Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Comment: Understanding Cuba

Understanding Cuba is hard. Really hard. It takes a lifetime, if not two or three lifetimes, even for Cubans who live there. For the rest of us it's even harder. 

Like an onion, Cuba reveals itself in layers. Each layer exposes more complexity, subtlety and contradiction. Just when you think you've grasped it you realise there's more to it, that the apparently smooth surface is creased and dimpled like the face of an old cigar-chomping tobacco farmer from Pinar del Rio. The Revolution is enigmatic, idiosyncratic and constantly in motion. 

According to capitalist ideology, objectivity requires the renunciation of partisanship. From leafy academia professional Cubanologists pronounce Cuba's revolution to be an anachronism, a failed experiment, a departure from the rationality of the "free" market. Yet such detachment from reality is itself an ideological stance whose partisanship serves to prop up an obsolete social order: global capitalism.

You have to be something of a revolutionary yourself to really understand the Cuban Revolution. You have to strive to live a life consistent with its principles. Only then, as a partisan of the wider struggle for a socialist world, can you embrace Cuba's revolution as our own. Only then can we fully identify with its dreams, hopes, and illusions; frustrations and disappointments; achievements and failures.

So partisanship is necessary, but something else is also required: study. Like anything else, Cuba has to be studied in depth in order to be understood, and there's no substitute for this. For us in the English-speaking world the biggest obstacle is the language barrier. The most important contributions to the debate on how to renew Cuba's socialist course are, naturally, those of Cubans living in Cuba. These are not only the most influential contributions, since it will be Cubans living on the island who decide the Revolution's fate, they are also the most grounded contributions.

For decades critical views, apart from those of Fidel and a few other revolutionary leaders, and debates within the Revolution were hidden behind a veil of censorship and self-censorship. This is changing, for two reasons. One is Raul Castro's repeated calls for more public criticism and debate and his pointing out the harm done by excessive official secrecy, false unanimity and the stifling of differences. During the past few years there has been a gradual opening up of institutional spaces for ongoing debate and the Revolution's culture of debate has been maturing. 

The other reason is technological. With most Cubans able to access Cuba's intranet, a restricted version of the internet, and a relatively small but growing number able to access the full internet, the debate in Cuba is increasingly reflected online. The instantaneous and horizontal nature of the internet not only makes for a richer exchange of views among the participants, it also makes this debate more accessible to the outside world.

While Fidel's speeches, and those of other Cuban leaders on occasion, are translated into half a dozen languages, the English-language versions of Cuban publications such as Granma and Juventud Rebelde only scratch the surface. Many of the most interesting articles and commentaries, such as Granma letters to the editor and Luis Sexto's commentaries in Juventud Rebelde, are not translated. The aim of this blog is to make selected documents, commentaries and letters to the editor accessible to those who don't read Spanish.

Important as these are, to understand Cuba we need to read widely, beyond the official Cuban media. While they play a vital role in the revolutionary process, and are the obvious starting point, they do not and cannot — given Cuba's acute material limitations and the state of siege imposed by imperialism — reflect the diversity of opinion within the Revolution. Cuba's revolutionary opinionscape is like the electromagnetic spectrum: you don't want to limit yourself to what can be seen in visible light. Engagement with the full spectrum of opinion, of subjectivity, is needed to build up a balanced and nuanced understanding.

For example, the Havana Times website publishes what it calls "open-minded writing from Cuba". It translates commentaries and reflections on daily life by a small number of mostly young Cubans who are disillusioned with the Revolution but not, for the most part, hostile towards it, and who have been recruited as contributors, on a voluntary basis I presume, by the website's editors who live outside Cuba. Their criticisms — typically strident, whining and tinged with utopianism or cynical resignation, often both — are more or less from the left. As dissident leftists, they should not be confused with the real counter-revolutionaries such as Yoani Sanchez and her ilk.

These are intelligent and sensitive youth that the Revolution must try to win over through the renovation process. I can imagine some of them working through their frustrations by contributing to one of the new urban cooperatives that are to be established, perhaps a little cafeteria with a Bohemian ambience somewhere in the back streets of Old Havana. We might not like what they say, and we may disagree. It may hurt us to know that some Cubans think and feel the way they do, but to cast the young writers for Havana Times into the camp of the counter-revolution would be a grotesque error of judgement. It would be fall into the very intolerance that the Revolution has been striving to overcome. Theirs are voices that deserve to be heard. 

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