Civil Society in Cuba?
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