The Virtues and Misfortunes of Civil Society

September 25, 2007

The first time that I heard someone argue about the importance of civil society in Cuba was in 1984, during a talk by the well-known political scientist Rafael Hernández at the then-vigorous Center for the Study of the Americas. Hernández was one of the first to raise the issue, and was thus quite isolated. At the time, Cuban society was still not very differentiated socially and had been shaped by an intense process of social mobility led by a government that had relatively plentiful resources and considerable social autonomy. Thus, ideas like those of Hernández were viewed, at best, as needless intellectual subtleties.

The situation changed in the late 1980s, when Cuban society began to undergo a profound transformation as a result of the acute economic crisis and the gradual dismantling of prevailing forms of social and political control. The economic reforms implemented by the government to address the crisis—although different from the neoliberal reforms that other Latin American countries were implementing—opened considerable space for the market and the circulation of dollars, while undermining the average citizen's purchasing power. One of the most significant signs of this change has been the decline in the state's previously unchallenged capacity to control the distribution of resources, social and political discourse and ideological production.

The partial withdrawal of the state opened spaces that were filled by associations, communication networks or simply aggregates of people. Independent spaces for activities and debates that were unthinkable only a few years earlier appeared, either as a result of the opening to the market or simply as a result of the inability of the old ideological apparatuses to control the whims of thought. A civil society demanding its own space began to emerge in Cuba.

In the early 1990s, pronouncements about civil society were very cautious, given the reticence of the people involved to discuss a subject that had been harshly proscribed by Soviet Marxism and that had become the rallying cry of those on the left and the right who had struggled against the recently defeated Eastern European regimes. To make matters worse, it was also a topic that appeared in the U.S. agenda aimed at subverting the Cuban revolution. Fortunately, this reticence vanished in 1992 when Fidel Castro made a positive allusion to the role of civil society in Latin America in a speech at the Rio Summit. Cuban intellectuals and social activists interpreted that speech as a signal that the subject was now safe to talk about.

Although these intellectuals and activists expressed a variety of opinions, they all shared the same set of fundamental concerns. No one was worried about defining what civil society in Cuba was, much less studying it. Everyone simply wanted to know whether the role of civil society would be positive or negative in rebuilding Cuba's political consensus in the midst of a deep crisis.

It was not a coincidence. This new debate about civil society was constrained by hostility from two fronts. On one side, there was the hostile meddling of the U.S. government, which was interested in using Cuban civil society for subversive and counterrevolutionary ends. On the other, there was the Cuban political class, which was not inclined to allow competition in the control of resources and values.

I confess that this debate did not interest me at first, which was a bad miscalculation on my part. But in 1995, I wrote an article that was published in a bulletin put out by a group of nongovernmental organizations.[1] These NGOs published my article even though my perspective was quite different from theirs, a sign of tolerance and pluralism that has not been very common in Cuba. In essence, I argued that the civil society that had emerged in Cuba was not only comprised of local communities and the popular sectors, but also of economic actors originating in the market and conservative institutions such as the Catholic Church. I then suggested that it was a political error to advocate more autonomy for civil society. Instead, I proposed that the only way to deal with this matter from a left perspective was to call for more autonomy for the popular sectors of civil society and from there, to open spaces for the construction of a pluralist and participatory democracy.

The article turned out to be my last foray into the debate. In late 1995, strong negative opinions against the idea of civil society surfaced within some sectors of the Cuban political class. These opinions were encouraged by a climax in U.S. hostilities most vividly expressed with the passage of the Helms-Burton law. In this context, it was best to keep a clear head about the meaning of civil society. In January 1996, the newspaper Granma published an article with the suggestive title, "Civil Society, or a Sleight of Hand Trick," which denounced civil society as a neoliberal excrescence. It likened its institutions to a Trojan Horse that would try to undermine socialism from within—a "fifth column" operating at the behest of U.S. interests. The article would have been quickly forgotten as an unsubstantiated essay had it not been immediately followed by a public declaration of the Central Committee of the Communist Party adopting a hard-line position with respect to several intellectual centers in Cuba. This declaration included an official definition of civil society with the moniker "socialist" that included the official mass organizations as well as those NGOs and associations "that acted within the law, did not attempt to undermine the system and ... together with the revolutionary state, pursued the common objective of constructing socialism."[2]

There was nothing objectionable about encouraging the development of spaces in civil society that favored a socialist program. The problem was that behind this declaration lay both a mistake and an unspoken intention. The mistake is elemental. Civil society is not a socialist construction simply because officials declare it to be so in a party forum, particularly since the state's own policies have generated segments of civil society that are linked to the market and capitalist accumulation which have nothing to do with socialist goals. The unspoken intention is even clearer. Behind this formulation lurks the desire of the bureaucracy to control civil society, to dictate what belongs and what does not, and therefore to exercise a sort of administrative control over its evolution. This illustrates Umberto Eco's remark that there is a short distance between the excess of virtue and the outbreak of sin.

What caused this clash between the Cuban political authorities and a segment of emerging civil society that was completely aligned with socialist goals and national independence? To answer this question, which I will try to do at the end of this article, we need to first analyze the anatomy of "really existing" Cuban civil society.

To do this, we need a working definition of the subject. Closely following political scientist Philip Oxhorn, I will define civil society as the social fabric formed by associations, communication channels and ordinary relationships, which are varied in their social composition and aims and co-exist in states of conflict, negotiation and agreement.[3] By definition, civil society is different from both the state and the market, but it is not necessarily opposed to these. Civil society may thus be seen as the interaction—in words or deeds—among groups that form new power relations or affect existing ones, either by consolidating or chipping away at them. At the same time, civil society in each place is a cultural and historical construct and is thus shaped by the national or local community in which it emerges.

This last distinction is vital for understanding the Cuban situation. Above all, civil society in Cuba has emerged from the bosom of a socialist project that generated strong upward mobility and numerous participatory spaces characterized by solidarity and collective action on behalf of the common good. As a result, it created a social subject with high levels of education and training in civic activism. From this perspective, the revolutionary state has been an important builder of civil society. And the emergence of civil society is a sign that speaks well of the revolutionary project.

In addition, there is within this emerging civil society a deep current of popular consensus in support of the political system. This does not mean that the predominant associations and discourses in Cuban civil society are merely appendages of official discourse. They advocate greater autonomy in official political structures, greater democracy and greater freedom of action and discussion, among other things. But, if we exclude several segments of civil society that oppose the system, it is not hard to see a high level of agreement about crucial questions and activities that complement state actions. Support for socialism, the defense of social equality and the repudiation of U.S. intervention are not simply camouflages; they are elements of a discourse rooted in the new civility generated by the revolution.

When party officials, association leaders and academics discuss the vitality of civil society, they routinely refer to one statistic: in Cuba, there are a total of 2,154 civil associations legally inscribed in the register created for this purpose by the Ministry of Justice. A significant number of these associations were created after 1989, indicating a recent surge in interest in these types of activities. The statistic, however, is a confusing one. On the one hand, not all of these associations have a significant public presence. On the other, many associations that do have a public presence are not legally registered and so do not appear in the official data.

The majority of these legally registered organizations are cultural, sports or social organizations that do not have public influence beyond their small memberships. Some of these associations may project themselves more actively in the public arena in the future, but for now, the majority are irrelevant for the purposes of our analysis.

The case of the traditional mass organizations—officially recognized as the heart of "socialist civil society"—is more complex. Here we would include the diverse organizations whose common trait is their relationship with the state and the party as "transmission belts" according to the classic top-down scheme. Some of these organizations have millions of members, in particular the Committees in Defense of the Revolution, the Federation of Cuban Women and the Union of Cuban Workers. Other mass organizations, such as the different student organizations and the organization of small peasants, have smaller memberships. Finally, we would also include professional organizations in this "transmission belt" category.

In reality, these organizations constitute an imprecise threshold between civil society and the state, not because they share similar political aims but because of the negligible autonomy evident in their public stances on a variety of issues. In practice, however, these organizations do adopt their own positions on specific problems that affect their spheres of action. They regularly participate in decision making in arenas in which they have representation, and in some organizations a dynamic autonomy is visible among the rank and file. This is the case, for example, with the labor unions. Leaders are democratically elected, and the adoption of decisions and accords is based on broad participation in the decision-making process. This has made it possible for the rank and file of the trade unions to have a powerful impact on national policy, as occurred in 1994 when they impeded the government from imposing an income tax that was part of an adjustment package scheduled to go into effect that year.[4]

With the crisis, this tendency toward autonomy has been accentuated. This has been most evident in the trade unions and several professional organizations, particularly those connected to artistic and intellectual circles. Undoubtedly, the official policies of economic adjustment and reform will have an impact on the rank and file of these mass organizations. To what extent these organizations will prove capable of effectively representing the interests of their members in these new conditions, particularly if that means opposing certain state policies, will be a definitive test of their capacity for independent action.

The third component of civil society is comprised of a diverse group of churches and religious assemblies, some of which have become involved in social activities that extend beyond mere pastoral functions. This has been particularly the case since 1991, when the Fourth Communist Party Congress adopted a more flexible position concerning religion.

A majority of Cuban believers profess faith in the Afro-Cuban sects, which lack national or regional centers, making them atomized and extremely fluid in organizational terms. These religious sects nevertheless often serve as very effective informal networks for passing along information and for socialization at the community level. Today there is a tendency to involve Afro-Cuban religious authorities in cultural promotion and other aspects of local development in certain neighborhoods. These religious assemblies clearly possess a considerable ability to mobilize people—an ability that is bound to increase in the future.

The Catholic Church has experienced numerous ups and downs in its public activity. Today, it faces favorable conditions both in terms of attracting new followers and exerting greater influence over society, partly because of the government's adoption of a more flexible attitude toward religion, and partly because of the tendency to seek refuge in spiritual questions during moments of intense crisis. In fact, the Church hierarchy has developed the most coherent—and also the most viscerally reactionary—vision of civil society for Cuba. The hierarchy, of course, places the Catholic Church at the center of civil society as the only space of communion and true participation in the country. In economic terms, the Church's vision is based on private property and the free-market economy, where individual initiative can flourish. In political terms, it envisions a multiparty democracy, while in ideological terms, the new civil society would be based on the traditional values of the Church. The result would be a transition from the "structures of sin to more authentic forms of social life."[5]

There are a small number of Protestant churches in Cuba, but their congregations have been growing in recent years. Some of these churches have become actively involved in projects of community development, popular education and theological reflection that are politically progressive and that have had significant public impact. Two notable examples are the Martin Luther King Center in Havana and the Center of Reflection and Dialogue in the city of Cárdenas. Both engage in such extensive public outreach that they have become virtual development NGOs. The Martin Luther King Center, for example, supports numerous community-development projects in popular neighborhoods, and has trained hundreds of community activists in popular education methods. They also publish a well-known magazine which includes theological essays as well as articles focusing on the environment, gender and other topics. The Protestant Churches in Cuba have achieved a certain degree of coordination in the Cuban Council of Churches, which has played a progressive role and has directly supported development projects.

Other important actors within civil society are the NGOs, especially those that are engaged in development work. While some observers put the number of developmental NGOs across the country at around 50, there may in fact be no more than two dozen, and some of them have very narrow roles or are really appendages of state organizations with very little decision-making autonomy. The developmental NGOs, which benefit from financial aid obtained from their Canadian and European counterparts as well as from their contacts and exchanges with other Latin American NGOs, have had a very significant qualitative impact on Cuban society. By 1996, NGOs were involved in over 50 projects in six areas: alternative energy, community development, the environment, popular education, the promotion of women and institutional development. Habitat Cuba, for example, has been very active in urban planning and housing construction based on the principles of community participation and environmental protection. Its development program in the eastern city of Holguin is a paradigm of integral community development as well as an example of how an institution of civil society can work side by side with the state without sacrificing its autonomy.

Other actors to keep in mind are the community-based social movements that began to emerge in the late 1980s with the goal of improving local neighborhoods within a self-help model. The origin of these movements is diverse, but almost all involved some state initiative, either by technical agencies, municipal governments or popular councils. One of the most successful is the El Condado movement in the city of Santa Clara, which came into being after neighbors designed a technical plan to remodel the town. The residents and their leaders, in cooperation with municipal authorities, became involved in a dynamic and creative process of participation to improve various aspects of community life, from housing construction and educational facilities to health services and recreation.

Over time, the agendas of such groups have diversified, encompassing not just local development, but also protecting the environment and reclaiming cultural identities. These groups also tend to become more autonomous, which exposes them to frequent run-ins with local authorities.[6]

Artistic and intellectual institutions are also significant. Many of these institutions tend to present themselves as key actors in the articulation of the new civil society and in the establishment of communication networks, whether because of the type of opinions they have, the debates they promote, or the social activism in which they are involved. The theater groups that have injected public opinion with critical appraisals of contemporary society and laudable displays of political valor are good examples here. Social research centers and cultural and academic publishing houses have also had a strong impact beyond the intellectual community. The academic journal Temas, for example, which is published out of the Ministry of Culture since its founding in 1994, has had an enormous impact.

The process of economic reform has opened doors to new economic actors, derived from or intimately linked to the market, who are also important if embryonic actors in civil society. First, there are the agricultural cooperatives. Until recently, Cuban agriculture was organized into large unproductive state enterprises, in adddition to small cooperative or individual peasant properties. In 1993, there was a profound restructuring of agriculture with the creation of Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs). Although there are no official statistics, it is estimated that there are close to 400,000 people working in the cooperative agriculture sector and that number will likely increase in the future.

Even though the creation of the UBPCs has been a laudable step forward in Cuban socialism, it is important to note that since their inception, the main emphasis of the new cooperatives has been productivity. This has given rise to oligarchic tendencies within their organizational structures, resulting in increasing inequality and predatory relations with other social groups. Economic success alone will not alter this situation; rather, the general political framework in which these cooperatives are inserted must actively promote alternative values and organizational structures. Not a single association of cooperative members exists. Cooperative members have been urged to affiliate with existing labor unions, which is in keeping with bureaucratic goals of political control but incongruent with the goals of both independent unions and cooperatives. This situation has hindered them from developing greater public autonomy, except in the local sphere.

Other potentially influential economic actors in civil society are the close to 200,000 legally registered self-employed workers. Most of these workers are individuals who depend for their survival on their own labor or that of family members and have little or no money to invest in their businesses. A small segment, however, is made up of people who run profitable enterprises, such as restaurants and room rentals. These people could become important economic actors when such activities become legal. To date, there are no organizations of self-employed workers. They have been urged instead—with very little success—to join existing labor unions.

The new technocratic business class linked to foreign investment and to national enterprises in dynamic economic areas may yet become more relevant in the new civil society. Individuals in this sector do not yet have a distinctive organizational structure. Even so, their particular social role gives them easy access to the state as well as a great capacity for social influence based simply on the demonstration of their personal success to a population impoverished by the crisis.

Is there a future for civil society? Of course there is. It is the playing field on which all the main actors in Cuban society operate. The question is what its purpose will be.

The Cuban political class has given one answer: creation by decree of a controlled "socialist civil society." This is not completely off base in my estimation. Nobody disputes the right of the state to protect national sovereignty from the attempts of the U.S. government to use civil society as a destabilizing space in order to achieve its old ambition of becoming an internal actor in Cuban politics. Nor can we argue with the government's need to establish filters or restrictive political policies. It could even be argued on grounds of political realism that—in a critical moment such as the present—these restrictions are necessary to prevent dissident groups from taking demagogic advantage of the growing discontent of the population. But it is neither acceptable nor legitimate that such policies fall heavily on organizations that have supported national independence and socialism.

Analysts and those affected by the government crackdown have tended to attribute the reaction of the Cuban political class to the predominance of noncompetitive forms of exercising power. This argument has some merit. But if we examine the course of Cuban politics in recent years, there is a notable contrast between the caution the leadership expresses in the political field and its considerable audacity in terms of the very controversial opening of the Cuban economy to the capitalist world market. It is probably this latter point that explains why the government is uneasy with a strong civil society in contemporary Cuba. The insertion of Cuba in the capitalist world economy and the embrace of a new model of accumulation based on the overexploitation of the work force can only be achieved in a controlled political environment. The expansion of free-trade zones, for example, is incompatible with militant unionism, since such a development model requires low-cost labor and other cost-saving devices which normally result in horrendous working conditions. Similarly, the expansion of mass tourism is incompatible with feminist and environmental commitments, since the way this industry has developed in the Caribbean tends to be based on the mercantilization of sexual power—and the consequent commercial use of the image of women—as well as the destruction of the environment. This has led to a tacit understanding between the technocratic-business sectors and the traditional bureaucracy—economic surpluses in exchange for social tranquility.

This is of course just one, if powerful, trend. There are others that are nourished by a civil society based on the social solidarity generated by four decades of socialist revolution, and by leaders and social activists who understand the meaning of the Marxist utopia, which holds that the free development of each one depends on the free development of all. These trends constitute the backbone of a larger story of dramatic events waged in the pursuit of freedom.

Not only is there a future for Cuban civil society, but there can be no future without it. Only in that space can effective barriers be constructed to withstand the market's colonization of daily life and to ensure that utopia is not reduced to eating a hamburger. If, despite everything, the transition to socialism fails in Cuba, it would be from within civil society that anticapitalist alternative programs would arise. There is no room here for pessimism or fear of the future. In the end, as the Roman poet Lucano said just before committing suicide, fearing a bad future is more dangerous than the bad future itself.

Haroldo Dilla is permanent researcher at the Institute of Philosophy in Havana. The opinions expressed herein are the responsibility of the author and do not reflect the opinion of the Institute. He would like to thank Philip Oxhorn of McGill University for his useful comments and suggestions. Translated from the Spanish by Deidre McFadyen.

1. Haroldo Dilla, "Sociedad civil, pueblo y participación," Mensaje de Cuba, Centro de Estudios Europeos, No.19-20, (Agosto/Septiembre de 1995), pp. 8-9.
2. "Informe del Buró Político al V Pleno del Comité Central del Partido Comunista," in D. Dirmosser and J. Estay, eds., Economía y Reforma Económica en Cuba (Caracas: Nueva Sociedad, 1997).
3. Philip Oxhorn, Organizing Civil Society: The Popular Sectors and the Struggle for Democracy in Chile (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995).
4. I analyze the case of trade unions in "Comunidad, participación y socialismo: Reinterpretando el dilema cubano," in Haroldo Dilla, ed., La participación en Cuba y los retos del futuro (Havana: Center for the Study of the Americas, 1996), pp. 12-36.
5. Dagoberto Valdez and L. Estrella, Reconstruir la sociedad civil: Un proyecto para Cuba (Pinar del RÍo, 1994), Mimeograph.
6. Haroldo Dilla,, Movimientos comunitarios en Cuba (San Salvador: FUNDE, 1997).

Tags: Cuba, civil society, government organizations, NGOs, social movements

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