Understanding the Cuban Revolution
An institutionalized subterranean voice of critique, and its subtext
Let us recall our historic appreciation of the wisdom of the poor. The prophets of the Judaic-Christian-Islamic tradition were often marginal, hardly of high socio-economic status. Karl Marx wrote an analysis of the political-economy of capitalism from the working-class point of view. Paul Simon poetically expressed that “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.” The left today often speaks listening to the voices that emerge “from below.”
Such epistemological formulations express the notion that the attainment of insight and understanding requires listing to an alternative view from below, which is more able, by virtue of its experiential vantage point, to discern the injustices built into the social system. In contrast, the voice from above functions to legitimate existing structures that generate inequalities; the voice from above distorts understanding in defense of particular interests and privileges. In the march for social justice, we must develop an understanding of social structures by liberating ourselves from the voice from above. Such development of understanding requires listening to an underground or subterranean voice.
The Cuban Revolution is a subterranean voice of the neocolonial world-system. The world preaches representative democracy and practices it in a decadent form; Cuba has developed people’s democracy in theory and practice. The world preaches a limited state and practices state regulation of the economy; Cuba has developed in theory and practice a socialist economy under state planning and direction, which includes space for free enterprise. The world economy generates profits through financial speculation; Cuba tries to develop the productivity of its economy, in spite of deliberately placed obstacles by the world. The world proclaims freedom of the press, which results in corporate ownership; Cuba has placed power over the media in the hands of the people. The world proclaims individual liberty; Cuba cultivates social responsibility and personal fulfillment. The world wastes resources on arms and consumerism; Cuba finds recourses for free education and health care for all. The world proclaims “human rights” as a pretext for imperialist interventions; Cuba seeks mutually beneficial trade among sovereign nations. The neocolonial world-system has lost the capacity to critically reflect, which is the source of its decadence; Cuba offers an alternative critique, written from below, that calls the world to the necessary way.
The subtext of the subterranean voice
In an article in Jacobin, “Cubans Don’t Want Regime Change,” Medea Benjamin writes that “despite criticisms of the government, many Cubans want to further the revolution, not scrap it.” She writes of the legitimate grievances of the people who protested in July: “the scarcity of food and medicines, the long lines for basic goods, the rapid spread of COVID-19, the hard currency stores they didn’t have access to.” But since July 11, she observes, COVID-19 has been contained, and schools, tourism, and the economy are now opening. Many people now have second thoughts about the strategy of the protests, recognizing that protests create division.
Moreover, aside from what grievances people may have, they are inclined to stand in support of the revolution as the best practical option. Benjamin quotes a young mother in Havana: “I was out protesting on July 11. But since then, I’ve been weighing the pros and cons. The food situation here is terrible — we have to stand in lines for everything. On the other hand, we are safe. People don’t have guns and go around killing each other; the police don’t shoot people; we don’t have to worry about our children when they are outside playing, and they get a good education for free. If this government really collapsed, I’m afraid we might lose more than we gain.”
Benjamin captures the voice of the people, but only partially. She captures the subtext of the subterranean revolutionary voice.
The subtextual voice knows of concrete problems, but it only vaguely grasps their causes, because, if the truth be honestly told, the subtextual voice has not been articulated on the basis of listening to the explanations of the government, journalists, academics, and scientists. Such explanations are available in the media, on television and radio for an hour or two every day, in the daily newspapers, and in books sold at low prices. But understanding these explanations requires much discipline and effort, and many do not make the necessary effort. As a result, the subtextual voice is not able to see the concrete situation as a dynamic process, unfolding from the past and projecting toward the future. The subtextual voice is overwhelmed by the concrete present. Not understanding things on the basis of analysis of a dynamic process, it is the voice of the direct experience of concrete reality. It is a voice that knows that prices are high, but it does not recall why prices are high, nor how long and under what conditions it is likely to last. It is a voice that motivates protest in July but not in November, when the concrete conditions have changed.
I would want to qualify here, however. The July 11 rebellion has been greatly exaggerated in the international media. It only lasted a few hours, and it was a rebellion more than a protest, a rebellion that was stimulated and financed by the USA. It turned to vandalism that was constrained with reasonable force by police, or was brought to exhaustion nonviolently by the revolutionary people emotionally retaking the streets. However, July 11 was bigger than November 15, which completely fizzled, demonstrating itself to be a media fiction.
The subtextual voice of the revolutionary people of Cuba, then, has a limited understanding of the Cuban revolution. But it is a voice that understands some things, such as which social and political forces ought to be trusted. It understands that the Cuban Revolution is the best available option for defense of the people, as illustrated by the quotation above of a young mother. It understands that those in the United States who speak of supporting the Cuban people do not have the slightest concern for the wellbeing of the Cuban people. It is a voice that understands that its best option is to cast its lot with the revolution. As a Party leader said to me years ago, “The people talk, but they are with us.”
Finding the subterranean voice
We intellectuals of the left, formed by the lessons of the ancient prophets, Karl Marx and Paul Simon, appreciate the importance of the subterranean voice. Our fundamental methodology is to find and listen to the subterranean voice, listening to the diverse voices of the people, indeed, living among them. I followed this method for four years in the 1990s in Honduras. Inasmuch as my encounter with the Honduran people included listening to the speeches of the Honduran president, I used to say that I listened to everybody, from prostitutes to presidents.
When I first began to travel to Cuba in the 1990s, I followed the same epistemological model that I used in Honduras. I listened to everyone. And I discovered something. I discovered a kind of epistemological inversion in Cuba, in which the voice from above has more insight than the voice from below.
There are reasons for this unanticipated epistemological inversion. The Cuban Revolution is a revolution forged from below, by a neocolonized people. And when it came to power in its own land, it reorganized educational and ideological structures, so that the voice of the revolution would become systemic; the voice of the revolution would become the voice of the politicians, the news media, and the educational system. It therefore would become institutionalized, establishing itself as an institutionalized, subterranean voice in the political-economy of the world-system.
However, for those not appreciating the significance of this epistemological inversion, the voice of the revolutionary government is erroneously treated as an “official” voice, no longer the voice from below. This is a fundamental epistemological error, because even though official, and even though its spokespersons sometimes come dressed in business attire, the Cuban Revolution remains the voice from below, challenging political-economic structures of the world-system and its interpretation of human history; as can be readily understood by carefully listening to its content. In the revolutionary situation of Cuba, the “official” voice is the voice of insight, critique, and historical and political consciousness. And because of the revolutionary control of institutions, the subterranean revolutionary voice can attain a coherence not possible in leftist opposition movements in other lands in which people’s revolutions have not triumphed.
In order to sustain the revolution, the leaders of the revolutionary project must listen to and take into account the subtextual voice that emerges from the people; it must seek to identify and resolve the concrete problems with which the subtextual voice is concerned. In the past fifteen years, the Cuban revolution has demonstrated its capacity to do so. It has formulated a new economic and social model that seeks to increase the productivity of the economy and the material level of concrete living, in response to the dissatisfactions of the people. It is constrained not by the lack of political will, but by the lack of financial and economic resources.
In her Jacobin article, Benjamin reports on her participation in an in-person gathering of the popular Telegram chat group “La Manigua.” She asked the group what changes people would like to see. They gave various responses: “challenge the stifling bureaucracy, fire inept or corrupt people from their positions, encourage more grassroots initiatives, pass the Family Code that would give full rights to women and the gay community, get serious about confronting racism.” It is perhaps not clear to the reader that La Manigua is a revolutionary group that presents itself on Twitter as “a digital trench of revolutionaries.” Its recent tweets have been ridiculing N15 protest leader Yunior García, which has been a form of online diversion in Cuba in recent days. Moreover, the reader perhaps does not know that the specific changes expressed in the Benjamin-La Manigua interchange are being developed in theory and practice by the Party and the government, in a project of reform and renewal that has been underway for more than a decade. Many articles in the 2019 Constitution and many laws now being written are designed to promote and attain these changes. Here Benjamin is citing not so much the subtext of the revolution, but the voice of the revolution itself, although her text is not framed in this way.
For those of us in the North, we need to listen above all, not to the subtext of the revolution, but to the voice of the revolution itself. The voice of the revolution is full of insight from below, formulating critical analyses of the political-economic structures of the world-system and its historical, philosophical, and ideological beliefs and assumptions. The subterranean voice of the Cuban Revolution has well-developed historical and political consciousness, as a result of its institutionalization, which provides government support for its integrated development. The subterranean voice of the Cuban Revolution understands global dynamics; it grasps well the historic, economic, and social factors that have shaped the current reality.
For intellectuals and activists of the North, our own liberation, and that of humanity as a whole, requires listening to the subterranean voice of the Cuban Revolution, expressed by its political leaders, the leaders of its mass organizations, its journalists, its scientists, and its educators; a voice that have been lifted up and sustained by the people, in its best moments. A subterranean revolutionary voice, now institutionalized, which provides penetrating insights with respect to the structural sources of injustices and the challenges that humanity confronts. It would be a fundamental epistemological error, perhaps fatal for humanity, if intellectuals and activists of the North were to listen to the subtextual voice but not the subterranean voice of the revolution itself.
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