Monday, December 26, 2011

Translation: Rafael Hernandez interview Part 1

Cuban political scientist Rafael Hernandez edits the respected Cuban journal Temas, launched in 2005 as "a space for critical reflection and debate". Last January I translated a contribution to Temas, Cuba: Continuity and political change by Havana University's Carlos Alzugaray Treto.

Here is Part 1 of my translation of a very informative interview with Rafael Hernandez, in which he distinguishes between what he calls "constructive" and "negative" expressions of opposition to the socialist renewal process.     

Rafael Hernandez: “The collapse of socialism is beyond the present horizon”

Interview by Edmundo Garcia, December 20, 2011 

Spanish transcript published on the Cubadebate website, December 23

Translation: Marce Cameron

Rafael Hernandez is a Cuban social scientist and the editor of the magazine Temas (Topics), a quarterly publication dedicated to theory and analysis of the problems of culture, ideology and society. Hernandez has been an Associate Professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Columbia, and he recently concluded a stint as Visiting Professor at Harvard University. He has published numerous books and essays on the topics of immigration, international security and Cuban culture. He is an academic expert on Cuba-US relations. 

Below is his exchange with journalist Edmundo Garcia from the programme “La tarde se mueve”, which is broadcast by an alternative radio station in Miami. 

Edmundo Garcia: Good afternoon friends and welcome to “La Tarde se Mueve”. As I said yesterday, this afternoon my guest is a social scientist, Dr. Rafael Hernandez, who is with us today having just concluded a working visit to Harvard University. Dr. Rafael Hernandez, I interviewed you four years and four months ago in Montreal, Canada, on the occasion of a Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, LASA, that took place there. So I’d like to begin where we left off then. I remember because I read over it, I don’t know if you recall it. Good afternoon and many thanks to Rafael Hernandez for being with us once again on “La Tarde se Mueve”. 

Rafael Hernandez: Good afternoon and many thanks to you, Edmundo, and to the listeners for tuning in to our conversation. 

Edmundo Garcia: As I mentioned, it’s four years and four months since we spoke about the “readjustment”, today described as a process of “updating”, of the Cuban socialist model. Cuba’s relations with Latin America were another theme of that interview, and now these relations are being transformed via the establishment of CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. We also spoke back then about the leadership style of the current president, Raul Castro; at that time he wasn’t yet president. And we spoke about race relations in Cuba, a topic that will be taken up by the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) National Conference in January 2012. I don’t want to go into the details now, we’ll get to those. So tell me in general terms, I’ve raised a number of things and I’d like you to tell me in general how you view them today. 

Rafael Hernandez
Rafael Hernandez: Well, it’s evident that four years on, the tendency that was apparent then in Cuba’s foreign relations in general, and in the region of Latin America and the Caribbean in particular, has been consolidated and deepened. Today, Cuba has relations with every country in Latin America and the Caribbean, including El Salvador and Costa Rica that were the last to establish relations; naturally, we have relations, that have never been interrupted, with Canada. The only dysfunctional relations that Cuba has in the hemisphere are with the US.

So these relations that we have today are founded on something that is not necessarily ideological agreement, because Latin America is heterogeneous, there is a plurality of political content, of political processes; our relations are based on the willingness to cooperate, on a desire for integration, on common interests, and Cuba is part of this contemporary Latin American spectrum.

If we look back not to four years ago when you kindly interviewed me in Canada, but to 50 years ago, 45 to 50 years ago, when Cuba was completely isolated in the hemisphere and was viewed by many Latin American governments as being a threat, today the situation is radically different. In the country where there were Cuban guerrillas fighting, in Venezuela and in Bolivia, there are now governments with which Cuba has the closest relations that have ever existed. In fact there are other processes that do not have the same radical content as Cuba, with which Cuba also has points of communication and collaboration that are much deeper than ever before, such as with Brazil and our relations with countries such as Argentina and of course, Ecuador.

In general the Latin American context today is much more favourable to Cuba. This is not only because Cuban politics has shifted, but because the politics of Latin America and the Caribbean have shifted in relation to Cuba. Latin America and the Caribbean are closer to Cuba politically today; even other processes that are not so close to the Cuban process, that don’t share as many problems that Cuba has in common with the majority of Caribbean countries, even the most politically distant have many things in common, they’re much closer to Cuba than ever before.

Regarding the other themes that you mentioned, I think the problem of race relations in Cuba has advanced to the extent that it is increasingly becoming an issue of public debate. It is no longer discussed [only] in restricted circles, or even in exclusively institutional frameworks, but is being discussed very broadly and, as you say, this debate is related to the policy of the leading party, the PCC, aimed at raising awareness in the public sphere – through history books, TV, the media – of the great contribution of people of African descent to building the Cuban nation and to Cuban culture. I think we've advanced a lot in this direction. I think that what has been achieved has not been the result of a political decision, it comes from below. Cuban civil society has expressed itself through the cultural media, through the intellectual media, and has opened up the space for public debate.

The next issue of Temas magazine will be dedicated to communication and the public sphere in Cuba. We can already speak of an expanded public sphere in the sense of a space for the expression of different positions, viewpoints, ideas. In fact I’d say that today Cuban politics, the politics of the government and the PCC, is much more in tune with this debate than ever before.

Edmundo Garcia: Professor Rafael Hernandez, this year, in November, you gave a presentation at the Inter-American Dialogue together with other Cuba specialists such as Julia Sweig, the Director of Latin American Studies for the US Council on Foreign Relations. In this meeting the current Cuban political process was described as an “updating” of socialism, and it was made clear that Cuba was not on track to replicate the so-called Arab Spring. I’d like you to explain to our audience – our interview will also be transcribed – your own view of why Cuba did not follow the path of the USSR and the Eastern European countries when they renounced [socialism] and the USSR disintegrated, and why Cuba today is not like Egypt, Libya or Tunisia, which just last weekend marked the first anniversary of their “democratic spring”. Why not Cuba, and how is the “update” of socialism going?

Rafael Hernandez: Well, I think that the change that took place in the European countries and the Soviet Union had a different character than that which has taken place in Cuba during the past 20 years, and which is advancing today on the basis of policies and legislation that are contributing to the emergence of a new socialist model. In the case of the Soviet Union, perestroika and glasnost began as reform policies, but it’s very clear that they gave rise to profoundly anti-socialist sectors and to the expression of great evils that had been installed during the Stalinist epoch. The Soviet Union, despite the renovation period under Khrushchev during the 1950s and 60s, despite the attempts to modernise the economic model, despite the undoubted successes of the Soviet conquest of space, their immense military power, the Soviet Union as a political system could never overcome the evils that dragged it down from the times of Stalin onwards.

Traces of them remained there. The Soviet party and leadership were increasingly out of touch with their bases. Many Soviet citizens were genuinely socialist, but they didn't feel that their ideas and sentiments were reflected in the policies of the leadership. In the complex situation of the Eastern European countries, it’s obvious that socialism never sunk deep roots, that it never had deep roots. This was above all due to the fact that the Red Army occupied their after the Second World War and to the [Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin] Yalta Pact, etc. All this is understood.

In the case of Cuba, as everyone knows, the socialist process has its origins in Cuba’s circumstances at the close of the 1950s. It’s the accumulated result of a struggle for freedom and independence that begin in the 19th century. You can’t understand the socialist revolution without grasping that it’s the culmination of a preceding historical process. I say culmination not because it’s the end point, because there is never “the” end point, only a bridge to advancement, and this is what is happening now. What’s happening now is that during the past two decades — and not only because of the end of the socialist bloc, of Cuba’s disconnection from the international system thanks to its ties to the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries, but also as a result of the deficiencies of its own socialist model — this model, which was adopted in 1976, exhausted itself. It showed signs of exhaustion during the mid-1980s, and in the 90s it entered, together with and catalysed by the collapse of the socialist camp, a clear process of crisis. This is what we call in Cuba the “Special Period”.

The Special Period is not only an economic crisis, it’s a crisis in the way of conceiving of socialism, a crisis of values, a moral crisis, a crisis of society. Given this, the transformation didn't begin six years ago when Raul Castro became acting president, nor some months ago when the PCC Congress adopted economic and social measures.

The transformation of Cuban society began much earlier, with the appearance of problems that were accompanied by the opening up of spaces in which public opinion could express itself, of a greater space for debate in the midst of the crisis. The decline in living standards gave rise to an expansion of the spaces for freedom of expression in Cuba. This is clear to anyone who visited Cuba 20 years ago and returns to visit the country today, they'd see that this public debate has greatly expanded even though it isn't reflected in the Cuban media. This has nothing to do with what happened, with what was the status quo, in the North African countries, in the Arab countries. It has nothing to do with what has happened in Egypt, Morocco, or Libya.

It has nothing in common with these countries because neither the culture, nor the political regime, nor the historical process that led to this were comparable. Certain analysts make far-fetched comparisons in which they credit mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter with the possibility of subversion, of them being tools of subversion. This is absolutely ridiculous, it’s like thinking that revolutions were produced by the telephone and the telegraph. It’s to invest these devices, this technology, with a muscular quality, with motive and causation in the outbreak of a process of social and political transformation.

These processes took place in the Arab world where some very authoritarian regimes, that were ever-more distant from the interests of the population, crumbled. In Cuba, during these past two decades of serious economic difficulties, of discontent and even of a crisis of values, throughout all these years there haven’t been any significant signs of political instability. This is not because Cuban policies are more effective than any others [at quelling dissent]. Cuban politics does not utilise violence, does not use the repressive measures that are so common almost everywhere, including in the US, to suppress demonstrations. The alternative would be to think that faced with a decisive situation in which protest would be the best option, the Cuban people wouldn’t have the courage to do it because they’re scared of the police. That's ridiculous.

What has happened is that the political consensus that was reforged in the context of the 1990s and 2000s is a political
consensus that demands a more decentralised system, a system that gives more space to the non-state sector, that downsizes the bureaucratic apparatus and implements a series of measures to raise the living standards of the population to what had been achieved by the end 1980s. This was the fruit of socialism, of a socialist model that over time lost the capacity to sustain these high living standards and not only, I repeat, because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. So what is happening now is that this reforged consensus includes agreement on the need to avoid civil unrest, disturbances, the use of force to resolve this problem [of the exhaustion of the model]. 

Very few people in Cuba really think – including those who are part of the opposition to the government – that the best way to resolve this situation we’re in is to resort to violence, insurgency, civil unrest. This is very clear to anyone who visits Cuba and obviously it's even clearer to those who live in Cuba. The solutions have to be gradual, without delays so that we  don’t stop moving forward, so that we don’t stop transforming and creating a space in which the citizens can find dignified employment so that they can earn enough to buy the products [they need] on the market, and of course to have a space for critical discourse.

The government has called for disagreement, for the expression of different viewpoints, it has called for the critical discussion of policies. There are very few governments – I’m not aware of any [others] – that before launching a policy of adjustment, before launching a policy for the transformation of the economic model, submit this document to a discussion by millions of citizens, yet this is what has happened. Indeed, the public debate in Cuba constitutes a form of appropriation by the citizens of the political changes, because the expression of people’s views, of the opinions of the ordinary citizens, has been a fundamental step. It has been as fundamental as the measures that have been approved and those that have yet to be approved and which must be approved. Just as important as the policies themselves are the debates that have been conducted on these policies. It's a fundamentally democratic debate, and consequently the space for a Cuban Arab Spring, for a collapse, for chaos, for the implosion of socialism, is beyond the present horizon.

Edmundo Garcia: Continuing with the theme of the reform process in Cuba, I’d like to ask you to clarify something for us. When referring to the changes on the island, most specialists, almost everybody, prefaces their comments by saying that the reforms have enemies, that there are revolutionaries who are against the reforms in Cuba. Now, can we identify some of these adversaries beyond general terms such as “the bureaucracy”? Everyone talks about “the bureaucracy”, but is there some document, is there some book or someone’s speech, I'm talking about names here, that would allow us to say, “Look, there it is, this is the document of the counter-reform in Cuba, this is what certain leaders who oppose the reform are talking about”? Does it exist, do you know of any such thing?

Rafael Hernandez: OK, I don’t think so. I think there are expressions of resistance to change that I would describe as opposition that is not negative, but constructive; and other expressions of opposition that are frankly negative. Among the constructive I’d point to those groups that are obviously not going to benefit immediately and directly because they don’t participate in the spaces and the new opportunities that are opening up for self-employment and for the expansion of the non-state [i.e. small business and cooperative] sector. Among them are people whose age does not allow them to join the workforce or initiate a new life project, those who are defined as living below the poverty line, the numbers of which have increased during the crisis period — some sociologists estimate about 20% of the population. These people do not necessarily have the resources to be able to take advantage of the changes that are now underway, and this means we have to have a social policy that takes advantage of economic growth and directs it towards supporting those who are disadvantaged by the reforms, by the changes; those who face these changes with a degree of uncertainty, considerable uncertainty, because they don’t provide them with a clear opportunity to recover their standard of living. Such people don’t necessarily view the reform process with the expectations, desires and enthusiasm of others.

There is also a negative resistance which 
government leaders have explicitly called the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy doesn't oppose through speeches, it doesn't oppose the reforms with a document. It opposes in its slowness to implement the measures already adopted, already approved. Raul Castro describes this as an old mentality towards change, as a hindrance, the ineptitude of an antiquated work style that is seen, for example, in the media that is an insult to the education level, and is even seen as such by party militants. This inertia that is criticised, in which the bureaucratic apparatus drags its feet in adopting the new rules, the new arrangements, in working in harmony with the new perspectives and approaches, is perhaps the most difficult thing to change, to transform. In my opinion this is one the key issues the PCC Conference will have to grapple with. 

You ask me if there is, as you call it in the US, a “smoking gun”, somewhere where you can go and read about so-and-so, with this name and address, who is ferociously opposed to the changes. I don’t think this is the main... although yes, there may be people who publicly oppose the changes and in fact you can read in some publications, and on the internet, how some people fear that these changes will, for example, lead to the emergence of a petty-bourgeoisie and to certain manifestations of capitalism.

It’s very logical that the old mindset, which sees the emergence of capitalism in every expression of the market and in every segment of small-scale private property, exists. Because for a long time we had a way of coping with the changes that involved stigmatising the emergence of these new [economic] actors and new spaces for the market. Socialism [i.e. the socialist-oriented society – translator’s note] was defined in absolute terms as state-centric socialism, which is what had prevailed throughout all these years.

Or rather, it’s logical that there be these expressions of the mentality that says, OK, these are necessary evils. But it’s clear, and this is one of the most important aspects of the present moment, that for the past year the Cuban government’s position has been to not only to legalise, but to legitimise the presence of these new economic sectors in Cuban society as part of the socialist family. They, the self-employed workers, the members of cooperatives, the people that work in the small [private] enterprise sector, are not emissaries of capitalism, they’re part of the socialist family, part of the revolutionary family, and this has been reiterated by the top government leadership.

[Translation to be continued]

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