Home > Dimas Castellanos, Translator: Alicia Barraqué Ellison > The New Scenario and the Absence of the Citizen / Dimas Castellano

The New Scenario and the Absence of the Citizen / Dimas Castellano

September 15, 2015

Dimas Castellenos, Mexico City,  1 September 2015 — In Cuba, the concurrence among the failure of its totalitarian model, the aging of its leaders and the society. For this impact to be a positive one requires the presence of a missing factor: the citizen. If this thesis begs the question of how it is possible that in a country that is part of the Western world, and which has distinguished history of struggles, the citizen does not exist, the answer leads us to a complex phenomenon that demands more attention than has been given to it up to now.

The most immediate–although not the only–cause is contained in the dismantling of civil society that took place in Cuba in the Revolution’s first years, and in its later institutionalization. Civic education, the foundation of the citizen, began in Cuba in 1821 with Father Félix Varela[1], who upon assuming the post of head of the Constitution Department at San Carlos Seminary, defined it as the “institution of liberty and of the rights of man,” and conceived it as a means “to teach civic virtues.”

His work was continued by José de la Luz y Caballero[2], who arrived at the conclusion that “before revolution and independence, there was education,” and from this vision he conceived the art of education as being the basis of social change. This mission was carried on by succeeding generations of Cuban educators and thinkers up through the first half of the 20th Century.

Cuban civil society, which emerged as a result of the Pact of Zanjón in 1878, played an important role in the political/social problems of the Republic. This can be seen in the Protest of the Thirteen; the peasant struggles of San Felipe de Uñas, of Realengo 18 and of Ventas de Casanova; the strike movement that toppled the Gerardo Machado dictatorship; the student struggles for university autonomy and the repeal of the Platt Amendment; the Constitutional Assembly that gave rise to the Constitution of 1940 and the struggles against the coup d’etat of 1952; among other events.

The level of development that had been achieved by Cuban civil society was expressed by Fidel Castro during his trial for the assault of the Moncada barracks, when he said, “There once was a Republic. It had its Constitution, its laws, its liberties; a President, Congress and Tribunals; everyone could assemble, associate, speak and write with total liberty. The government did not satisfy the people, but the people could change it, and there were just days left before doing so. There existed a public opinion that was respected and observed, and all problems of collective interest were discussed freely. There were political parties, educational hours on the radio, discussion programs on television, public acts, and enthusiasm reverberated in the people.”

Despite those educational efforts and the advances of civil society, the level of maturity attained was not sufficient to impede its dismantling. In 1959, the Constitution of 1940 was replaced by the Fundamental Law of the Cuban State; power was concentrated in the hands of the leader of the Revolution, and property was transferred to ownership by the State, whose final stroke was the “Revolutionary Offensive” of 1968, which liquidated the more than 50,000 small businesses that still remained in the country. The result was confirmed in the Constitution of 1976, which institutionalized the total, absolute control of the State over the nation’s politics, economy, culture, communication media, and all persons.

If to this is added the negative effect of the loss of ethical values, frustration, despair, apathy, and the sustained exodus from the country, the Cuban reality appears to us in its nakedness and shows us the extent of the damage done as well as that which is to come.

By their very nature, all totalitarian models are destined to fail. The difference between one and another model lies in its capacity to last for a short or long time, which in turn depends on the degree to which each one is capable of limiting the freedom of individuals. In Cuba’s case, before the failure and the possibility of losing power, the revolutionary elite reinforced political, economic and cultural repression, and intensified its monopoly over the educational system and communication media. It was a step backwards, guided by the policy expressed by Fidel Castro in 1961, “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.”

Held back by this idea, with a society disarmed of civic institutions and spaces, in the absence of the most basic civil and political liberties, Cuban society–conditioned by the growing breach between wages and cost of living–took refuge in survivalism, being obliged to carry out supplementary activities, almost always outside the law, in search of alternative sources of subsistence.

This behavior, carried out over decades, transformed what was acceptable social morality. The Cuban, having been dispossesed of the condition of being a citizen, responded thusly: to low wages, alternative activities; to the absence of civil society, a hidden life; to the lack of material goods, theft from the State; and, when all possibilities were exhausted, escape from the country.

This scenario, which characterizes the Cuba of today, requires a cultural action, which as Paulo Freire[3] would say, “is always a systematized and deliberate form of action that bears upon the social structure, in the sense of, variously, maintaining it as it is, effecting small changes in it, or transforming it utterly.”

Why is this? Because, as the engineer López[4] would certainly affirm, “the properties of a system are ultimately determined by the properties of its components and the linkages among them, which therefore ensures that the quality of the system cannot be better than its components nor design, being that these act as limiters on the quality of the system as a whole.” Therefore, a better Cuba is not possible without better Cubans.

Building this culture requires, paraphrasing the concept of affirmative action, an educational action, equivalent to those that are put in place to ensure the participation and development of marginalized sectors. The realization of such a culture includes two simultaneous and interrelated processes: 1- Citizen empowerment, which will result from the measures implemented by the White House, and which the Cuban government will, on its part, need to implement if they are to be fully accomplished; 2 – Changes to the interior life of the individual, which contrary to the first process is not doable in the short term, but without which other changes will be of little use.

For the reasons outlined above, Cubans are excluded from the decision making process, but the participation in this process does not begin until there is awareness of each individual’s responsibility toward the destiny of his or her country. And this responsibility begins when each one makes a personal commitment and, based on this, seeks the collaboration of other people. It is a matter of a lengthy, but inevitable, process that proceeds from the interior to the exterior, from the individual to society, from the nation to the world.

The transformation of Cubans into public citizens, into political actors, is a challenge as complex as it is unavoidable, an unreachable goal without first feeling change to be not just something necessary, but something possible. And the only way forward lies in participation, in learning by doing, in making mistakes and starting over until we become effective, until we become true citizens.

Given all that has been outlined above, education curricula must include instruction in responsibility, which begins with the individual, flows to society, and extends ultimately to the international community. Thus, liberty, responsibility, rights and duties comprise an interrelated and indivisible whole.

Therefore, the effect of the concurrence between the failure of the totalitarian model, the aging of its leaders, and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States depends, above all, on our capacity to change so as to recover our condition as citizens which, in turn constitutes an inescapable necessity if we are to emerge from the stagnation in which we live.

[1] Félix Francisco José María de la Concepción Varela y Morales (1778-1853) was born in Havana and died in St. Augustine, Florida. He studied at the San Carlos Seminary, and the Royal and Pontifical University of St. Jerome in Havana, was ordained a deacon in 1810, and a priest in 1811. In the seminary where he studied, he occupied the chairs of Latin, Philosophy and Constitution.

[2] José de la Luz y Caballero (1800-1862), was born and died in Havana. He studied at the Convent of San Francisco, at the Royal and Pontifical University of Havana, and at the San Carlos Seminary. Educated in a religious ambience under the influence of his maternal uncle, the presbyter José Agustín Caballero, his love for his neighbor inclined him to the clerical life and the cloister.

[3] Paulo Freire (1921-1997), famous Brazilian educator. Among his most recognized works are Education as a Practice of Liberty (1967) and Cultural Action for Liberty (1970).

[4] José Ramón López, “Individual and Society,” article published in the digital magazine Consenso, Issue #5, 2005.

Previously published (in Spanish) in DiariodeCuba.com

 Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

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