Freedom of Expression & Socialism

March 12, 2009 |
“It is not a question of luxury, an alternative which one can choose or not: worker democracy is a condition sin qua non for the normal unfolding of a socialist economy.”

“It is not a question of luxury, an alternative which one can choose or not: worker democracy is a condition sin qua non for the normal unfolding of a socialist economy.”

By RON RIDENOUR

HAVANA TIMES, March 12 – How much freedom of expression and real (active) power the Cuban working class and the population as a whole, possess and exercise is a vital matter for the very survival of socialism and its development, a question that is being addressed by a few hundred university students, professors and professionals in Havana since November 2007.

Over the last 50 years, the Communist party and government strategy for survival has focused on unity: unity in decision-making, unity around the top leaders, and unity in the media. This strategy has enabled the country to resist the United States and allied efforts to smash it.

However, this approach has prevented leaders and the bureaucracy from believing that it can afford the “luxury” of allowing any significant active participation on the part of the population to discuss and decide what the nation’s politics and economy ought to be. Nor do the media question decisions taken.

When questioned about the wisdom of this control, officials either ignore the question or respond with examples of how the US intelligence apparatuses intervene in other countries´ processes when they are not in what Washington perceives as its interests.

Suffice it here to note the successful interventions in media organs during the Allende government in Chile (1970-73), and in Nicaragua during the first Sandinista government from 1979-1990.

The University of Havana  (Photo by Maycgx)

The University of Havana (Photo by Maycgx)

Hunger for More Information

Cuba’s leadership has maintained that broader freedom of expression can place the nation’s very sovereignty in peril. While there is some truth to this historically, strict government control of the media and other channels of information and debate cripple the ability of the common man and woman from acquiring adequate information and ideas necessary for them to become empowered.

This had led a sizeable segment of the population, and especially the younger generations, to be, disbelievers of what they are told by the media. They hunger for more and open information.

Cuban historian and professor of the University of Oriente, Frank Josue Solar, recently wrote:

“It is not a question of luxury, an alternative which one can choose or not: worker democracy is a condition sin qua non for the normal unfolding of a socialist economy. Without this it is deformed, and finally perishes.”

In the past two years or so some leftist voices have begun to hold indoor workshops to discuss these questions. There are also handfuls of students at the University of Havana and the Cujae University who meet to discuss socialism’s future.

This is the first time in decades that the government has allowed such open critique, albeit confined indoors until now.

A group of university students, professors and professionals formed the Bolshevik Workshop to pay homage to the Russian revolution, at the 90th year anniversary in November 2007, and to discuss its trajectory and collapse.

Some 500 people assembled at the University of Havana. One of the workshop organizers, Ariel Dacal Diaz, a professor of law, delivered a paper on the subject. The English translation is available at: http://www.marxist.com/cuba-october-youth-future.htm

A sizeable segment of the population is hungry for more and open information (Photo by Caridad)

A sizeable segment of the population is hungry for more and open information (Photo by Caridad)

Revitalizing Revolutionary Marxism in Cuba

At this assembly, and at a subsequent workshop, participants viewed the need to revitalize revolutionary Marxism, also in Cuba. The dozen coordinators of the original workshop continued writing but did not organize other meetings in 2008 although they did create a lively Spanish language website,www.cuba-urss.cult.cu. They propose to “contribute to the empowerment of persons and groups in their practice as citizen-subjects within the Cuban revolution as a process and with socialism as its project.”

The website has hundreds of essays and articles by readers and past and current theoreticians and leading activists such as: Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, Luxemburg, and Che…

At the end of January this year, the coordinators organized another workshop by the name: “To live the revolution 50 years after the triumph.” They now meet monthly at the Ministry of Culture’s Juan Marinello Center, close to the Plaza of the Revolution.

The Ministry’s Antonio Gramsci Department and the Superior Art Institute (ISA) are cosponsors. The meeting hall allotted can hold just under 100 persons. It was full at the initial workshop where the theme was: Sentidos y significados de la revolucion en la vida de nosotros. (The significance and meaning of the revolution in our lives).

This lay the basis for the following workshop- “The political system of the revolution: participation, popular subject and citizenship”–which I attended.

In its announcement folder, the coordinators wrote: “This workshop seeks to contribute to the analysis on the place of citizen participation in the political system, its forms of expression concerning sovereignty, the necessity of a political and legal culture consistent with the social protagonism at the moment to create, control, limit and enjoy the political and the law.”

Specific topics were: how does socialism reformulate the concept of citizenship; mechanisms of actual popular participation; how to contribute to empowerment, all within the context of Hagamos nuestra la revolución (Making the revolution ours).

After a brief introduction and a short Cuban film, “The revolution we make,” the filled meeting hall broke into four groups to discuss what experiences we had with active participation and with forced participation, and how we felt as subject-citizens. (My participation was mainly as an observer since I do not currently live and work in Cuba, which I did from 1987 to 1996.)

Paulo Freire: “If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed.” (photo by Distant Camera)

Paulo Freire: “If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed.” (photo by Distant Camera)

Frustrations and Impotence

Diverse expressions surfaced regarding active and “obligatory” participation. When people had felt they could participate and, perhaps make a difference they felt positive. The reverse was the case when their experiences were not truly voluntary.

A student said that it was possible “to participate but `they´ make the decisions”. A young woman student spoke enthusiastically about this workshop initiative, which allowed her to feel as an active subject, “hoping it can lead to making a difference for the society.”

A Colombian studying here said he felt more as a subject in Cuba than in Colombia but hoped for greater active participation.

An older woman, who classified herself as an ordinary worker, said she felt isolated. “`They´ don’t give me a chance to participate in any real sense. `They´ don’t take our commentaries seriously, so I feel like a crazy old woman.”

During a break, she said she believed the revolution has stood still since the mid-60s. A couple of older professional men, remembering those activist days when peasants and militia still carried weapons to defend the nation-which they did at the Bay of Pigs invasion and against counter-revolutionary groups infiltrated and financed by the CIA (Operation Mongoose)-believed the revolution died after that.

The walls were covered with handwritten quotations by Bertolt Brecht, Roque Dalton, Silvio Rodriguez and others. On one wall were posted words by Paulo Freire: “If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed.”

Summaries of each group’s discussion were read during the last plenary session. The experiences and sentiments were similar. Bureaucratic mechanism’s of control were outlined and criticized during the discussion period.

There was ample self-critique as well. We must overcome self-censorship. We must not yield to the fear of losing what we may have or hope to obtain, such as a better position, and thereby remain silent in face of unfairness or wrong decisions.

One young man said each of us should find ways to improve our own behavior. For example, we must stop throwing trash anywhere we feel like it. We should intervene in all our surroundings with a positive spirit that we can make change.

He said we can make “them” listen to us, because we are the producers, the people for whom the political structure serves. An older professor suggested we invite bureaucrats to meet with us, “because they are Cubans too and we could learn from one another”.

A young professor of law, Julio Antonio Fernandez, gave a brief talk, first giving a brushstroke of revolutionary political and legal history. He then defended the constitution of 1976 as a revolutionary one, and one legalizing an active citizenry for socialism, one that establishes popular control of all mechanisms for sovereignty. The audience was so attentive a pin could be heard to drop.

“We do not seek to regress to before the revolution: we must be designers and controllers… What is most important now is a critique of current state organisms and not the possible creation of ideal institutions,” said Fernandez.

He continued by asking: If a dominating regime is necessary how can it act without alienating the people?  How can we democratize power?

We have formal rights of control, Fernandez said, but need to actualize them. The law is not that of the state but that of and for the people. Citizenry duty must be restored. He also spoke against continuing discrimination both of race and gender. The individual and the collective must recognize and confront these ills.

“The danger of imperialism is real and we must find forms to act taking this reality into account,” he concluded.

Participation Leads to Solutions

Following his well received analysis, the body was asked for comments, especially concerning the question of how one can participate in a revolutionary manner.  One-fourth of the audience-25 people-made comments and offered ideas to further the revolutionary process, and some called for action.

Several people young and old said that the workshop process and its ideas should go public. There must be ways of involving workers, vital producers. Some said that while laws protect the right to associate and to organize associations, and no law prohibits strikes, the reality is something different.

No one dare try to organize strikes, and many who petition for permission to organize associations are ignored or denied their right.

An older lawyer said he was still waiting, now ten years, for a reply from the Ministry of Justice to his several petitions to organize a harmless, social association of descendants of Slavic people in Cuba.

A sociology professor said that while some professions were allowed to form associations, those in sociology-a study prohibited in Cuba for three decades, which the government reinstated in the mid-90s-were not. Yet no reason was given.

A history professor said it was necessary to define what socialism really is and what it should be. Among other things, socialism must be personal as well as collective. One must feel that he/she is a decision-maker. Without that sense, what occurred in Russia and Eastern Europe could well occur in Cuba.

“Participation leads to solutions and that is liberating,” he concluded.

Another person said that Internet is a liberating tool. The Cuban Ministry of Telecommunications has repeatedly said that broader access will be technologically possible when the Venezuelan undersea cable reaches Cuba later this year or next.

One participant raised doubts about whether a dominating state power was any longer a necessity, especially one in which many leaders retain power positions for many years, even decades.

A young female student said she felt stimulated by these workshops and was optimistic that positive changes could be made. Several youths echoed her sentiment. The last speaker, a Brazilian student, said that it was most important that the group not degenerate into sectarianism as do so many left groups around the world.

The next workshop, open to all, will take place on March 27, at 9:30 a.m. at the Centro Juan Marinello. Its theme will be: state property, social property and the socialization of production. (Other pieces will be forthcoming.)

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What's your opinion?

  • Mark

    Freedom of expression is a vital first step, but it must also be followed by other measures to democraticize Cuba. This includes free and fair multiparty elections, so that the political expression of the Cuban people can find its voice.

  • yosvany

    I´m a simple Cuban. I interpret our political system this way: The rule of majority (60% of population now) with a political tolerance of 30%, affecting the 40%.of the population not actively favoring the current socialist project.
    When we had 95% of the population in favor of the 1960 socialist project, our tolerance was about the 5% towards opposition ;-)
    According to this equation: nowadays we have a 70% of reactive censorship aiming any dissenting principles that minority might have. So it is not likely but there is a chance for suitable new ideas to survive ;-)

  • Surprisingly I have found the information on this site very thorough, precise and useful. Most of my questions have been answered. I am still have a concern about currency. Will I be able to spend us curency in cuba or what is the choice of currency used there?

  • Mark, the “free and fair multiparty elections” thing isn’t going to happen. Political plurality of that sort is arguably undemocratic. A system like Cuba’s, in which *no* political party (even the Communist Party) can endorse candidates prevents power-blocks from forming. It evades the ridiculous situation we have in, for example, Canada, where each political party spins a message. Cuba’s system takes that out of the process – each candidate is a representative of their neighbourhood, and voted in (or not) based on merit, not on soundbites or promises. The consensus-based negotiation and extended committee work toward the solving of socio-economic challenges is as democratic as any other system, perhaps moreso. I highly recommend Peter Roman’s extensive study, “People Power: Cuba’s Experience with Representative Government” (Boulder, CO, 1999).

  • As much as i and my family admire and Love castro, he would do well to change some of the policies there. I also know that he is an Orisha who understands santeria and that if he has any hopes of spiritual redemption he will change.
    I would love to see the embargo totally lifted which would allow for the Cuban econ and the US econ to recover faster. However, at the same time i fear that the AfroCubans like myself and family will be forced out of thier homes which they have fought so long to maintain.
    I also do not want to see the same racial conflicts that i exp here in the US in the 60’s as a child.

    It is clear that there are a lot of hills to climb.

  • Milagros

    As a Cuban, i regret that Fidel has been forced to remain as rigid as he has but my regrets are only for one reason and to explain my thoughts i will add one of my fellow comrades Ron Ridenours words below>
    .
    ****.Cuba’s leadership has maintained that broader freedom of expression can place the nation’s very sovereignty in peril. While there is some truth to this historically, strict government control of the media and other channels of information and debate cripple the ability of the common man and woman from acquiring adequate information and ideas necessary for them to become empowered.***

    As someone who has watched my country from afar it has been clear that freedom of expression has not allowed the common man a voice, It is also true that this type of control serves to simply keep people ignorant and or unwilling to seek change.
    However, being a native, and a person who has lived through the revolution from the prep days thru jan 8, 1959, i have no problem telling anyone that this suppression was not part of the orig package deal made with the Cuba people who fought alongside Fidel, Raul El Che and others including my father and uncles.
    Keep in mind that Fidel, is wise, smart, and also savvy enough to accept that people need information, and that they are best able and willing to support a leader when allowed to voice opinion, ideas, thoughts and choices.

    Case in point, years ago i traveled with collegues to celebrate an occassion in Libya. I was able to see that country from another perspective and came away with a new belief.
    What i had observed in Libya, was what led me to understand why the Libyan people supported someone whom we in america thought was a dictator. I saw young youth both male and female living in a Muslim country wearing jeans, sleeveless tops, and makeup.
    When i was allowed the opportuinty to address Pres Khadafi, about this dress style ,and why he allowed this type of western dress his words became inbedded in my mind for all times.

    He said and i quote. Sister Milagros, man cannot control the natural desires of a people unless there is reason to do so, like known sexual assaults, complaints from family etc. fear of Allahs punishment etc.
    So unless and until i am asked to make changes in the dress code, i follow the the will of the people who are Muslims and understand the Quran and hadith.. When i continued to press Pres Khadafi, about what i had noticed he further explained that Allah, has the last word and that he was not obligated to change the natural urges band desires of his people unless because of outside forces change becomes a need

    In Libya, most of the people adhere to the Quranic laws about dress, diet and dating . Moreover, because the youth about whom i was speaking were allowed to dress in a non muslim style i learned something about leadership as well as about controlling outsiders..

    My point here goes back to the beginning of the revolution, the bay of Pigs failed fiasco, the attempts to poison Fidel, etc etc . and my question is why? My answer will be just as provacative..because the US wanted to control my country. The US wanted the resources in Cuba from Havana to Holquin, The US wanted to allow the same mentality to preside that was present when Fulgencio was Pres and which was racist, disruptive to the spiritual needs of the Cuban people and devastating for the island. Change became necessary

    The italian mafia ruled Cuba from the 40’s until Fidel as a law student said enough is enough..There were reports of rapes, killiings and a host of illegal gambling etc taking place in Havana, during those years leading up to the revolution. The Kennedy family was up to its neck in alcohol running back and forth to Cuba even though prohibition was in affect with Joseph P kennedy at its head. No wonder Jack Kennedy ordered the bay of pigs fiasco.?? Change became necessary

    The US wanted to allow the mafia to continue with impunity business as usual, the prostitutes, the hits,
    the denial of human rights and the racism against the Black Cubans it was worse than slavery…Moving right along
    When Fidel, signed the pact with Russia, it was to rebuild the country, and have the resources with which to do so.
    In Cuba, we have one of the highest literacy rates in the world, yet the US lies and says we are illiterate, we have free educ, free health care (called socialized med) which the US says is substandard yet we have the best Doctors in the world and we are all over the world helping in times of stark trauma..Yet the US sends its docotrs to Cuba to learn. and we are free to worship as we like. .Change was necessary

    YES, there are problems in Cuba , but most often they are lies told by the old boy Miami network who most often are too young to remember Cuba, or at minimum are just rreading something off the net. Yes, there does appear to be some racist attitudes however, i have seen with my own eyes that the people in Cuba get along for the most part and that the racism is often a police problem. Suffice, that often it is what is different that does not set right with some.
    Another case in point i am a prof who has a hairstyle that is non traditional however, when a white person looks at me i see the question.. what the *&^*) ? that is until they hear me speak..then its what the (*&$(_)again. Suffice to say that after i matured and began to see the worls in its reality..change in hair became necessary.

    Back to the suppression of speech, what i can see and comprehend is that Fidel at 83 is leary, he is perhaps concerned that he will not be able to rein in his brother, or cabinet and that change is on the way. and change that he no longer has the physical ability to control
    i personally admire and have a huge amount of belief in the reasons for the revolution and had the US not had an agenda Cuba would be at the top of its game now.
    I make this assessment because of something that many do not know..and that is that Fidel Castro, is an Orisha, who believes in Santeria, and because of this Fidel understands that the Orisha are calling upon him to do that which will allow him to leave this world with dignity…Change is become necessary..again

    I hope to live long enough to see this great man, who has afforded me all of the means to better myself i pray that he will pass on in peace retreat to the Sierra Maestre and live out the remainder of his days..VIVA CUBA!! Thank you Fidel castro for a job well done.

    Withoutacountry

    Milagros V

  • RON RIDENOUR
    I liked your article very much. There is a philosophy which says, “All things are impermanent.” I believe this philosophy. There is another saying, “Give time time. I believe this saying too. “The only thing that is permanent is change” I like this saying also.

    I was thrilled when Barack Obama became the first African American President of the United States of America. President Obama and his Democratic party are the party of change in the US. President Obama wants everyone to have affordable health care. He has saved many of the largest Banks in the US from collapsing by have the US Treasury lend these banks money to help them become solvent again. President Obama is also helping the teacher in our Public Schools to become better teachers, so there students can better jobs.

    Meanwhile some people in the Republican Party are saying that President Obama is a Socialist. No matter what People call President Obama, I voted for him, because I liked what he is doing for the poor and those are in the middle class, not the Ricos.
    Robert

  • I live in Australia, and just wanted to say Cuba is a huge inspiration for socialists here in terms of the standard of healthcare and education that this impoverished country under blackade manages to provide; as well as the Cuban doctors around the world and in Venezuela.

    Moreover, Cuba’s achievements in sustainable agriculture are bloody amazing.

    I think this is an excellent article and it identifies the key dynamic whereby the active involvement of the people in controlling and managing Cuban society and its priorities is the most important way to revitalise and renew the revolution, but the risk is that by removing any and all safeguards on US backed infiltrators this could allow imperialism to undermine the gains of the…

  • John Smith

    Freedom of speech and press will not happen in Cuba as long as the current government stays in power. These freedoms are incompatible with and will cause the demise of the regime if they are ever allowed; specially in the current conditions. It doesn’t matter how many events, speeches or forums touch on this topic; the current Cuban government WILL NOT allow this to happen.

  • Dear Ron, Hi. I’ve just discovered HT and have just read your article. Good job. If you are in my local area, it might be interesting to compare notes since the old days. – Grady in Santa Monica