Monday, August 11, 2008

Wat’tup Cuba: Thoughts on the Cuba, Revolutionary Socialism, and the Filipino Youth

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By James Matthew Miraflor

Note: These are only a few chapters of an unfinished paper based on my presentation (of the same title) during the Philippines-Cuba Cultural and Friendship Association (PHILCUBA) of the Moncada Attack last July 26, 2008 in the University of the Philippines Manila, Little Theater.

"The argument is this. The only way to know if the people genuinely chose socialism as a model of political and economic governance is on the presence of other modalities – other ideologies outlining other ways of organizing societies. If socialists are indeed confident of the superiority of their socialist model, as all socialists should be, and if they are confident that the masses also believe so, then they need not be afraid of contesting the democratic space from those with other ideologies, as organized through other parties."

“A revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past.”
- Fidel Castro

Cuba is important for the international left movement, as it is given the historic role in establishing credibility for the revolutionary socialist ideology. Cuba has a responsibility to promote socialism not only to the socialists, but to the rest of the world. Thus, the Cuban model must be able to inspire other good-willed people searching for viable and more humane alternatives to the Western liberal democratic model and the capitalist economic model.

Building a ‘democratic’ rapport: Cuba and the Shedding of the Stigma-tainted Skin

(However,) For some of the more sophisticated non-left students, there is a stigma for countries which are following the soviet models of governance. The popular notion has been that Cuba is a wretched underworld of destitution and totalitarianism, to be aligned with “rogue states” such as Zimbabwe, North Korea, Iran, and Libya.

This virulent anti-red propaganda might have been embedded, I would quip, even in seemingly harmless consumer goods like video games. It would help the relatively young to remember our favorite Street Fighter games, in which Col. Guile of the United States is presented as good, with the imposing, all-brawn, Soviet-raised Zangief is depicted as evil.

In addition, the familiarity with “democratic” institutions like multi-party elections, with bias for the liberal democratic model, makes the Cuban model an alien culture for most. But aside from the external reasons, there are also other reasons, mostly intricately linked with how the Cuban state is operated, why the anti-Cuban stigma had been able to perpetuate itself.

The first reason is the presence of Castro. For most, the five decades of Castro serves as a huge “turn-off” for socialism. Naturally, people would ask, “Why is Castro Cuba’s president for so long, if they really are a democracy?” Of course, we can always correct them by saying that there are indeed democratic elections, and that it just happens that Castro is always winning. We can and should tell them that his rule is genuinely governed by the Cuban people mandate, as it is really the case.

However, for most of those who had been under good models of liberal democracy, that a person always winning elections is characteristic of a personality-based politics, and personality-based politics is anathema to their model of democracy. The “transfer” of leadership to his brother Raul makes it even worse, since it calcifies fears that a North Korea-style monarchic dynasty, rather than real socialism, is actually in place in Cuba. This line of thinking is mechanistic and reductionist, but there are grains of genuine concerns here that should be considered.

Socialists, of course, are not always to please a liberal democrat by acquiescing to their limited conceptions of political democracy (which is actually a dictatorship of bourgeoisie capital, as we Marxists know it). However, socialists should have a responsibility to present their model as an improvement of the liberal democratic model, and personalistic and dynastic politics are basically perceived as feudalistic atavism – a “throwback” and a regression – from what democracy as a model of governance has achieved so far.

Second, there had already been countless criticisms of human rights violations and other excesses on the part of the state, most of which had already been conceded and rectified by the Cuban government. Nevertheless, Cuba must display more commitment to enshrine human rights, especially those when it comes to political rights.

I am specifically pointing out to the 75 Cuban dissidents, which was promptly branded as “prisoners of conscience” by the Amnesty International. While the imperialist propaganda machine might have used this opportunity to bash the Cuban government, there is a degree of legitimacy to the call to free the Cuban dissidents. It sends a signal that there had been excesses still that had not yet been rectified, and it should be rectified if only to satisfy the world which watches upon the Cuban example. But of course, the reasons do not end there.

Third is actually linked with the second, which is the virtual discouragement of the pluralism of progressivism within Cuba. A clear manifestation of other left phenomena, strands, and currents occurring inside Cuba but outside the auspices of the Cuban Communist Party are the presence of other “illegal” left-wing parties, like the Cuban Socialist Democratic Current, the Democratic Social-Revolutionary Party of Cuba, the Democratic Solidarity Party, the Social Democratic Co-ordination of Cuba. The only legal party in Cuba, the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), appears to prescribe a certain degree of socialist homogeneity.

This brings us to the fourth, which is the entrenchment of the PCC as the only legal party in Cuba. On one sense, this gives Cuba the appearance of a one-party state for most, and one-party states, in general, are a huge “turn off” for liberal democrats, where a large pool of the idealistic youth belong. As I would later clarify, PCC is not an electoral party as it stands, but then again, that idea is not as popular yet as we wanted it to be. After all, it is very difficult to convince a liberal democrat of the beauty of a socialist model in which one party, incidentally the ruling one, is only legal.

I understand that there already are multiple tendencies inside the PCC. There are both Trotskyist and the Stalinist tendencies inside the party, and there may even have been other tendencies as well. This makes it a healthy and vibrant party on its own, and on its own, it might already be representing a wide spectrum of the left as it stands now. Nevertheless, it is clear that other strands had not been fully represented, so much so that they needed to organize themselves into parties.

On this, I argue that parties other than the PCC should be allowed to operate legally, as long as they do not receive foreign funding and logistical support from imperialists and destabilizers. I would contend that democracy, to be dynamic and to remain a democracy, should always be contested. Lenin himself understood the benefits of a multi-party system, and after the October revolution even invited the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionary parties in a coalition government. Only when they went underground and sought the assistance of foreign imperialists that Lenin was compelled by necessity to ban them.

The argument for a multi-party democracy in Cuba is intricately linked with the argument for pluralism, which I would be tackling at length later. But first, I would just want to elaborate some of my personal reflections and thoughts on the democratic and electoral institutions on Cuba.

On Political Parties, and Electoral and Democratic Institutions

The Cuban government saw the necessity of establishing intricate democratic institutions that govern elections in Cuba, with the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) serving as the basic unit of the system. Municipal assemblies are elected every two and a half years. Municipal elections are officially non-partisan, as with National Assembly elections. The PCC is not allowed to field or endorse candidates to the elections, as people directly select from the allowed nominees and elect them to office.

For some political scientists, this kind of democracy can actually be considered as a modified model of a nonpartisan democracy, in order to nuance it to more explicit one-party states as the imperialist US brands Cuba as (and they had done so successfully, as far as discourse in the international media is concerned).

I concede that these formal processes are indeed democratic. However, as with any democratic process, they should be checked to the rigorous standards of objectiveness and relative imperviousness against the possibility of rent-seeking influence and control. This is because we know that an appearance of democracy doesn’t necessarily establish the existence of democracy, whether a liberal or socialist democracy. I think that even the electoral institutions of socialist democracies like Cuba shouldn’t be exempt from these standards.

On this, even if excluding the argument on the illegality of other parties, I am still made to think how candidates are actually nominated, and this should be scrutinized. National Assembly candidates (one for each electoral district) are recommended by Candidacy Commissions which are chaired by local trade union officials, with the rest of the commission is composed of elected representatives of sectoral mass organizations. The candidates are subjected to a vote, on which they need to get 50% support of the voters, failing which they would be recalled and another round of nomination shall be conducted.

Given this system, the only with which any organized group can dominate the nomination process is to secure representation and/or influence in the sectoral mass organizations. And in fact, the Cuban Communist Party logically did so, via the Young Communists (UJC), the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), and other formations. How the party’s influence is exercised inside these formations is another matter, but the important thing is, any group dominant in these formations can dominate the selection process, and the fulcrum of the electoral process is in the selection of nominees. It is a system that is biased towards the nomination of PCC.

Now, some socialists may have no problems on the virtual domination of the PCC, as they already developed into a strong, dynamic, and sophisticated party composed of genuine revolutionaries. Nonetheless, I say that the best way to measure their strength is if they are to be openly contested by other parties operating legally.

Moreover, even a relatively advanced and sophisticated party which entertains internal democracy and dynamism can degenerate into a moribund party without external checks from other parties. A party of revolutionaries, even if debating amongst themselves internally, can suffer from a disconnect with other currents and discourses happening outside the party, and even with the issues and legitimate concerns of the masses themselves.

Of course, we need to understand the presence of black-ops apparatuses of the imperialist US government, often implemented through agencies which are experts in political operations and in using democratic institutions to subvert democratic will. And there had been no lack of such in Cuba, given the Miami-based infiltration units of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), usually acting through non-governmental organizations and other political movements which are mushrooming within the country.

Another condition might be the emerging reactionary, Stalinist, or restorationist ideas within the country itself. For the sake of unity, these tendencies are disciplined, or they are left-wing tendencies, be subsumed and diluted in the internal party discourses. Indeed, under crisis and siege, unified Cuban nation may have actually necessitated only one party in order to maintain its cohesion.

It may have been for this reason that the PCC decided to consolidate as broad as possible a spectrum of tendencies within the party, which, as any Marxist-Leninist party, is governed by the important precept of democratic centralism. The alternative is to have the left compete with each other openly through elections and through differing parties, which imperialists and bourgeois forces might take advantage.

In principle, I personally feel that other left tendencies should not be forced to subject themselves to internal party discourse. Some tendencies would argue of their vulnerability to be subsumed in dominant ideologies during their formative stages, and thus the need for a period of incubatory isolation for its own ideological development. Some tendencies would simply be incompatible with the party in terms of ideological, political, and organizational (IPO) orientation. On this, I say, agreement on fundamental societal values, with which the state and the people should acquiesce to, should not pre-empt differences over organizational and political ends.

Moreover, the objective conditions present there does not preclude the responsibility of Cuba to establish credibility and acceptability. Cuba has to make its democratic institutions be more understandable, if not acceptable, to foreign observers who may actually be looking onto socialism as a viable alternative. People hold on to freedom of pluralism, of organized dissent, and of political affiliation – I wouldn’t think this is something that should be compromised as we go forward towards a higher form of socialist democracy, nor do I think that compromising these freedoms would advance the cause of promoting a socialist democracy.

In the process, allowing for a certain degree of pluralism even effectively dilutes the ultimate imperialist argument against it – that socialism is necessarily authoritarian, and that socialism is not democratic, even to the minimum standards of liberal democracy.

Rule via Coercion vs. Rule via Consensus

The idea of pluralism is an anathema to most revolutionaries, and with good reasons. The experience of revolutionaries with reactionary forces organizing themselves towards the overthrow of the socialist state may have been a constant reminder to them of the danger in granting the freedom of organized dissent. Cuba itself had been facing a constant pressure from the imperialist US to loosen their hold to power via these organized groups masquerading as legitimate social movements.

Thus, for the longest time, the Cuban government heavily used what French Marxist thinker Louis Althusser characterized as the Repressive State Apparatuses (RSA) in suppressing the waves of reactionary ideologies. Inclusive of the RSAs are the systems of law and courts where public contractual language is invoked in order to govern individual and collective behavior, and the “monopoly of violence” invoked by the state, usually implemented through police and military force, in order to discourage non-conformity.

The use of RSAs is not limited to sheer application of force to genuine dissidents and reactionary elements, but to other restrictions as well, both institutional-legal and informal. The use of CDR in discouraging, or screening out candidates that do not suit well to the standards of the Communist Party, or, I would dare to imagine, not members of the Communist Party itself, is a form of using RSA to protect the state and the government from imperialist aggressors, who are, as I said, experts at using democratic institutions to subvert democracy.

Of course, this allows the revolutionary state to continue with its socialist project and implement fundamental socialist reforms with minimal threats for the reactionary saboteurs. However, the use of RSAs can at best, only mechanistically establish a socialist state, but not necessarily socialism. The dialectical process of social transformation must occur through other means.

For one, changes imposed via RSAs may have been artificial, making the restoration of capitalist-type democracy a possibility should the use of RSAs be relaxed, which is what happened in Russia and the rest of the territories under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Should that happen, it will only mean that the Cuban socialists failed to take away from capitalism what Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci described as “hegemony”.

According to Gramsci, capitalism maintained control not just through violence and political and economic coercion, but also ideologically, through a "hegemony" in which the values of the bourgeoisie became the ruling logic, or the "common sense" values of all. For Gramsci, capitalism exists not just because of the guns and its laws, but also via consensus.

Similarly, a true socialist nation must also be able to rule not just because of coercion, institutional or informal. It must establish ideological and cultural hegemony, a “socialist consensus” which will make it rule via the voluntary willingness of the working class. In fact, this is the only with which we can conduct what Che Guevarra, the pop culture-famous revolutionary who helped Fidel and Raul establish socialism in Cuba, described as a revolution that would produce a “New Man” – a revolution that transforms not just the political-economic underpinnings of a society, but the moral-ethical fiber of the individual person itself.

Pluralism as Barometer of Socialist Hegemony

On this, I will begin to argue that the only way Cuba can genuinely test if it had indeed established hegemony is in the presence of pluralism, and one of the better expressions of such is the multi-party democracy. Only through political diversity that genuine political consensus is achieved.

The argument is this. The only way to know if the people genuinely chose socialism as a model of political and economic governance is on the presence of other modalities – other ideologies outlining other ways of organizing societies. If socialists are indeed confident of the superiority of their socialist model, as all socialists should be, and if they are confident that the masses also believe so, then they need not be afraid of contesting the democratic space from those with other ideologies, as organized through other parties.

The PCC cannot simply declare that they represent the multitude of interests of the working class – that they are indeed the eternal vanguard party to guide the development of Cuba in the road towards a communist future. This should be left to the Cuban people, most especially the Cuban proletariat, to decide continuously via regular multi-party elections.

As introducing pluralism would entail relaxing the PCC’s grip on the RSAs, I believe that doing such would even compel the revolutionary forces in Cuba to tighten its grip on what Althusser described as Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA), which is a more sustainable way of ingraining socialism. Encompassing institutions such as the family, the media, and, he emphasizes, the education system, Althusser identified ISAs as means by which organizations propagate ideology. In contrast with the RSAs, which operates in what Gramsci described to be the “political society” – the arena of state and of political force, ISAs operates on the sphere of the “civil society” – the arena of hegemonic consensus that is outside of the state.

However, there are those who question the distinction of the “political” and the “civil society” in Cuba. The American political scientist Peter Roman believes that the unique historical conditions predisposed the Cuban society into a rejection of this distinction. This argument has many implications. First, it would mean that indeed, the “Poder Popular” model, People’s Power Democracy, where the PCC is itself entrenched on the state and “reflects” the interest of the people directly, is the applicable model of governance for Cubans, given the centrality of unity in the Cuban culture. Secondly, this would mean that no organized opposition must indeed be formed, since it is assumed that the Cuban establishment subsumes all of the aspects of the Cuban political life (which is strangely similar to that of “Low-Intensity Democracies” as elaborated by political and social analyst Joel Rocamora). Thirdly, this would blur the distinction between the RSAs and the ISAs within Cuba, which has real implications on the strategy of the communist transformation.

This is an entirely debatable point, which can be discussed at length at other forums. For now, it suffices to say that I disagree with it on the empirical fact that one, social movements are vibrant within Cuba, and two, new parties struggle to organize themselves despite the price of illegality. In principle, I believe that the absolute overlap of the “political” and the “civil society”, if actually possible, can only occur in extremely backward and mal-developed nations, which Cuba certainly is not. Gramsci himself calls such blurring as “state-worship” – similar to what some socialists would characterize as state socialism.

Socialists around the world, especially those who came to face advanced bourgeoisie democracies, understand the distinction between the “political” and “civil society”, between RSAs and ISAs, and thus always struggled to organize among schools and exerted effort to refine their means of engaging the mass media. Cuban revolutionaries know this by heart, which is why they struggled to make sure that Cuban education had been designed to have a strong political and ideological emphasis, teaching students to develop a commitment towards socialism, even after they seized the State.

Socialist hegemony is necessary to establish the true dictatorship of the proletariat, and socialist hegemony can only be tested in a pluralist democracy. The freedom of organized opposition is indispensable as a feedback mechanism with which PCC, or any socialist party, will be able to assess itself whether or not it still fulfills its historic role as vanguard of the proletariat.


Anonymous said...

I can't understand this article. There is simply no democracy in Cuba. Period. Castro set himself up as the longest-running dictator of recent history. When he transferred his powers to Raul, he set Cuba up as a modern-age monarchy.

James Miraflor said...

I believe that is an unfair comment, and panders to what is being propagandized in anti-Cuba media such as the conservative Fox News or the neo-liberal The Economist. I want to reiterate that I have good reasons to believe that Cuba is a democracy, although not in a way democracy is commonly understood in most liberal democratic countries.

Why have I raised the question of a possibility of a democratic-deficit on Cuba? It's simple. Beside the points I have raised in my article, I have two reasons.

First, I may be wrong, but I know my points best approximate those who want to give the benefit of the doubt to Cuba yet are having questions according to the standards of democracy they have been raised to believe. There is no harm in answering them, and there is even the benefit of assuaging doubts and fears if convincing answers are surfaced from the process of discourse.

Second, this is to reiterate that socialism is not a doctrinal thing. Socialists ask questions, and when they are not satisfied, they ask more questions. This is in marked contrast with some ideologues of capitalism who lapse into tautologies and doctrines of market fundamentalism.

So there, I hope that we'll both get to read more about Cuba and democracy.=)

mark said...

First, what is your definition of democracy? I have given mine it is simply majority rule. Is that any different from "dictatorship of the proletariat"? You may call my definition unsophisticated or whatever but it is precise and clear rather vague and evasive. You just wrote about "democracy" in Cuba without strictly defining it.

Second, how can you call a country democratic when thousands of its are people constantly risking their and their families lives to escape it to the capitalist hell of the USA? And those that do make it to the US pay many thousands of dollars to smuggle their family into the US.

Third, whatever your criticisms of capitalism and liberal democracy, you fail to recognize that socialism (like all forms of collectivism including fascism) has been much more coercive than capitalism. That the will of the proletariat isn't always right or ethical. The most unambiguous example I can think of is Adolf Hitler's election with 89% of Germans freely voting and supporting him. Another is Mao Zedong taking over China with most Chinese willing to die for him.

It is ironic that you criticize capitalism for imposing conformity when collectivism has done more to impose conformity. Tell me, if 51% of the population democratically wants to steal from the 49% is it ok? When 89% of Germans wanted to exploit the minority Jews is it ok? Would you rather be in the 89% or 11%? How long do you think you'll live if you opposed the majority? In Cuba, many of its brightest and most energetic people want to seek their fortunes elsewhere. But the "dictatorship of the proletariat" demand that they serve the interest of the proletariat. You either conform with the proletariat or you get shot. Hence people wanting to leave Cuba.

You use a lot of big words, but it is for naught.

mark said...

Let me re-emphasize:

In socialism, you either conform with the majority or you get shot. You have no other recourse in such a society since everything and anything is owned by the "proletariat" (though in reality owned by an elite few).

In capitalism, you either conform to what your boss wants or you get fired. But you can always try to get a job elsewhere. The free market competition of capitalism has allowed the best and brightest of a society to provide the most opportunities for its people.

Where did the organic food movements come about? Where did greenpeace establish itself? Where are environmentally sustainable lifestyles most popular? Where are dissenting socialists more tolerated and entertained? And which societies are more likely to sustain the members of these sometimes irrational groups? In more capitalist societies!