Cuba and the dismissal of the “official” discourse
The anthropological research fallacy
In reviewing the various commentaries with respect to Cuba since July 11, I came across an article that illustrates what I call the “anthropological research fallacy,” which I encountered when I organized educational programs in Cuba for professors, graduate students, and undergraduate students from 1997 to 2010. The article in question is “El estallido social Cubano,” by Emilio Santiago Muíño, which was originally published on July 21 in Contexto y Acción and reproduced in two parts in the website OnCubaNews on July 22 and July 26.
The article begins with declarations of fact that are fundamentally inconsistent with empirical reality as observed from the ground in Cuba. “On July 11 thousands of Cubans took to the streets in massive and unprecedented protests, that had its initial focus in the municipalities of San Antonio de los Baños (Artemisa) and Palma Soriano (Santiago de Cuba), and that in a few hours extended throughout Havana and the rest of the country.”
For readers who may have been mislead by media distortions, I cite here a more empirically-based discourse by Carlos L. Garrido, a Cuban-American philosophy graduate student and professor at Southern Illinois University. He notes that the media “deceitfully hide the fact that anti-government protestors . . . number only a few hundred, whereas pro-government supporters—in defense of the revolution and opposed to U.S. intervention—have been flooding the streets, not by the hundreds, but by the hundreds of thousands.” And he further observes that “the 17th of July saw more than 100,000 Cubans take the streets of el Malecón in defense of the revolution and against U.S. intervention. There were also demonstrations in other provinces across the island, altogether dwarfing the U.S.-backed opposition hecklers of the previous week. Nonetheless, the opposition protests, although insignificant in size and duration (in comparison to the pro-revolution assemblages), have provided fertile ground for Western media to perform their traditional role in setting the stage for the imperial war drums.”
Muíño’s article, following its opening factually incorrect declaration, turns to an explanation of his method of investigation. “Between 2012 and 2014, I lived in Cuba nine months doing ethnographic field work for my doctorate in Anthropology, which dealt with the process of forced ecological sustainability imposed in the island during the Special Period. In this framework, I studied for six years its social reality with a certain depth. During this stage of my life, I made great friends. Today many live in Cuba and others have migrated. Although my academic investigations have since gone in other directions, thanks to this personal contact that I have maintained to this day, I have sufficient understanding of the Cuban reality and its recent transformations.”
The author makes explicit his view of insightful intellectual dissidents standing in contrast to official ideological stagnation, and his assumption that, although small in numbers in 2014, the dissidents would grow in importance. “The Cuba that I knew personally (2012-2014) already was a Cuba divided between the sclerosis of the official ideology and the dynamism and the collective intelligence displayed by dissidents who, even though they were small in number, were exercising in fact the cultural leadership of the living forces of Cuban society. . . . This divorce between the official country and the real has gone through a polyphonic proliferation of critical voices that have begun to be articulated through the possibilities that are offered by connection to the Internet, which has been growing on the island.”
Here the author seems to not fully appreciate that the revolution responded to the material dissatisfactions of the people with a new social and economic model, attaining the economic and political participation of the people in a reformulated revolutionary project, as was evident in the constitutional debates of 2018-2019, which were characterized a remarkably high level of expression of diverse views. In the process, the Party demonstrated its capacity to listen to the people and to be aware of its dissatisfactions, by virtue of the participation of Party members with the people in all social institutions. And the Party demonstrated its respect for the people, rooted in its appreciation of the great sacrifices that the people had made in defense of the Revolution since the early 1990s. At the same time, assuming its leadership role, it was the Party that put forth the initial formulation of the new social and economic model, which was subsequently modified by the National Assembly of People’s Power in consultation with the people. The entire process, which has transpired since 2010 and is ongoing, is one of dialogue between a vanguard political party and a revolutionary people in a reformulation of the direction of the revolutionary project.
So, the potential possibility for the dissident voice to grow stronger was nipped in the bud through public debate, which is an arena of person-to-person encounter, where false claims can be much more easily refuted than in a medium like the Internet. Meanwhile, numerous false claims are being disseminated on the Internet with the aid of new technologies, in a virtual world mostly outside of Cuba and alienated from the subjective consciousness of the majority of the Cuban people. At the same time, the people have access to Internet, and they can sometimes be temporality confused by its false claims.
The assumption that the truth is expressed in the thoughts and hopes of the people, and not in the formulations of the powerful, emerges from a capitalist political-economic system, where the political establishment is skilled at the craft of pretending to promote democracy, while it in fact protects the interests of the economic elite. In such a context, there is truth in the refrain of Paul Simon, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.” And in such a context, intellectuals emerge, gifted at formulating profound critiques of the established system, written from the vantage points of ordinary people in their diverse forms. In this context, popular social movements and radical intellectuals can debunk the false claims of the political establishment.
But what happens when radical intellectuals leading a popular social movement take power from the political establishment, and begin to direct the state in accordance with their previously formulated principles and proposals? They are now in power, but they are the delegates of the people, who have sent them to direct the state in their name and in accordance with their needs. If such a triumphant popular revolution sustains itself in power, it becomes the political establishment, and the official voice of the nation; an official voice that nonetheless serves not the interests of an elite class, but the interests of the people. In the context of the world capitalist political-economic system, a sustained triumphant popular revolution constitutes an alternative political establishment.
If it is not detoured by political and economic factors, the alternative political establishment continues to have many of the characteristics of the popular social movement before its triumph. Its leaders continue to formulate the essential truths rooted in the interests of the people, but even more so, because the political leaders have the benefit of the instruction that comes from experience. Its intellectuals continue to have penetrating social analyses and insights into the human condition, but even more so, because they benefit from society-wide institutions that support this same task. In this context, there emerge what I call “teachers,” persons who may or many not be of the government, the Party, intellectuals, or formal educators; persons who come from all walks of life, who, in their daily work to develop the national revolutionary project, are learning for themselves and teaching others.
But not all of the people enter into the revolutionary project. Some are alienated. In the case of Cuba, the social base of alienation is a semi-class consisting of persons who are marginalized, not participating in the educational and employment possibilities provided by the revolution, believing that the material rewards of such participation are too limited. It could be said that they pertain to a Cuban version of the lumpenproletariat. They do not embrace the spiritual call of the revolution to set aside individualism, materialism, and consumerism, and to embrace a life in which goodness is defined by the values of solidarity and social justice for all and by commitment to work, family, and country. The lumpen has some influence on the attitudes of individuals who are integrated into the educational and employment system, especially the youth.
However, unlike what occurred in the historic popular movement against the capitalist political-economic system, intellectuals who associate with the lumpen for the most part do not formulate insights or provide exceptional political leadership. They are not able to critically engage the revolutionary project, demonstrating before the people its alleged shortcomings, as a result of the fact that their social base is not popular social movement but the lumpen, which is less fertile ground for the generation of insights.
For any academic or activist shaped in the context of a capitalist political-economic system, in seeking to understand Cuba, the first step is to appreciate that the revolution has forged a different political/intellectual context; it has changed the social base of the true and the right. In this revolutionary context, engaging the lumpen is not going to lead to understanding. You have to go to the essential voices of the Cuban revolutionary project, its “teachers,” found everywhere as political leaders, leaders of mass organizations in urban neighborhoods and country towns, journalists, educators, and including of course the political leaders at the highest levels, for they have been lifted up to positions of authority by the people. The worst thing you can do is dismiss the voice of the revolution as an “official” voice that is alienated from what is real, because in a revolutionary situation, the official voice is not the indirect voice of the economic elite, but the organized voice of the people.
Listening to the voice of the revolution is the paramount duty of intellectuals who have been formed in the institutions of the political-economic system of capitalism, because its insights can liberate from the assumptions of the global established order. Listening to the voice of the revolution is extremely time consuming, because of its extensive volume and eclectic character, because it is formulated in the context of concrete situations, because of its tendency to disturb with its message, and because it necessarily includes its extensive historic discourses. But however difficult, it is a moral obligation.
Listening to the voice of the revolution does not mean that no critique can be offered; it means, however, that valid criticism can only be formulated in the context of a full understanding of what the voice of the revolution is saying. Nor should the voice of the lumpen be ignored; but listening to the lumpen does not mean dismissing the voice of the revolution itself. Our task is to understand the essence of the new revolutionary reality, forged as a political/intellectual/moral alternative to a capitalist world-economy in sustained structural crisis.
I have undertaken such a task. I have spent more than twenty-five years, since 1993, reading the speeches of revolutionary leaders, past and present; studying the works of its social philosophers and historians; and listening to the commentaries of its journalists. I have been engaging in “personal encounter” with the Cuban Revolution, in the terminology of the twentieth century Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan. As I explain in my April 6, 2021 Preface to this column, I studied Lonergan following my encounter with black nationalist thought in Chicago in the period 1970 to 1972. Seeing that the assumptions and explanations of black nationalist scholars was fundamentally different and opposed to those of white social scientists, I was seeking epistemological guidance. Lonergan provided the necessary direction: sustained personal encounter with the alternative voice, appreciating its insights, criticizing its defects only in the context of sustained listening.
In sustained personal encounter with the Cuban revolution, one must continually listen, critically analyze, and evaluate. One must seek to understand the empirical and moral claims of the revolution, and assess if the promises made to the people have been fulfilled, and if the majority of people continue to have faith in it. The sustained process of encounter with the revolutionary voice enables one to analyze the validity of the Cuban revolutionary project.
On my journey of encounter in Cuba, I came across a dissident intellectual voice around 2016. On the foundation of years of sustained encounter with the revolution, I was able to see the omissions and misrepresentations of the dissident voice, including omissions of key components of the revolutionary political-economic reality. In my encounter with dissident intellectuals, which occurred periodically over a couple of years, I found that they are a mixture of Cubans and foreigners who criticize the Cuban revolution from a supposedly leftist perspective. Their omissions of certain aspects Cuban reality, especially on the part of the Cubans, cannot be interpreted as anything other than a deliberate attempt to deceive.
One Cuban dissident, for example, maintained that I was wrong in thinking that the National Assembly of People’s Power is the highest authority of the nation. Citing Article 5 of the Constitution, he was persistent in insisting that the Communist Party of Cuba is the highest authority in the nation. It is true that Article 5 affirms the Communist Party of Cuba as the organized vanguard of the Cuban nation and as the highest directing force of the society and the state, organizing and orientating the common efforts toward the high ends of the construction of socialism. But this affirmation of the Party as the guiding force of the Revolution does not grant specific authority. On the other hand, the Constitution declares that the National Assembly of People’s Power is the supreme organ of power of the State. Various articles specifically give the National Assembly the authority to elect the highest members of the executive and judicial branches of government, to enact legislation, to interpret the constitutionality of laws, to approve national plans for social and economic development, and to approve general guidelines for foreign policy.
It is hard to imaging that a Cuban casting himself as an intellectual knowledgeable about Cuban society would not know these fundamental facts of the Cuban constitutional order, which are reinforced in practice, inasmuch as all laws and decrees in Cuba are enacted by the constitutionally designated authorities, that is, the National Assembly of People’s Power, elected by the people; and the President and the executive branch, elected by the National Assembly. Whenever the Party has a proposal, it presents its proposal to the National Assembly of People’s Power, a process reported with much fanfare by Cuban news institutions.
It seems to me that there are intellectuals who like to cast themselves as critical thinkers, as persons of the left who are critical of the capitalist system, yet as persons who are not so naïve as to fall for the party line or the official discourse of a triumphant revolution. For academics in the North, this posture enables them to maintain an image of objectivity, not driven by passions. It is a posture that is necessary for their employment prospects in the academic world, enabling them to avoid sanctions that would be applied for open defense of a sustained revolutionary project that is fulfilling its promise to the people. For the Cuban dissidents, there are possible material rewards and rewards in prestige in the world beyond Cuba.
The fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist bloc, combined with the strengthening of the U.S. blockade, caused an economic crisis in Cuba in the early 1990s, with hardships far greater than the difficulties today. The revolution possessed enormous prestige among the people, so that the Revolutionary Government was able to draw upon its political capital to buy time to make economic adjustments consistent with socialist principles. The adjustments were effective in forging a slow but gradual recovery by the beginning of the twenty-first century. However, inasmuch as the adjustments included expansion of tourism and emigration, the frame of reference among the people with respect to living standards shifted from an isolated socialist bloc to the consumer societies of the North, such that the expectations of the people were rising faster than gradual improvements in living standards, thus generating a material dissatisfaction among the people. Around 2010, the Party became aware of this popular material dissatisfaction, and it proposed economic reforms that were designed to improve the standard of living, which now are being implemented. There has been full awareness that the reform measures have generated greater social inequality, and the government has taken concrete steps to reduce this effect. In the long run, it plans to create more a prosperous economy that would have the capacity for a just distribution in response to the material needs of the people.
Therefore, the Party and the Revolutionary Government hardly needed unacceptable behavior by marginalized elements on July 11 to become aware of the material dissatisfaction among the people and the difficult material circumstances of some. The government has been attentive to this situation for years. The disturbances provoked a call by the President to improve the ongoing efforts of the revolution to attend to those most in need; and there currently is concrete follow-up to the call.
The events of July 11 may have stimulated a greater awareness of a problem that the Cuban revolution has been aware, namely, the use of the Internet and fake news to attack Cuba. Since July 11, Cuban journalists and the government have been discussing intensely how the revolution can more effectively engage and refute the false claims about Cuba disseminated on the Internet. Thus far, a new law against the dissemination of fake news has been decreed, and the government has announced the creation of the Institute of Information and Social Communication, which will function as a ministry in the government, replacing the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television. Although it may have been stimulated by recent events, the new Institute is the result of a process of analysis that was initiated in 2013, which has included the participation of various ministries of the government, the Union of Journalists of Cuba, the Faculty of Communication of the University of Havana, and the Ideological Department of the Party.
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Follow me on Twitter: Charles McKelvey@CharlesMcKelv10
Another excellent post, Charles, debunking much of the official narrative on Cuba.
I am intrigued to hear more about the formation of the new constitution in the 2018-2019 period; about how this process went and the diversity of views represented in the debates on major issues. I know you've written about this in previous posts as it pertains to transgender and gay rights and other social issues. But it would be interesting to hear about what kind of proposals for economic and political reforms were discussed and to find ut more abtou the diversity of opinions on these issues that exists within the party and society as a whole. It would make a fascinating post!