Political Power and Authorized Academy in Present-day Cuba

In different ways, the dictatorship was in academia…
the regime killed and thought at the same time—
and, of course, it killed thought as well.
P. Ravecca

Introducing the issue

The nexus between social thought and political context is an intimate one. This connection is even more intense and complex among those who study and divulge their knowledge of political science, which can be largely understood as intellectual attempts at theorizing, explaining, and predicting how political power takes form and is used, for power is both the subject and impediment to what political science does. Therefore, the crises that emerge from this relationship become both epistemic and civic problems.

The political conditions of present-day Cuba are not favorable for any kind of civic debate. Under the current regime the state of the rights to information, free expression and free association, put the country at a disadvantage with respect to others in the region. As a closed one-party autocracy and post-totalitarian model, Cuba appears as the most restrictive case for the exercise of citizen rights according to the evaluations of V-Dem, Freedom House or Democracy Index When any form of spontaneous mobilization —including those with no party/political affiliations, such as communal environmentalism and animal protection— is subject to monitoring, co-opting, and vetoing by the State, it becomes very difficult to sustain any kind of public debate. Then and there, those who are interested in participating in national politics actively and autonomously, are severely restricted.

In this context, one can see how the problems that arise from the kind of political discourse that reigns in Cuban academia —including that which emerges from state-affiliated institutions, as well as that which does not but is authorized by the state in order to pretend like there is some kind of space outside those institutions— are notorious. Some of these problems, their characteristics, contexts and interpretations, have been analyzed elsewhere. They can be summarized as follows:

    1. Absence and manipulation of data. There are no statistics/polls from non-state sources. State sources tend to be manipulated, thereby not reflecting society accurately.
    2. Distance between theory and political reality. This is exemplified by the constant mention of a ‘communist horizon’ and the ‘socialist/popular’ nature of the current regime.
    3. Conceptual overstretching which, in its extreme form, leads to emptying of meanings. The ahistorical, anti-Marxist use of the term “Revolution” to refer to the status quo and the use of adjectives (popular, socialist, participative) of a non-existing democracy.
    4. Direct (in state-sponsored academia) or indirect (in state-authorized academia) justifications for the government’s decisions, especially those pertaining to the persistent dynamics of the economic crisis and to the political repression of the last two years.

These characteristics heavily influence the dominant narratives in present-day Cuba, which permeate three kinds of academic communities that analyze the island’s socio-political context —and which can be categorized according to how close, independent and/or critical they are of the State. Attached academia (predominant in research faculties and institutions) operates under the ideological direction of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment. Autonomous academia (which is constantly harassed) survives in independent journalistic and educational programs, which are supported by churches, inserted in transnational networks, though often quite informal. Between these two, there is an authorized academia that acts through organizations in the cultural sector and through NGOs the government allows/tolerates. This text will address a relevant case of that authorized academy

The path of an experience

It is in this authorized type of academia that we can situate Temas magazine and its space for discussion, Último Jueves, a Havana-based project which has been led by essayist Rafael Hernández for over three decades. The magazine was founded at the suggestion of Armando Hart’s (then-Minister of Culture) idea, which he pitched to Hernández as a publication that would “be a space for the analysis of critical thought that would encourage reflections based on a reality we Cubans were living through at the time.” Further down the line, in January 2002, Último Jueves emerged. Último Jueves’ goals (“to encourage critical thought and a diversity of perspectives around specific topics; to examine present-day problems in the cultural, social and ideological realms, that impact Cuba and the rest of the world; and to facilitate agile and flexible discussions around these topics for a broad public, not just for specialists”) are normatively oriented towards public, intellectual and civil deliberation, noble goals that, in order to be evaluated, must be contrasted with reality.

One must not assume that, just because the magazine was conceived and created by the State, that is it the State who determines the nature of the project. The history of the processes pertaining to democratic transitions is full of organizations which emerged in authoritarian contexts and were, over time, capable of evolving into more autonomous and belligerent projects. However, in the case of present-day Cuba —where authoritarianism and the repression of civil society are intensifying— the mere existence of spaces where one can discuss the topics that are brought up in Temas and Último Jueves has to be understood as a kind of State-tolerated exceptionality.

It might seem absurd to speak of deliberation in non-democratic regimes; however, these regimes have been increasingly promoting the use of small spaces and of deliberative practices to stabilize their authoritarian governments.[1] This has been discussed in studies about political communication in autocratic contexts, which identify the existence of critical audiences as crucial to the development of policies and leaderships. Said audiences help autocrats with their tasks as governors, as do pseudo democratic institutions, such as one-party parliaments and neighborhood assemblies.[2]

It is under the logic of deliberative authoritarianism that these semi-public spaces appear, where the diversity of their participants, the variety and plurality of the events, and the political nature of the debates are very much determined by the State. The mere existence of these spaces does not mean that citizens have a right to create their own spaces, for the state model sanctions any kind of autonomous intellectual spaces, ex ante. The continued harassment of the Centro de Estudios Convivencia —which included the seizure by State authorities of its headquarters— and the forced closure of Cuba Posible —which resulted in its leaders being forced into exile— are just a few examples of the kind of treatment that those academics who participate in Temas have never received. It is also worth pointing out that the latter have never shown any solidarity with their repressed colleagues.

On the contrary, Temas has invited many figures who are responsible for censorship to its forums and spaces on numerous occasions, showing its authoritarian political science qualities —built from the nexus with the State’s security apparatus. In Cuba, the symbiosis between diplomacy and intelligence -which has its origins in the USSR- means that many of the experts that take part in academic debates come from the Ministry of Foreign Relations or are former spies. This results in the inclusion of chief veterans of Cuban intelligence and officials in charge of political propaganda and attacking independent academics and activists in publications that are run by Temas and Último Jueves. More recently, these spaces have witnessed the presence of a new type “academic”: one who is in charge of defamation on disinformation programs which air on national television.

The persisting nexus between an authoritarian state and authorized academia does pose certain questions about what the role of the latter should be. Does operating exclusively (and in an exclusionary manner) under the rules of the State’s power games contribute to the political socialization of an active citizenry? Does this not reproduce and reinforce the legitimation of the authoritarian regime in question? To what extent does having privileged access to semi-public debates ensure the supremacy of authorized academia, while excluding other non-authorized actors from participating? Does this not put in place a feedback mechanism between these intellectual projects/spaces and the governing elites, maintaining the status quo on what is allowed or censored?

Authoritarian political science has a tendency to subordinate scientific logic to political functionality, which manifests itself in debates that give the illusion of openness under a censoring State. If one looks under “civil society and movements” on the Temas website, one will find no reference to what has happened in Cuba from 27N to the present. Nothing about the spontaneous mobilizations that asked for food, services or rights —in isolated towns or on the nation-wide event that was J11— nor about the organized groups that, from the cultural sphere, have tried to empower citizens in public spaces.

Simultaneously, the debates that Último Jueves has hosted in response to the mobilization of artists, intellectuals and ordinary citizens have acted as a smokescreen for the repression launched by the State a few blocks away from the physical places where these forums have taken place . At other times, alternative voices that tried to speak on the state of repression, and questioned the forum’s narrative, were only able to do so from the audience, making those who were hosting the event uncomfortable, leading them to lash back. This exemplifies yet another characteristic of authoritarian political science, whereby one cannot evaluate it solely on what is said but on what is hidden or silenced.

These are, above all, vague timeless and subjectless opinions which authoritarian political science uses when it speaks a language that is similar to that of conventional political science, all while denaturalizing and manipulating its concepts. When the nexus between science and politics is discussed, it is done by reproducing the classic “timeless and subjectless” approach, characteristic of the dominant narrative in official and/or authorized academia. In other debates, when participants talk about the idea of a hypothetical multiparty system, they do not think beyond the existing model, for even limited pluralism is impossible under the current conditions.

A more recent session advocated for participative socialism and for a deliberative civil society, with numerous normative references to participation, decentralization, and debate. However, these ideals are not contrasted with the real state of structures, actors, and the concrete processes of the Cuban regime. The analysis of the difference between deliberation and differentiation is empty; it is a forum that, showcasing yet another characteristic of authoritarian political science, privileges the narrative of intellectuals that are organic to the system. It is, allegedly, “for Cuba” but never “about Cuba.” There is no context or analysis of the current situation or the systemic crisis that we observe in the country.

For Temas and Último Jueves, State repression and its victims do not exist. Yet, after all the documentation that has been accumulated about this subject, such denial and invisibility are questionable from an intellectual and civic standpoint. The systemic and structural problems are presented as “distortions” of the system; however, these are structural characteristics of the existing regime, which uses “deliberation” in rhetorical exercises while it suppresses, in practice, all freedoms. These concepts are not contextualized properly and are overstretched to a point where they no longer relate to the reality they are allegedly trying to explain.

The ‘systemic reformism’ narrative is sustained by Rafael Hernández, Temas’ director, and is combined with a sui generis interpretation of sociological data —debatable given that it is not available to the public— with constant attacks on alternatives to the status quo. This logic is seen in a recent event where Hernández makes a distinction between intellectual dialogue and popular uprisings, he celebrates Cuban authorities’ alleged willingness to enter a dialogue and criticizes the mistakes made by the persecuted opposition, without placing as much emphasis on State repression. He even goes as far saying that activists are responsible for the government’s unwillingness to implement a law allowing for freedom of association and protest (which it had previously taunted.) Hernández also argues that Cuba’s authoritarianism is milder —with regards to the treatment of journalists and dissidents— in comparison to that of two of its allies, China and Vietnam, which is empirically and normatively a discursive fallacy with a dubious democratic pedigree.

Persistence and mutations

Cuban authorized academia did, at some point in time, serve a real yet modest role in the promotion of intellectual deliberation in the public sphere. Two decades ago, Temas and Último Jueves, its space for discussion, helped shed light on relevant topics pertaining to civil society, citizenry and philosophy, all independent from the Marxist-Leninist dogma. Many of us —socialized intellectually and politically towards the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s— found in those spaces what appeared to be a discourse that was foreign to the State’s orthodoxy. Granting us access to different ideas, and the possibility to share ours. This experience, as those in other parts of the world, is not a fixed one. We should evaluate it, (self-)critically, on two levels: visualizing how much the country and us, ex-participants in those spaces, have changed since then.

As I have already mentioned, in Cuba, social changes and a persisting authoritarianism cannot be disentangled from one another. Within the regional context, Cuba is still an exception due to the closed and repressive nature of its political regime, who some still present as an exception that they describe as a “popular and participative democracy.” But the increasing diversity, stratification and belligerence of Cuban society against the ruling elites are neither unchanging nor exceptional. This is Cuba: Soviet, because of its regime, and dynamically Latin American, because of its changing socioeconomic and cultural reality. It is in this context, one that combines stagnation and evolution, that authorized academia and authoritarian political science operate.

On the one hand, Cubans’ role as citizens of their country with regards to information, communication and political education, at some point fulfilled by Temas and Último Jueves, have multiplied and diversified thanks to the work done by various independent outlets and projects ran by intellectuals and activists both in and out of the country. Since the migration reform and increased access to the internet —as well as the proliferation of platforms, audiences and topics— authorized academia’s role as the promoter/mediator has lost its relevance. Unlike in the 1990s, the production, broadcasting, and consumption of information and ideas have expanded across Cuba, where the public sphere is increasingly transnational —with multiplying nodes— and where interactions take place between people with different identities and political views.

On the other hand —and with regards to the ideas and motivations of those who participate in these spaces— these questions should go beyond what those who run Temas have to say. Those of us who ever believed —as a result of our idelogy, social origins, or political calculations— that a democratic transition within the system was ever possible should recognize how wrong we were. We should recognize how unfair we were at the time with those intellectuals and citizens who were more censored and repressed than us. We held so many debates that were clearly lacking in pluralism —reserved for those who agreed with our vision of democratic socialism— for the sake of fulfilling our roles as intellectuals and citizens.

That all of this took place in a country that had not yet experienced the informative avalanche that was the internet, the new belligerent consciousness of thousands of citizens—previously disconnected or disenchanted—and the unfulfilled expectation of power ever falling on the hands of anyone but a Castro, does not exempt us from self-criticism. Self-criticism is even more important given what has transpired over the course of this past year, which has exhausted any reformist potential—both civil and intellectual—that came from the socio-political thought of intellectuals who came from Pensamiento Crítico and Centro de Estudios de América.[3] This makes it all the more necessary to think about politics, from both science and praxis, in spaces that are open to contingency and the irruption of subjects with ‘unauthorized’ demands and ideas.

Conclusions

What rules Cuba today —as is the case in many of its geopolitical allies— is a regime that is politically authoritarian, culturally conservative, economically exploitative, and socially exclusive. It is a regime with hundreds of prisoners who participated in an uprising that was repressed, and who have since joined the thousands of inmates who come from the poorest sectors of Cuban society. It is a regime where State Security agencies —which are in no way hindered by a non-existent rule of law— have control over every institution and any social, cultural, or communal project. It is a regime under which every academic and piece of academic work (whether it is attached, authorized or autonomous) is susceptible to pressures, more or less violent, exerted over them by the political police, something which those who read this text will be aware of by this point. It is a regime which, despite the official narrative, cannot call itself ‘revolutionary’ or ‘reformist,’ because it is nothing but reactionary. It is a regime where any rhetorical invocation of socialization, participation, and political deliberation clashes with the reality of centralized, vertical, and undisputable processes of political control and decision-making.

This regime is reinforced, directly by the shameless and vulgar propaganda that comes from attached academia, and indirectly by the generic critique and normative language that comes from authorized academia. However, as Paulo Ravecca’s The Politics of Political Science points out, a dictatorship can only subsist because it kills and represses, at the same time that it shelters loyal intellectuals who think and publish. The structural overlapping between state violence, which proscribes, and authorized reason, which prescribes, constitutes the most harmful expression of the nexus between power and political thought in present-day Cuba. It is a pairing from which an authoritarian political science is born, one which detests the full and foreign expression of human freedom.


Notes:

[1] B. He & M. Warren: “Authoritarian Deliberation: The Deliberative Turn in Chinese Political Development”, in Perspectives on Politics, 9(2), 2011, pp. 269-289.

[2] Florian Toepfl: “Comparing Authoritarian Publics: The Benefits and Risks of Three Types of Publics for Autocrats”, in Communication Theory, 30(2), 2020, pp. 105-125.

[3] I wrote about generational references and analytical/programmatic limitations to this historical perspective a few years ago.

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ARMANDO CHAGUACEDA
ARMANDO CHAGUACEDA
Armando Chaguaceda. Cuban political scientist and historian graduated from the University of Havana (Cuba) and the University of Veracruz (Mexico). Researcher specialized in government and political analysis, and country-expert of the V-Dem project. He studies the processes of democratization and self-cratization in Latin America and Russia.

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