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
It seems that violence was predestined to take root in Cuba. It arrived with the conquerors, took its first victims among the Aborigines, became its most bloody in the mistreatment of slaves and the resulting uprisings, was present in the devastating attacks of corsairs and pirates to our shores, in banditry that hit our fields, in multiple conspiracies and during the independence wars of the nineteenth century.
At the inauguration of the Republic, although still “under the protection” of another, but with its own government and constitution, it could be thought that those events, those mixtures of ignorance and cruelty, were a thing of the past. However, in August 1906, just at the end of the first presidential term, the Cubans in power denied to Cubans the ability to reclaim power, all armed with the worst of the nineteenth century utilitarian ethics and unable to settle national affairs in civilized ways, and staged one of the most ridiculous and painful pages of our history.
Don Tomás Estrada Palma, despite his honesty in handling public finances, decided together with his closest followers to reelect himself for a second term. The response of those waiting their turn to move into power, the insurgency, was christened the little war of August. An uprising, that took hold in Pinar del Rio, Havana and Las Villas, sparked an anti-governmental response: the seeking of the intervention of the United States.
The difference of this second U.S. intervention is that this time it came at the request of the Cubans. It was Don Thomas himself who asked the U.S. government to send two warships, one to Havana, another to Cienfuegos, and two or three thousand men. “Me or no one!” he said, which could be translated as “Me first, then the Republic”, a stubborn dilemma assumed in our history before and after these events. The first result was the needless loss of lives, including the veteran of three wars of independence, General Quintin Banderas, who was viciously murdered by other Cubans, which his enemies could not achieve before during 30 years of wars.
Estrada Palma’s refusal to discuss and negotiate the conflict with his opponents is proof of the inability of our leaders to put national issues above personal or party interests. This incapacity showed itself before taking power, but especially after taking power, in a custom-turned-into-culture: “resolve” differences with the machete and consider dialogue and negotiation as weak and sissy stuff.
The worst damage from these events has been the loss of self-esteem on the part of Cubans: a fatal outcome for our future. Given the alleged failure to settle and sort out our internal affairs, we decided to put these decisions in the hands of Northern neighbors. Precisely because of the little war of August, in a pamphlet, entitled The Two Protectorates, by D. T. Lainé and Jose de Armas y Cárdenas, is printed the motto expressive of clear incapacity: “Cuba should be for Cubans under the guarantee and protection of the United States.” If necessary, even, leave the country and come back when they have put us back in order. The stampede of the Cuban bourgeoisie after 1959 is the best illustration of that diminished self-esteem. It is interesting the answer Enrique José Varona gave to those behaviors in 1906. In his article, A Path Lost, he responded “that the remedy must be sought in changing our internal political organization”.
Violence and hatred in the twentieth century was not confined to the Little War of August, but was present at the murder of thousands of black Cubans in 1912 (the largest and most horrible of the massacres in Cuba), the Cubans executed for crimes and vandalism in the 30s, gangster gangs in the years 1940-50, and in staged acts of condemnation against Cuba since the 80’s and pervasive in our society as evidenced by the recent assassination of Father Mariano Arroyo. All these manifestations indicate our level of social deterioration and the distance that separates us from civilized ways of settling our affairs.
Right now Cuba is involved in a dangerous new conflict. In this context, characterized by social demands for change, for the opening of regional governments, for the suspension of European Union sanctions and for a change in U.S. policy towards our country, the totalitarian state, despite the record imposed during its permanence in power, without having fulfilled the promises of bread and freedom made in 1959 and without any viable plan to end the crisis, insists on a worn and exhausted discourse.
With the cumulative record of violence, with the threat of a conflict in which we will all be losers, it demands dialogue, negotiation and consensus, a road that historically we have refused to travel responsibly, but which is the only means of saving Cuban society. Before it’s too late, Cubans must choose this only possible way to a solution without blood and losers. Violence, enthroned in our culture, should be banished forever. One wrong step may be irreversible. That is the great responsibility of everyone, especially those who hold power “to those who gave their lives to be a country and nation for the good of all.”
Translated by: CIMF