Civil society is a reflection of the political system, and therefore the civil society of popular democracy of socialist societies is different from the civil society of representative democracy in capitalist societies. In representative democracy, elected public officials respond to the interests of campaign contributors and to the dominant class, and therefore often they are not responsive to the common good or the popular sectors. So the civil society tends to be formed by non-governmental organizations that are critical of the government. But in popular democracy, candidates for political office are nominated by the people in small voting districts, and there are not electoral campaigns that require financial contributions. The elected delegates are responsive to no one other than the local voters who elected them. So governments in popular democracies respond to the interests of the people, to the extent that national resources permit. In such a situation, non-governmental organizations are not anti-governmental. The tend to see their work as complementing that of the government (see “Cuba and the Civil Society Debate” 4/13/2015).
In the case of Cuba, the main organizations of civil society are the mass organizations of workers, small farmers, cooperativists, students, women and neighborhoods. They are non-governmental organizations, supported by the modest dues of members. Each one of these organizations has a membership rate of more than 90% of the people in its particular sector. Their leaders, elected by the members, have an important role to play in public discourse, and the Cuban Constitution of 1976 requires that the committees of the national assembly include representatives from the mass organizations in the formulation of new legislation. The mass organizations are not anti-governmental. They support the Cuban Revolution as a project that has provided each of these sectors with many advances with respect to their human rights. In addition, Cuban civil society is composed of various academic, professional, social and religious organizations with particular areas of interest. Like the mass organizations, they are not anti-governmental, and they see themselves as making contributions to the development of the Cuban socialist project. And the Cuban civil society includes miniscule anti-governmental organizations that receive funding from foreign sources. They have very little popular support, being discredited by their association with counterrevolutionary forces outside the country.
Most of the members of the Cuban civil society present at the President’s address were not in agreement with much of what he said. But they listened respectfully, applauded at appropriate moments, and discussed the speech among themselves afterwards.
In the Cuban television news coverage of the event, Obama’s speech was followed by commentaries of journalists and academics as well as representatives of organizations of civil society. Many described the speech as intelligent, well organized, and emotionally effective in its use of examples. Obama, they concluded, is a good communicator. However, these same commentators saw the address as limited, when analyzed from a historical and political perspective. Many used the words “banal,” “superficial,” and “lacking in historical content” to describe it. Many noted that important historical and current aspects of the relation between Cuban and the United States were omitted. Rosa Miriam Elizalde, assistant director of the Cuban news website Cubadebate, expressed disappointment; she was expecting more for such an historic occasion. Television new analyst Renaldo Taladriz, who appears regularly on the Cuban nightly television news program La Mesa Redonda, said that the occasion would have been truly historic if Obama had expressed an apology for the blockade imposed upon the Cuban people since 1963; instead, Obama simply maintained that the US policy has failed, and that Cuba and the United States should leave the past behind. Television political analyst Cristina Escobar commented that Obama failed to mention the US role in impeding Cuban progress in the past and the present.
I myself did not expect anything more. I expected a superficial and unhistorical presentation, with fundamental distortions in reality caused by significant omissions. This is standard fare is the discourses of US presidents, political figures, journalists and most academics. The low quality of US public discourse is a product of the necessity to defend imperialist policies in the context of a proclaimed commitment to democratic values. In contrast, public discourse in Cuba has a much higher quality. It constitutes a daily formulation of an historical and global perspective with a commitment to universal human values, in which not only political leaders and journalists participate, but also leaders of civil society, academics and artists (but not “movie stars”). The high quality of the public discourse is an important element in the cultural and political formation of the Cuban people and in the integration of youth into the Cuban revolutionary project.
Obama’s approach to history is fundamentally different from that of Cuba and Latin America. Obama wants to leave the past behind, to be not locked in the past, in order to focus on the present and the future, and to concentrate on solving practical problems. Obama’s ahistorical perspective was expressed at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, and his comments at that time provoked considerable commentary from Latin American political leaders and from Cuban commentators (see “The imperialist discourse of Obama”). As expressed on March 22 by Cuban historian Elier Ramezer, persons with historical consciousness are not locked in the past; rather, their understanding of the past strengthens their understanding of the present, and enables them to formulate informed visions for the future. Accordingly, Latin American and Caribbean political leaders repeatedly refer to the Latin American and Caribbean history of conquest, colonialism, and slavery and other forms of forced labor, explaining that colonialism created economic structures that are still with us, maintained by neocolonialism and imperialism. If you do not understand this, you cannot possibly formulate a basic understanding of what needs to be done to create a more just and democratic world.
Prof. Nestor García took issue with Obama’s superficial description of the differences in the political system of the two nations. Obama stated that “Cuba has a one-party system; the United States is a multi-party democracy.” García maintains that, in reality, the two major political parties of the United States are variations on a common political tendency, and both are controlled by the dominating class. One could maintain, he argued, that the United States has a one-party system. Moreover, the Cuban Communist Party does not control the political process; it does not nominate candidates or participate in elections. Its role is the political education and cultural formation of the people.
Obama further stated that “Cuba has emphasized the role and rights of the state; the United States is founded upon the rights of the individual.” García observed that Cuba does not emphasize the rights of the state, but the rights of the people; the state represents the interests of the people, through the delegates and deputies of popular power, freely nominated and elected by the people, without the participation of political parties and without campaign financing. US individualism, he maintained, should not be juxtaposed with the state, but with the socialist ethic of solidarity and international cooperation.
Obama also stated, “if you cannot be exposed to different points of view, you will not reach your full potential.” Indeed so. Obama seems to be unaware that the Cuban Revolution, from 1868 to the present, has integrated ideas drawn from other lands, including the United States. And he seems to be unaware that Cuban news programming repeatedly covers events and scientific developments in other nations, including the United States. In contrast, structures of knowledge and learning in the United States pay little attention to what is being developed in the countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia, or to what Third World leaders think and are proposing. That is why it is possible the President of the United States, an intelligent and educated man, can be so uninformed about the history of Cuba or its present situation.
During his visit in Cuba, Obama repeatedly stated that Cubans should have freedom of expression, the right to organize and to form demonstrations of protest, and the capacity to choose their political leaders. He does not appreciate that all of these political and civil rights are fully respected in Cuba. Inasmuch as they exist in the context of popular democracy, as against representative democracy, they have a different look, but they are not inferior. Because they have a different appearance, many persons from the North do not see them. And because they are structures that take control of the political process away from the dominant class, there are powerful persons in the world who have an interest in discrediting them, which they do through omissions and ideological distortions and manipulations. Inasmuch as popular democracy takes control of the political process from the dominant class, a case can be made that popular democracy protects the political and civil rights of the people more than does representative democracy (see “Cuba, United States, and human rights” 4/9/2015 as well as “Popular democracy in Cuba” in “The Cuban revolutionary project and its development in historical and global context.”
Obama states that Cuba has the right to determine the future of its political-economic-cultural system, and that change will not be imposed by the United States. But as long as the blockade remains in force, the government of the United States continues to try to use economic coercion to force Cuba to move in the direction of the US system of representative democracy, casting aside the popular democracy that has been forged by the Cuban people with wisdom, courage, and sacrifice.
Key words: Obama, Cuba, civil society, democracy, human rights