Cuba’s Changing Leadership and the Dynamics of Civil Society

by Sujatha Fernandes

Bien underground cubano casi sin
posibilidades,
pero con lo poco q’ tenemos no
somos gusanos
y hago tanto como muchos q’ no
hacen lo q’ hago yo.
Me siento un mago cuando estoy
en la tarima,
levantan de un público muerto hasta
lograr q’ rian de alegria
desapareciendo su agonia y
melancolia,
tan solo, representando a mi forma
a la patria mia.

Real Cuban underground almost without
possibilities,
but though we don’t have much, we ain’t
dissidents,
and I do a lot more than others, who don’t
do what I do.
I feel like a magician when I’m
on stage
raising a dead public, until I make them
laugh with happiness,
making disappear their agony and melancolia,
sadness,
so alone, representing in my own way
my country.

“Mi patria caray” (My country damnit!), Explosión Suprema, 2001.

In May 2001, the Cuban rap group Explosión Suprema performed their song “Mi patria caray” at the annual Cubadisco music festival. The rappers, from the Alamar housing projects just outside of Havana, did not sugarcoat the tough realities that they were living through as Cuba transitioned away from a Soviet-subsidized socialist model towards greater dependency on tourism, foreign investment, and remittances. Seven years later, they are living through yet another transition, as Fidel Castro steps down and his brother Raúl is named president of the country by Cuba’s parliament. And as before, the recognition that these are hard times has not provoked the kinds of mass uprisings many had predicted would accompany the exit of Fidel from the political scene.

Political commentators expressed surprise at the relative calm on the streets of Cuba’s main cities, both in July 2006 when Fidel temporarily stepped down from the presidency while recovering from emergency surgery, and last week, when he resigned. Perhaps a clue to this uneventful transition lies in the nature of contestation in Cuba and, as the rap song illustrates, the public disavowals of dissident politics by critical sectors of Cuban civil society. Dissident groups and autonomous organizations have not managed to build a base in post-1959 Cuba – partly due to their association with and reliance on US-funded programs and the success of the Cuban government in exporting its critics. While the changing tides of Cuban politics have tended to be viewed through these polarities of quiescence or dissidence, I propose rather that we look at the trajectory of sectors of civil society working in collaboration or negotiation with the state, especially within the arts. This can help us to understand the forms of social agency exercised by ordinary Cubans as they shape, contest, and bolster an emerging post-Fidel political order.

Redimensionalizing of the Cuban state during the 1990s

For some three decades of the Cuban revolution since its inception in 1959, it was difficult to speak of a lively and active civil society, since all mass organizations were closely tied to the state. Beginning in the 1990s, some Cuban scholars observed a “redimensionalizing” of the state, as the state withdrew its monopoly over social groups and organizations. This was due to the opening up of Cuba to a global market economy, the lack of resources available for patronage or sponsorship, and the crisis of legitimacy that the Cuban state faced as new social forces entered the arena.

Mass organizations and institutions previously under the tutelage of the state began to attain a degree of autonomy. The Center for the Study of America (CEA), had originally been established by the Communist Party in 1997 as a way of tackling theoretical problems as identified by the leadership, but in the mid-1990s they were given nongovernmental organization (NGO) status and began to project a more independent image. The Center for Psychological and Social Research, the Center Félix Varela and journals such as Temas launched debates about the viability of state socialism. For the first time in the post-revolutionary context, an independent women’s organization Magín emerged alongside the official Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). In 1995, dissident leaders formed an umbrella organization known as the Cuban Council, that united groups across the country by the following year. These expanding spheres of public life were not comparable with, nor did they identify with, the dissident human rights and pro-reform movements that emerged in Eastern Europe prior to the collapse of the Soviet bloc. However, they were creating spaces for reflection on the challenges that Cuba was undergoing in a period of severe crisis.

During 1996-97, there was a bureaucratic offensive that would shut down many of these groups and define the future terms of engagement between state and society. The offensive was prompted by the limited economic recovery of the country due to rising foreign investments and new trade links, and the tightening of the embargo through Track II of the Torricelli Law in 1995 and the Helms-Burton law in 1996. In February 1996, the Cuban government arrested over a dozen leaders of the Cuban Council. In a speech in March 1996, Raúl Castro criticized the CEA academics for abandoning class principles and pandering to U.S.-based Cubanologists. In September, the Central Committee of the Communist Party advised the leaders of Magín that they presented a threat to the unity of Cuban society and would have to be disbanded. Following a series of discussions in which they strongly defended themselves, both CEA and Magín were dissolved. The events made clear the parameters of contestation in post-Soviet Cuba. Although the state was willing to permit a degree of critical activity, there was little space for independent organizing and none for dissidence.

“That which is hidden is seen by all:” A Critical Race Politics Surfaces

Even as organizations such as CEA and Magín were shut down, new social forces were already emerging, this time from among the ranks of those who had been most loyal followers and beneficiaries of the Cuban revolution – Afro-Cubans. “My skin is the color of night, it reveals secrets already known,” the female rapper Magia rhymed. “To show that which is hidden is seen by all.” Through rap music, young black Cubans began to speak about race, breaking silences that had existed for several decades. Black youth were feeling the brunt of the economic crisis, as they were concentrated in the poorest quality housing, the lowest income brackets, and were excluded from the most lucrative sectors of the economy such as tourism. At the same time, as the Cuban economy was opened to global consumer markets, Afro-Cuban themes were increasingly visible, with the development of a folklore tourism, and – its unintended consequence – a critical race politics among Afro-Cuban youth involved in hip hop culture.

The issues of racism and inequality were also being addressed by visual artists. In 1997, Afro-Cuban artist Alexis Esquivel organized the exhibition Queloide I (Keloid I), bringing together various artists who had been working on issues of race. Queloide, meaning raised scar tissue, refers back to the scars left on the skin of slaves from whippings by foremen. At the end of 1997, the artists organized another exhibition entitled, Ni Músicos, Ni Deportistas (Not Musicians, Nor Athletes). The title referred to the social stereotypes that confine the cultural contributions of Afro-Cubans to music and sports. The exhibitions looked at race relations in Cuba from a critical and analytical socio-political perspective, not only cultural and religious. As before with CEA and Magín, visual artists provoked a backlash from state officials and the art establishment. Esquivel recalled that, “We were accused of being ‘radical blacks,’ resentful, and opportunists, in what was an intent to avoid airing an issue that seemed to have awakened contrary opinions.” Artists and rappers responded to these kinds of attacks by defending their revolutionary credentials and patriotism.

Although rappers and artists faced obstacles in promoting their critical race politics, their message was being carried forth by academics and writers, including the former members of Magín. Professor Esteban Morales, an Afro-Cuban intellectual, argued publicly that the theme of race in Cuba has many silences. In writings and public forums during the early to mid 2000s, Morales asserted that dogmatic marxism had subsumed questions of race and marginality in the category of class. The revolution had made the claim that by eradicating the structural bases of racial inequality, racism ceased to exist, and what was left over was the remnants of racial prejudice. By contrast, Morales argued that structural racism did exist in Cuban institutions, organizations, and in the street. It was also re-emerging in the new mixed economy of joint enterprises and tourism. Academic interventions, together with the voices of rappers and visual artists in the artistic public sphere, helped to sustain a critical engagement about race within a changing Cuba. Regardless of the ebb and flow of tolerance and censorship, initiatives from civil society continued to surface.

Post-2006: The Debate over the “Quinquenio Gris”

On July 31, 2006, Fidel temporarily relinquished power. Incapacitated with severe intestinal bleeding, he underwent emergency surgery and Raúl assumed the post of temporary president. Just five months later, the state television channel began airing programs featuring three cultural officials who had presided over the “quinquenio gris,” a five year gray period of censorship and repression during the 1970s that actually lasted closer to fifteen years. Luis Pavon, who was president of the National Culture Council from 1971 to 1976, appeared on television three times, and was credited with leaving his stamp on Cuban culture. The Cuban writer and cultural critic Desiderio Navarro responded to the broadcasts, saying that they were an indication of the resurfacing of “neo-Stalinist” elements seeking to usurp political terrain in the vacuum left by Fidel’s sudden departure from the scene. Navarro started a debate on the internet among prominent intellectuals by sending out an open letter through e-mail.

In response to the storm of debate caused by the e-mail, the official daily newspaper Granma published a letter by the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) supporting Navarro’s criticisms. Four hundred writers and artists were permitted to hold a meeting to discuss the legacy of the gray years on artistic and intellectual life. The debate was picked up by Raúl Castro on his 26 July speech, when he called for a frank appraisal of the problems facing Cuba and the need to adopt new methods and reforms. He asked Cubans to debate in their workplaces and local committees and to propose solutions to issues such as low wages and agricultural shortages. Then, in November, on the television show Diálogo Abierto (Open Dialogue), former director of the Cuban Film Institute Alfredo Guevara made an appeal for a nation-wide debate along the lines of what Raúl had proposed. He also commented on the gray years, and the recent intellectual debate that had developed around it. The initial absence of Fidel seemed to spark not chaos and disorder, as some expected, but a fruitful moment of rethinking and intellectual dynamism reminiscent of the early years of the revolution.

Transitions from Below?

Right now, the world is focused on a historic transfer of power, as Fidel steps down and his brother Raúl assumes the presidency. There are many questions – will Raúl pursue market reforms, will he engage in diplomacy with the new president of the U.S, who will replace the 76-year old Raúl when he steps down?

But we cannot view the situation through the lens of Raúl’s motives and internal party dynamics alone, as this is not the only arena where these questions will be decided. Civil society, even during the stifling gray years of the 1970s and early 1980s, has always been a factor to take into account. And intellectuals such as Navarro still speak of the survival and revival of socialism. Perhaps to the chagrin of some dissidents and pro-market reformers, the terrain of much of Cuban civil society revolves around socialism, albeit a socialism with a real culture of collective debate and criticism, something lacking in Cuba. Over the coming months and years, different factions and tendencies will continue to struggle over Cuba’s future. And just as there are those who will fight to prevent a return to the exclusions and inequalities of a pre-Castro era, others will defend against a resurfacing of the authoritarian impulses of the gray years.

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