Reflections on the July 11 disturbances in Cuba
Is the Cuban government taking a dictatorial turn?
A recent article on the July 11 disturbances in Cuba was sent to me by a colleague of the International Manifesto Group, asking for commentaries. It is a question of an interview of Ailynn Torres Santana and Julio César Guanche, which appeared in the September 10 issue of New Left Review. The article is a translation of an interview by Martín Mosquera, which was originally published in Jacobin América Latina, a Latin American digital publication with a socialist perspective.
The New Left Review identifies the two as “Cuban political theorists.” But online information indicates that Torres is an Ecuadoran who was a researcher in a Cuban research institution from 2006 to 2019, during which time she also was a guest professor at the University of Havana, FLACSO Ecuador, the University of Barcelona, and the University of Massachusetts. None of her present affiliations appear to include a Cuban entity.
On the other hand, Guanche is indeed Cuban, and he is known among Cuban academics. His Facebook page reports that he was Director of the Editorial Ciencias Sociales, a Cuban publication, from 2003 to 2007. He informs me via Facebook messenger that he presently is affiliated with UNEAC-Cuba, the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba.
The interview begins with a problematic declaration by Torres, in which she refers to the “protests that began on July 11.” In fact, there were “protests” against the government on July 11, but not following that date. During the following week, there were numerous public acts and demonstrations across the island in support of the government, but no demonstrations, peaceful or not, against the government.
The actions on July 11 were following the script of a sustained social media campaign, a fact that has been well documented in the Cuban press and news outlets since July 11. The media campaign is part of the U.S. unconventional war against Latin America, a fact downplayed by Torres and Guanche.
How extensive were the protests on July 11? Guanche maintains that it was “the largest social protest in Cuba since 1959.” But in this declaration, he is relying upon a figure concerning the number of locations in which “some form of protest took place,” which he found in an unnamed online outlet, and he acknowledges that he does not know if this figure is correct. In the week following July 11, there were numerous false declarations in online outlets with respect to the events of July 11, including depicting as protesters persons who were government supporters. These revolutionaries had taken to the streets following the call of the president to retake the streets, a call that did not have a military connotation, as Guanche claims.
As far as I am able to discern from my physical vantage point in central Havana and with the aid of my Cuban sources, the protests lasted only a few hours, and they either turned into violent rebellions or were brought to an end non-violently by more numerous revolutionaries who took to the streets in response to the call of the president. Those engaging in violence were detained by the police, who used reasonable levels of force. For this reason, I prefer to use the term “disturbances.” Certainly, whether they be disturbances or protests, it should not be implied that they continued after July 11. It appears that the imperialist strategy of stimulating via social media a sustained popular protest or popular uprising died on the day that it was launched.
Torres writes, “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.”
This commentary glosses over key parts of the story. The economic adjustments made by the revolutionary government in the early 1990s, following the collapse of Cuba’s socialist-bloc trading partners, were successful in enabling a slow but steady recovery. However, inasmuch as the strategy included an expansion of tourism and more extensive relations with an expanding Cuban emigration, it had the consequence of generating rising expectations among the people. So for a period of about fifteen years, the standard of living was slowly but surely improving, but the material expectations of the people were rising faster, giving rise to an increasing dissatisfaction among the people with respect to the material standing of living.
The Party could have responded to this phenomenon by seeking to explain to the people that the consumer societies of the North are not sustainable in the long run, and they should not be a frame of reference. But the Party, respecting the people for the sacrifices that they had made, and recognizing that some lived in poor material conditions, responded with the proposal for a new social and economic model, which it developed in consultation with the people in places of work. The new model includes the vision of developing a “prosperous” socialism.
Torres refers to “a new wave of feminist and anti-racist activists, artists, and journalists in Cuba” from the younger generation. The reference to feminist activists is strange, because of the achievements of women in forging a woman’s revolution in the Cuban revolution. If there is a new wave of activists, it would be gay rights and gender identity activists, who indeed have had influence in the party, but less so with the people. But if there were a new wave of activists, where were they on the days following July 11? One would think that they would have been active on the Internet and in the streets after July 11; but they were nowhere to be seen, except for items on the Internet that were exposed as fake news.
Guanche wants to politicize a natural phenomenon, namely, the death and aging of the generation of the revolution, and the necessary coming to power of a new generation. He suggests that the new generation now in power, led by President of the Republic and Party Secretary Miguel Díaz-Canel, is possibly taking a dictatorial turn. This kind of argument is a logical strategy for defamers of the Cuban Revolution, because it accepts the sacredness of Fidel in the Cuban public discourse, a status that was clearly made evident by the astonishing outpouring of affection at the time of his death. In public discourse today, Fidel is untouchable; so it makes sense to utilize a strategy claiming that things are going badly now that Fidel is gone.
Guanche draws on five issues that are the supposed source of this concern for the possible dictatorial turn by the present government. First, he asserts that the 2019 Constitution officially sanctions the single-party system, whereas the Constitution of 1976 did not. Secondly, he maintains that the Party has become undemocratic. “Discussion among the party’s lower ranks rarely filters up to its higher cadres, and differences of opinion are seen as dangerous ruptures.” Thirdly, he asserts that “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.” Fourthly, he maintains that Díaz-Canel does not have the personal authority of Fidel or Raúl, who attained legitimacy in the eyes of the people during the revolution and its aftermath. Therefore, the government of Díaz-Canel must earn legitimacy through performance. Given the difficulty of the situation, the government may not be able to perform to the satisfaction of the people. Fifthly, as an indication of a possible dictatorial turn, the government has turned to issuing decrees, rather than enacting legislation. I discuss each of these five claims.
(1) I do not have a background constitutional law, as does Guanche, so perhaps I am missing something here. But in my study of the two constitutions, I found that the Constitution of 1976 defines the Communist Party of Cuba as the only party, which is the highest leading force in the society. And I found that the 2019 Constitution repeats this affirmation. It names the Communist Party of Cuba as the Martían, Fidelist, Marxist, and Leninist vanguard party that organizes, educates, and leads the people toward the construction of socialism. As I noted in a previous commentary on participatory democracy in Cuba, during the extensive popular constitutional consultation of 2018, in which approximately 75% of the adult population participated, there were only 262 proposals in the 1,706,872 interventions of the people (in 133,680 meetings) that rejected the constitutional definition of the role of the Communist Party of Cuba as the guiding force of the nation.
(2) In claiming that the Communist Party has undemocratic internal structures, Guanche refers to an internal assessment of the Party in the late 1980s, which called for more democratic procedures. Juan Azahares, a professor of philosophy at the University of Havana, informs me that the author of the internal study was none other than Fidel Castro, and it was a part of the process of the “rectification of errors and negative tendencies.” It was a normal process of self-criticism, which identified necessary reforms in the Party that would become even more urgent with the economic difficulties of the 1990s. Guanche claims that the situation has not improved thirty years later, but he does not address a phenomenon that would seem to contradict this claim. Namely, the relation between the Party and the people in recent years, in which the Party demonstrated in practice its capacity to take seriously the concerns of the people, as I outlined above. One would think that the active role of the Party militants in the cadres and the constant communication between the militants and the highest leaders would be central to the significant role that the Party has played in recent years in leading the people toward a new social and economic model, in response to the growing inquietudes of the people with respect to the material standing of living.
(3) I imagine that Guanche’s claim that certain sectors of the population are not permitted to participate in the political system has credibility among readers who are not familiar with Cuban structures of people’s democracy, in which all sectors of Cuban society are organized and have constitutionally-defined space in the political system. To be sure, some people may feel marginalized, because their views are not in accord with those of the great majority; or because they have material demands that, even though legitimate, cannot possibly be met in the context of the economic situation. And it is true, as Torres notes, that there is a degree of fossilization of the workers’ organizations in some places. But such imperfections do not constitute exclusion from the political system. To have credibility with the more informed reader, Guanche would have to elaborate on his claims.
(4) Guanche maintains that the government of Díaz-Canel has to legitimate itself through performance in office, whereas Fidel and Raúl possessed popular authority because of their role in the triumph of the revolution and its aftermath. Of course, no leader today has the personal authority of Fidel; he is in the league of exceptional leaders with Lenin, Mao, and Hi Chi Minh. However, the need for a new generation of leaders, without the same personal authority, is not an unexpected situation. The Party was formed in anticipation of this moment. The first steps toward forming the Party were taken in the 1960s, and their explicit intention was to replace the personal authority of one man with the collective authority of a vanguard political party. So the question for us today is, to what extent does the Party, as a collective entity with members in many important positions of the society and the government, speak with authority before the people?
The answer to the question has to be based on empirical observation. And the first observation is the highly impressive performance of Díaz-Canel in affirming the continuity of the revolution, even though the leadership has been passed to a new generation. His potential had been identified years earlier, and he was given many opportunities to develop his capacities in various assignments. When the moment came, he stepped forward with a leadership style that emphasizes finding resolutions to the practical problems that the people confront. At the same time, he possesses a capacity to formulate well the historical and philosophical truths that are the foundation of the Revolution. Oriented to practice, he is nonetheless no stranger to theory. And his fundamental discourse has been continuity. As he assumed the highest office in the land, he made clear that Fidel is the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution, and Raúl is its current leader. As he appeared before international fora, he noted that the enemies of the Revolution will be disappointed to learn that the passing of leadership to the new generation is characterized by continuity, not rupture. In those exciting days following his inauguration, he could be seen in the streets, with the people constantly exhorting him, “You are doing well. Keep it up. We are with you.”
Azahares reminded me that, in spite of the evident capacities of Díez-Canel, the transition also ought to be seen as a transition to collective leadership, in accordance with the historic plan in the formation of the Party. Both Fidel and Raúl governed with reliance on a collective of leaders in various government positions, a fact that is not widely appreciated. But with the transition to a new generation, the turn to collective leadership is strengthened and amplified. Díaz-Canel is surrounded by a highly competent and committed team, including the Prime Minister and the ministers of the economy, health, and foreign affairs, who all have been formed for years in key positions of responsibility in the Cuban revolutionary project. Díaz-Canel and other important leaders of the Cuban government are products of a system that has been under construction for more than half a century.
The preparedness of the Cuban government can be seen in its management of the health crisis, even though the battle has not yet been won, neither in Cuba nor the world. Even before the arrival of the virus on the island, Cuba formed a team consisting of government officials and scientists. From the beginning, they have formulated coherent and scientifically-informed strategies, informing the people of developments on a daily basis. As a result, Cuba has not experienced the confusions and divisions that have reigned in the countries of the North. Moreover, they have developed their own vaccines, and they now are in the midst of vaccinating the entire country, including children of two years of age and older, and with special supplementary injections for the vulnerable population, such as persons 75 years of age or older. It may be that Cuba could emerge from the pandemic global crisis as a recognized world power in health, able to sell its patented pharmaceutical products to the world. It was so envisioned by Fidel from the beginning.
(5) Guanche’s criticism of the government’s use of decrees instead of legislation can be misleading for those not familiar with Cuban political structures. In the United States, when the president issues decrees, it often is because the president would not be able to attain Congressional support for a new law. But in Cuba the situation is entirely different. Most deputies of the National Assembly of People’s Power are not professional politicians; they continue to work in their regular jobs. So the sessions of the National Assembly are held two or three times per year. Between sessions, the executive branch is authorized to issue decrees, subject to approval by the National Assembly at its next session. In Cuba, the issuing of decrees is not a maneuver for circumventing the constitutional authority of the Congress; it is a mechanism for facilitating efficient governmental action. Guanche may not be in agreement with recent decrees, which have been more numerous recently because of the emergency situation, defined by a pandemic and an economic and media war against Cuba. But there can be no reasonable doubt that the decrees have the full backing of the National Assembly.
In the International Manifesto Group, there is strong sentiment that socialists of the world ought to support socialist Cuba. In order to do so, we have to have a solid understanding of the Cuban socialist project. We need to be wary of defamations of Cuba circulating on the Internet, which often have a deceptively objective appearance.
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