Cuba is back in the public eye as a result of the planned action of November 15. The “Civic March for Change” sought to continue the historical demonstrations of July 11, which were the most important in decades and showed a widespread opposition spirit. But this time the security apparatus was forewarned; it was able to dismantle the protest and avoid the images of repression in the streets, which went viral around the world three months ago, and the arrests that followed. The July rebellion awakened in the public opinion (more abroad than on the island) the idea of the end of the regime, a conjecture that ignores the conditions and mechanisms of a power built for many years. On the other hand, it is doubtful that regime change (that is, the fall of Cuban-style socialism) is the general objective of the protests.
It will be useful, then, to try to consider some features of the current situation. And given my position, separated from the internal scenario of the crises, what I can contribute focuses on the effects, the repercussions that activate and mobilize long-standing representations of the revolution, which have nourished the political imaginary, not only in Latin America.
In Cuba, a new Constitution was sanctioned two years ago. It is very easy to consult it (see, for example, here). It defines the Cuban state as a “socialist state of law.” And it enshrines a series of basic freedoms and rights: a republic “founded on the work, dignity, humanism and ethics of its citizens for the enjoyment of freedom, equity, equality, solidarity, well-being and individual and collective prosperity” (Art. 1). It establishes that “all persons have the right to life, physical and moral integrity, liberty, justice, security, peace, health, education, culture, recreation, sports and their integral development” (Art. 46). It affirms that “the State recognizes, respects and guarantees people’s freedom of thought, conscience and expression” (Art. 54). At the level of formal legality there would be no justification for the repression of protests and arrests that followed, which in principle violate the guarantees enshrined in the Constitution.
The problem is that in Cuba there is a dissociated legality that accounts for a duplicated organization of powers. To put it in Marx’s old vocabulary, the Constitution is only the superstructure, separated from the material base, in this case the mechanisms of social and political domination that are based on other principles and operate with another logic. The security apparatus does not respond to the “rule of law:” fixed in the revolutionary moment it continues to function as a state of exception, which implies the effective suppression of those rights enshrined in the Constitution. In other words, the figure (or the ghost) of the revolutionary civil war has been prolonged for more than 60 years. And that superimposition of the past in the present crisis, the scenes of the past that oppress the brain and the conscience of the actors, expands in the repercussions outside the island, which see in the protests the uprising against a revolution that in reality stopped existing decades ago. How to deal with that mixture of mirages and misunderstandings?
The U.S. sanctions against Cuba are part of this frozen scenario. Blockade or embargo, beyond the consequences on the economy and daily life, even admitting that its effectiveness has been reduced by the opening with Europe and Latin America, the truth is that it provides an argument and a justification, political, ideological and symbolic, to maintain that frozen scene. The world is different, there is no longer a global confrontation. Cuba is not a revolutionary state and much less can it be a threat to the United States, as it was at the time of the missile crisis.
Cuba survives as the Museum of the Cold War, an archaic remnant nurtured by the regime, but also by the U.S., and not only by the Republican right. Beyond the invocations to the cause of human rights (a topic which, in government declarations, always tends to duplicity and which, on the other hand, has not been a determining factor in US foreign policy), the problem of Cuba has become a problem of US domestic politics that concerns the votes of the state of Florida. Without such an implantation in domestic political struggles, the problem of the blockade would surely have been solved long ago.
At the same time, it is a factor that is there and cannot be ignored. This is what the new organizations of protest and dissidence has been warning us about: that, no matter how much they try to avoid it, they find themselves in a scenario that takes them back to that past that refuses to pass. What is clear is that the regime model, the single party (which today almost does not exist, except for North Korea and China), the power of the political and military bureaucracy, the mechanisms of the regimentation of society, are not a response to the blockade but reproduce a matrix that comes from the Soviet model.
There is a Cuba myth. The frozen scene of the Revolution, condensed in the figure of Che Guevara, has spread globally and endures in the representations that belie the evidence that Cuba today has nothing to offer to any program of profound changes in society or politics. The conditions for the establishment of the myth 60 years ago are well known. It is more than the Guevarism that spread throughout Latin America in the 1970s. The finishing touches to that myth were added in Europe and included several components. On the one hand, the erosion of the other powerful myth that associated the revolution with the working class. After 1968 or the struggles of Solidarity in Poland (a working class more friendly to the Pope than to Lenin’s teachings) it was clear that the engine and the agents of the revolution were elsewhere, in the struggles of the Third World, the peasants, the disinherited or the young students.
To which was added the nationalist component: the powerful scene of the weak confronting the strong, David standing up to Goliath, facing imperialism and American arrogance, with a long history in Latin America. Last but not least, the star of global Castroism was built on the discredit of the course of politics in the USSR during the Brezhnev era. Part of the myth resided in the idea of a Cuban exceptionality with respect to the Soviet model. This was finally shown to be an illusion. Cuba has not only been a satellite of the USSR in international politics (in supporting the Argentine dictatorship in international forums, for example), but has shown itself to be the state that best learned and transmitted the methods of the KGB.
Some on the left, such as Cornelius Castoriadis, saw this long ago. In 1985 he was in Buenos Aires, at the Faculty of Psychology, and was asked about Cuba (I was there). He answered briefly that he had already dealt with the Soviet model and had nothing to add. He was referring to the works of Socialisme ou barbarie, which he had founded with Claude Lefort in 1948 to denounce the forms of bureaucratic power and totalitarian domination in the USSR. The palm trees or the tropical rhythms did not change the basic concept of the type of regime.
Identity and its uses
Myths endure in narratives about Cuba, just as the security and repressive mechanisms forged in the decades of totalitarianism in the USSR endure. And they feed a leftist identity built on nostalgia and the museum, rather than on ideas and programs capable of transforming reality. I do not know if rebellion has become a right-wing thing, but what seems clearer is that today, for many, the identity of the left is that of a tribe more attached to emblems and legends than to values and promises. The faith of believers and seamless belonging are at the basis of political and ideological wars that denounce in the enemy the same faults, or crimes, that they deny or cover up in the members of the tribe.
The propaganda of the regime is repeated in the slogans, impenetrable to the discussion of ideas and experiences. Or in the way it is cynically use by some Latin American leaders. For example, Lula said, without blushing, that Cuba without the blockade would be like Holland. He knows it is not like that. He knows the difference between an archaic regime forged on the Bolshevik model and a modern democracy. He himself is part of a left forged in democratic struggles and knows that he has nothing to learn from Cuba. But, like other leaders of the Latin American left, he decides that a visit to the Museum of the Revolution adds some patina of legitimacy, as a mark of belonging to that imaginary collective.
It seems that it is not easy to resist those complicit winks that have an assured acceptance in the community of believers. Lula, once again, relapsed into cynicism (hopefully only temporarily) when he recently asked himself: “Why can Angela Merkel stay in power for 16 years and Ortega cannot?” It would be a waste of time to explain to him something he already knows: that Merkel did not imprison any opponent nor did she force the laws or the Constitution. If it is about comparing Daniel Ortega with others who ruled for many years, why not evoke someone closer, like Stroessner, who held on for more than 30 years?
Of course, for those who know the history of the lefts throughout the 20th century, there are traits that repeat themselves: the factional spirit, the political religion, the enthronement of the leader, the totalitarian will. But those beliefs, since the 30s and 40s, were tinged with the spirit of tragedy; war was there as a real limit and the revolutionary commitment implied sacrifices and risks. Perhaps, a feature of our times is that cynical use of the revolution in the public statements of leaders or rulers who do not really believe in it anymore.
Finally, beyond the myth and its uses, this is about restarting a discussion, on the left, about Cuba that is both political and ethical. There is a slogan that is repeated on the left, almost like a mantra that justifies everything: “We must not play into the hands of the right.” I would like to propose another one: “We must not play into the hands of despotisms,” of dictatorships, of regimes that crush freedoms. It is a real commitment to the ideal of democracy, which recovers a fundamental value of the left, which is the defense of the victims, of the oppressed, of those who see their rights and dignity cancelled.
* This text was originally published in La Mesa, a discussion platform on human rights, democracy and society.