May all retrospectives speak to us in the present and for the future

I could reply to Rafael Hernández’s ambush by making a presentation in record time: read the foreword Utopía de utopías: Temas y la sociedad civil cubana (Utopia of utopias: Topics of Cuban Civil Society) by Alain Basail—an author also listed in Juan Marinello Institute’s catalogue since 2003 with El Lápiz Rojo: Prensa, censura e identidad cubana, 1878-1895 (The red pencil: Press, censure and Cuban identity, 1878-1895)—and you will have at the same time a preview of the more than three hundred pages of this work published by Ediciones Temas, its Recuento (Retrospective) collection, and a new rosary of problems and questions for a future volume. However, that would not be fair to this timely and necessary volume.

This is a collection of eleven works. Adding to Basail’s aforementioned foreword are eight essays, a round-table discussion, and interviews first published in the journal Temas between 1995 and 2009. The predominant subject centers on the concept of civil society, proposing a glance not restricted to academia—even if its soundness stems partly from its origins therein—but an analysis that transcends it. What prevails is a critical, systemic and procedural approach and, as the author of the foreword points out, “The book as a whole goes beyond outlining the fringes of the civil society concept to inquire into its multiple definitions and dimensions from a broad and all-encompassing perspective of social relations in Cuba’s complex and dynamic cultural, political and economic map”.[1]

Many academics and social scientists consider that the journal Temas is a pioneer in the treatment of topics related to the Cuban civil society, which has always been a major interest of this publication. Incidentally, works compiled in this volume such as Jorge Luis Acanda’s Sociedad civil y hegemonía (Civil Society and hegemony), Carlos M. Vila’s Pobreza, opresión y explosión: notas sobre la sociedad civil en América Latina (Poverty, oppression and explosion: Notes on civil society in Latin America), María del Carmen Barcia’s La historia profunda: la sociedad civil del 98 (Deep history: Civil Society of 1898), Hugo Azcuy’s Estado y sociedad civil in Cuba (State and civil society in Cuba) and Sociedad civil en los 90: el debate cubano (Civil society in the 90s: the Cuban debate), a collection of interviews conducted by Milena Recio, whose interlocutors rely on theory and practice to declare—and then confirm—in their biographies and from their positions, the differences, both apparent and real, between the conceived civil society and the one that truly existed in the Cuba of the 1990s. Again, it has been, or soon will be, twenty years since all of these works were published in Temas.

 Such a distance can be covered Gardel-style: “Feel that life passes by in one gust, that twenty years is nothing”; although I’d rather turn to Alberto Garrandés’s illustrative introduction to Escritores olvidados de la República (Forgotten writers of the Republic): “(…) the notion of contemporariness is in itself incisive and ambivalent. Who are our contemporaries? Those who lived and worked in our time or those capable of questioning us vigorously, be they from three hundred or thirty years ago”?[2] And strictly speaking, all the works collected in Temas de sociedad civil cubana are questioning us today, and for several reasons: the continuance of the problems mentioned and discussed, the mobility of the ideas and stances of the authors themselves, the procedural nature of the changes in the Cuban society (where the idea of “the new things either appeared or done” should not involve a utilitarian exercise to “wipe a slate clean”), the vindication in the official discourse and mainstream media of the term “civil society” in the context of the 2015 Summit in Panama, and the unchangeable lack of a dialogue between science and politics.

About this last matter I would like to make a comment. The permanent appeal for coordination between science and politics, or to put it in terms widely used in recent times, between “academia” and the “policymakers”, defers a more serious problem: who are those policymakers? The distortion for socialist democracy of shifting the responsibility for policymaking—as it happens in practice—onto “others” and thinking that we are excluded from those processes is combined with the fact that we mistake “executors” for “decision-makers” because they represent, or work for, certain government institutions. And this does not necessarily happen where we think that the sectorial policies are, or should be, designed. The works collected in this book also shed light on these topics, even if sometimes they are not explicitly presented.

As I said, the journal Temas is regarded as a pioneer in the treatment of Cuba’s civil society-related matters. However, Rafael Hernández himself has upheld the idea that it is the result of years-long accumulation and sedimentation. In this connection, we can mention some works published by La Gaceta in the early 1990s and the existence of research centers and university professors who approached this topic. Certainly, this accumulation found expression in the pages of Temas and the sedimentation kept reproducing until it achieved editorial spaces in the 2000s.

The “civil society” concept had certainly found a niche in political theory—at least in an academic context—linked to the university environment. And yet, its use in everyday political language was either nonexistent or pejorative. Due to those circumstances that sometimes turn even our daily routines upside down, it was the Panama Summit in April 2015 that allowed for a tepid amount of socialization (two decades after Temas published the first texts about this subject), a sudden turn of events that paved the way for utilitarianism in these definitions which, according to empowered political actors, are frequently modified and used as synonymous with popular movements, social or grassroots organizations, or NGOs.[3] That is why we can also appreciate the timeliness of the material presented here today. Albeit hardly a new subject matter, a different thing has usually happened in post-Revolution Cuba: any silent leap forward leads the younger generations to consider as a novelty the studies on and approaches to socialization anchored to a liberating and revolutionary theoretical tradition. And that is another added value of Temas de sociedad civil cubana: what comes to some people as a surprising novelty can become a bridge that spans the silent voids and make us turn to an earlier school of thought.   

Following the conventional rules, I should comment on the content of the book in greater detail. Then, to begin with, I refer to Alain Basail’s well-chosen and enlightening foreword: “[The book] has one major merit in that it maps out intellectual concerns and misgivings about the complexity and meaning of the topic at issue at the same time as it throws it open for debate and for the search of individual and collective answers”.[4] Basail stresses the socio-historic viewpoints of José Antonio Piqueras and María del Carmen Barcia about the subversion of social systems and the visions of the colonial, neocolonial, liberal or socialist states, as well as those of the social actors and the international geopolitical context. About the latter—the international geopolitical context—he also ponders various perspectives using Carlos M. Vila’s Latin American keys or Douglas Friedman’s American ones, Ernesto Domínguez’s approach to the neoliberal state’s crisis, and the arguments between Italian and Cuban philosophers presented by Jorge Luis Acanda.

Likewise, Basail identifies at least five interpretation keys common to all works: 1. Recognition of the social actors’ skills, abilities and potential to take revitalizing actions in a context of power relations marked by unstable symmetry; 2. Awareness that it is a very politicized context in which the political-ideological intent leads to “interested misinterpretations” or “biased clarifications” but the distinction between civil society and political society is methodical, since both constitute a complex whole from a Gramscian standpoint; 3. Definition of processes bound to eventually become sources of tension and conflict; 4. A comprehensive cultural perspective of ideological processes as ways to produce meanings and senses of social life that strive to be legitimate and hegemonic; and 5. Consideration of an ethical dimension, because a social project is a moral project that builds morality on ethical and cultural codes as well as on social values and principles intended to improve civility and human dignity which, as social constructs, lose out on political coherence and end up belittled by transgressions, disagreements, differing ethical codes, human drama and conflicting attitudes, for survival itself is stake.[5]

Then I would like to establish a dialog with some articles that I was familiar with even before this book was published. I used some of those texts as reference when I was writing the essay Ruta crítica del sindicalismo cubano actual: hacia una nueva CTC (Critical path for Cuba’s contemporary labor movement: towards a new CTC). I must confess that this publication would have saved me a lot of time in my “narrow bandwidth” scenario, and I think that experience proves in practice the importance of this compilation. When I tried to talk about the current challenges facing the Cuban labor union movement, particularly the Cuban Trade Unions Confederation (CTC), I realized that such an effort involved the risk of touching on the edges of a broader matter, to wit, civil society.

In the middle of the debate about whether or not it is appropriate to present civil society as the antinomy of the State and politics, especially in the case of the Cuban Revolution and the institutionalization process intended to lay the foundations for a government unified with the people (a government of the people), it would seem accepted—if contradictory—that the redemption of the term is related to the State’s inability to meet people’s every need, the strengthening of the private economic and cooperative sectors, and the growing social differences. If we follow this logic, and in light of our recent experience with the reform process promoted by the Party-Government duality, the Cuban State also emerges as the “facilitator” and “promoter” of civil society’s new expressions.

This brings with it another problem. The appearance of new interlocutors and the extension of the autonomous social space, considered as a current phenomenon in Cuba, entail the risk that the organizations established (or re-established) between 1959 and 1980 will not be recognized as civil society actors. Such are the cases of the CTC, the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the Federation of High School Students (FEEM), and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), among others. We are talking about organizations that brought together almost our entire young and adult population following the triumph [of the Revolution] in 1959. That is, as Hugo Azcuy underscores in Estado y sociedad civil en Cuba, these organizations came into being in times marked by large-scale rallies in support of the fledgling revolution, confrontation with U.S. aggression, class homogenization, and excessive politicization,[6] a period during which the term “civil society” had fallen into disuse in Cuba.

Going back to the numerous dichotomies under discussion that we find in this book: civil society-State and civil society-political society, the close ties between these organizations and the revolutionary State, as well as the control of the former exercised by the latter, made certain sectors reluctant - at the time and since—to insert the former in the Cuban civil society structure.

On this matter, the book includes Jorge Luis Acanda’s analyses—influenced by Gramsci’s contribution—using as reference a broad sense of politics and power, civil society’s conflicts, and the concept of hegemony. I would like to make something else clear: the repeated recurrence to Gramsci has been criticized in some circles because of the epochal distance and the concurrence of a new specialized literature. It is true that some theoretical positions turn out to be obsolete and can be renovated, but an author aware that the context has changed and familiar with a considerable amount of that new production often decides to subscribe to a preceding thinker’s corpus. What is worse, in many of the academic exercises that we carry out in our universities, we judge the relevance of research—as if it were a closed algorithm—by the dates of the texts cited in the bibliography, without taking into account their quality.

A tendency currently pervading various fields is that of denying the participatory nature of any space that legitimizes the State policies, supports certain decisions or responds with calls for mobilization to the appeals made by government or Communist Party leaders. It would seem that people cannot gather around a target of accompaniment. At this juncture, the question would be: does this accompaniment to the organizations respond to the priorities of their members or their leaders?

In short, the “civil society” concept itself is complicated, troublesome and variegated and perhaps one of the most ideologically conceptualized and politicized by contemporary ideological and political systems. This has also found expression in Cuba, less homogeneous and uniform from the ideological and political viewpoint—even now in 2018—than it is thought and proclaimed by the Cuban State and Party leaders, the right-wingers empowered in many countries, and a great deal of Cubanologists for whose theories and even political projects the monochromatic myth of Cuba’s social thinking and common sense, proves to be quite useful.

I would venture to suggest some general ideas: 1. There is a civil society in Cuba which is challenged by the need, among others, to recognize itself as such and break the hegemonic dynamics that allows power (or the powers) to define what belongs and has a place therein or not; and I don’t mean only the utilitarian socialization by the Cuban leaders since the Panama Summit that I mentioned before, but also—and with no less emphasis—the “illustrative democratization” that Obama talked about when he visited the island in March 2016; 2. The limits for recognizing that Cuban civil society lie precisely in the fact that it should be Cuban and not anti-national; and there is room here for an interesting addendum to the previous idea: self-recognition is not enough. Cuba has witnessed at times the development of platforms which threaten our sovereignty with a discourse “for national improvement”; and 3. What could be described as “socialist civil society” is the ideal of civil society that I endorse for the project of a Cuban nation. Its essence implies focusing more the road than on the finishing line, its constant restructuring and the acknowledgment of “what is not done yet”.

About this and much more we find in Temas de sociedad civil cubana. Finally, let me play with the title of the Recuento collection: May all retrospectives speak to us in the present and for the future.



[1] Alain Basail. Utopía de utopías: Temas y la sociedad civil cubana. In Temas de sociedad civil cubana. Ediciones Temas, 2017. p. 7.

[2] Alberto Garrandés. Palabras preliminares. In Escritores olvidados de la República. Ediciones UNIÓN, 2012. pp. 6-7.

[3] Jorge Luis Acanda. Sociedad civil y hegemonía. In Revista Temas No. 6, abril-junio de 1996. pp. 87-93.

[4] Alain Basail. Ibidem. p. 6.

[5] Alain Basail. Ibidem. p. 7.

[6] Hugo Azcuy Henríquez. Estado y sociedad civil en Cuba. In Revista Temas No. 4, octubre-diciembre de 1995. pp. 105-110.

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