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Cuban Transit: From Fidel to Raul
In the New York Times (July 24) Victoria Burnett reported on an address that Raul Castro delivered to the Cuban National Assembly the preceding day (“Harsh Self-Assessment as Cuba Looks Within”) which had serious criticisms to make of the lack of civility in everyday culture and society, what he saw as a decline in revolutionary spirit. The speech (in Burnett’s paraphrase) listed the following: “Cubans build houses without permits, catch endangered fish, cut down trees, gamble, accept bribes and favors, hoard goods and sell them at inflated prices, and harass tourists…. [In addition] Islanders yell in the street, curse indiscriminately, disturb their neighbors’ sleep with loud music, drink alcohol in public, vandalize telephones, dodge bus fares and throw stones at passing trains.” In Raul’s own words, “They ignore the most basic standards of gentility and respect. All this is going on under our noses, without provoking any objection or challenge from other citizens.”
Leaders in our day are not wont to level with the people, and rather, dwell on soothing platitudes to court favor, while symbolically and, for many, actually, stealing the bread from their mouths while, and as part of, servicing the needs of upper groups. That has not happened in Cuba, nor is there a hint of regimentation to follow, in achieving “standards of gentility and respect.” Yet he is plainly frustrated. Raul continued: “I have the bitter sensation that we are a society that is ever better educated, but not necessarily more enlightened.” He is seeking for his people a transformative human life, enlightenment built, first, on better education, which Cuba has achieved to a remarkable degree, but, to complete the process, a civility in which each person treats all others through bonds of solidarity and respect for the individual’s identity, rights, welfare: a socialist commonwealth founded, as his examples attest, on mutual respect. The distinction between “better educated” and “more enlightened” is subtle beyond the understanding of most leaders, including our own, because it beckons forward a nonmaterialistic realm of self-development, from which—again the examples—the Cuban people have backslidden or never fully attained, in either case testifying, regrettably, to the shortcomings of the Cuban Revolution: Raul as Jeremiah, prophet more than president, seeking almost desperately to reverse course and put the revolution back on track. Although often thought a bureaucrat who was stifling Cuba’s revolutionary potential, Raul, by pointing to the “regress[ion] in culture and civility,” here articulates a purist standard of revolutionary behavior clearly out-of-step with the age, a chasteness of vision no longer in evidence, or perhaps even sustainable, particularly in the face of a world culture of technological intrusions on the privacy and independence of, primarily, the youth. By “chasteness” I mean an ascetic cast, in which the commitment to societal reconstruction—from decent health care to full employment, from equitable wealth distribution to an enlivening popular, as well as higher, culture—trumps consumerism and the narrow regard for wealth, power, and invidious comparisons.
Raul is right to criticize; this is not counterrevolution, but energizing revolution so that, if anything, it expands its transformative reach, penetrating the individual’s psyche, not for purposes of brainwashing, but inscribing human potentiality as an ever-present aspiration to reach, implicitly, to succeed, with a corresponding institutional potentiality which aspires to the democratization of the social order. The two must be viewed as inseparable, individual and society together mutually reciprocal and supportive, experiencing mental/moral growth. If the individual falters through breaching the standards of fundamental comity, so too in like proportion there is a diminution of democratic structure and practice in the social order. I do not, of course, mean the whip, rack, or prison cell as the means of enforcement of standards, but a voluntary desire to reach outside and beyond oneself, the product of a revolutionary education and natural response to the freedom that all have created for themselves. This, to me, was evident in the early days of the Cuban Revolution, chants of Fi-del, Fi-del, Fi-del, in those hours’-long speeches and rallies when he spoke, or the way the crowds lined the long route in the triumphal march from the mountains into Havana. Euphoria, spontaneous not forced, as the butcher Batista was made to flee. Perhaps euphoria is not meant to, nor ever does, last, but neither should it disappear without a trace. Raul’s complaint, in his address, of his countrymen urinating in public, may seem trivial, and is hardly an earth-shattering wrong which nullifies the Revolution, yet that, and his, also expressed in the address, aversion to the playing of loud music in crowded housing areas, alerts one to the dimensions of a self-demanding, self-inspired revolutionary consciousness, an inner discipline of genuine altruism, which places societal welfare foremost in showing respect for the individual.
Civility is not a bourgeois concept intended to thwart personal liberation, although it has been used in repressive societies in precisely that way, but rather a questioning of ego-aggrandizement so as not to trespass on or denigrate the life-giving freedoms of the others. Socialist personhood is a frightening challenge to live by, but I take that to be what Raul is about here—not the stultified bureaucrat, but the enabler in its best sense of the revolutionary spirit. He said what needs to be said, if Cuba is to provide, by its example, the historical path ahead, not perhaps Marcusian nonrepressive liberation, nor equally, at the other end of the spectrum, a bowdlerized Marxian approach to history and social structure, which finds inevitableness, including the course of revolution, under every bush. He implies that the Cuban Revolution may be stalled, but that it is not over, for why this exhortation if all were already lost? This falls into the best tradition of a political leadership’s self-criticism, something Americans never have an opportunity to witness. I fervently wish that the exultation, the promise felt at the beginning, could still be recaptured, because, truth will tell, it is now slowly fading, and therefore runs the risk of the very cultural—in the broad sense—decadence and bureaucratization that have crept into and sometimes dominate other socialist experiences.
I well remember, on my visit home to Miami that New Years Day 1959 the joyous sounds of horns honking in celebration of Batista’s downfall and flight—a Miami that had drastically changed by the next decade into a prime source of expatriate-hatred of hemispheric social progress and support for every militaristic-interventionist move on the part of the US right through the present. When my wife Nancy and I visited Cuba in 2002, I sensed that the regression Raul spoke of was not yet fully under way. The schoolhouse we visited in the Sierra Maestra was all that I had imagined in my dreams: one room, children in their neat blue-and-white, attentive, hands eagerly raised—in of all things a math class; and the exterior walls of the school brightly painted by the children themselves. For an earlier account, covering the early years, I commend—it’s sitting before me–Lee Lockwood’s Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel (1967), a superb first-person account, narrative and photographs, along with extensive free-ranging interviews with Fidel, of a people deeply proud of their freedom, of campasenos, freed from serfdom, experiencing dignity for the first time, of the personal electricity between Fidel and the people, not simulated, not bulldozed, but genuine beyond anything, even in the throes of false consciousness, I’ve witnessed in the US. There is something so precious about the formative setting of a people’s revolution that…if it could only be conserved, or, even in the stage of its consolidation, somehow still be translated into institutional-cultural-political terms, the long day’s journey need not be into night.
Nighttime has already come to America, which is why we fear the Cuban Revolution so greatly, and feel the need to deplore its achievements. The Bay of Pigs invasion, the long-standing Embargo, these are justified by a jaundiced society which finds it easiest to ride the waves of xenophobia, the groundswell of authoritarianism, whatever it takes to distract us from the evils of intervention and regime change, and the inanities of consumerism and the mad dash for wealth, rather than struggle to attain a more meaningful existence than contemporary capitalism offers. This said, I would nonetheless be derelict in my duty to myself if I didn’t question the nature and anatomy of revolution, both of which give evidence of retrogression and unsustainability sometime after the initial euphoria wears off and even before consolidation is fully achieved. I refer now to Cuba, but revolution in general should be scrutinized for, in historical practice, endemic flaws, the backsliding of which Raul complains and resists. That does not mean, the revolution was not worth the candle. In every critical area, the Cuban people have benefited, from medical care and the vast improvement in living standards, to the accessibility to education, for those particularly in the countryside, as well as superior medical training and research, and, outside of the US, greater international recognition of the improvements made. Still, the nagging question, except for the comfortable and complacent, again, America, who place greater stock in counterrevolution than in facing, and thereby beginning the painful process of overcoming, the obstacles to equitable wealth-distribution, universal public health care, the democratization of politics and culture, all to which the US deserves a failing grade, to wit: Must revolutions atrophy, is ideology beyond the short-run destined to be unworkable in practice (particularly if solutions to basic social problems succeed), must socialism–in sum—thrive on misery, incapable of reproducing its ethos of solidarity in good times as well as bad?
Gabriel Kolko observed a similar reversal in Vietnam, in the later stages of its revolutionary struggle and experience. Still, one must not discredit the initial revolutionary thrust and the social gains resulting from it, including the rectification of grievances, whether from colonialism or an internally organized system of repression, usually the forward point of imperialism, simply because further stalling occurred. The concern, though, is this arrestment of structural-ideological motion. Raul’s address to the Cuban National Assembly demonstrates integrity beyond the norm of standard political leadership (whichever way one looks today, but particularly Obama and his liberalization of counterrevolution). The facts of USG heavy-handed opposition, bipartisan, continuous, since the inception of the Cuban Revolution, and protofascist Cuban émigrés in Miami wielding disproportionate political clout (pushing America further rightward), in addition to the suspension of Russian assistance with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, have to count for something in calculating the barriers Cuba faced to a straightout achievement of the revolution as a permanent force. Yet, these circumstances might have worked to the opposite effect, steeling the will of the Cuban people to resist the denigration of the revolution, if they were determined to stay the course. Whether the Embargo can be blamed as the political-economic-ideological culprit, is too easy by far an explanation for not holding tightly to the spark of socialist freedom, for in the final analysis responsibility rests on the people themselves to keep and practice the idealism acted on in the phase of revolutionary struggle and for the decades after.
Cuba pre- 2000 was a bright spot of world democratization. Why the descent, carefully, mournfully, described by Raul, I cannot explain, except in the conventional circular terms describing revolutions past, an inevitable Thermidorean rection I nevertheless find hard to credit. But the US cannot think, as testimony to its Exceptionalism, presumed omnipotence, possession of a divine mission, or other self-legitimating myths, that it held in check the Cuban Revolution all by itself, its devious global and Latin American diplomatic initiatives, its attempt at isolation and ruination of the Cuban nation and people. Nation and people alike must also share in the fate of the revolution, provided of course attempts at suppression by the United States are not somehow neglected. On balance, even public urination and loud music do not invalidate what has been accomplished thus far, and that might serve as a foundation for further growth.
At this point it is perhaps unwise to pose as a savant or connoisseur of revolution, not least, because I have not paid my dues, and moreover, such roles smack of the pretentiousness and sterility all too often found in the academic world, but it would do no harm to think out loud here about what ultimately may be at stake. To raise these points, is to guard against them, if not to find the answers, which in any case should not be treated as universal or invariable conclusions. Are human beings politically-ideologically finite in thought, belief, action—enclosed within certain boundaries that make the realization of human freedom unrealizable? This is not to say that the journey should not always be in progress, it should and it must be continuous, without end. But that finitude cannot be explained away, or can it be explained (but not away), by profounder instinctual blockages with respect to human autonomy and the complete acceptance, without guilt or inhibitions, of the emancipated self, whose full description we still have no inkling of (aside from hints of the Metaphysical Poets, French Symbolists, or other sources not credible in the eyes of reigning political wisdom, regardless of system of political economy or social structure)? Even socialism is not, from the standpoint of contemporary politics, ideology, social systems, and thus crossing existing ideological cleavages, fully transcendent—its conception of freedom beholden as well to so much of the Old Order. In that light, why flay the Cubans, for they have done more than most in the present day to affirm life free from exploitation? Raul knows this, as Fidel knew its possibility when, decades earlier, he witnessed the Revolution in all its strivings and splendor—which he himself helped to awaken.
Permit me to look back a half-century, to a time when social science entertained the big questions (not said pejoratively, but questions that were truly consequential), stimulated in part by the very closure of discussion, when those, tired of the Cold War atmosphere of intellectual consensus-theorization and outright repression and firings in the colleges and universities, intellectually fought back, and shaped a critique of US structure and policies that retrieved the importance of class (taboo in academic circles) and the power of ruling groups, with C. Wright Mills on the popular level, Barrington Moore, the more analytical level, counterpoised to the antiradicalism of Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Bell, and the New American Right essayists, among many others—for the denial of social protest in the American past was nearly ubiquitous, the ticket to academic stardom. These questions, still bearing the memory traces of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Left-Freudians, unashamedly sought to understand the relations between the individual and society, thus calling attention to the role of the political economy, itself enlarged in meaning to include structural-psychological mechanisms of repression, in enhancing or perverting, dulling, and/or destroying human potentiality, to which, appositely, the discussion turned to the social context qua breeding ground promoting war, imperialism, political-economic hegemony, and not to be neglected, because an holistic approach (i.e., complete systems) was valued and acted upon, the causes of alienation rooted in the social system. Yes, a good time to be alive, dodging Red Scares, opportunistic academics, and the rigorous scrubbing of radicalism from popular consciousness (and college courses), the while plunging deeper into the mysteries—hardly that—of capitalism, and bringing to the front the comparative analysis of capitalism, fascism, and socialism: a camaraderie of dissenters, incidentally, some who immediately saw the beauty of the Cuban Revolution, as did Mills, in Listen Yankee (1960).
One takes Raul seriously, but does not exaggerate his National Assembly address as condemnation of the revolution. It was not. As I’m sure he realized, this was not to be an exercise in self- or collective-flagellation; too much remained to be done to drift off into paralytic self-pity. But the timing is right: Raul’s speech is a wake-up call coinciding with the fascistic drift in our own society, as made evident by the Snowden Revelations, which showed the anatomy of a power-driven government harnessed to an exploitative economic system. Perhaps he has cleared the air for Cuba to get back on track; perhaps not. I hope my jaundiced view of youth worldwide is mistaken, and, for Cuba, a more ascetic mindset, which I believe is a prerequisite to human freedom, will take hold. Asceticism, not to be confused with austerity (the sophisticated exploitation of working people), would continue the movement of people to a more egalitarian structural and social plane and breed a disdain of waste, along with the rejection of a culturally approved superiority complex as well as excessive material goods and material striving. If too simplistic and historically untenable to expect, the revolution nonetheless will depend for its success or failure on the attitude adopted toward consumerism. Cuban youth seem the weak reed, as is happening elsewhere, now jumping ideological boundaries (e.g., China, becoming luxury-conscious), as though a cancerous growth supplanting—indeed, displacing—concern for the social welfare. If Cuba contracts the disease, and recapitulates the ideological horrors of capitalism, such as focusing on unlimited capital accumulation and Veblen’s invidious-conspicuous consumption, the revolution will go speedily downhill. Raul was uncannily right in emphasizing civility, because it is in the manners of a people, the ability to say brother, sister, comrade, and mean it, that will keep the revolution on course.
If it can maintain its revolutionary sense of purpose, which America almost pathologically fears, because serving as an alternative mode, and therefore competing model, of modernization and developmental pathway, it runs circles around the US on the satisfaction of basic needs, Cuba will have contributed to the global reawakening toward social justice. Will other parts of the world pick up the torch? Is there true promise in the Arab Spring, in crowd-actions protesting austerity (as noted, not to be confused with asceticism, but rather, a trite stratagem for dismantling social safety nets), an awakening of the victims of outsourcing in Asian countries? Or is the world enmeshed with and mesmerized by its technological gadgets, the cell phone substituting for, even replacing, human contact, to the extent of producing then utter depersonalization, and with it, solipsistic individuals wholly rejecting collective feeling and action? Cuba, by this token, is caught in a global squeeze play, making all the more imperative the success of its revolution. Socialist man must not become alienated man. Fidel led the way to emancipation, Raul is the conservator as revolutionist. The latter’s address came on July 23rd, three days shy of July 26th, a glorious day on the revolutionary calendar.
Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University. His new book, Eichmann on the Potomac, will be published by CounterPunch/AK Press in the fall of 2013.