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With or Without Fidel

The revolutionary euphoria of the 1960s may have waned in Cuba, yet many Cubans continue to believe that the revolution and what it achieved was important and that the values and institutions it represented and gave rise to can yet be salvaged. This critical engagement with the meanings and values of Cuban socialism is being spearheaded by sections of the Cuban youth, cultural activists, musicians and intellectuals.

Letter from America

With or Without Fidel

Future of the Cuban Revolution

The revolutionary euphoria of the 1960s may have waned in Cuba,yet many Cubans continue to believe that the revolution and what itachieved was important and that the values and institutions itrepresented and gave rise to can yet be salvaged. This criticalengagement with the meanings and values of Cuban socialism isbeing spearheaded by sections of the Cuban youth, culturalactivists, musicians and intellectuals.

SUJATHA FERNANDES

F
or the first time ever on July 31,Fidel Castro, chief commandante of the Cuban Revolution, temporarilyrelinquished power. Incapacitated withsevere intestinal bleeding, Fidel underwent emergency surgery and his brotherRaul Castro assumed the post of temporarypresident while Fidel recovers.Since its inception on January 8, 1959,the Cuban Revolution has survived a US – supported invasion, the threat of nuclear war,a harsh economic embargo, and the collapseof its major trading partner, the Soviet Union.But could the revolution survive the absence of Fidel? For many years, the US government had argued that Castro’s iron-handedrule was the reason the Cuban Revolution could withstand the various challenges, andthat without him it would collapse. Yetdespite the street parties among political conservative sections of the Miami exile community at the news of Fidel’s illness, themajor uprising in Havana did not occur.Analysts were somewhat surprised to seethe reaction of ordinary Cubans, whocontinued with their normal activities and seemed concerned about their leader’s health.

The situation in Cuba may depend onRaul Castro’s ability to carry out the functions of interim president, as well as Cuba’ssupport networks in Latin America and theCaribbean, but what will also be at stake in the continuity of the revolution is howmuch legitimacy it has among ordinaryCubans. On the ground, it seems thatalthough the revolutionary euphoria of the1960s has long waned, Cubans continueto believe that the revolution was importantand that elements of its values and institutions can be salvaged.

There is an important mass of Cubanswithin the arts, academic consortiums, social organisations, and work centres who have identified their criticisms of Cuban socialism, but continue to stay in Cuba andcreate dialogue and debate. Rather thanhardliners such as Raul Castro, or dissidents, who are mostly based outside theisland, it is these critically engaged Cubanswho will most likely be the base of continuity and will actively shape the natureof a future transition.

Crisis and Transformation

Following the collapse of communismin the Soviet Union and eastern Europe in1991, the Cuban political leadership continued to argue that Marxist-Leninist principles still constituted the basis of officialideology, although the ideas of othernationalist and revolutionary leaders suchas José Martí should be incorporated. Arhetorical commitment to socialism, combined with the necessity of adopting marketmechanisms in selected areas of the economy led to the segmentation of theeconomy into two.

During the 1990s, the tourism sectorexpanded dramatically as the major sourceof foreign exchange income; productionand distribution functions of state-owned enterprises were transferred to foreignbusiness through the mixed firm; traditionalexport markets were recuperated; and thedollar was legalised, so that the Cubaneconomy functioned as a dual dollar-pesoeconomy. The state employed new strategies of labour discipline in order to achievecompetitiveness in the world market.

The emergence of a critical layer ofartists, intellectuals and activists in Cuban society can be traced to the political andeconomic liberalisation of the early 1990s.The Cuban government legalised limitedforms of self-employment, agriculturalmarkets were established, and the rentingof homes to tourists was permitted. Along with these liberalising economic measures,the government was also more toleranttowards opposition groups as it attemptedto improve its human rights image in orderto attract investment and build supportagainst the US embargo.

Various official mass organisations andinstitutes began to gain a degree of independence from the state. The Centre forthe Study of America (CEA), which wasestablished by the Central Committee ofthe Cuban Communist Party, was grantedNon Governmental Organisation (NGO)status in order to project a more independent image, attract international funding,and facilitate international academic exchanges. Other institutes such as the Centrefor Psychological and Social Research andthe Center Félix Varela, and journals such as Temas provided a space for debatesabout the crisis of state socialism. The feminist network Magín was formed in themid-1990s as a result of the encounters of Cuban women in international meetings.

By the late 1990s, these spaces had begunto close up. The limited economic recoveryof the country, its re-establishment of tradelinks with a range of countries, and thetightening of the US embargo through TrackII of the Torricelli Law in 1995 and the Helms-Burton law in 1996, increased the defensiveness of the political leadership.New prohibitions were placed on rentalactivity. Taxation measures designed tolimit self-employment and laws passed tostop theft of state property in 1997 werepart of a crackdown on the black market.The academics of CEA and the women of Magín were criticised by Raul Castro ina March 1996 speech, and members of agroup called the Cuban Council werearrested. The CEA collective was dissolved and their members were moved to other centres. Magín was also closed down.

Formation of New Revolutionary Cultures

Following this series of confrontations,some activists, intellectuals and artists left Cuba. However, others stayed in Cuba andbegan to work within other institutions.Intellectuals from the CEA were sent to the Centre for Psychological and SocialResearch, Centre for Studies of the Cuban Economy, and the Centre for Research onCuban Culture, Juan Marinello. The women from Magín became active in the arts andother institutes such as the Cuban Societyof Psychologists and the National Centreof Sexual Education. These actors became

Economic and Political Weekly September 23, 2006 involved with nascent cultural movements such as Cuban rap music and hip hopculture, poetry, performance art, video,and permaculture that were to create newavenues for critical participation withinCuban society.

Through the Cuban rap movement, youngblack Cubans began to address growingproblems of racial discrimination andinequality in contemporary Cuban society.Rappers are strongly critical of the silencing of race issues within Cuban society,police harassment of black youth, and themarginalising of black youth within a newtourist economy. But they are invested inthe idea and legacy of the Cuban Revolution as the basis for their acts of resistance. Rappers associate the Cuban nationwith the condition of “underground”, andits connotations of political awareness andrebellion. In their song “Rebellious Youth”,also the name of the official youth newspaper, rappers Alto Voltaje claim that “Likea cross I go, raising the ‘underground’banner for the whole nation”. In “MyCountry, Damn!” Explosión Suprema state,“We are the Cuban ‘underground,’ almostwithout possibilities, but with the little thatwe have we are not dissenters”.

Rappers have identified their movementwith statements by the political leadershipabout justice and sovereignty in the international arena. For instance, the Cuban state issued several statements condemning the arrest and subsequent sentencing in2001 of five Cubans imprisoned in Miamibecause of their intelligence work for theCuban government in the US. A Cubansolidarity campaign to “Free the CubanFive” attracted followers around the world. In the song Asere (Cuban slang for friend,or “homie”), a collaboration between Cubanrappers Obsesión and Anónimo Consejoand Puerto Rican rapper Tony Touch, therappers link the campaign of the “CubanFive” to the struggles of Puerto Ricans onthe small island of Vieques against USnuclear testing, and they criticise UShegemony in the region.

Transnational networks have played animportant role in supporting culturalmovements such as rap. North Americanrap music is the original source of Cubanrap music, and from the early days Cubanrappers have maintained close ties withrappers in the US. The visits of politicallyprogressive African American rappers werecrucial to the formation of Cuban rap andhip hop, particularly through a networkknown as the “Black August Hip HopCollective”. Black August was a networkestablished during the 1970s in the California prison system as a way of linkingup movements for resistance in the Americas and the hip hop collective sought todraw connections between radical black activism and hip hop culture. Black Augustconcerts held in New York raised money for the Cuban hip hop movement, includingfunding for an annual hip hop concert,attended by American rappers. International academic exchanges, regionalfeminist meetings, and other youth andcultural exchanges have been critical to theshaping of the new movements that haveemerged on the island in the late 1990s andnew millennium.

The developing political awareness ofsome sectors of Cuban youth, as well asthe efforts of other Cubans active in state institutions and cultural centres around the country, is giving substance to a criticalmass within the country. Cuban rappers,cultural activists, and intellectuals are reinterpreting the meanings and values ofCuban socialism in ways that are relevantfor them today. As they define new pathsand strategies, these actors find themselvesin conflict with the hardliners, but are also sceptical of a transition to market democracy that is being heavily promoted bythe US government.

Analysts have long sought to predictthe fate of the Cuban Revolution, and have been proven wrong time and again. Ratherthan adding to this list of failed predictions,it is perhaps more fruitful to understandsome of the actors on the scene, their visions of social change, and the futures they areengaged in fighting for.

EPW

Email: sujatha.fernandes@qc.cuny.edu

Economic and Political Weekly September 23, 2006

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