Cuba’s Evolving Civil Society

January 11, 2009

THE CHANGING DYNAMIC OF CUBAN CIVIL SOCIETY Alexander J. Gray and Antoni Kapcia, eds., 2008, University Press of Florida, 208 pp., hardcover, $59.95

Deep-rooted and meaningful debate has marked the course of the Cuban Revolution from its inception. Thus, discussions around “moral versus material incentives,” “the new socialist man,” and “rectification” (a reform movement begun in 1986, seeking to galvanize Cuban socialism, correcting abuses along the way) have reflected milestones in the Revolution’s development. The controversy about civil society is no exception: Does civil society have a place in socialist society, and if so, should it be independent of or dependent upon the state? Although the debate started in the late 1980s, it flourished during the Special Period after the fall of the Soviet Union, which rocked Cuba’s economy and society as GDP fell about 40%. This collection of essays examines that debate and the evolution of civil society in Cuba during the 1990s and early 2000s, marking a new stage of the Revolution.

The book’s central seven chapters, based on research that took place largely inside Cuba, look at the general situation and the political culture of the Revolution, the debate around civil society, the rise of the private sector, local actions, solidarity organizations and friendship groups, religion, and NGOs. Two essays by the editors complement these chapters. The first essay sets the larger historical stage; the second presents conclusions. The quality and density of the writings vary, ranging from mostly descriptive and informative to somewhat interpretative. Some selections include extensive interview material with actors on the ground, and all make broad use of Cuban sources. The writers are almost all academics residing in the United Kingdom, and their perspectives often provide a welcome relief from those of standard, polarized U.S. Cubanology.

For the most part, the book’s tone is academically neutral, which sometimes results in enough qualifying phrases to rob the material of meaning. By the end one almost wishes for some of the good old polemics that Cuba inspires in many authors. Nonetheless, politics inevitably creeps into the pages, ranging from covert hostility to cautious doubts about the Revolution. Although credit is given to the Revolution for its successes, more ink is spilt on the negative side of things throughout.

What emerges from the whole is a comprehensive view of the development of Cuban civil society in the 1990s. The revival or growth of civil society, largely as a humanitarian response to the economic crisis that hit Cuba after 1991, paved the way for future developments. As the island’s economic situation improved, new foreign (and some local) NGOs and solidarity organizations gradually moved into social development projects. This triggered an intense debate and several reactions from the state and others. Some saw NGOs as incompatible with Cuba’s brand of socialism, others conceded their value but only as a short-term expedient, and still others argued that they were totally consistent with socialism and even necessary. These contrasting positions resulted in a confused and often contradictory posture by the state toward these groups. Interviews with foreign participants in NGOs reveal that a great deal of fuzziness exists as to the exact role they play and the actual limits on their actions. Clearly, strict regulation is the norm (i.e., they cannot open bank accounts or use hard currency, and they must work through an approved Cuban partner). On the other hand, informal relations open the door to actions and inputs in gray areas, sometimes not officially sanctioned.

Civil society expanded in at least two other important areas. After the formal recognition of religious believers (creyentes) in the 1992 Constitutional Revisions, a number of religious organizations formed groups that eventually got state recognition. Among them were Catholics, Protestants, and African-based religious groups. As with the NGOs, these groups have enjoyed varied relations with the state and have voiced opinions ranging from critical to favorable. Also important has been the emergence of Cuban groups ranging from neighborhood-based associations to think tanks receiving support from a variety of sources outside the country. Here too relations with the state have taken several turns. In many cases the government gave encouragement and backing. This encouragement definitely had limits, however, as the closing of the semi-independent Center for the Study of the Americas (CEA) in the mid-1990s demonstrates. All Center members got new jobs, but the message rang clear.

The authors agree across the board that civil society has become an increasingly important part of the Cuban scene, although its scope and nature have changed over time. As the state contracted and resources became scarce after Cuba’s cutoff from the socialist bloc’s Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) and its forced insertion into the world market, civil society expanded to fill the gaps. Along with this came a new, if at times begrudging, tolerance for expanded activities in the social, economic, and — eventually — cultural areas.

The government always moved cautiously and suspiciously, careful to preserve the basic material gains of the Revolution at minimally acceptable levels. But this could only be done with outside help, either through NGOs, the growth of a private economy, or local empowerment. The central questions of control versus democracy and local and individual initiative versus mobilization from above (through the state-run mass organizations) remained fraught with difficulties. The United States’ open support for the expansion of a civil society that it brazenly endorsed as a vehicle to mold Cuban society in an image borrowed from Cuba’s past (see the Cuba Democracy Act of 1992, for example) only made the whole question thornier. But nevertheless, expanded civil society—despite all controls—has remained a permanent feature of the Cuban landscape.

As the essays in this book describe, the process of adjustment on both sides is a constant dance between top-down management and real autonomy and space for both organizations and individuals. The state continues to control resources and must approve all plans put forth by organizations. In fact, a state representative has the right to sit in on any meeting held by a recognized NGO. That this right is seldom if ever exercised makes little difference; its mere existence creates apprehension among NGOs. In addition, when an NGO-backed project gets off the ground, the state often moves in to take it over, sometimes with unfortunate results. The reluctance on the part of elements within the government to cede real power to locals and decision making to communities has proven hard to overcome, as has the vision of all NGOs as real or potential agents of imperialism.

The editors conclude that three possible outcomes exist for the new formations of civil society: (1) They will lead a revolution inside the Revolution; (2) they will become a force against the Revolution; or (3) they will work with the Revolution to strengthen it. This is not just idle speculation. By the first years of the 21st century, civil society had become a fixture on the Cuban landscape, one not likely to disappear. Further, it provided alternative spaces where people could act with fewer restraints than in official capacities. This does not necessarily imply, of course, opposition to the Revolution or the state, but may merely represent an alternative way toward jointly held goals. Nevertheless, elements within the new civil society connected to the emergent foreign sector or even to elements outside the country could turn into focal points for anti-revolutionary activities. Thus, the state maintains a watchful eye over the sector, even if this becomes counterproductive in many ways.

In all, this is a useful volume with good information for anyone wishing to look at the development of civil society in Cuba in the decade or so after 1991. It clearly develops two points. First, civil society and the state are not incompatible within the Cuban context. This contradicts some thinking on the part of those in Washington and Miami pushing for a “transition” in Havana. Second, again contrary to some writings about the island, the state has always supported civil society in some way or another. The scope and nature of that support has changed over time, and it will continue to change in the future. Civil society is not about to go away, and it will surely evolve along with the Cuban economy and society. It remains up to the Cuban people as well as the government to see that this process is one that reinforces and develops the goals of the Revolution without subverting them.

Hobart Spalding is a member of the NACLA Editorial Committee.


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