings of official thought".

[6] I have introduced readers to Iroel Sanchez and his blog La Pupila Insomne here