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Professor Flora Sapio

Foreword to Larry Catà Backer – Cuba’s Caribbean Marxism

It is not every day that a highly distinguished academic decides to publish his work through an independent publishing house (Little Sir Press), making it accessible to everyone.

Most younger academic authors try to publish monographs with high ranking academic publishers. This is understandable for those who are trying to secure a place in a highly competitive job market, one where only 30 per cent of faculty are on the tenure track (2016 data). But, all  those of us with sufficient intellectual energies, and with academic interests broad enough to go beyond the requirements of bidding for a tenured appointment, will welcome the launch of Little Sir Press, and the publication of Cuba’s Caribbean Marxism by Larry Catà Backer.

I had the privilege of writing the foreword to this book. As someone who has spent the last 15 years or so pouring over regulations of the Communist Party of China,  and who knows little about Cuba, I thought I would never be up to the task of presenting Cuba’s Caribbean Marxism under the light this book deserves. As I read the book, I encountered countless points of similarity – and of powerful, undeniable difference – between Cuban/Caribbean Marxism, and the variant of Marxism existing in China today.

At a time when European institutions are turning their gaze to Cuba, the intensification of trade, academic, and cultural exchanges between Cuba and the European Union may be a harbinger of the next surge of academic interest in the Island. Written by an author born in Havana, Cuba’s Caribbean Marxism will be one and only gateway to an unbiased understanding of Cuba and its ideology.

Click HERE to see the book

Reflections On Cuba’s Caribbean Marxism

Flora Sapio

Caminante, son tus huellas

el camino, y nada más;

caminante, no hay camino:

se hace camino al andar.

(Caminante, no Hay Camino, 1912

Antonio Machado)

The general consensus about Cuba suggests how the Caribbean Island is a secondary actor in the skirmishes of global politics. Cuba is not endowed with those features that can make a state internationally powerful, in a traditional or in a modern sense. Cuba doesn’t have a large territory, a numerous population, or a strong army. Neither it is a hub of global supply chains, finance, physical or digital infrastructure.

Yet Cuba constantly rises to the limelight of global interest. This simple fact suggests that there might be a differential between the weight that is attributed to Cuba, and the objective value of Cuba in globalization. The mere possibility of such a discrepancy ought to immediately induce an attempt to understand Cuba for what it is, rather than for how it is represented. An attempt to understand why and how the Island continues to play a role well above what one would expect has to start by discarding the uses to which Cuba is put in domestic policy, and focussing on the Island’s ideological structures. Specific dynamics in the economy, government and society of Cuba may be of interest in their own respect, yet only knowledge of Cuban ideology allows to understand post-Castro reforms in a way that benefits the observer.

Cuba’s Caribbean Marxism is a book about the broader ideology behind a decade of reforms in Cuba’s domestic governance. Those who decide to undertake the long journey through the twelve chapters of this book will get a privileged insight into how the seemingly arcane words of ideology manifest in Cuba’s government, economics, society, and in Cuba’s role in globalization. At the end of this journey, they will be one step closer to understanding Cuba on its own terms.

Writing that failure to understand Cuba will result in the loss of significant opportunities – for states, enterprises and individuals – might seem closer to an empty sales pitch than to an intellectual reflection.

But, to paraphrase Backer, the different meaning we attribute to any of the objects we observe can point us either to Truth or to Lie. Backer illustrates this difficult point in his discussion of Cuba’s constitutional reform. He uses a material artifact – a Nkisi – as an example of how imposing our own ideas on any object can drive us away from Truth, as Truth is proved by facts. A Nkisi is just a wooden sculpture – and objects cannot speak to inform us of what they are. So a Nkisi, or any other object, can be only understood through the meaning we give to it.

By contrast, governance systems can and do speak. They speak through their ideology, the documents outlining the goals of that ideology, and the reforms enacted in the attempt to translate ideology into tangible facts. By speaking about themselves, governance systems inform us of what they are. Yet the words used to speak ideology are not always listened to, and much less understood for what they mean. Uninspiring and dull, they have the two opposite effects of distancing the listener, or inducing her to repeat those words for the sake of ease.

In either of these cases, one would miss the very governance system one purports to understand, and reveal much more about one’s own interest, and perception of the world, than about Cuba as it is.

The choice to take a distance from the tediousness of ‘ideology-speak’ by subjecting this form of speech to mockery or ridicule would relegate Cuba within the province of now dismantled Marxist-Leninist systems. A valuable lesson one learns from reading Cuba’s Caribbean Marxism is that Cuba may have no interest in ‘converting’ observers to the allegedly higher truth of its own breed of Marxism. All forms of discretionary power thrive on information asymmetries. The most severe information failures occur when statements meaningful to those who make them are ignored, quickly dismissed as unimportant by the listener, or understood to mean what the observer wants to hear. It is then than discretionary power enjoys the real possibility to distribute benefits and costs as it sees fit.

At times, the choice to degrade ideology might be premised on a will to validate a certain set of pre-existing beliefs and scenarios. One of the scenarios most readily accepted by the public, and hence worth projecting, is the one under which Cuba will eventually transform into a system paying lip service (at least) to the principles of ‘exogenous democracy’. The projection of this and similar scenarios can benefit their proponents regardless of what will ‘happen on the ground’ in Cuba. In the absence of Cuba’s democratization, further analyses may be required to understand why no one of the projected scenarios materialized. Should a political transformation occur, further analyses may be required to design and implement methodologies to measure and evaluate the performance of Cuba and its elites.

The decision to repeat the words of Cuban ideology, rather than dismiss them, can ironically be premised on a similar will, and yield similar outcomes. Thirty years ago, the existence of studies in ‘comparative Communism’ was sufficient to avoid conflating Cuba with any idealized version of ‘global’ Marxism-Leninism. Obscure as they may have been, analyses of ‘comparative Communism’ had the merits to prove how different types of Marxist-Leninism existed in each one of the countries of the former Soviet Bloc. A body of knowledge existed, to enable differentiated attitudes and responses to different systems, rather than the lumping all Marxist-Leninist systems under the same label.

This body of knowledge now seems to be largely ignored. For someone with an academic background in the study of China, Vietnam, or North Korea, no temptation is more enticing than considering Cuba as a Caribbean late-comer to Asian Marxism-Leninism. How easy, and how deceitfully rewarding would such an intellectual move be.

From an epistemic point of view, very little or no effort would be required to earn any knowledge about the specific ideology that has shaped Cuba, its state, its economy, and its society. To make sense of what from the outside looks as a very familiar-yet-different cauldron of races, mechanisms, ideas, words and institutions, the observer would not need to walk outside the door of her cognitive structures. Any of the tropes normally employed in analyses of China, Vietnam or even North Korea may be conveniently recycled in the study of things Cuban.

So as outide advocates of a democratic transition would eagerly slap any of the available labels on the Island, comparatists may choose to frame Cuba either as “China’s little sister”, “a New Vietnam”, or even the “North Korea of the Caribbeans”. The inclusion of Cuba within categories constructed by the observer would, of course, not guarantee that Cuba would conform to the reform path of any Asian governance system. Those interested in knowing how and why Cuba will undergo a different path of transition will find the answer in Cuba’s Caribbean Marxism. Its twelve chapters should not be read as the history of ten years of attempts to catch-up with economically more prosperous Marxist-Leninist regimes, but as the history of efforts to forge a new path there where no road exists. Therefore, readers should not automatically assume that a ‘first-level cooperative’ existing in Cuba today can be analogized to the ‘first-level cooperatives’ established in China in the 1950s. The names of these and other public entities analyzed in the book may be familiar to academics with a background in China studies. Yet, Cuba’s decision to create these entities is a prelude to a different reform path.

Caribbean Marxism is Marxism as developed by leaders of the Cuban revolution, and by those who have inherited the difficult task of governance reforms. It is an adaptation of the classical tenets of European Marxism to the concrete circumstances of Cuba. A feature common to the constitutions of most Communist Parties – both existing and defunct – is a Preamble where the ruling Communist Party states what it is, and describes how its founders adapted classical European ‘dogma’ to their local context, when they experienced that the European recipe for Revolution did not work in the Caribbeans or in Asia.

Each and every distorsion in how we observe an object is eventually produced by how we choose to position ourselves in relation to that object. Such an effect does not merely involve institutional observers, or academics specialized in the study of Marxist-Leninist systems as China, Vietnam, and North-Korea.

Cuba’s Caribbean Marxism subtly points out how the vulnerability of Cuba’s reform process lies more on the reliance of certain tropes, than in any real lack of capability by its officials and its people in forging a path for themselves. Nothing is easier than capturing Cuba – or any other country – within any of the existing discursive tropes. When this operation is performed from outside the Cuban border, it has negligible or no effects on domestic processes. Another precious insight one obtains from the book is that Cuba filters, selects and compartimentalizes all that it comes in touch with through a complex set of cognitive, cultural and institutional mechanisms that reducing to an ‘insider/outsider’ distinction would be simplistic.

At the same time, no tropes are more harmful than the tropes one creates for oneself.

Cuba’s Caribbean Marxism comments on what Backer calls “the embargo mentality”. I have very little to add to his discussion of the effects the “embargo mentality”. What is rather striking is observing scenes similar to those one might witness in Havana, and hearing a similar range of opinions there where one would expect sacrifice to be paid off by all of the material rewards markets should deliver to their followers.

In truth, pure markets of the kind of those theorized by Adam Smith do not exist. They are an aspirational ideal not dissimilar from the abolition of social classes. While the abolition of social classes calls for the intervention of a vanguard, the realization of a perfect market calls for a varying degree of involvement by the state. Just as Caribbean Marxism is the adaptation of a specific political philosophy to Cuba, variants of the Market existing in the most diverse countries inevitably entail the intervention (to different degrees, in different forms, and through different means) of ruling parties, through the support of their national governments.

The Constitutional Debate in Cuba: the Irrelevant, the Good, and the Thoughtful

Looking at the constitutional debate in Cuba can prove an instructive experience to all those used to analysing constitutional (and legislative) reform in China. Since its publication at the end of July, the Project of Constitutional Reform of the Cuban state has received attention and comments from the Cuban community living abroad, the independent Cuban press, the global press and from Cuban citizens. Popular comments have been published on CubaDebate and on Granma – the official organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba.

Some of the initial hypotheses about the meaning and the worth of popular comments on the Cuban constitution sound vaguely similar to those once made about China – despite the cultural, historical, and geographical differences between the two systems. The stemming of Cuban and Chinese political structures from the common root of European Marxism-Leninism is hard to deny. Aside from the common ideological ancestry of all Marxist-Leninist apparata of governance, the question is whether the separate trajectories of European, Cuban and Chinese Marxism-Leninism can justify the formulation of similar hypotheses as to the development of all things Cuban. But this question is perhaps best left for another time.

The webpages where Cuban citizens can post their views on the Constitution are not alternative to the 135,000 consultative meetings that are being held at the moment of writing. Instead both CubaDebate and Granma seem to provide additional spaces where comments to the 2019 Constitution can be made. It may be argued that the nature of any space is less important than how such a space can be used: the internet may help bring to the attention of the National Assembly ideas and opinions that would otherwise hardly go noticed. This is true, and yet the  “constitutive spaces” provided by CubaDebate and Granma have an additional advantage.

Given their informal nature, they may attract a broader range of opinions than one may hear at more formal discussions of the Anteproyecto. The real significance of popular comments on the Cuban constitution, however, lies in their content. Some of the comments posted online may not be relevant to the Draft Constitution: any discussion can go off topic, regardless of whether it is held online, or in a physical space. But, several topics can already be identified in the mass of comments published on CubaDebate.

Presenting an overview of each one of the different topics discussed by the visitors of CubaDebate goes beyond the goal of this post. Apart from the trends that can be discerned, some comments provide suggestions about how the entire process of consultation may be made more efficient. Consider the following comment:

Debía programarse un foro debate donde se pudieran evacuar las dudas y con ello se simplificarían muchos las reuniones de análisis en los diferentes lugares, porque más que reunirse lo importante es esclarecer las dudas y poder expresar lo que se opina, sea cual sea la vía utilizada

(A forum for debate should be programmed, where doubts may be addressed. With this, many of the meetings in different places would be very much simplified, because more than the meeting itself what is important is clarifying doubts and the ability to express what one things, whatever way is used)

or also this one:

Pregunto si nuestro Parlamento Nacional ha habilitado o habilitará algún sitio digital para exponer nuestras sugerencias sobre el proyecto de Constitución?

Other comments express a point of view in favor of gay marriage, without discussing article 68:

Todas la sparejas que se casan tienen hijos?
Alguien le prohibe a una pareja heterosexual que sea infertil casarse?

(Do all married couples have children?  Who prohibits marriage to infertile heterosexual couples?)

Yet some other comments contain reasoned suggestions on amendments to the articles in the Draft Constitution. For those who can read Spanish:

En el ARTÍCULO 22, se habla de un aspecto esencial.

“El Estado regula que no exista concentración de la propiedad en personas naturales o jurídicas no estatales, a fin de preservar los límites compatibles con los valores socialistas de equidad y justicia social.”

Yo vi en los debates, como se defendió la no concentración de la propiedad por sobre la riqueza y aprovecho para compartir mi criterio:

No creo que se pueda pretender regular la concentración de la propiedad a menos que esté mal empleado el término. En ocasiones se utiliza el término “propiedades” para denominar los bienes (sobre todo acciones, inmuebles, tierras, recursos y medios de producción) y esto puede traer confusión.

En términos jurídicos, la propiedad es el derecho que, conforme a la ley, se tiene de disponer de la riqueza que se posea. Por tanto lo que se puede regular es la concentración de la riqueza, no de la propiedad.

En los debates también vi una defensa a la concentración de la riqueza “bien habida” o lo que es lo mismo, legal. Pero ojo, que la riqueza sea legal no implica que sea justa. La situación económica que atraviesa el país, no permite que hoy exista una redistribución justa de la riqueza. De hecho se crea muy poca y la que hay, se redistribuye mediante los servicios y de manera menos visible, por la costumbre, mediante los programas sociales de la Revolución. Por eso, sigue acumulando más riqueza hoy un intermediario que un productor, un taxista que un médico, un científico o un ingeniero, un arrendador de vivienda que un maestro o un ministro, etc., etc. Es legal, pero no es justo. Y no puede haber concentración de riqueza equitativa y justa, hasta que no esté derecha la famosa pirámide.

Por eso, es necesario regular la concentración de la riqueza y redistribuirla. Hoy las leyes buscan regular la concentración de esas mal llamadas propiedades (acciones, inmuebles, tierras, recursos y medios de producción), por lo que el que acumula riquezas, lo hace, sobre todo, a expensas de la acumulación de dinero. Dinero que se devalúa y volatiliza y el que lo tiene, trata de preservarlo a toda costa.

El dinero también genera poder y ese poder en las manos no adecuadas, corrompe y degrada los valores de equidad y justicia social por los que hemos luchado y queremos preservar para nuestros hijos.

Por eso, esto no puede ser una letra muerta en nuestra constitución. La acumulación de riqueza es justa, sólo cuando se distribuye equitativamente (a cada cual según el trabajo que aporta y a cada cual según la capacidad que tenga para crear más riqueza para todos) y hay que regularla, de lo contrario, estamos alimentando la semilla de una clase capitalista que destruirá nuestras conquistas.

Por tanto, propongo modificar el texto del ARTÍCULO 22 y cambiar “El Estado regula que no exista concentración de la propiedad…” por “El Estado regula la concentración de la riqueza…”

Leaving aside off topics and irrelevant comments, one may speculate that comments as the ones above may be similar in content, tone and language to the comments one may hear at any of the 135,000 consultative meetings. But, this is only a mere hypothesis.

Professor Sapio is the holder of a research position at the University “Orientale” in Naples, Italy. The views and opinions expressed on this website are her personal views only.

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