Freedom of Expression and Socialism in Cuba

How much freedom of expression and real (active) power the Cuban working class, and the population as a whole, possess and exercise is a vital matter for the very survival of socialism and its development, a question that is being addressed by a few hundreds university students, professors and some professionals in Havana since November 2007.

Cuba marked 50 years of revolution, January 1, 2009. The island-nation has survived the longest and harshest imperialist blockade and thousands of violent actions against its existence. Several thousands of people have been murdered or rendered crippled by sabotage and even bacteriological warfare—not to mention innumerable attempts on the lives of Fidel Castro and other leaders.

The Communist party and state strategy for survival has focused on unity: unity in decision-making, unity of leadership, and unity in the media. This strategy has enabled the state to resist United States and allied efforts to smash it. However, this strategy has prevented leaders and the state bureaucracy from believing that it can afford the “luxury”of allowing significant active participation on the part of the population to discuss and decide what the nation’s politics and economy ought to be. Nor do the media question decisions taken.

When questioned about the wisdom of this control, the state either ignores the question or responds with examples of how the US intelligence apparatuses intervene in other countries’ processes when not in US interests. Suffice it here to note the successful subversive interventions in media organs during Allende’s term in Chile, and in Nicaragua during the first Sandinista government from 1979-1990. Currently, US counter-intelligence and media apparatuses align with the national oligarchy in Venezuela endeavoring to overthrow Hugo Chavez and stop any advance toward socialism.

Cuba’s communist leadership has always asserted that broad exercise of freedom of expression can place the nation’s very sovereignty in peril. While there is some truth to this historically, strict state control of the media and other channels of information and debate cripple the ability of the common man and woman from acquiring adequate information and ideas necessary for them to become empowered. This has led most people to become disbelievers of state propaganda and the media. They hunger for more and open information.

Cuban historian and professor of the University of Oriente, Frank Josué Solar, recently wrote:

“It is not a question of luxury, an alternative which one can choose or not: worker democracy is a condition sin qua non for the normal unfolding of a socialist economy. Without this it is deformed, and finally perishes.”1

For the first time in decades, the state has allowed open critique of policies from the left. Handfuls of students, professors and professionals at the University of Havana and at Cujae University are meeting to discuss socialism’s future.

A group of university students, professors and professionals formed the Bolshevik Workshop to pay homage to the Russian revolution, at the 90th year anniversary in November 2007, and to discuss its trajectory and collapse. Some 500 people assembled at the University of Havana. Much of the discussion revolved around the degradation of the Soviets, the state´s total seizure of power and its control over decision-making—all which led to a passive populace, which did not resist the collapse.

Many participants concluded as did Frank Josué in his article: “What failed in the Soviet Union was not the planned economy model but a type of bueaucratic management, which converted into an absolute brake upon all of its potential development. Just as the human body requires oxygen, this economic organization requires a collective direction by the working class for its functioning.”

One of the workshop organizers, Ariel Dacal Díaz, a professor of law, delivered a paper on the subject.2

At this assembly, and at a subsequent workshop, participants viewed the need to revitalize revolutionary Marxism, also in Cuba. The university administration sought to curtail the movement and refused to allow large meetings. In this context, the administration also banned the department of philosophy’s magazine, Critical Thinking (Pensamiento Crítico). An article, which analysed the fall of the USSR to revisionism, was not well viewed.

The dozen coordinators of the workshop did not hold public meetings again in 2008 but did create a lively website. They propose to “contribute to the empowerment of persons and groups in their practice as citizen-subjects within the Cuban revolution as a process and with socialism as its project.”

The website has hundreds of essays and articles by readers and past and current theoreticians and leading activists such as: Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, Luxemburg, Che…Stalin is viewed as having thwarted a true socialist direction based on workers’ power.

At the end of January this year, the coordinators organized another workshop by the name: “To live the revolution 50 years after the triumph.” They now meet monthly at the Ministry of Culture’s Center of Juan Marinello, close to Revolutionary Square. The Ministry´s Antonio Gramsci Department and the Superior Institute of Art are cosponsors. The meeting hall allotted can hold just under 100 persons. It was full at the initial workshop where the theme was: the historic sovietization of Cuba and what remains today. This lay the basis for the following workshop—“The political system of the revolution: participation, popular subject and citizenship”—which I attended.

In its announcement folder, the coordinators wrote: “This workshop seeks to contribute to revitalize and analyze the place of citizenry participation in the political system, its forms of expression concerning sovereignty, the necessity of a political and legal culture consistent with social protagonism at the moment to create, control, limit and enjoy the political and the law.”

Specific topics were: how does socialism reformulate the concept of citizenship; mechanism’s of actual popular participation; how to contribute to empowerment. All this within the context of, “We make our revolution.”

After a brief introduction, the 80-90 participants broke into four groups to discuss what experiences they had with active participation and with forced participation, and how they felt as subject-citizens. (My participation was mainly as an observer since I do not currently live and work in Cuba, which I did from 1987 to 1996.)

Most people chose to express negative experiences, which had left them feeling frustrated, impotent and not as active citizens. When a philosophy student said that he did not feel represented in the political decision-making process most within our circle nodded in affirmation. Another student said that it was possible “to participate but ‘they’ make the decisions”. A young woman student spoke enthusiastically about this workshop initiative, which allowed her to feel as an active subject, “hoping it can lead to making a difference for the society.” A Colombia studying here said he felt more as a subject in Cuba than in Colombia but hoped for greater active participation.

An older woman, who classified herself as an ordinary worker, said she felt isolated. “’They’ don’t give me a chance to participate in any real sense. ‘They’ don’t take our commentaries seriously, so I feel like a crazy old woman.” During a break, she said she believed the revolution has stood still since the mid-60s. A couple of older professional men, remembering those activist days when peasants and militia still carried weapons to defend the nation—which they did at the Bay of Pigs invasion and against counter-revolutionary groups infiltrated and financed by the CIA (Operation Mongoose)—believed the revolution died after that.

The walls were covered with handwritten quotations by Bertolt Brecht, Roque Dalton, Silivo Rodriguez and others. On one wall were posted words by Paulo Freire: “If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed.”

Summaries of each group’s discussion were read during the last plenary session. The experiences and sentiments were similar. Bureaucratic mechanism’s of control were outlined and criticized during the discussion period. Much of state propaganda—“everything is marching well”—was considered false. People rejected the constantly repeated institutionalized excuse—imperialism´s blockade—for the multitude of problems and inefficiencies, and that the blockade impedes debate. An internal blockade exists, said many.

There was ample self-critique as well. We must overcome self-censorship. We must not yield to the fear of losing what we may have or hope to obtain, such as a better position, and thereby remain silent in face of unfairness or wrong decisions. One young man said each of us should find ways to improve our own behavior. For example, we must stop throwing wastes and trash anywhere we feel like it. We should intervene in all our surroundings with a positive spirit that we can make change, that we can make “them” listen to us, because we are the producers, the people for whom the political structure serves. An older professor suggested we invite bureaucrats to meet with us, “because they are Cubans too and we could learn from one another”.

A young professor of law, Julio Antonio Fernández, gave a brief talk about where the land lay. He brushstroked revolutionary political and legal history. He defended the constitution of 1976 as a revolutionary one, and one legalizing an active citizenry for socialism, one that establishes popular control of all mechanisms for sovereignty. The audience was so attentative a pin could be heard to drop.

“We do not seek to regress to before the revolution: we must be designers and controllers…What is most important now is a critique of current state organisms and not the possible creation of ideal institutions.”

He continued—my paraphrases. If a dominating regime is necessary how can it act without alienating the people? How can we democratize power?

We have formal rights of control, Fernández said. We need to actualize them. The law is not that of the state but that of and for the people. Citizenry duty must be restored. He also spoke against continuing discrimination both of race and gender. The individual and the collective must recognize and confront these ills.

“The danger of imperialism is real and we must find forms to act taking this reality into account,” he concluded.

Following his well received analysis, the body was asked for comments, especially concerning the question of how one can participate in a revolutionary manner. One-fourth of the audience made comments and offered ideas to further the revolutionary process, and some called for action.

Several people, young and old, said that the workshop process and its ideas should go public. There must be ways of involving workers, vital producers. Some said that while laws protect the right to associate and to organize associations, and no law prohibits strikes, the reality is something different. No one dare try to organize strikes, and many who petition for permission to organize associations are ignored or denied their right.

An older lawyer said he was still waiting, now ten years, for a reply from the Ministry of Justice to his several petitions to organize a harmless, social association of descendants of Slavic people in Cuba. A sociology professor said that while some professions were allowed to form associations, those in sociology—a study prohibited in Cuba for three decades, which the government reinstated in the mid-90s—were not. Yet no reason was given.

A history professor said it was necessary to define what socialism really is and what it should be. Among other things, socialism must be personal as well as collective. One must feel that he/she is a decision-maker. Without that sense, what occurred in Russia and Eastern Europe could well occur in Cuba.

“Participation leads to solutions and that is liberating,” he concluded.

Another person said that Internet is a liberating tool and must be made available to all. That will be technologically possible—perhaps economically too—when the Venezuelan undersea cable reaches Cuba later this year. The question is: will the state allow access to all?

One participant raised doubts about whether a dominating state power was any longer a necessity, especially one in which many leaders retain power positions for many years, even decades.

A young female student said she felt stimulated by these worshops and was optimistic that positive changes could be made. Several youths echoed her sentiment. The last speaker, a Brazilian student, said that it was most important that the group not degenerate into sectarianism as do so many left groups around the world.

The next workshop, open to all, will take place on March 27. Its theme will be: state property, social property and the socialization of production within Cuba´s socialist revolution.

  • A version of this was published March 12 by a new website in Cuba.
    1. “Cuba, y el debate del socialism del siglo XXI,” published by the Fundación de Estudios Socialista Federico Engels, www.marxist.com []
    2. See In Defense of Marxism. See also Walter Lippmann’s yahoo site Cuba/News for the English version. []

    Ron Ridenour is a veteran journalist and author of nine books, the latest is Tamil Nation in Sri Lanka. Read other articles by Ron, or visit Ron's website.

    9 comments on this article so far ...

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    1. Michael Kenny said on March 13th, 2009 at 1:09pm #

      I was amused by the cloudcuckooland bit about the “passive populace, which did not resist the collapse” of the European communist dictatorships. Cubans have obviously never been allowed to see that not only did the populations “not resist”, it was precisely the people who booted the communists out!

      Remember the weekly demonstrations in Leipzig, the East German tourists in Hungary who refused to go home, the East Germans breaking down the border gates and sweeping into West Berlin, the Bucharest crowd booing Ceausescu, the crowds who joined Yeltsin when the communists tried to restore the dictatorship and the soldiers who refused to fire on them, the near insurrection in Lithuania, Slovenia walking out of Yugoslavia. To say nothing of Solidarnosc!

      Passive my foot!

    2. Ron Horn said on March 13th, 2009 at 1:36pm #

      I really appreciate hearing about Cuban political affairs from this author who I believe is a critical friend of Cuba and socialism. It has been very difficult to get any kind of objective reports–reports that are reasonably free of left-wing sectarianism and right-wing ideology.

    3. jbosanok said on March 13th, 2009 at 5:54pm #

      I second Ron’s sentiment. Difficult, indeed. All thanks to the author.

    4. Jennifer Kismat Ali said on March 13th, 2009 at 6:35pm #

      i am a student of sociology in trinidad, west indies. i am always interested in the politics of Cuba. it is refreshing to note the efforts that are being made to bring positive change to Cuba. since i have always admired the cuban people and what they have achieved, we in the
      caribbean are watching to see further benefits to the people. i think what is needed in all the caribbean is some form of socialist democracy that moves people away from this capitalist mentality that is eroding the life-blood o f our society.

    5. lichen said on March 13th, 2009 at 10:25pm #

      I don’t agree that revolutionary marxism needs to be revamped; we don’t need the model at all anymore, we don’t need to rehash the Russian revolution or pretend that it is a bad thing that, for instance, the communist government of Poland went down; the bad thing is that Solidarity was betrayed; that new, creative, dynamic, deeply participatory forms of socialism which do not need Marx have been suppressed.

    6. Garth said on March 13th, 2009 at 11:46pm #

      If the issue is supposed to be socialism, they ought to cover anarchism. I’m not saying it’s THE way, and I don’t think anyone’s got it right yet, but that’s why we gotta listen to all the ideas. Besides, if they’re finding that inadequate participation from the populace is the problem, anarchism would be a great topic to study in the interests of socialism.

      We’ve forgotten socialism’s beginnings, the split between authoritative and non-authoritative socialists. The authoritative ones produced a sort of single-corporation absolute monopoly over all resources in Russia (after letting the people play around successfully with anarchism even if they didn’t know what anarchism was about).

      Basically, nobody’s theory is right, and everyone’s got their own way of doing things. If you try to make them all follow the same theory, well, they just won’t do it. People have to change, not the system. People have to learn, have to stand up for every human right and fight against every injustice. There are myriad different social questions to be answered, and no one theory answers them all, or is particularly flawless. It’s just like fighting over religions…

      Of course, it’s amazing they’ve survived at all living right next to a violent imperialist nation (regardless of what country the shots are really being called from ;-) . If they just let everybody do everything they want, the CIA would be right in there ready to smash things up right away.

      Which just goes to show, we’re not going to have freedom ANYWHERE until we’ve got freedom EVERYWHERE. It’s a global struggle and every effort from ALL people counts. Every person has different ideas, and if two people talk to each other, they complement each other’s knowledge with their own unique ideas. Overall, good ideas aren’t discarded easily, but ideas like killing millions of Arabs in the name of Zionism er uh the War on Terror, ideas like that don’t last too long.

    7. Garth said on March 13th, 2009 at 11:46pm #

      In the long run… Do whatever you want in the short run, and seize whatever freedom and prosperity you can together, however necessary… You only live once…

    8. Garth said on March 13th, 2009 at 11:48pm #

      Oh yeah, and the idea of full participation from the bottom up is a particularly anarchist idea, so yeah, Cubans have been thinking about it whether they know it or not.

    9. ron ridenour said on March 21st, 2009 at 8:00am #

      Thank you all for your comments. I especially thank Ron Horn for understanding my origins, my political-solidarity stance with Cuba.
      To Lichen will I say that if you are right you leave us only with the raw force of profit determined societies and the consequent extreme suffering of billions of people and constant war. To Garth will I say that I agree that anarchism should be discussed as an alternative–albeit quite Don Quixote–to state run socialism. The fact that some people are discussing rather openly is a postive sign. Another group, ¨color cubano¨, within the culture arena has been discussing racism in Cuba for ten years but is still at the discussion stage.