Swimming against the tide of history
lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue May 29 17:10:14 MDT 2001
I just received this from Sid Shniad. It is very, very interesting.
[Excerpt from Media Benjamin's interviews with Juan Antonio Blanco from the
book Talking About Revolution. Blanco begins here by recounting his own
experiences as one whose views have not always been in line with prevailing
policy, even though he stands within the Revolution. This illustrates
concretely how Cuba has dealt with such differences. He then goes on to
talk about how it deals with dissenters -- those who are outside of and
against the Revolution.]
Q. You make a distinction between dissent within the system and anti
systemic dissenters. How has Cuba historically treated, dissent within the
system, and has the recent crisis and hostile international environment
narrowed the space for such dissent?
One of the historic problems with socialism around the world is that it
never came to terms with accommodating dissent within the system. I know
this firsthand because I have been, if you wish, a "dissident" within the
revolution on many issues and for quite a long time.
Q. Can you give us some specific examples?
In the late 1960s I was teaching in the department of philosophy at the
university. The department was a center for all kinds of creative thinking
about socialism, and we published a magazine called Pensamiento Critico, or
Critical Thought. We were trying to create a Cuban Marxist school of
thinking using a non dogmatic approach to Marxism. As Che Guevara
suggested, we approached Marxism "with the natural attitude that somebody
in physics might embrace Newton, without declaring Newton the last word in
Throughout the 1960s, we tried to update the Cuban population on the major
trends of thinking of our time. Pensamiento Critico was the kind of
magazine that wouId have been frowned upon in the Soviet Union because it
included all different schools of thought, including bourgeois thought
(which is, of course, one of the major schools of thought in modem times),
liberal thinking, radical socialist thinking. You could read the writings
of African Amilcar Cabral next to the works of the German Herbert Marcuse,
and of course we would include Cuban thinkers as well. We also included
critiques of the Soviet model. All this was something totally "abnormal"
for a proper, prudent Soviet socialist publication.
This experiment lasted until the end of the decade, when the Russification
of the Cuban model began and derailed a number of original efforts like the
one at our university. All of a sudden the direction of the department
changed, a new curriculum was imposed, and Pensamiento Critico was shut
down. I was not in favor of copying the Soviet model and made my views
known. I refused to teach Soviet Marxism; I could not lie to my students
saying something to them that I didn't believe in. So I had to quit my
Q. Did anything else happen to you?
No, I did not end up in prison or anything like that, and I was able to get
a job elsewhere. But during that time there was little room for public
debate on issues like this.
Amazingly enough, there is more room for debate today. There are openings
today that did not exist 10 years ago. The existence of the non
governmental organization I am now heading is a testament to that. The very
existence of my institution, a nongovernment institution for the study of
politics and ethics, would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. This is
because according to the Soviet model, every non governmental organization,
with the exception of the mass organizations promoted by the system itself,
was perceived as suspicious.
I find it very encouraging that during the most difficult moment in the
revolution's history, we are moving toward a more pluralistic view of the
construction of socialism. At one time the line of the party was the line
period and if you spoke against that line, no matter how respectfully, you
were perceived as a counterrevolutionary. This is not the case anymore.
Within the party there is a growing trend for presenting alternative views
and airing differences. So the logic that is prevailing today is not the
logic of repression but the logic of democracy.
The admission of religious believers into the party and into high posts of
government, which happened at the Fourth Party Congress in 1991, was an
important step. Perhaps more important than what it meant to the believers
themselves is the psychological impact it had of opening the society to
more points of views. These are, of course, views within the system,
because they are religious people who in one way or another back up the
system. Like anyone else, they may disagree with particular policies, but
they believe in building a socialist society. So we are moving little by
little into a policy of more flexibility.
We are starting to understand that democracy is not a luxury, it is a
necessity. If we want to save the system, we need to guarantee a plurality
Q. If there was, indeed, a more open environment prevailing, you would
expect to see this reflected in the Cuban press. Yet the press continues to
be abysmal. Year after year, there are conferences in which everyone speaks
out about the need to have a more investigative press, a more interesting
press, a more dynamic press. But despite all these criticisms and calls for
change at all levels of the Cuban society, nothing changes. Why?
One of the problems of copying the Eastern bloc model is the role that was
given to the press. It is more apologetic than investigative journalism. I
feel you can have investigative journalism from a revolutionary point of
view without giving up your ideals and values. The problem is that this is
not the way the media has been perceived in Cuba and it's not the role the
media has been playing.
On the other hand, with all the TV and radio that comes from the United
States, you can't say that Cuba is closed to the Western media. You can
hear some 15 Miami radio stations. And in terms of TV, if you walk around
Havana you will see all over town these little square antennas on people's
roofs. Everyone knows that these are for receiving UHF stations from Miami,
because there are no UHF stations in Cuba. The very fact that those
antennas are tolerated, that nobody knocks on your door to question you
about your antenna, shows that we are not a closed society.
So it's not that the Cuban people are uninformed, it's that they are ill
informed. They either get an apologetic point of view from the national
media, or a totally distorted view from Miami. Either way, the press is not
objective in its coverage of Cuban affairs.
We certainly need to create a more objective press in Cuba, a press that
could play a role in the economic and political restructuring of the
country by providing insights, by providing ideas, by being a communication
vessel between ordinary Cuban citizens and the central government. That is
a necessity. But it's blocked by many prejudices from the past, and the
international environment certainly doesn't help. It is difficult to create
another kind of journalism without a change in the international environment.
I find it very strange that the Western media either ignored or
misinterpreted the elections for the National Assembly that we had in
December 1992. If they had really looked closely at the process, they would
have realized that this was also, aside from an election, a referendum on
Fidel Castro and on the revolution.
I know that some Cubans don't like this thesis because they feel that it
downplays the election as such, but in my own personal judgment, it was
both an election and a referendum.
First of all, in 1992 the electoral laws were changed to call for the
direct election of representatives to the National Assembly, which is the
equivalent of your Congress. Previously, the people chose the local
representatives out of a slate of several candidates. The winners then
elected the provincial representatives, who then elected the national
representatives. So these direct national elections were the first of their
While there were several candidates to choose from at the local level, in
these national elections there was only one set of candidates. You could
delete the name of anyone on the list, you could choose all of them, or you
could make your vote a protest vote by spoiling the ballot or leaving it
Now to understand the significance of this campaign, you must understand
that in the middle of our crisis, Cubans were bombarded by radio stations
in Miami with messages calling on them to nullify their ballots. This was a
major campaign in Miami, with about 15 stations broadcasting 24 hours a
day. They spent literally thousands of hours of broadcasting time urging
Cubans not to vote or to leave their ballot blank. Radio Marti alone
broadcast 452 messages about the elections.
In response to this campaign, the government then asked the people to
support the revolution by giving a united vote as a patriotic response and
as a way of keeping the revolutionary vote united. Every vote was important
and people were aware of that. You could still pick one individual and not
another, but the population was asked to give a yes to the whole list of
candidates. Fidel himself went all over the country explaining the measure
and the importance of voting for the unified slate, and he himself was a
candidate in the city of Santiago. So Fidel really put himself on the line
during this vote, and remember that we are talking about an election that
was taking place during our most severe economic crisis.
What I find curious is that for years the U.S. government and the
counterrevolutionary forces have been pressing for a referendum on Fidel
Castro. And that is essentially what happened, but no one wanted to
recognize this. This was not a referendum on particular policies because
many people would like to see a number of policies changed but it did
transform itself into a referendum on sovereignty, on the revolution, on
Fidel Castro, on socialism as a path for national liberation. People were
voting both for a slate of candidates and for the continuity of the
revolutionary process as the right path to face and surmount the current
Q. And what was the outcome?
The interesting thing is that in the solitude of the booths that were
checked out by the international media, the diplomatic corps and
neighborhood committees people overwhelmingly voted in favor of the
revolution and against the Miami option.
Almost 99.6 percent of eligible voters actually voted, and voting is not
mandatory. The votes were counted in public, before the neighbors and
international observers. In the city of Havana -- where most of the
problems are more acute about 15 percent nullified their vote. Nationally,
only 7.2 percent of the population nullified their ballot.
But let's use our imagination in order to understand the significance of
the outcome. Let's say that 1 percent of the people didn't vote. Let's also
be conservative and take the percentage of spoiled votes in Havana 15
percent and say that was the national average. Let's also assume that all
Cubans overseas voted another million people and that all these Cubans
overseas voted against the revolution (which would not be the case). You
would still have the revolution backed up by over 75 percent of the
I would like to see a government in the United States elected with the
participation of 99 percent of the people, and getting a 75 percent
backing, especially in a critical economic period.
Q. Would you be in favor of a multi party system in Cuba?
I do not dogmatically believe in the one party system or in any other
arrangement. But remember, we did not copy our one party system from the
Soviets. It was really a legacy of Jose Marti's attempt to create one party
out of several parties that existed at the end of the last century. All of
them were independent clubs in conflict with one another parties were
called clubs at that time and Marti wanted to bring all of those little
parties into one huge party in which they could coexist with their own
points of view and visions but be united in their efforts to achieve
In terms of the future of the Cuban political system, our system is not and
could never be a finished product; it is some thing that is in process. It
has emerged at a particular time in history and is evolving according to
the history of our country, the psychology of our people, and the
environment that surrounds us.
When the counterrevolutionary message speaks of "freedom," it is referring
to free enterprise. When the counterrevolutionary message speaks of
"democracy", it is referring to reestablishing political competition
between powerful sectors. When the counterrevolutionary message speaks of
"equality," it is referring to the re establishment of juridical equality
within a structure that is divorced from economic opportunities. When the
United States speaks to us of a "new world order," it is speaking of the
acceptance by Cuba of a transnational power, with its headquarters in
These code words are accompanied by other ideological messages. One of them
is that humanitarian utopias are not viable, that there is no alternative
to capitalism. It says that capitalism has proven itself to be the only
viable society and therefore we should concern ourselves with improving the
capitalist system and not with building an alternative system.
Another message is that life only has meaning for each of us as
individuals, and only in the present. We should not search for meaning in
life in relation to the future or in relation to others, for life only has
meaning for me and for now.
A related message is that in society, as in nature, the fittest survive. So
the misfortune of others is not my problem and is not within my ability to
solve. If people are poor, that is because they have lost out in the social
competition and the only thing I can do is to guarantee my future and not
try to establish a sense of solidarity with my neighbors.
A corollary concept, taken to a national level, is that history, the nation
and even my life have no historical and ideological mission to fulfill. We
are on this planet to live as individuals and neither my nation, nor
history, nor I as an individual have a meaning or an objective other than
the search for success, and success as defined as power over others.
And the ultimate message, which is logically tied to the others, is that I
can be successful if I try hard enough. As the saying goes, "You can make
it if you really try."
In the last analysis, the message is one of selfishness, immediacy and
egotism surely the antithesis of revolutionary values and ideals.
In the best tradition of our Cuban revolutionary thought, there is clearly
the notion that people make history. Instead of seeing inexorable laws of
history, instead of believing that history inexorably led to a certain
outcome, we see history as an ethical commitment and a human possibility.
Marti, who died without achieving his goals, taught us that people make
history not according to their real possibility of victory but according to
their ethical commitment to justice. These are essential elements for
understanding the evolution of our revolutionary process.
According to capitalist thinkers, yes, we are crazy people swimming against
the tide of history. Socialism will inevitably fall everywhere and the
Cuban revolutionary mission is therefore an anachronism an anachronism that
corresponds to a romantic, modern era that is being overtaken by a
postmodern era. We can answer that the true Christians, not those of the
Inquisition but those who have been fighting for a particular ethical code,
have also been swimming against the tide of history for some 2,000 years!
Humanism, the human sense of existence, transcends the Cuban revolution; it
transcends Jose Marti or Fidel Castro. The human character has two basic
tendencies: egoism and altruism. Egoism embodies the ethic of "having,"
that I am worth a million dollars because I have a million dollars.
Altruism embodies the ethic of "being," that I am worth what I am, as a
measure of my virtues and defects.
The question is not whether or not the ethic of being can win out over the
ethic of having. Jose Marti didn't believe that he would necessarily
achieve victory in his lifetime, or that victory was even necessarily
achievable. If we lose, as Marti did during the independence struggle, each
defeat is accepted as a temporary setback, and we search for a strategic
victory beyond the lifetime of the generation that is currently carrying
out the struggle.
So it's not about winning, it's about taking a moral stand. We have to
prove to ourselves and posterity that we were truly willing, in the words
of Marti, to cast our fate with the poor of the earth. If we are not
successful, perhaps the next generation will be.
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