Of Leadership and Collective Responsibilities: Where is the Dilemma?

The departure from Cuba of Yunior García, one of the organizers of Archipiélago, the civic organization that called for a peaceful march on November 15, has unleashed a fever in the networks. The spectrum of interpretations of the event ranges from treason to espionage, through empathy, reluctance to judge in political terms a personal action and what Darío Alemán has called “the metadebate”, which is not about judgments and criteria as such, but about the legitimacy or not of having them and expressing them. The metadebate refers to all the lines of tension that cross Cuban society right now, and reactivates binarisms that in previous months had somehow been overcome, albeit temporarily; particularly the one that refers to the geographic inside and outside and that of racial asymmetries.

This discussion also reactivates a central concern that always runs through any group or collective attempt to articulate an opposition that collapse or at least erode the structural edifice of tyranny: leadership. What it is, where to place it and, above all, what position to take in front of possible leaders. It is a discussion that has everything to do with the departure of Yunior García; his trip to Spain —organized with premeditation, without notifying his group mates, in a moment immediately after the agreed time for the demonstration— triggered the discussion, but also went beyond it.

The images of leadership we share are also, as is to be expected, binary. In the first interview after arriving in Spain, Yunior said: “I don’t care if I stop being the marble leader on the white horse.” I am not interested in discussing his disdain for being the leader (which does not prove the truthfulness of such disdain), but in the images he uses to refer to it. They describe a type of leader with statuary potential; an apostle with the visionary and sacrificial associations of Martí, the figure who embodied in Cuban history the apostolate necessary to achieve independence and propose a project for a country; a warrior of imperishable matter, armored against human weaknesses. Put in those terms, it is obvious that this is something that no one should be in a position either to demand or to assume.

That type of images leaves little room for thinking about the possibility of another kind of leadership which, among other things, could be criticized outside of that which is placed in relation to the right to personal decisions. Also leaving little room for such a thing are statements from different parties that claim that there can be no harm in what happened unless someone has taken the person in question to be such a leader. But again when that is stated, it is assumed that the abstract figure that Yunior might have embodied is one who has transcended the realm of collective action and decision and embodies in himself the moral qualities necessary to rise above desolation and provide hope based on the possession of a vision and the means to realize it; someone to pay attention to, who has the power to arm and disarm a social movement because blind trust is placed in him; an absolute leader with messianic overtones who carries within him, germinally and inevitably, the possibility of becoming a tyrant.

Yunior García in his house besieged by the Cuban State Security last November 14 (PHOTO El Estornudo)

With a tradition of that kind of leaders, the last of whom dominated Cuban political life for decades and created in it a profound deformation, the need to escape from any such pretension by all available means is understandable. But by doing so, and eliminating the refusal to consider someone in such a way, it seems to eliminate also, as a collateral effect, the possibility of a criticism outside the valid but insufficient criterion of the right to individual decision.

Thus, the leader to whom Cubans usually refer to when they say “we need a leader” or the opposite, “we do not need leaders,” is actually more like a projection of the charismatic leader typified by Max Weber, who bases his legitimacy and authority “on the extra-daily dedication to the sanctity, heroism or exemplarity of a person and the ordinances created by him.” Social configurations such as those of Cuban totalitarianism demand of course this type of leader, because the utopian-totalizing project must be embodied by someone who lead the masses and can be entrusted with the task of knowing where to go without worrying too much about trying to collectively create that direction. Disarming the foundations of totalitarianism requires, in contrast, another type of leader, or another way of understanding political action that is not subject to leaderships of the same type. And this is not only for strategic reasons, but also because it is foreseeable that building the contestation to a regime with the same tools that made it possible, will lead to end up replacing it only superficially without overcoming the enormous systemic problems it has created.

Leadership in movements that resist or directly oppose power is always instrumentalized for its own benefit. Power cannot completely manage its absence or its scattered existence. It is necessary to identify who has ascendancy in the community or in the social sector that organizes itself to confront power, who has a formal position and, if not, who really moves people. When it is not possible to identify who occupies that position, there is a need to invent them. Much of the media’s construction of a leadership focused on Yunior García obeys this need to redirect the decentralized efforts of groups like Archipiélago.

Projects, organizations and movements that do not have clear leaderships, in which decisions emanate from collective discussion; that do not seek unity but articulations; that have flexibility to reconstruct themselves according to the variability of circumstances and that do not depend on particular figures to sustain themselves, have more possibilities of success (although these are always scarce in an authoritarian regime with high quotas of control, even when it has already lost the basis of its legitimacy), than those based on structured and hierarchical forms of organization. Their chances of success lie precisely in the fact that they cannot be completely understood by a power that lacks the imagination to conceive dislocated or deterritorialized forms of organization. That is what Archipiélago achieved, facing tremendous challenges, despite the insistence of media propaganda to identify and criminalize visible leaders, in particular Yunior García.

Yunior García during the artists’ protest in front of the Ministry of Culture on November 27, 2020 in Havana (PHOTO El Toque).

But when the pretensions of capture by the oppressive regime through the identification and/or creation of a charismatic leader coincides with the escape of the collective articulation by the alleged leader, through individualizing actions not agreed in advance, the capture can finally be achieved. This happened first with Yunior García’s announcement of a solo march the day before the general demonstration was called. This may have been consulted and discussed, but it was presented publicly from a personal voice, and not just any voice but one that already had, at that moment, the effective capacity to exert a significant influence on the course of events. At this point, it is no longer enough to say: “I never wanted to be a leader,” since the escape from the collective will leads, inevitably, to the focus and attention on the person, and that focused attention on one person damages the collective intention and brings into question what that person has proposed and repeated for months.

Self-organized movements that are sustained by collective leadership cannot lack the capacity of articulation among its members and the internal collaboration that allows weighing and, if unavoidable, sustaining individual decisions with the necessary consideration of their consequences to the extent that, in a movement, the individual and the collective converge and cannot be arbitrarily separated to favor one or the other.

Collective organization always entails collective responsibility. And when in such a movement someone who has been part of a collective organization makes a personal decision without considering the rest of the group and acts on his own without even communicating his decision, what should emerge as a visible problem that needs to be addressed and discussed is not the demand for martyrdom, or the ability or desire to take the place of the untainted leader incapable of human frailty, or even the need for “everyone to be his own leader” as if the slightest aspiration to desirable coherence suddenly becomes questionable.

The discussion should be about collective responsibility and the possibility of creating a type of leadership (to which the traditional concept of leadership probably falls short) that is built on the relationship between the personal and the collective. This possibility is hinted at in the form of criticism in the comments of some of his colleagues who regret that they did not even have a minimum warning of what would happen, when there are several indications that it was possible to warn them in advance. They are the ones who are in the best position to make a critical judgment and in those judgments there is no demand for martyrology. What emanates from this critical judgment is not a complaint for having left the country nor the feeling of betrayal for abandoning a leadership position that, on the other hand, they neither expected nor considered as such, but for having left without announcing it in advance, for having broken a collective effort in which the personal safety of each one of the participants was also put at risk. In other words, without having included in any way their fellow resistance members in a decision that would inevitably affect them, since the undertaking in which they were collaborating far exceeded the limits of the individual agency of any of those involved.

It is not by saying “we don’t want leaders” or “I don’t want to be a leader” while justifying individual actions that are not even communicated within a movement whose nature is collective by definition and by necessity, that it is possible to escape from the pretensions of disarticulation coming from the powers-that-be. It is not necessary to become the kind of potentially tyrannical leader that some demand and others deny. What is necessary is not to let go of the hand of those who are part of the group, in a context where individual gestures are less and less individual and where what is being built involves ever greater risks. Let us hope that the pendulum swinging between the defense of the right to personal choice and the demands of martyrdom do not end up being the only way out of these dilemmas, because building a country depends on the ability to imagine other possibilities and to escape the constant pressure to destroy everything that is built. That persistence of this effort will depend on everyone’s contribution, but also on the recognition of what does not work so that we do not return, again and again, to act as if we had no memory.

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HILDA LANDROVE
HILDA LANDROVE
Hilda del Carmen Landrove Torres. Cuban researcher and cultural promoter. She has been involved for years in social and cultural entrepreneurship and more recently in academic research in anthropology. She is currently a PhD candidate in Mesoamerican Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

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