Último Jueves: civic debate or Potemkin agora?

In terms of civic debate, Cuba’s academic and cultural scene reveals the poor offer of the officially authorized paradigms. This reality gets worse by the exclusion of politically sensitive and problematic topics and subjects. To talk seriously about democracy, citizenship or human rights has been, for decades, an odyssey in the public sphere of the Cuban statocracy.

However, certain spaces in the island have acquired an atypical relevance, odd even for an observer coming from open societies and democratic nations. Examples include the movement formed around the Centro Cultural Juan Marinello, during the time when Pablo Pacheco López (1995-2005) was in charge; also the Centro Teórico Cultural Criterios, which published the magazine Criterios from the early 1970s until the death of its founder and head editor, Desiderio Navarro, in 2017; and the magazine specializing in social sciences Temas, founded in 1994 and led since then by Rafael Hernández. These projects have been, in all cases, particularly skillful efforts to, simultaneously, circumvent the enmity of the most retrograde segment of the state power and foster spaces for controlled debates[1].

Within this framework, it is possible to evaluate the experience of the space Último Jueves, a subsidiary of the magazine Temas. A forum in which, every last Thursday of each month, a select panel debates on a previously announced topic in front of an audience to which the exchange is extended after the panelists’ interventions. The sessions are recorded and published, either as text or in audiovisual form. Because of its geographical location, its temporal duration and its presence or absense in relation to the real or virtual debates of Cuban citizens, it is worth reviewing this experience.

What is debated, who debates, how is it debated?

Let’s start by eliminating everything that distracts from the underlying theme: the political-cultural logic behind the Último Jueves space. Understanding by “politics of culture” the specific way in which, according to Norberto Bobbio, intellectuals ―and those related actors/projects― intervene in the public sphere and the socio-political order, let us place its reality ―that of the space itself and its creators― against the background of a changing society ―in its identitarian diversity, income inequality and socio-economic mutation― and of a political regime that resists the transformations that the social changes demand. A society that, a priori and monolithically, cannot be characterized as oppositional or revolutionary because only a demoscopic, informative and political openness will be able to reveal it, with greater accuracy, in its mutable composition and demands.

Let us evaluate the space by what is said, how it is said and where it is said. In terms of motives, Último Jueves is based on those formally stated on its website: “to stimulate critical reflection and diversity of perspectives on specific issues, to examine current problems of a cultural, social and ideological nature, which have an impact on the situation in Cuba and the world, and to facilitate an agile and flexible discussion on these issues for a broad audience, not necessarily specialists”[2]. Undoubtedly noble purposes, which must be contrasted ―so they can be evaluated― with reality.

Based on these assumptions, and taken into account how long this space has lasted, any imaginary and minimally sensible observer could ask herself a number of questions such as the following:

  1. What intrinsic features should have in today’s Cuba a public reflection with a vocation for criticism, diversity and impact, such as the one proposed by Último Jueves?
  2. What are the conditions ―political, intellectual― that support Último Jueves?
  3. Could other spaces and organizers with similar interests have similar conditions? Is it possible today? What should they do to achieve it?
  4. What are the inclusion and exclusion criteria for this forum, particularly for its speakers? What impact do these criteria have on the nature and objectives of the space?
  5. What elements of intellectual and/or political nature justify the inclusion or exclusion?
  6. Does the composition of the audience reflect Cuban social diversity?
  7. Does the type of discourse presented in Último Jueves reflect the plurality of interests and positions of the Cuban society today?
  8. Given its exceptional situation and its declared civic vocation, should Último Jueves assume any position ―of support, rejection or abstention― considering the vetoes to spaces of similar vocation and considering the restrictions to public debate in today’s Cuba?

On the basis of the questions that would plagued this imaginary observer ―questions that admit more than one answer― here we present our own observations.

Let us move from the normative to the factual. In Cuba, the survival of any space that runs parallel to the official institutions does not depends on the will of its participants. Nor on the necessity of its mission, under the regulations of a (non-existent) rule of law. For this debate space to survive it would need an institution that acts as an umbrella and a responsible figure. The first issue of Temas came out 26 years ago, according to its editor, as an idea of Armando Hart, then Minister of Culture, who suggested to Rafael Hernández the creation of a magazine to “cover a space for critical thinking analysis that would encourage the reflection on the reality that Cubans were living at that time”[3]. Later, in January 2002, the Último Jueves space had its first session[4].

The answer to the question of whether other spaces with similar intellectual and civic objectives could have the same opportunities enjoyed by Último Jueves is no. In addition to the intrinsic strengths ―organizational, intellectual― of the team behind it, Último Jueves has other key factors that explain its durability in a context such as the Cuban one. Police inaction allows normal access to the public and the celebration of the events. Access to state or international support ―the latter legitimized by the Cuban state― has been allowed in an environment where the search for alternative funding is described as mercenarism. As a notable exception, we cannot fail to mention the durability of the debate that, also within the limits of what is permitted and sponsored by the Catholic Church, has been maintained with certain regularity by the magazine Espacio Laical. Likewise, we should take into account the possible existence of debate spaces far from Havana’s metropolitan center which, due to their minimal repercussion (and perhaps thanks to this), may have been tolerated, at least up to a point.

We must remember that during the last decade ―since the optimistic era of Raul Castro’s reforms and the normalization process with the United States― several projects have appeared in the Cuban society aimed at bringing together expert knowledge and citizenship to deal with relevant public problems: Cuba Posible and Convivencia, in profiles of civic research and education; Cubalex and the Asociación Jurídica Cubana, that provide legal advice; El Instituto de Artivismo Hanna Arendt and the Movimiento San Isidro, involve in cultural production and artivism; the environmentalist debates of El Guardabosque and against racial discrimination of the Comité Ciudadano por la Integración Racial; animal protection movements such as Cubanos en Defensa de los Animales and women’s empowerment such as the Plataforma Femenina. All these spaces ―and many others― suffered various forms of attack by the State. The logistics that shelter Último Jueves were not available to similar projects, such as Convivencia or Cuba Posible.

In some cases, political and police coercion have led to the closure of the spaces and the exile of the organizing teams. At the same time, intellectuals and activists belonging to the so-called gray zone ―neither pro-government nor opposition― have been disinvited from forums previously organized by NGOs legally registered and recognized by the government. Don’t these very different treatments show, considering the facts, a discretionary administration of the attitudes of permission and censorship towards the spaces of civic debate from the powers-that-be?

In Último Jueves, the criteria for inclusion and exclusion are variable. Although in the past they denied entry to citizens linked to activism or independent journalism, there is no evidence that this have continued to happen. Thus, physical access to the space ―a precondition for its democraticness― appears to be, for the time being, reasonably free. And the question-and-answer sessions reflect a diversity of voices ―some of which appear frequently from forum to forum― in relation to the audience present.

But when we review who the speakers are ―predominantly academics, with a variable presence of civil servants and members of authorized associations― the discourse sustained by them is narrow. It is mostly identified with the current socio-political order ―from a Marxist-Leninist perspective― or with some reformed version, with vague ideological contours[5]. Some panels have been attended by foreign guests ―professors, journalists, diplomats― whose positions are more plural, but in no case openly critical of the current regime in the island. Thus, although it is possible to find in the forums analyses of diverse ideologies ―with sessions dedicated to conservatism, liberalism and socialism, among other isms― this inclusion does not usually extend to the analyses of public policy or political science that address, with similar diversity, the critical national reality.

The approach to historical, cultural and economic issues in Último Jueves has a visibly higher quality than that of socio-political ones. The texts and interventions advocating a prosperous socialism and an improved popular power, with abundant normative allusions to participation, decentralization and debate, are not contrasted with the real state of the structures, actors and concrete processes of the Cuban political regime. They are, in all cases, generic and abstract opinions, readings “without time and without subject”.

When pondering all this, it becomes clear that Último Jueves admits theoretical pluralism, but does not make room for political pluralism; neither to the practical approach to both in the problems of Cuban society. The diversity of civic initiatives ―environmentalists, sexual diversity, cultural and community activism, defense of rights― emerging in recent years has not been fully represented in the panels. As far as can be seen, the restriction is not simply based on academic credentials, it relates to identities and political criteria of what is admissible within the official canon of Cuban state socialism.

Based on that obvious limited representation, it is even less understandable that the space has given a platform to government employees[6] involved in the official offensive against initiatives similar to Temas[7]. It could be argued that Último Jueves summons a broad range of people, not limited to the academic sphere. But, if so, would it not be more coherent, considering this declared plurality, to invite, in addition, the actors stigmatized by the censors? All of the above ―the restriction to pluralism and alternative voices, the repeated inclusion of representatives of the official line― is not only in contrast with the declared aims of Último Jueves; it also impacts on the quality of the space and the information of the attendees, in terms of their culture and civic socialization.

The composition of the attendees is key to evaluate the political horizons of any debate space. Perhaps the presence of a mainly adult audience ―and notably older adults― should not be interpreted as a bias of the conveners, but as an expression of the age composition of the Cuban society. However, the reduced presence of young people ―considering that the Temas venue is close to the University of Havana― and the majority presence of intellectuals, artists and people with a profile close to what we nominally call middle classes[8], would indicate a challenge to reach other places and audiences, so that the declared civic vocation of the space fulfills its role beyond a self-referential public.

Surviving a quarter of a century in the authoritarian Cuban environment is no easy task. Temas and its space Último Jueves have done it. This suggests, in its team, an enormous adaptive ability within the restrictive rules of the game. Those of us who have accompanied ―as participants or audience― the work of Último Jueves for years, have seen it ―depending on contexts and topics― oscillating between the positions of civic promotion of deliberation and the political administration of the debate. Its own creators consider that “there is still a lack of greater visibility of its spaces in the media”[9].

Any social analysis must be dynamic. The civic impact of any intellectual initiative depends on the context and moment in which it is happening. And although the Cuban political regime has not essentially evolved, society has changed sociologically, demographically and culturally. Today, unlike in the 1990s, the production, dissemination and consumption of information and ideas are more widespread ―technically and socially speaking― in the country. The Cuban public sphere has acquired a broad, systematic and effective transnational character. Nodes multiply, interactions flow from diverse identities and positions. The old monopolies, delegations and patronage no longer fit in with a fluid reality.

The directions of an agora

In post-Cold War environments, autocratic regimes diversified their mechanisms of political influence, within and beyond their borders. At home, the state-controlled media repeat and amplify traditional propaganda aimed at the masses. But these authoritarianisms also give some leeway to certain political technologists, exceptionally authorized to offer their opinion and debate under limited environments and rules. Builders of a more sophisticated legitimacy, as a front for the domestic elites and, above all, their counterparts in open societies, they exercise a right that is not available to the rest of their fellow citizens, as the official model condemns any autonomous intellectual space to isolation or death. Political technologists operate on this reality, offering an illusion of controlled openness.

Fundamental to this is the appearance of Potemkin agoras[10] where a politically authorized and controlled debate takes place in terms of the diversity of its participants, the variety of its audiences, the pluralism and politicization of its themes and the ways in which these are approached. They are the favorite space of systemic reformists, of technocrats who contribute to the non-democratic aggiornamiento of authoritarian power. Agoras offer an image of deliberative openness behind the bars ―political and epistemic― of a censorious State. They exist today in Russia, China, in Middle Eastern regimes. And, of course, in Cuba.

In that sense, Último Jueves may still be attractive today when compared to Granma‘s monologue and the national news on TV, which reach large masses, but are no longer the only possible route and frontier for civic formation and debate, even in the officially restricted context of today’s Cuba. Given the proliferation of information and communication technologies, the gradual massification of the Internet, the proliferation of audiences, projects and issues, its role as an oasis of authorized debate is becoming less essential. To operate as a Potemkin agora, captured by political technology, provides a weak answer to the challenges and demands, present and future, of the Cuban society.

[1] See, in this regard, the works of Yvon Grenier: “The Politics of Culture and the Gatekeeper State in Cuba,” Cuban Studies, vol. 46, 2018, pp. 61-87 and “Temas y anatemas: despolitización y ‘Nueva Lengua’ en las ciencias sociales y humanidades cubanas,” Revista Mexicana de Análisis Político y Administración Pública, vol. V, n. 2, 2016, pp. 155-182.

[2] “Último Jueves”, <http://www.temas.cult.cu/ultimo-jueves>, [26-12-2019] (Temas magazine website is not available at the time of this publication).

[3] Patricia María Guerra: “Ciencias sociales y medios de comunicación, encuentros y desencuentros,” Cubaperiodistas, October 30, 2019.

[4] Cfr. Rafael Hernández: “Hacia una cultura del debate”, introduction to the first volume of the issues of Último jueves, Ediciones Unión, Havana, 2004.

[5] In sessions devoted to political issues such as national security, public deliberation and consensus, the interventions of the panelists abounded in generic, timeless and normative elements that do not allow to evaluate the structures, actors and concrete processes of the Cuban political regime.

[6] Cfr. Iroel Sánchez: “Un premio a la inteligencia colectiva”, La Pupila Insomne, February 17, 2020.

[7] Cf. Iroel Sánchez: “El corrimiento “al centro””, La Pupila Insomne, April 18, 2016; and Cubaposible: “Nuevo Cuaderno con todo el debate sobre el centrismo”. This campaign of attacks from the officialdom, in the case of Cubaposible, provoked the gradual abandonment of the project by its collaborators ―several of whom have also been collaborators of Temas―, the subsequent closure of the project and the exile of its coordinators.

[8] For an approach to this problematic category, in the Cuban context, see Mayra Espina: “Reforma y emergencia de capas medias en Cuba”, Nueva Sociedad, no. 285, January-February, 2020.

[9] Patricia María Guerra: Op cit.

[10] The adjective Potemkin refers here to the building, by Marshal G. Potiomkin, of a series of false and idyllic villages, which were to be contemplated from afar by Tsarina Catherine, during her journey to the recently conquered Crimea. Far from the fantasy of these phantom villages, the Russian serfs suffered from a general lack of rights, within the framework of the dominant autocracy.

The work of political scientist Armando Chaguaceda focuses on studying the processes of democratization and autocratization in Latin America and Russia. The journalist and activist Boris González Arenas, on the other hand, covers the political and social reality of Cuba.


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