Friday, January 21, 2011

Translation: Continuity and political change (1)

As noted previously, there is a rich discussion and debate taking place among Cuba's revolutionary intelligentsia about how to "change everything that must be changed". Most of this debate is inaccessible to English-speaking audiences. Temas is a highly respected Cuban journal edited by Cuban political scientist Rafael Hernandez. Launched in 2005 as "a space for critical reflection and debate", it also publishes contributions from progressive intellectuals outside Cuba. The following essay appeared in the October-December 2009 edition

Carlos Alzugaray Treto is a Cuban writer, diplomat and professor, lecturing at Havana University and the Raul Roa Garcia Higher Institute of International Relations. With degrees in history and diplomacy, a master's degree in contemporary history and a doctorate in historical sciences, Alzugaray Treto is considered an expert on US-Cuba relations. He has had a long and impressive diplomatic career, serving as Cuba's ambassador to the European Union from 1994-6.

"Cuba fifty years on: continuity and political change" is a superb summary of the political and economic challenges facing the Cuban Revolution today, a panorama that demands nothing less than an integral transformation of Cuba's socialist model. Taking in the broad sweep of the past half-century of revolution, Alzugaray Treto's grounded analysis and sober optimism are an antidote to the shrill catastrophism emanating from some quarters of the international left who fear that the reform process will lead to capitalist restoration.

This essay is representative of the best analysis contributed by what could be called the critical renovationist current within the Cuban Revolution, one pole in the national debate initiated by Raul Castro. This current is led by the PCC leadership. At the other pole are those who are wary of debate and fearful of change, some because they cling to erroneous or obsolete ideas about socialism, others because they defend administrative prerogatives and, in some cases, illicit privileges due to corruption. Within the critical renovationist current there is a spectrum of opinion on what must be changed and how these changes should be carried out. The PCC leadership strives for consensus on the most important changes while urging a break with the harmful practice of false unanimity. 

It's well worth reading and absorbing this insightful essay in full. Given its length, some 10 pages in Temas, I'm going to translate and post it in instalments. Access to the journal's online archives requires a subscription, so email me if you'd like me to send you a PDF version of the Spanish original. For those who read Spanish and are interested, I've included the author's footnotes in the translation. Norman Girvan has compiled a nice PDF version of the complete translation here, with permission from the author and Temas.

Cuba fifty years on: Continuity and political change (Part 1)

By Carlos Alzugaray Treto, Havana University
Temas, October-December, 2009
Translation: Marce Cameron

In every moment what must be done is what is necessary. Jose Marti

Revolution is having a sense of the historical moment; it is changing everything that must be changed. Fidel Castro

When Fidel Castro temporarily ceded power to Raul Castro on July 31, 2006, Cuba began a process of political change which has brought it to a decisive crossroads. Almost 19 months later on February 24, 2008, the VII Legislature of the National Assembly of People's Power (ANPP) designated a new government, headed by the until then acting President.

An epoch unknown in the recent history of Cuba has opened, in which Fidel Castro has ceased to be the head of state and/or government for the first time since February 1959 — when he assumed the functions of Prime Minister — to become “comrade Fidel”. It cannot be denied that in the historical moment in which Cubans live, new perspectives of inevitable changes have opened, with the consequent uncertainty that accompanies them.

The crossroads: continuity and change        

This essay is an attempt to meditate on continuity and political change and their significance. It does not try to take sides in a debate nor indicate inevitable changes. Neither does it aspire to propose finished, comprehensive alternatives; the topic, by itself, requires an openness to dialogue, debate and deliberation. As Julio Carranza has written: “Scientists and scientific institutions have a responsibility of public service, that of direct communication to society of information and specialist analysis; not as a political proposal, but as fundamental interpretations that contribute to elevating the cultural level and the general understanding of different themes.”[1]

The starting hypothesis is that a foreseeable process of evolution towards new forms of leadership of Cuban society has begun. This is not what political science calls a “transition” that has given rise to a whole school of “transitionology”[2], although the necessity for adjustments, transformations and changes within continuity could correspond in the broad sense to that notion. However, this concept is currently too “loaded”, and presupposes a “change of regime” and, above all, the enthronement of political systems that Atilio Boron has called “democratic capitalism” in societies previously governed by regimes characterised as “authoritarian” or “totalitarian”[3]. Cuba is not this kind of society, so in its case there is not the same points of departure, nor of arrival, as those of the most studied “transitions”.

For evident reasons, Fidel Castro has led Cuba in an unrepeatable way. Some [Cuban] leadership sectors have insisted, on more than once occasion, that his absence will change nothing. In 2002, the Constitution was amended in line with this reasoning to incorporate the idea of the irrevocability of socialism. This reaction is explained by the necessity to emphasise the continuity of the [socialist] project against the efforts to reverse it from without, above all by the US. Unfortunately, it can also be used to legitimise immobility and oppose all reform. Nevertheless, as [Argentinean socialist] Atilio Boron has argued recently:

"It's absurd to anathematise any reform as heresy or a betrayal of socialism — understanding this to be an unalterable dogma not only on the plane of principles, which is good, but also with regard to historic projects, which is bad — because this would obviously mean the consecration of a suicidal immobility, the negation of the capacity for self-correction of errors and the renunciation of collective learning, which are indispensable conditions for the permanent perfecting of socialism."[4]

From this forewarning, it is obvious that changes will have to be introduced in the way of doing politics, in the method of governing, although these changes will obey an internal dynamic and not the demands from outside. As Raul Castro put it well, "We will never adopt a decision, not even the most minimal, as a result of pressure or blackmail, no matter where it comes from, whether it be a powerful country or even an entire continent."[5]  

These changes are taking place in the midst of continuity and in the way in which changes are always made in Cuba, breaking with schemas, which raises questions about what will be the probable evolution of the Cuban nation in the new circumstances. Especially outside the island, there are numerous musings and conjectures based on processes [of capitalist restoration] already known, historically close and superficially similar. Even among the left, all kinds of conjectures arise. But Cubans, once again, will come up with their own solutions to the present challenges.

Fidel Castro, the Revolution and his historic role

The Cuban Revolution, creator of the political regime that currently presides over the destiny of the country, has been both a necessary and original process. Its necessity, in historical terms, arises from what could be defined as the four great national aspirations that were frustrated from the 19th century onwards: national sovereignty, social justice, sustainable economic development and democratic self-government.  The triumph of the Revolution in 1959 was the result of specific internal circumstances and not foreign impositions, as happened with Eastern European socialism with the exception of the USSR.

The outstanding political success of Fidel Castro, in his 47 years of government, has been precisely his capacity to lead the Cuban national towards the achievement of these four historic aspirations, despite deficiencies and setbacks. Not all of these aspirations have been achieved in the necessary form and magnitude, but the situation of Cuba today represents a radical change from the Cuba of 1958, a transformation in the desired direction by the people and their political vanguard despite the obstacles put in their path, in particular the permanent hostility of a powerful neighbour, the US. 

To illustrate this point it's worth quoting extensively Professor Jorge I. Dominguez, from Harvard University, hardly a partisan of socialism or of the prevailing model in Cuba:

"To honour honour: that noble phrase of Jose Marti that has taken root in the Cuban cultural vocabulary for more than a century. We honour, then, Fidel Castro as we watch the sun set on his life, not only those who supported him but also those, such as I, who didn't. He was the transformer of a people into a nation, who decisively modernised this society; who clearly understood that Cubans wanted to "be a people", not just appendages of the US. It was he who understood that this hypochondriac people required more doctors per square centimetre than any other on the face of the Earth. He was the architect of a policy of investment in human capital that converted Cuban children into the Olympic champions of education in Latin America and that, therefore, allows us to glimpse a better future for Cuba. He was the architect of a politics that allows Cubans of all races to have access to health care, education, the dignity corresponding to every human being, the right to think that my children and grandchildren, whatever the colour of their complexion, deserve respect and the same opportunities as the rest. It wasn't he who came up with the idea that women should have equal rights in society, but he is a promoter of gender equality in public life." 

He was responsible for a gesture for which humanity is grateful: risking the blood of his soldiers for the noble cause of contributing powerfully to preventing the racist regime of South African apartheid from annexing Angola. It was he, too, who deserves recognition for the contributing to the end of apartheid in South Africa, the independence of Namibia and for defending the independence of Angola. The day that Fidel dies, the flags of these African countries will reflect the national mourning.[6] 

"The likelihood that both the people and the Cuban leadership would renounce, willingly and consciously, the achievements of these 50 years is highly improbable, if not implausible. However, the successors of Fidel Castro in the leadership of the nation face serious challenges to achieve the reproduction of the system without his physical presence. The reversibility of the Cuban revolutionary process as a result of internal errors and not external pressure was dramatically exposed by Fidel Castro himself in the University of Havana on November 17, 2005."[7]

Among the strengths of the Cuban political regime in its present structure is, in the first place, its degree of internal and external legitimacy. The external legitimacy derives from the Cuba's well-known international activism and a broad network of foreign relations that has allowed the country to twice lead the Non-Aligned Movement and to weave together a string of successes in the UN General Assembly around a resolution that condemns and demands an end to the US blockade against Cuba. To have neutralised the policy of international and diplomatic isolation of Cuba has been one of the most important triumphs of Cuban diplomacy.

The internal legitimacy — alongside recognition by the majority of what has been called "the conquests of the Revolution" — is supported by an institutional framework that rests on two key pillars: the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR). It is a very common error outside Cuba to suppose that the PCC is copied from similar experiences in the old [Eastern] European socialist countries. Despite the fact that the PCC leadership has committed errors that have been recognised and/or rectified, and that methods and styles of work bearing the imprint of their origins in the Soviet political model still persist — such as the excess of centralism, for example — in reality the Cuban leadership has been concerned with two central aspects: the vanguard character of its militants that must be the first in every political social initiative, and the struggle against manifestations of corruption in its ranks. The honesty, sensitivity and the spirit of sacrifice championed by Che Guevara have been, in general, paradigms of Cuban communist conduct and not the privileges and perks of the nomenclatura, as happened under actually existing socialism [e.g. Soviet bureaucratic "socialism"].

The provincial and municipal leaderships of the PCC constitute the most important link of government at the local and provincial levels, in close coordination with the organs of People's Power (the provincial and municipal assemblies). While in general this system functions satisfactorily, the contradiction in the provinces and municipalities is much greater than at the central level, where the hegemonic role of the PCC is exercised without any discernable difference between the political and the administrative. At these levels, no citizen has the slightest doubt that the first secretary of the corresponding PCC committee is the highest administrative authority in the territory; even exercising formally the presidency of the Defence Council, the highest organ of government in the case of natural disasters or war. At the level of the country as a whole, however, given the coincidence between the positions of president/vice-president [of the Council of State] with that of the first/second PCC secretaries, it is much clearer.           

Nevertheless, and this is a significant challenge, we are still far from having achieved a truly democratic culture. As Aurelio Alonso has pointed out, "The Leninist proposition of 'democratic centralism', as a formula for proletarian power, has ended in the consecration of vertical centralism to decide and democratic centralism to carry out, when its merit would consist in every centralised action being subject to what is democratically decided".[8]

In too many leaders the idea seems to predominate that the only objective of debate is to convince the citizens, whatever they may think, that the course of action drawn up by the higher-ups, at any given moment, is what is truly revolutionary and that any criticism or dissent arises from ideological confusion or worse, from counter-revolutionary attitudes. "Bold attempts at analysis at the margins of official discourse are stigmatised as immature, naive, incautious or simply provocative".[9] According to the political discourse of many leadership cadres, in the majority of instances those who dare to do so "are not sufficiently well informed", but neither is this information available because "divulging it could be useful to the enemy". Also prevalent at times is the paternalistic reproach that he or she that disagrees or dissents is falling into errors of "naivety".

On the other hand, Cuba has lacked a real culture of debate, dialogue and deliberation, and this is felt particularly by the young generations who are better educated and more cultured. Thus Jesus Arencibia Lorenzo, in article published in Alma Mater, organ of the University Student Federation (FEU), refers to the "seven bricks" that obstruct the path towards a truly productive deliberation at the service of the Cuban socialist project: fear of risk, the besieged fortress syndrome, the information monopoly, confusing ambiguities, extreme Puritanism, total planning and the language of tasks.[10]

Finally, the need to defend the gains of the Revolution in the face of the growing aggressiveness of imperialism and the practices of the "statisation" of property and the centralisation of the process of decision-making carried out throughout these years, leading to what Mayra Espina has termed the "hyperstatisation" of society. "All this is expressed in the hyperstatisation of social relations, centralisation and verticalism, authoritarian paternalism, distributive homogenisation with insufficient sensitivity to address the diversity of necessities and heterogeneous interests (of groups, territories, localities, etc.) and involves processes of alienation due to the lack of real participation in decision-making".[11]

Sometimes a malformation is perceived in the relationship between the citizens in general and those functionaries, also citizens, that have certain responsibilities in the state apparatus. These bureaucrats conduct themselves better as chiefs handing out orientations as to what can and cannot be done, and enjoying these prerogatives as persons [supposedly] at the service of the people and subordinated to them. Back in 1963 Raul Roa defined bureaucratism as "one of the worst hindrances of [the building of] socialism".[12]

[Translation to be continued] 

[1] Julio Carranza, «El compromiso de la ciencia y la ciencia del compromiso», Temas, n. 53, La Habana, enero-marzo de 2008, p. 147.

[2] Michel Dobry, «Las vías inciertas de la transitología», Temas, n. 50-51, La Habana, abril-septiembre de 2007, p. 23.

[3] Atilio Borón, Tras el búho de Minerva: mercado contra democracia en el capitalismo de fin de siglo, Fondo de Cultura Económica, México, DF, 2000, pp. 135-211.

[4] Atilio Borón, Socialismo siglo XXI: ¿hay vida después del neoliberalismo?, Ediciones Luxemburg, Buenos Aires, 2008, p. 117.

[5] Raúl Castro Ruz, «Socialismo significa justicia social e igualdad, pero igualdad no es igualitarismo», Discurso pronunciado en la primera sesión ordinaria de la VII Legislatura de la Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular, La Habana, 11 de julio de 2008, disponible en

[6] Jorge I. Domínguez, «El comienzo de un fin», Foreign Affairs en Español, v. 6, n. 4, México, DF, octubre-diciembre de 2006,
pp. 129-135.

[7] Fidel Castro Ruz, «Discurso en acto por el LX aniversario de su ingreso a la Universidad de La Habana», en Julio César Guanche, comp., En el borde de todo: el hoy y el mañana de la Revolución en Cuba, Ocean Sur, Bogotá, 2007. English translation here.

[8] Aurelio Alonso, «Continuidad y transición: Cuba en el 2007», Le Monde Diplomatique, Bogotá, abril de 2007.

[9] Debo esta frase a Julio Fernández y está tomada de un documento de reflexión preparado para un debate promovido por Julio César Guanche en el seminario «Por una cultura revolucionaria de la política», La Habana, noviembre de 2007.

[10] Jesús Arencibia Lorenzo, «Debates en la beca: el ensueño y los ladrillos», Alma Mater, n. 453, La Habana, agosto de 2007.

[11] Mayra Espina, «Mirar a Cuba hoy: cuatro supuestos para la observación y seis problemas-nudos», Temas, n. 56, La Habana, octubre-diciembre de 2008, p. 136.

[12] Raúl Roa García, Retorno a la alborada, t. 2, Universidad Central de las Villas, Santa Clara, 1964, p. 590.

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