If we accept that civil society is an inter-related system of associations, public spaces, rights and liberties that constitute the basis of the exchange of opinions, the governing of behaviours and the making of decisions in the areas of politics, economics, social and cultural matters, without more authorization than is outlined in the law – then in reality, Cuba does not have this institution. Beyond unreachable totalitarian dreams, it is impossible to make progress in any sector of society with the absence of civil society.
Why does Cuba lack such a vital institution, Cuba being a Western country, where, despite the indisputable existing social injustices, progress had been made in 1940 on civil and political rights towards forming and enacting a Constitution for the period, which served as a support to all civic and political struggles, including the revolutionaries who seized power in 1959.
Cuban civil society had its roots in claims that the emerging Havana oligarchy in the first half of the eighteenth century made through its ideologue José Martín Arrate, who challenged, from outside the office of power, the place occupied by social class within colonial society; in the work of Father Varela from the Constitution Chair of the San Carlos Seminary, which he named the chair of freedom for human rights; in José Antonio Saco, from Bimonthly Cuban Journal, who generated a formative debate on civic awareness; in Domingo Delmonte who, banned from magazine contributions, found in talking groups a way to continue this work without permission from the colonial authorities; and in José de la Luz y Caballero who was devoted to civic education as a precondition for social change.
With the culmination of the Ten Years’ War that resulted in the range of freedoms that Spain granted with the Pact of Zanjon, civil society took its first legal steps. Freedom of press, assembly and association allowed for the emergence of newspapers, political parties and associations, through which, despite the prohibition on the spreading of independent ideas, was created a civic network that was reflected in the beginning of the War of Independence in 1895.
With the birth of the Republic in 1902, Cuban civil society expanded throughout the country and throughout the social sectors. A growing number of associations and written, radio and television media sources participate in influencing all national debates. In spite of this growth, between the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, civil society did not reach a sufficient maturity to obstruct the revolutionary process towards totalitarianism from 1959.
In January 1959, the 1940 Constitution, which should be restored, was transformed without popular consultation to confer the powers of the functions of Congress to the Prime Minister, the departments of the Head of Government and the newly established Council of Ministers, while the mandates of governors, Mayors and councilmen were extinguished, courts dissolved and magistrates and judges removed from office. In February of that year, days after Fidel took the premiership, the following constitutional amendment was introduced: “It is the responsibility of the Prime Minister to direct the general policy of the Government, to conduct administrative matters with the President of the Republic, accompanied by the ministers of their respective departments.”
Once reformists and conservatives in the revolutionary government had been replaced, the crisis between Prime Minister and the President led to the resignation of the latter. Since then, the Prime Minister has had a President and a cabinet under his control and has had full authority to judge, legislate and govern. Also in 1959, lacking the traditional parties, the revolutionary organizations began a unifying process that culminated in 1965 with the founding of the Communist Party of Cuba.
The same fate befell the rest of the associations that existed before 1959. The diverse youth movement disappeared giving way to the Union of Young Communists; women’s associations became the Federation of Cuban Women; the associations of university students turned into the FEU, the pre-university level into the Union of Secondary Students; the labor movement became controlled by the Communist Party; the Landowners Association of Cuba, the Association of Tenant Farmers of Cuba, the Tobacco Growers Association and the Association of National Peasant Farmers disappeared to make way for the National Association of Tenant Farmers, which later became the National Association of Small Farmers; the University Autonomy, as endorsed in the 1940 Constitution, disappeared with the University Reform of 1962.
The media, whose history dates back to 1790 with The Havana Newspaper, was made up of a number of different press publications during the period of the Republic: such as, Alert, News of Today, The Country, Excelsior, The Street, Free Press, La Marina Daily, The World, Social, Bohemia, Posters and Vanities, among others that were also developing into popular journals. Likewise, the radio network found Cuba ranked fourth in radio stations worldwide, and television began almost immediately after the United States took control of the State.
The coup de grace came in March 1968 when the “revolutionary offensive” swept aside the “last vestiges of capitalism.” This time the injured parties were foreign companies or the bourgeoisie, but also anyone who had even a half independent life: bars, barber shops, cafes, shoe repairers, and fried potato chip sellers were swept from the Cuban scene.
The main argument that the government has put forward to sustain the lack of freedoms has been the conflict with the governments of the United States, with a negative effect for Cuban society caught in the conflict. The election of Democrat Barack Obama with a platform of changes, including a new policy towards Cuba, is a massive blow to immobility, whose main breadwinner has been and remains the external threat.
Despite the picture painted, and given that no social system is eternal, there will be changes in Cuba. Cubans have no choice: the movement starts from the current state, with such precarious conditions and with the Cuba of today, or it gives up being a nation.
Translated by: CIMF
In regards to civil rights, the Cuban government insists not only in living in the past, but actually to regress. In recent times the Ministry of Higher Education released a document for the Reorganization of Political-Ideological Work in the Universities that, among other things, declared that the University for all will become the University for revolutionaries only.
The Civil and Political Rights, as well as the Freedom of Conscience, Word, Press, Reunion, Association and the Right to Vote, constitute the basis of communication, as well as of interchange of opinions, of conduct, of decision making and the formation of associations, through which the individual or groups’ interests can be expressed. They constitute the guarantee for citizenship’s participation in the public life and in the nation’s main definitions.
The decision no only constitute the negation of Marti’s precept that says: Con Todos y para el Bien de Todos” (With All and for the Good of All), but it also negates our Constitutional History. For example: In January of 1959, when the first Governmental Council was formed, instead of reestablishing the Constitution of 1940 as promised, and as stated in “La Historia Me Absolvera” (History will Absolve Me), it was reformed without popular consultation in order to confer the Prime Minister the faculties of Chief of Government, and to the Minister’s Council the Congress’ functions. This was a modification similar to what Batista had made with the Statues that substituted the Constitution after the coup d’etat of 1952. It was right after that it was proceeded to dismount the Civil Society and all its instruments, including the University’s autonomy.
In January 1959 the first government cabinet was formed, instead of the promise of restoring the 1940 Constitution, as stated in History Will Absolve Me, it was reformed without popular consultation, to give the Prime Minister the powers of Chief of Government and of the Council of Ministers the functions of Congress; an amendment similar to what Batista had done with the statutes that replaced the constitution after the 1952 coup. He then proceeded to dismantle the civil society and all its instruments, including university autonomy.
The previous University Reform in the Island dated January of 1923. It was then that the University’s Student Body, influenced by the Manifiesto de Cordoba (Cordoba’s Manifesto) hoisted by Argentinian students in June of 1918, demanded the free Superior Education and the University’s Autonomy.
Taking advantage of the conflict between students and professors for the ousting a student from the School of Engineering at the University of Havana, a Superior Council of Universities’ professors and students of the three University Centers of the country was formed, including Government representatives. Such Council undertook the work that concluded with the University’s Reform presented January 10, 1962. That same year, the Communist leader, Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, in an article published in the Press, summarized the achievement of the Reform with three questions: “What”, “How”and “Who” will be studying? The “what” and the “how” responded to the new situation created by the arrival of the revolutionaries to power. As for the “who”, this was the essence of the problem. The new University, he said, will be run in conjunction with professors and students, being the students’ participation, originated in the ’30’s battles, almost a requirement. Nevertheless he clarified that, “In the same measure that the University’s revolution is the result of a real Revolution and that Socialism presides the transformations, it is not possible to think of professors and students as antagonistic groups…Juan Marinello, a professor to whom he referred as having a revolutionary conscience, oriented by Marxism-Leninism and militant of that ideology during many years, will not need of the student’s vigilance in order to run the University because he will have the sufficient maturity to focus on the Superior Educational problems with a well-aimed criterion.”
And so, the University’s Autonomy, conquered by students during students’ battles in the Republic, and authenticated in Article 53 of the 1940 Constitution which says: “The University of Havana is autonomous and will be governed according to its Statutes and the Law to which they must adjust, ceased existing, without being annulled.”
From that time, the University, one of the most important sources for social changes in our history, was rendered useless for that intent. One of the worst consequences consisted in that under the control of the totalitarian State, the University hoisted the motto that the University was for the revolutionaries, a motto that resulted in the separation of hundreds of students and professors who did not agree with the system’s ideology. Nevertheless, with the later universalization of the Superior Education process, it seemed that the University, even without its autonomy, would again be for all. Now, in plenty XXI Century, in the midst of the worst crisis of our history, instead of reestablishing the Civic Rights, the Cuban State has decided to go backward with the University’s declaration that the University is only for the revolutionaries.
Translated by: David Fernandez