Cuba: Pros & Cons on a Loyal Opposition

February 19, 2014 | Print Print |

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso  (Photos: Juan Suarez)

Street in Old Havana.

HAVANA TIMES — The issue of a “loyal opposition” (LO) in Cuba appears to demand a place in Cuba’s current intellectual debate. Today, it is taken up by two valuable Catholic thinkers – Lenier Gonzalez and Roberto Veiga – in two short articles published by the Catholic journal Espacio Laical (“Secular Space”), where these intellectuals call for a discussion on the subject.

This is a positive development. I think that this and many other issues arising in Cuba today, issues that are invariably going to determine our future as a society, ought to be debated.

If we aspire to hold a rigorous debate on any subject, a debate that will help elevate our social thinking, then we must place the discussion at the theoretical level that has been reached on the matter around the world. I believe this has been a recurrent shortcoming of all debates held in Cuba because of countless epistemological, political and ideological obstacles I cannot delve into now.

We have grown so accustomed to thinking we are exceptional that we allow ourselves to foray into areas of extreme theoretical density with very light intellectual luggage.

This is what’s been happening in the debate surrounding the LO. The term itself is a politically attractive and conceptually interesting appellation, as is the case with nearly all oxymorons. For Cuba, it represents a political step forward. Since it’s ambiguous, using it is very much like tip-toeing across a bedroom full of mischievous kids.

Unfortunately, it isn’t a chunk of clay we can shape to suit our interests, but a concept. As such, it allows for some functional flexibility, but such elasticity has a limit, beyond which one would begin to deform the concept’s meaning. Thus, we must not forget the basic structure of the LO: “opposition” is the noun, “loyal” is the adjective. The essence is expressed by the second word, and the gradations by the first.

Accordingly, when someone speaks of a “loyal opposition”, they are referring to a political relationship in which the group eluded to aspires to displace another group from power and apply different policies once in power, and that the system offers mechanisms that make this possible within the realm of its own procedures. Any party which accepts the electoral rules of a liberal democracy, be it left or right-wing, is a “loyal opposition.”

The peripheral parties that existed in East European regimes, or in Mexico under PRI’s dominance, weren’t exactly “loyal opposition” parties per se. They were, rather, subordinate, crushed or caricaturized parties.

The world “loyal” has traditionally referred to the fact that the opposition party accepts the legitimacy of the system’s mechanisms and, as such, the legitimacy of the party that wields political power. Consequently, this opposition does not aim to overthrow the established party or to eliminate it as a political option, but only to replace it and keep it from taking power for as long as it is legally possible.

Early morning.

I believe Veiga and Lenier (and others these authors mention as well) have been speaking of a “loyal opposition” while meaning to say something else, something we could call “tolerated critical accompaniment” (TCA).

We can conceive of the latter as a semi-autonomous space where intellectuals and activists can make systemic criticisms of official policies and their effects, but not put themselves forth as a potential government alternative.

Such spaces can be both diverse and circumstantial. They can be result of deliberate policies or the absence of given policies, and operate in Cuba or abroad. Before, it was the Center for American Studies or the Felix Varela Foundation; today, Cuba’s journal Temas, the Observatorio Critico, the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy (CEEC) and CAFÉ are examples of TCA.

The existence of a TCA does not entail democratization – as an actual, loyal opposition would. It only reflects the emergence of spaces that are less rigorously controlled, as a result of the transition from a totalitarian to an authoritarian regime (precisely what has been taking place in Cuba since the early 90s) which does not ask its subject to hand over their souls, only to obey – a regime that can tolerate these spaces for criticism provided some rules are respected and no immoderate public appeals are made.

The life of the TCA is always precarious and subjected to pressures its members must confront with courage (and risk dying in the process) or skirt (hiding their heads in the sand, many a time). This is the case unless a tacit and mutually beneficiary pact exists, obliging the political class to shoulder the burden of its critical accompaniment.

This is what’s happened with the high Catholic leadership and the window it opened to communicate with Cuba’s intelligentsia, the journal Espacio Laical. To aspire to have the Cuban leadership designate the participants of the intellectual discussions organized by the journal Temas or CEEC technocrats as its “loyal opponents” is merely a rather thoughtless display of intellectual frustration and dissatisfaction.

For both Veiga and Lenier, the notion of a “loyal opposition” is linked to values that this notion must incorporate and protect at the same time. These values invoke the desideratum of a society characterized by solidarity, democracy, de-polarization and consensus, a society that would, at the same time, exist within an ideological matrix that polarizes, excludes and breaks up consensuses: Cuba’s nationalist, revolutionary tradition.

What would happen, for instance, if a group of people decided that Cuban society must renounce its socialist goals and undertake an unflinching transition to capitalism? Or if this group felt that the country’s nationalist intransigence ought to be replaced by a more global perspective? Would they cease to be considered a “loyal opposition”?

Clothes and Bicycle Taxis.

The other side of the problem is Cuba’s political elite. If one is to be absolutely honest in one’s discussion of a loyal opposition, one must begin by pointing out the main obstacle to its existence in Cuba is the persistence, in power, of a narcissistic political elite that is deaf to all appeals and considers itself the very embodiment of the nation’s history and future.

This elite does not even consider the possibility of sharing or giving up power, does not recognize the value of minorities, transforms its citizens into subordinates and both manipulates and refuses to acknowledge the country’s émigré community, that key component of our transnational society.

It is an elite that has taken the Cuban nation to its worst historical moment and today ushers in a capitalist restoration through its conversion into a bourgeoisie and by delivering an unprotected and atomized population to the rigors of contemporary capitalism.

Finally, I believe that any discussion about this issue, like any other, must entail a conceptual updating that can elucidate what Cuban society actually is the first half of the 21st century. The use of the concept of “people”, for instance, is a kind of political inoculation in Cuba, but, from the point of view of theory, it is a vague concept and a reality that, on closer inspection, has changed dramatically in recent years.

Words such as “nation” and “nationalism” aren’t less ambiguous, particularly when dealing with a transnational society that has been rifted apart by polarization as a result of the binary ideological constructs about émigrés that the Cuban government began to fashion as early as the now-distant 1960s.

Thus, we run into myriad of such concepts which are less exact and less useful the more conclusive and explicit they appear.

I congratulate Lenier and Veiga sincerely for their thought-provoking articles and for having opened the doors to a dearly-needed debate, as they have successfully done on other occasions.


What's your opinion?

  • Moses Patterson

    To those who blindly declare Cuba to be a democratic society, this post serves as proof no such democracy exists. Were it so, Haroldo would not have seen the need to write about an article which appears to simply introduce the ‘idea’ of political debate. The very nature of democracy implies debate. The absence of debate and thus the need to create space to have debate confirms that democracy does not currently exists in Cuba. As long as the Castros are in power, no such space will exist.

  • Moses Patterson

    AC, I think you misunderstood WHO Haroldo is really talking about. Your harsh criticism of the “loyal opposition” is misplaced because Haroldo is largely referring to Cubans who are on the left and not the dissident community you seem to dislike. Your harsh criticisms of Cubans who seek regime change and a return to multiparty democratic elections are not who Haroldo sees as “loyal” even if they are in opposition to the regime.

    • ac

      I’m not criticizing a “loyal opposition”, as a matter of fact I think thats a good thing regardless of the form of government. What I’m saying is that there is no such thing in Cuba.

      What you call “criticism from the left” accounts for some timid letters in the newspapers criticizing obvious issues but never ever reach the political arena and that is the place where it matters. The people doing the criticism either don’t care enough to play the game or get mollified once they get a seat in the national assembly. Either way the fact remains that the national assembly is not doing their job properly and its members are simply rubber-stamping anything presented from above with minimum discussion and eerie unanimity.

      The only ones with an apparent chance of disrupting the status quo are what we call dissidence, but sadly they are not interested in playing by the rules and have huge perception issues amongst the Cuban population.

      Yes, my words were harsh but they have been caught and exposed so many times that the common Cubans don’t trust them at all. And what I said about the appalling ignorance on the big issues affecting Cuba, their individual root causes and the lack of feasible solutions is sadly true. Even their plans for regime change are childish and unrealistic and fail to account for the huge issues that will inevitably arise during the transition.

      To criticize is easy, all you need is an opinion and a big mouth. But to be taken in account seriously your words must be backed by facts, the understanding of the picture emerging from those facts and the solutions you propose must be reasonable and adjusted to a realistic framework.

      Sadly they have shown over and over gross incompetence on that matter.