Adaptable Cuba?

Ailynn Torres Santana and Julio César Guanche are Cuban political theorists who study republicanism and democracy in Latin America. In the following interview with Martín Mosquera, they discuss Cuba’s anti-government protests, political fractures in the country, and pathways for the ruling Communist Party.

Martín Mosquera: What was the political and economic situation in Cuba in the run up to the 11 July protests?

Ailynn Torres Santana: The protests that began in Cuba on 11 July were the result of a long-term trend stretching back to the 1990s, in which Cuba saw increased impoverishment and inequality after the fall of the Eastern Bloc. This initiated a process of economic and political reform that began in 2006-2007 and continues today. Its most recent stage is the Tarea Ordenamiento – or ‘restructuring task’ – which formally abolished the dual currency system last January and expanded the range of jobs that Cubans can do outside the state sector.    

US sanctions have obviously been a major source of hardship for Cuban workers. But so have the problems in implementing the country’s reform policies. For example, agriculture has been neglected while millions have been allocated to hotel investments. State-guaranteed welfare has been reduced and the domestic economy has been partially dollarized, as the government increases the number of businesses that operate in foreign currencies. This has heightened Cubans’ reliance on remittances, which in turn have been restricted by the US. Real wages have persistently declined, and in the last six months this drop has been dramatic, with Covid-19 forcing many small and medium-sized enterprises to close. Scarcities of food and medicine are beginning to bite.

There are, however, accumulated problems of another kind, including a lack of labour rights for those who work in the private sector; a hollowed-out trade union movement; obstacles to establishing or expanding non-agricultural worker cooperatives; a virtual block on creating new associations or formal spaces in civil society; restrictions on civil liberties; and an intensification of the US government’s ‘regime destabilization’ programme, which gives millions to actors aiming to topple the government. All these elements fed into the recent unrest.

MM: How would you describe the protests, both in terms of their scale and their political content? What role did the US-financed opposition play in them? Was it a ‘soft coup’ attempt?

Julio César Guanche: To be sure, there are right-wing extremist elements in Cuba that are directly connected to US-led ‘regime change’ initiatives. During the recent uprising, there were calls – especially from outside the country – to engage in arson and looting, and to attack police officers. Yet it is dangerous to write off every protest as part of an effort to wage unconventional warfare, because then there is only one possible response: military repression. In fact, the protests had popular aspects that cannot be overlooked or dismissed as anti-socialist.

It is still difficult to verify the details, because the official media has not provided adequate coverage, but one online outlet registered about seventy locations in the country where some form of protest took place. If this is correct, we are talking about the largest social protest in Cuba since 1959. For decades there has been a build-up of political demands that have not been granted any real space within Cuba’s established institutions. The government has not allowed certain sectors – including those that have nothing to do with the US-backed opposition – to participate in the political system. This has pushed them to the margins and created polarization.  

The political response to the protests aggravated this trend. When the disturbances began in San Antonio de los Baños, President Miguel Díaz-Canel travelled there to meet the crowds. This was a tradition started by Fidel Castro, who went to speak with protesters in 1994 and expressly prohibited state forces from using deadly weapons against them. But Díaz-Canel’s approach was different. He announced that ‘the order for combat has been given’: an expression that has a clear military connotation, invoking the obligation for revolutionaries to defend the country against external aggression. This was a lost opportunity to defuse the conflict through political channels, and to acknowledge that the Cuban opposition is more than just a monolithic ‘Miami-funded’ bloc.

ATS: If you map the barrios and localities where the protests arose, most of them are relatively impoverished. That’s important, because there is a tendency to present all anti-government activity as ‘bourgeois’ or imperialist when, in fact, political allegiances in Cuba are more complicated than that. It is true that there are social and political actors with ties to the US government and the European far-right, who are opposed to any socialist programme. Some of them have called for military intervention by the US government, or humanitarian intervention by international organizations. However, an overwhelming majority of Cubans are anti-interventionist, including some in the organized political opposition. Not all critics of the Communist Party come from the far-right.

MM: How much does generational politics factor into these divisions?

ATS: There is a new wave of feminist and anti-racist activists, artists and journalists in Cuba, which is overwhelmingly drawn from the younger generations. Not all of these people are – or see themselves as – left-wing; their attitudes toward the government range from rigid opposition to unconditional support. But this stratum represents an ongoing diversification of Cuban civil society which the state has been slow to acknowledge. For the Communist Party leadership, the political categories often boil down to ‘revolutionaries’ versus ‘counterrevolutionaries’, with many interesting and critical voices lumped into the latter category.

Of course, social media played a central role in the protests. Many young people used their command of the digital realm to broadcast what was happening and mobilize activists from other areas. Yet online platforms were also an important tool for organizing the sizeable pro-government counter-demonstrations. Overall, I’m not convinced that the protests were led by young people to the extent that was portrayed. The evidence suggests there was significant generational diversity on both sides. What seems more obvious to me is the class dimension: the protests began in the peripheries of urban centers, and in the densely populated areas of Havana, both of which have high rates of material insecurity.

JCG: During the crisis of the 1990s, also known as the ‘Special Period’, Cubans saw a drop-off in economic well-being after years of Soviet support. The population lost an average of 20 pounds per capita, and the US escalated its aggression, adding punitive new measures to the blockade. This marked a ‘before-and-after’ moment in the nation’s collective memory. The generations socialized during and since that decade have felt the shortcomings of the revolution more acutely. Their historical reference point is no longer 1959. So when the official government discourse warns that there are ‘attempts to restore a pre-1959 Cuba’, this simply doesn’t resonate with a certain demographic, who are more concerned with the difficulties of everyday life than with a possible return to capitalism.

There is a well-known joke about the Special Period: We all went in together, but we came out one by one. In other words, people ended up finding their own routes out of the crisis. The problem is that in Cuba, that goes against one of the central pillars of 1959: the revolutionary promise of equality. During the 1970s and 80s, Cuba had one of the lowest levels of inequality worldwide – so coming out ‘one by one’ involved an enormous rupture with the past. After 2000, Fidel Castro launched his ‘Battle of Ideas’ campaign to revive the pre-Special Period social settlement. But its scope was insufficient, and after his death it was largely dropped.

MM: What is the internal reality of the Communist Party of Cuba? Is there any possibility of democratic reform within it?

JCG: Today’s Communist Party of Cuba was born from a merger of revolutionary forces that contributed unevenly to the 1959 victory. The old Communist Party (PSP) was a force that did not participate actively in the armed insurrection against Batista. Nevertheless, the unification process of the 1960s brought together the 26 July Movement, the 13 March Revolutionary Directorate, and the existing Communist party into a new party: the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).

While in practice the PCC has ruled unopposed since 1976, the Constitution did not officially sanction the single-party system until 2019. In the late 1980s an internal assessment of the PCC’s structures and methods pointed out many problems with its democratic procedures. As a vanguard party born out of the socialist experiments of the twentieth century, it has continuously produced gaping power imbalances between its membership and leadership, with the second acting largely free of accountability. The government therefore embarked on a restructuring process based on a new democratic promise made in 1992: if Cuba is to have a single party, they said, it must represent the entire nation, which could mean recognizing some distinct political tendencies. Almost thirty years later, this is yet to happen. Discussion among the party’s lower ranks rarely filters up to its higher cadres, and differences of opinion are seen as dangerous ruptures.

However, now that Díaz-Canel is in power, we are on the cusp of a possible transition. The president knows that the type of popular legitimacy that Fidel and Raúl Castro had in Cuba is irreplaceable. Their role in the revolution and its aftermath was enough to win them broad support among the population. The current government, by contrast, has to legitimate itself solely through its performance in office. There is great pressure on Díaz-Canel to expand the points of contact between the state and Cuban society and set about fixing its serious institutional flaws. Cuba under his mandate has already achieved the enormous feat of producing two Cuban Covid-19 vaccines – the first in Latin America. Now it remains to be seen whether he will use the protests as an opportunity to roll out further popular programmes and democratize the PCC, or whether he will double down on the vanguardist system.

ATS: Judging from Díaz-Canel’s immediate response to the July protests, one might conclude that possibilities for democratization are non-existent. But in the days that followed, he began to appeal for solidarity and pledged to listen to the ‘unmet needs’ of Cuban workers. That rhetorical shift was important, because it signaled an awareness of the gravity of the crisis. I think it is possible that the PCC will adapt to deal with the current discontent, albeit on its own terms.

What would effective adaptation look like? It would involve opening up the country’s social and political institutions, at every level, to popular critique – particularly from younger activists and intellectuals. It would involve rethinking the role of the trade unions to make them less fossilized and more representative. It would mean transforming the state media and regulating the independent media. And it would require the government to ease restrictions on freedom of association, to allow for the creation of new civil society groups outside the PCC. Such sweeping reforms are unlikely to happen anytime soon.

MM: What is your evaluation of the Cuban political system?

JCG: Ten years ago, the word ‘republic’ was barely used in Cuba. It was absent from political speeches, school textbooks and media commentary. Now that has changed, although there’s been no official explanation as to why. The 1976 Constitution was called a ‘Socialist Constitution’, whereas the 2019 Constitution is the ‘Constitution of the Republic.’

Cuba’s concept of republicanism is often distorted and self-serving. For instance, freedom of expression is usually an inalienable republican value, but there are real problems in this area, because rather than using the category of ‘citizen’ – which implies a universal relationship between the state and its subjects – the government draws a distinction between ‘revolutionaries’ and ‘non-revolutionaries’, with different political rights accorded to each. The PCC claims that this constitutes a ‘socialist republicanism’ distinct from the bourgeois republicanism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – but this is clearly disingenuous.

Meanwhile, although the 2019 republican Constitution gives greater recognition to participatory rights and civil liberties, its language is extremely broad, and it has been followed up with several decrees that contradict its ostensive guarantees. (One example is the recent DL 370, which tightly regulates public data networks.) As of 2019, the National Assembly of People’s Power had approved three times more decrees than laws. Drafting legislation involves discussion, deliberation, and the clear articulation of societal codes; so minimizing laws in favor of decrees naturally weakens the role of parliament and removes political contestation from public life.  

Another problem for Cuba’s socialist republicanism is that of ‘state property’. Private property did not exist in a constitutionally regulated form until 2019, while the system of socialist property supposedly encompasses both state assets and cooperatives. Yet the ostensive owners of state property – the people – have rarely been able to exercise their collective rights. Instead, the state has clung to a top-down bureaucratic model which leaves little room for popular agency. If we understand socialism as a programme for distributing power and property to allow people to control their own conditions of existence, Cuba has a long way to go before it achieves this aim.

Translated by Rose Ane Berbeo.

A longer version of this interview appeared on Jacobin América Latina.

Read on: Emily Morris, ‘Unexpected Cuba’, NLR 88.