Routes of the Political Imagination in Cuba

In totalitarianism, even more than in the different types of authoritarianism, the capacity to imagine is as restricted as the capacity to organize people, to get together, and to develop thought, because imagination depends, among other things, on the possibility of thinking itself and, as Paul Lefort pointed out, renouncing to think is one of the necessary conditions for the totalitarian establishment. The difficulty of imagination—and I am referring to political imagination, which concerns collective life—in regimes that demand total functional submission for their functioning, makes it both a necessity and an indicator of the state of reality itself.

In the first of its forms of existence, imagination is a possibility despite totalitarian narratives. Where totalitarianism says that there is only one possible world, it is up to the imagination to say: “There are other possible worlds,” and to find the forms of those worlds and populate them with beings, trajectories, and projects. In this necessity, it is accompanied by the deconstruction of the foundational myths; those myths must die so that others may occupy the space of possibility and potency. In the second form of existence, imagination speaks of the very erosion of the totalitarian project. The fact that we can imagine indicates that a form of liberation from the internal yoke that the social project of total control involves has begun to take place: if not from the structure recognizable in a single party, ideologically mandated institutionalism, mass organizations that suppress individual agency to submit it to the leader’s will, at least from the mental paralysis that sustains the structure and gives totalitarianism its quality of inner domination. That mental paralysis that Dagoberto Valdés calls the “anthropological damage” is by far the most difficult to overcome; it will survive the political regime, the physical disappearance of its leaders, and the collapse of the system itself.

The difficulty for the exercise of the political imagination can be imposed but also assumed as one’s own: a large percentage of the official Cuban discourse was and still is largely oriented to demonstrate that there is no other possible better country and no other possible better life. Even in the middle of the current catastrophe, it continues to insist on this, appealing to the images of the supposed horror that will come the day after. It is also an accepted, naturalized difficulty, which seems to come (after so much insistence on it) not from conditions, from learning, from habits, from the repetition of the same idea over and over again, but from somewhere inside us from where we are always pushed to look for a shortcut, a deviation towards survival and to avoid the path of radical and systemic transformation, from where we are compelled to always choose to survive under the counter, to be struggling, trying to escape or following inertia.

In the last few months, projects have been appearing in Cuba, through various channels, that rest on the capacity and the desire to imagine another Cuba. This does not mean that so far there has been no political imagination in Cuba. To say such a thing would be a mistake. Imagination is also a field of resistance that has produced, against the current and all odds, beautiful and precious fruits in the last six and a half decades. Recall, for example, the fortunate Cuba y el día después. Twelve essayists born after the revolution imagine the future, a project edited and conceived by Iván de la Nuez in 2001. Now, what is happening is that a group of possible images of Cuba have begun to emanate, at the same time, from different places and describe—in many cases employing AI—a reality that appears wildly disruptive, due to how they contrast with the Cuba that exists today. The fact that they come from different places is testimony to the fact that the need to produce these images—which, because of what they address and to locate them in time, we could say it is the future—is not restricted to a group, nor a particular aesthetic or intention; they are more than anything else emergencies of a field of possibility. On the flatness of the totalitarian narrative, they announce a thousand other stories. They also indicate by themselves that we are already at another point and that the rigid idea of the impossibility of change is already opposed by the inevitability of change.

The fact that images of the future begin to appear is therefore not the result of a predetermined will, the result only of the recognition of necessity; imagination does not emerge as the result of an effort of the will, but of the tactical perception that what is imagined can become manifest, that what is impossible can become possible. The moment we begin to imagine a different world, the previous one has already died or is in the process of dying. What makes the imagination powerful is not its distance from reality—although that distance, sometimes abysmal, is in itself revealing—but the necessity of its existence and the audacity implied in conceiving it in defiance of reality.

That explosion of creativity has been detonated, at least in recent months, by the existence of AI image generators. In the Cuban sphere, the dilemmas concerning Generative Artificial Intelligence are discussed, such as the massive appropriation of data to develop the learning of applications or the race, gender, ethnic, and national stereotypes that are reproduced in them. However, these discussions are marked by the recognition that it is possible to make responsible use of them and that they constitute a valuable tool for political action. As the activist Saily González expressed in a conversation on the subject: “We have to find a way to use it most responsibly and ethically possible, but to use it, because the potential it gives us for projects focused on democracy, on human rights, is enormous.” There are even those who understand that such use may anticipate the foreseeable use that government entities will make of it, something that is already visible, for example, in the social networks of the government spokesman El Necio. However, the appearance of several projects that resort to imagining a future for Cuba should not be explained as a direct consequence of the existence of this tool. Rather, the tool converges with a search that had not found before such effective and easily accessible channels of expression, but that comes to join other developments of the post-totalitarian imagination.

The spectrum that opens up in 2024 at the level of both challenge and emerging reality is, among other routes, to imagine the country that will result from the current state of affairs. Such imagination is not exhausted in the collapse of the regime, it is not exhausted in overthrowing the dictatorship because even such a thing requires the ability to see beyond the event, and even to conceive that the event might not turn out to be as eventual as expected. The various projects that in recent years have tried to visualize what will come after, both those that focus on that after without going through the process leading to it, as well as those that focus on the transition, together constitute a fundamental variable to glimpse the imaginaries of Cuban society about its future.

AI-generated image of Cuba by Mitchel EC

To create the space of what could be conceived as imagination, it is convenient to go beyond its basic association in common language, according to which to imagine is to visualize situations and desired or feared events detached from reality, without owing much to objectivity or rational analysis. The space becomes wider and more fruitful if we conceive it as the capacity to generate images of the possible or desirable and if we pay attention to how such images are generated. Thus, a possible spectrum for the political imagination could include at least three forms: that which infers scenarios, that which projects them, and that which seeks to find tangible images of the desired.

The first, the analysis and construction of scenarios, is an attractive possibility within the sociological exercise, and results from the prospective quality of the analysis of the conditions of existence of a phenomenon. It could easily be dismissed as an exercise of imagination, but it is worth considering because it never, or never completely, escapes the imagination by considering possibilities that mere statistical or projective exercises would rule out. The logic of scenario building is to recognize trends and potentials and to do so with some caution. It is imagination more down to earth, so to speak.

José Raúl Gallego has analyzed sixteen scenario-building proposals from the 1990s to the present in which he highlights, among other recurrences, how those before 2006 (when Fidel Castro formally left power) placed his disappearance as a political figure as a critical moment for possible transformations. Subsequently, it has been Raul Castro’s physical disappearance that has come to be seen as a critical moment. Apart from a transformation triggered by particular circumstances, it is surprising that many of the possibilities, such as the transformation of totalitarianism into an authoritarian regime, the implementation of economic reforms without changing the center of political power, or the possibility of a resurgence of government logics leading to a collapse, continue to be seen as probable. The repetition of the possible scenarios conceived over several decades is in itself evidence of the essential immobility of Cuban social reality.

Being a speculative exercise that tries, by its very nature, not to be too far removed from reality, the projection of scenarios sometimes leaves the way open to unforeseen routes. To go back to a paradigmatic example, few of the authors who built scenarios before 2021 considered, among the possible scenarios, a popular uprising. It was one of the least probable until it ceased to be so on July 11, 2021. The very occurrence of 7/11 allowed for a moment to visualize scenarios in which the main actor of the transformation was the citizenry. This irruption of something that cannot be completely foreseen by the exercise of prognosis is the most genuine source of hope because hope does not consist so much in the certainty of the advent of what is desired but in the acknowledgment that there is much more beyond our possibility of conceiving future events.

As Gallego mentions, “the worsening of the systemic crisis—worsened by the arrival of COVID-19—, the activation and loss of fear on the part of some sectors of the population, what was experienced last July 11 and the possibilities of interconnection and amplified visibility made possible by the new communication technologies, lead us to think that the popular uprising could be one of the real possibilities for regime change at present.” Beyond how the desirable bursts into the dimension of the probable, 7/11 is a testimony that reality itself can become the detonator of a process of opening of the political imagination.

AI-generated image of Cuba / Facebook

A similar field to scenario building, which is equally oriented towards the future but shifts the focus from the analytical to the propositional, is the construction of agendas, both those that focus on the transition and those that attempt to delineate the contours of the political system that will succeed it. Once again, it is worth asking whether a political agenda can be located in the field of political imagination, constituting, as it does, an act proper to the rational exercise of the political. However, imagination appears in political agendas in the capacity to project (in the active sense of constructing a project, with its plans, actors, and particular times) a desired vision that becomes possible initially in the exercise of designing its manifestation and execution. In this sense, political agendas can be both mere extensions of reality, more akin to creating a calendar of what is perceived as inevitable, and real openings to other possible trajectories.

What imagination puts at stake today in the Cuban political dispute is, on the one hand, whether we are capable of imagining an overcoming of the State in its double sense of the State as a machinery of appropriation of desires and dreams and reproductive apparatus of oppression, and of the particular form of the Cuban totalitarian State; and, on the other hand, whether we are capable of imagining a transition in which the State occupies a non-central position.

On this point, the question is not very different from that posed by the well-known phrase “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” We could adapt it to the context by saying that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of totalitarianism,” since it deals with the same kind of difficulty: when something appears as immovable, anything else is conceivable as changeable except that which really needs to be changed. It is a kind of procrastination of the imagination that, in the case of Cuba, leads us back to the machinery that reproduces the impossibility of conceiving something new. A better country is not possible; that has been instilled in us to the point of atrophying the ability to think and even worse, to work for the opposite, and that impossibility is sustained by the fear of what would follow a collapse. It is an understandable fear, but one that has allowed the issue to be postponed to the point where the prospect of what is to come has become murkier; a vicious circle from which there seems to be no escape.

The other challenge of the political imagination is whether it is possible—particularly within these forward-looking projects, some of which point to the necessary steps of a transitional process—to imagine civil society and international allies as protagonists of a situation in which the State would find itself “against the wall,” unable to control, as it has done so far, the terms of the political dispute and forced to a type of negotiation in which it would have to cede power. Such a possibility is perhaps linked to a scenario of popular uprising, similar to that of July 11, in a magnitude that would make the maintenance of the regime impossible, or to one of international pressure articulated with the demands of the civil society inside the island and in the Diaspora. But it is also linked to the possibility of conceiving non-agreed transitions in which the leadership could not ensure its survival and, hopefully, some new leadership could not occupy the place that corresponds to a plural, contradictory, and wounded society that will have to start a long road of reconstruction and reconciliation from the first minute.

Several projects and political agendas have been accumulating visions of something that, by imperative, we place in a possible future and is the face of a different country, always mediated by the end of the present regime. Examples of these projects are the New Republic Project, proposed by the CID (Independent and Democratic Cuba) in 2002, which proposes five programmatic points, a group of “premises in the materialization of change” and thirty-two points of a scheme for transition. Another is the Roadmap for Change, of the Christian Liberation Movement (MLC) in 2011. The MCL Roadmap begins with a recognition of rights that should lead to a National Dialogue, free elections for public office, and a Constituent Assembly. A third, the Proposal to the Cuban Nation, by the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), was published in 2018 in the context of the approval of the new Constitution. UNPACU’s proposal covers several core issues such as property, trade unions, and education, and constitutes a detailed and pragmatic political platform.

The think tank Centro de Estudios Convivencia has been publishing for years a series of proposals for the future of Cuba that analyze neuralgic issues such as health and education. Based on diagnostic studies, these proposals attempt to move towards the restructuring of the institutions of social life without losing sight of the imperative of education for the exercise of democracy. More recently, The Cuba We Want: A Proposal to Reestablish the Republic, launched in September 2023 by the Centro de Estudios sobre el Estado de derecho Cuba Próxima, recovers vital principles such as the separation of powers, political pluralism or the participation of civil society and also concrete proposals such as the elimination of the death penalty and the incorporation of the right to vote for emigrants.

These types of projects have emerged from both political groups and think tanks, and each one must be understood according to the conditions of the moment in which they were produced, the authors involved, and, fundamentally, the capacity to represent the yearnings of a social group much larger than the one that produced them; ideally, to represent the yearnings of a significant portion of Cuban society. Pretending non-existent representativeness—such as that of Cuba Próxima’s announcement that it will “promote efforts for the creation of a Facilitating Group for an eventual political negotiation”—leads only to useless or reactionary fictions, contrary to its intended purpose. In a society marked by the repression of any attempt to dream and articulate the desire for change, the very existence of these projects is a testimony of resistance, and they are enough to demonstrate that the political dispute does not lack the capacity to imagine scenarios different from the endless extension of the totalitarian project. They are available as part of a body of work that requires further recognition and critical analysis so that its potential as a guide for action can be realized.

AI-generated image of Cuba

Such projects raise very different questions from those raised by scenarios based on projection and forecasting. They are asked how they intend to become possible, what kind of political moves (alliances, negotiations) are necessary to implement some of their ideas and, in particular, in what terms they imagine a transition, whether as a process of radical rupture that understands as a first condition for the implementation of a program the overcoming of totalitarianism or as a political negotiation that does not question the fundamental locus of power. Although not unproductive, this is a binary question, which reality will take care of itself to question because the before and after are elusive in a reality more unstable than it seems at first sight. When, for example, the recently created civic think tank CubaxCuba proposes the realization of a Constituent Assembly as a way to a democratization of the country, it is legitimate to wonder how such a thing would be possible within the current conditions, knowing the capacity of appropriation and instrumentalization practiced by the Cuban State as basic forms of action in relation to everything that questions or confronts it.

If we think, for example, of the need to incorporate exiles and the diaspora into political life, it is possible to see how such participation has been denied to the majority of exiles and granted as a privilege to a small portion of them who agree with the policies of the Cuban government. Any transition proposal in Cuba today runs that risk and faces that dilemma: the stumbling block that is a regime incapable of assuming and implementing any reform if it is not twisted so that it ends up redounding to its benefit. That does not mean that it is useless to wish for things like a Constituent Assembly, but that the wish imposes when presented as a proposal and not as a mere desire to question the conditions of the possibility of its existence.

A different degree of commitment to the speculative, closer to what is known popularly as imagination, is found in fiction, speculative literature, and essays. Carlos Lechuga, for example, published a few days ago “Despojo final.” In it, he dared an imaginative exercise in which on January 1 of this year the radio announced the end of the Cuban dictatorship, and those who until that day were in power would face justice. “What will be the first law? I can’t imagine much, but the release of political prisoners will be immediate,” wrote the filmmaker.

The speculative has to do, although to an unequal extent, more with what we want to happen—and, sometimes, with what we fear will happen—, than with what we believe may happen. The project, La Cuba que Viene, by the independent media Contexto Cubano, betting directly on the ability to dream and radically shatter the idea that there is no better world than the tyranny we live in, advances some ideas: the flag represents everyone, there are free and plural elections, the parliament is truly representative, military service is not compulsory, the countryside is prosperous and produces the food the country needs, basic commodities are accessible, education is modern and of quality without indoctrination, there is decent housing for all and the exile returns. In this exercise, the question of how to get there is not relevant. It is not a matter of building a transitional route, but of recovering hope, of daring to believe that a different Cuba is indeed possible. Imagination reaches its creative power here; imagining is an exercise in generating hope, and it is hope that generates the desire for change and with it, the work for change.

Mitchl EC’s page Gobernanza Solucionaria also proposes a series of fundamental changes, based on the principle of pragmatism oriented towards collective well-being. Gobernanza Solucionaria involves a proposal for a form of government that goes beyond the need for political parties and bets on the plural construction of solutions that are both pragmatic and based on principles. On the Facebook page accompanying the project, posted on December 15, 2023: Gobernanza Solucionaria presents itself as “an approach to democratic and pluralistic governance that respects the rule of law and the separation of powers. It focuses on identifying and implementing practical solutions for the collective welfare, without being constrained by political parties and ideologies. This model values proposals for their effectiveness and potential to do the most good for people, animals, and the environment, regardless of the personal preferences of the proponents.” This project makes use of Generative Artificial Intelligence for both images and text and generates images that, in addition to visualizing, allow the discussion of topics such as the sustainability of cities or architecture, always redirected to the Cuban case.

Art is a means of access and at the same time of translation of these speculative imaginations. The Forma Foco collective recently held an exhibition, Alibi, in which several projects that work with a future orientation took visual forms aesthetically mediated by the curatorship of Julio Llópiz-Casal, Solveig Font, Aminta de Cárdenas, Lester Álvarez, and Marilyn Volkman. In the exhibition, it was possible to recognize the presence of the Centro de Estudios Convivencia, with its slogan Overcoming the return to the past = projecting the future, or Justicia 11J, with a projection (intentionally exaggerated) on the number of possible arrests in 2024 if the trends of previous years continue. The catalog reminds us: “Art plays a fundamental role in the struggle for freedom of expression and human rights. It is a natural medium for alternative proposals to totalitarian narratives.” In addition, it played with diverse imaginaries that, more than images, allude to positioning, as in Camila Lobon‘s Monumentos para ser derribados, which proposes a promtography via IA in which the iconoclastic impulse leads to build a statue of Fidel only to see it torn down as a symbol of the end of an unbearable order of oppression. Or in Yimit Ramírez’s Voltus V, alluding to an imaginary of rebellious unity that impacted the generations of the last decade of the previous century and the first decade of this one through the anime series of the same title.

AI-generated image of Cuba by Mitchel EC

The existence of these projects that bet on generating ideas and images of a desirable future may seem illogical in the light of everyday reality, which has reached a point where what many people live and what some people dream of seem to collide head-on. In particular, the images of a Cuba imagined via some of the generative AIs such as Bing Image Creator or Midjourney have a sometimes too bright tinge, while the present seems too dark. In a recent Cubadata survey, it is possible to see that the general perception of Cuba’s future is mostly negative. To the question: “What is your perspective on the future of Cuba in the next 20 years?” in a range of 5 options ranging from “very optimistic” to “very pessimistic” 53.8% responded with “pessimistic” or “very pessimistic.” In the next question, out of 4 possible answers, 57.4% responded that Cuba “should consider other political and economic alternatives.” Another question confirmed this. Among five possible options, 50.4% would prefer, if they could influence it, “to change both the system of government and the socialist model.” These answers speak of a negative vision of the future, in which there is not much hope for change towards a better situation. But they speak also, and almost in the same proportions, of the need and even the direction of those necessary changes: “other political and economic alternatives”; “change the system of government and the socialist model.” These are general responses that do not constitute a political program and should be read together with others on specific issues such as health, human rights, or political participation, but they make it clear that there is an exhausted political model and that there is a generalized perception that any possibility of change requires a transformation of the political model.

Given these responses, what the AI images present is no longer so dislocated from everyday reality. They seem opposites but are brought closer to it by the perception that making them possible or making possible at least something close to them, is an imperative. What appears as demands of the imagination in the form of images generated via AI with prompts from its users is still fragmentary; just pieces of reality selected by their urgency, their capacity to move, and their quality of being shared by many. AI has its challenges: how is it possible to imagine, limitlessly, within the limits imposed by the very culture that generates artificial intelligence? But that is a question to be answered in a process of immersion in which many Cubans are already involved, including agents of the regime who have understood that this is also a field of combat. The projects for change and the more articulated visions that appear in political agendas also need to become a topic of common discussion and face the question of the conditions of possibility while the scenarios, the possible and the unexpected, are taking shape in a context in which it is not possible to foresee or build the shape of what will come, but it is possible to conceive it, recognizing that the power of political imagination consists precisely in playing in the field of possibilities, in “making tests in the absence of first-hand experience.” To render possible what seems impossible is the subversive power of the political imagination, and it is imperative to escape totalitarian determinism. And if there is any imperative right now, it is that of a better Cuba.

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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