Thursday, March 09, 2017

Cuba Beyond the Cusp of Change (Day 2): Reflections on a Week Long Penn State Graduate Course in Cuba


(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

It is my great privilege to have been encouraged to design and hold a week long embedded course program through Pennsylvania State University. My thanks to the office of the Penn State Office of the Vice Provost for Global Prgrams, Michael Adewumi and Kate Manni, Assistant Director for Embedded Programs, for making this possible.  Thanks as well to  Scott Gartner, the Director, Penn State School of International Affairs, and special thanks to Claudia Prieto (SIA Academic Adviser and Student Services Coordinator) and Rachel Arnold (Assistant to the Financial Officer, Penn State Law/SIA), without whose help and encouragement this program would not have happened. Great thanks as well to our hosts in Cuba, the Centro de Estudios Martianos that went out of its way to enrich the course and the experiences of our students.

This is the first of a series of posts that will develop reflections both on the teaching of embedded programs in Cuba, generally, but more specifically as a way of documenting the way my students and see see Cuba today.  For many years Cuba and its political order was said to be on the "cusp of change" (e.g., here).  Since the start of normalization of relations with the United States, it is quite evident that Cuba has now moved beyond the "cusp" and into the realities of integration within a global system to which it has had both privileged access and been excluded over the last half century.  The re-adjustments in both respects will mark the trajectory of Cuban life for the next generation (compare here, with here).

I started with the embedded course syllabus (INTAF 597C Penn State SIA) and then will post reflections for each day of the journey through the course materials and within Cuba.  The hope is that this provides some food for thought respecting the necessary evolution of political and economic systems, and the constraints within which systems change or expend great energy to stay the same.

Links for full contents HERE

This post considers our activities on Day 2--Plaza de la Revolución and Lecture, The Thought of José Martí: Political Ideology of Cuba.


The first full day of instruction started with a visit to the Plaza de law Revolución and the José Martí Monument and museum. This was quite deliberate. Since the focus of the week’s activities were on the ideological, political and legal frameworks of Cuba within its geopolitical context, it was deemed useful to start with a focus on the modern source of Cuban ideology and self conception—José Martí. It was also thought useful to approach the subject of José Martí within it contemporary context—the heart of the administrative and political state and party apparatus of contemporary Cuba, which is represented symbolically by the space now designed the Plaza of the Revolución, The connection between José Martí, Fidel Castro, and Simon Bolívar, representing nationalist aspirations, the aspirations of Marxist social welfare, and regional integration against the giant powers of the day place a significant role in the construction of the contemporary structures of the Cuban state-party apparatus and principles that animate it.

The museum exhibition emphasizes several points that parallel the life and thought of Fidel Castro.  The first touches on the upbringing of Martí as a student who is radicalized by the growing consciousness of the injustice around him.  That injustice is national in character--the exploitation of a global empire--and also social in character, the exploitation of the humblest classes whose productivity was expropriated by the rich.  The emphasis of the development of an intellectual framework to work through these challenges then serve as a parallel to the importance, within Cuban Marxist Leninism of the role of intellectualism and ideology in the construction of a forward thinking state.

The second touches on the initial expression of revolutionary action that naturally followed the maturing intellectual basis for action.  Ideas provided the legitimacy for the violence of revolutionary activity that served not just national but social interests.  Again there is a parallel with the life of Fidel CCastro whose own radicalization within a firm intellectual framework produced the initial attack on the base at Moncada in 1953.  In both cases Martí and Castro were imprisoned and ultimately pardoned.  Marí was exiled to Spain where he completed his education Fidel Castro eventually went to Mexico.

The third touches on the maturity of thought and the gathering of a vanguard force for revolutionary action in exile.  For Martí that reflects the period of activity as a journalist in New York and as an advocate for regional Latin American nationalism and sovereignty.  It was also marked by the willingness to embrace the poorest segments of society as the vanguard force for national and social revolution against the domination of a hierarchically exploitative empire. Again the parallels with Fidel's life are suggested.  The pictures of Martí with the remenats of native peoples and of the poorest elements of society underlined this point.

The fourth touches on the willingness to engage in violent revolutionary action to led from the position of a vanguard force.  The Leninism inherent in the actions of Martí during the preparations for what ultimately produced success in the War of Liberation and independence after 1898 was underlined though unstated.  Here the difference between Fdel Castro and Martí become more evident.  Martí is cast as martyr for the revolutionary cause--the only casualty of the first and minor skirmish in what would be a protracted war.  But that martyrdom elevated the man and his thought to the highest levels. It was the sacrifice of his body that appeared to serve as the offering that energized the Cuban people to the solidarity necessary to see through the vision of the man who died in their service.

The first lecture followed the visit to the Martí museum. It was delivered by Dr. Jorge Lozano, a member of the university of Havana philosophy department and part of the program of Martí studies. The presentation, The Thought of José Martí: Political Ideology of Cuba, provided the context within which the symbolic and historical materials observed during the morning were given its contemporary political context. His was a tour de force introduction to the life and ideas of Martí, and more importantly to the extraordinarily interesting and rich life of the way in which Martí's thought has permeated Cuban political theory from the time before independence through the contemporary period.  That reflected in abstract form the organization of the Martí museum. 

Marti is the foundation of Cuban political philosophy, history and culture. It is a combination that is very rare. It would be as if Victor Hugo were the leader of the French, or if Lincoln had the poetic ability of Walt Whitman. Martui managed to combines these talents. He had a unique personal development, raised in a Spanish colony, was 15 years old when he became involved in the Cuban liberation movements. He started as a political prisoner, and then exiled to Spain where his political education was completed in philosophy and letters. His training as a lawyer aided in the formation of his political thought. But above all his role fo philosophy and letters predominated.

Also important in his development was his experiences with other ypung leaders in Mexico, Guatemala and Latin America. Also critical was his 15 years of residence in New York City. Living there from 1881-94 coincided with the stage of the monopoly economics of the United States before the Sherman Act and competition regimes. Monopoly capitalism produced a concentration of production and finance that separated individuals from production but permitted a larger connection between masses and democratic action. The system produced a global arrangement in which states that controlled the monopolies of production and finance Europe and N America) controlled all production and then used lower ranked states as factors in the control of resources and the production of goods. That aided in the formation not just of a politics of liberation for Cuba fro Spain but also formed in Marti the notions of nationalism and Latin American regionalism—as against the control of apex states in global production.

These tensions formed the basis of Marti’s philosophy characterized at once by a large connection of theory and culture but a great tension in the expression of political and economic power arranged though a hierarchically arranged political order of state power. For the Cubans, the notions that predominate are those of the inebtability of reaction against advanced monopoly capitalism by social forces representing proletariat assertions of control over national power and production, and regional integration among peoples of similar background. The US thus served as both a nurturer and a warning about the nature and operation of liberty within a world order through politics and controlled through the inevitable hierarchy of capitalist concentration.

Then on to his political philosophy. Cogito Ergo Sum—the need for worker and latin American consciousness (class consciousness and national consciousness) was the nitial marker necessary for liberation. There is thus a vital connection between Marxisst analysis of clas struggle and Rosa Luxembourg’s nation fo global financial capitalism, aligned with the regionalist nationalism that first found expression in Bolivar. To that expent his writing were radically new and challenging—and he became known as the apostle of liberty (politics) for the benefit of all (sounded in class struggle). He then explained these two distinct spheres.

The political sphere: He was born in one of the remaining Spanish colonies, two islands extremely cose to the U.S. This slowness in participating in liberation movements shifted resistance from physical action to the development of ideology. Cuba first witnessed a revolution of ideas before it successfully engaged in the physical acts of independence. This parallels of course Castro’s notions of the centrality of ideology as a basis for and the framing structures of action at the hands of the Party-State.. Mati occupied a central role in that development of the ideology of liberation. The problem he solved was that of democracy—in a context in which democracy is not understood as a homogenous concept. There are variations that are contextually relevant. He admired most Abraham Lincoln through the work of Jose Marti and the notion of government by for and to the people. The Gettysburg address then resonated with Marti changed from the people to “los humildes” this added class element was crucial as a wway of describing both the similarities and differences between the political philosophies of the two states. Yet Lincoln is always views as sympathetic precisely because he devoted himself to expanding the notion f the “people” to liberate the slaves form their conditions of bondage. Of course Mari transposed Lincoln’s “liberation” manifestation to the circumstances of Cuba in the late 19th century.

Again in the US but especially in Latin America, the problem of the “people” raised concerns—democracy might be for the people but the people free to participate was severely limited by race, class, sex and something by ethnicity and religion. Among those then free to participate further restrictions were grounded in literacy and property ownership. These restrictions were meant to substantially restrict the franchise to a very specific class of people within which the universal principals of democratic participation applied. Thus universal suffrage was constrained by its own premises and these premises were bounded by the ideological structures within which society was organized. Marti studied these systems of democratic participation and found them wanting principally because it did not in fact apply universally. These forms of democracy, for him fails on 4 grounds: (1) property ownership excludes most of the population from democratic governance; (2) the education limits restrict the uneducated form democratic participation. As for latter the solution was mandatory education and full literacy so that all people could participate in democratic governance; (3) the race and ethnic limitations of voting also excluded large sectors of the population and produced what only later decades would describe as political apartheid; (4) gender exclusions also perverted universality. In the face of these constraints Matri urged true universal suffrage—the idea was also to further the inherent revolutionary element of his philosophy—to shift popular power from elites (who control the means of production and the mechanisms of culture) to those previously excluded who now ought to take power over the management of the means of production for the welfare of all and of culture to reflect the general culture of all of the people. In this sense, Marti is viewed as essentially propounded a Marxist, but within a nationalist and ethno-protective way ( and in this later form protecting vulnerable Latin American peoples form the control of global production and military power by the great states of the time).

We are now living in a transition to a new historical stage. This has been developing over the course of the last several decades. Within this new historic period; philosophers call it post modernism; economists call it neo liberalism; globalization is another name for this new epoch. The world is now characterized by 2 main features. The first is that this is an epoch of the internationalization of monopoly capitalism in global production. This internationalization has generated a humanistic crisis—in thought, culture and societal coherence. It has appeared to separate morality from politics. It is in that context that that morality and humanism of Lincoln and Marti might serve a useful purpose. Unlike Kant that viewed the individual as separate from collective politics and the perfectibility of the individual and her protection as a basis for the perfectibility of politics and the protection of the individual form its collective expression, Marti though that one could not separate the individual from politics and that the perfectibility of both was inextricably bound—individual and collective must operate organically to move to a perfectibility on a distinct model.

These ideas were bound up in Marti’s political work as he rose to the presidency of one of the exile parties that sought to found liberation for Spain on the basis of a liberation ideology. That party was criticized as creating a one party movement and that in itself was a threat to democratic expression. Cuban thinkers counter by positing that multi party liberation efforts would not succeed in the face of Spanish colonialism and its politics, in Cuba and in the government in Madrid—itself riven by a split among political parties. In either case Spanish colonialism was willing to tolerate autonomy or continued colonial status. Neither result was acceptable to those pushing independence. To succeed Marti though that political factionalism would inhibit forward movement the way the it had paralyzed the Spanish government, and would impede independent. A vanguard party was necessary to move the colony to independent. In addition, Marti argued that U.S economic dominance of the Island also pushed for multi party systems that favored autonomy within state. Thus both economic monopoly capitalism and colonial policy sought to avoid independence either as a colony of Spain or as a dependency of the United States. The view was that U.S monopoly capitalism need control of Cuba and Puerto Rico a first step to control of Panama for the building of the canal. To confront this and preserve the goal of independent Marti viewed the construction of a vanguard party as essential. Here Marti is re named in Leninist terms. These include the Leninism of a vanguard party but one that also embraced the notion of democratic centralism. Indeed in many respects Marti foreshadowed Leninism in its organizational approaches but also combined the substantive and principled objectives of Marxist thought but in the service of a contextually specific conditions of Latin America in the stage of late monopoly capitalism. This quite remarkable transmutation of Martí's thought serves as a basis for tying both the nationalism and the Marxist Leninist socio-political and economic organization of the current state to the thought and principles of Martí.  And it is true that there is inherent in that thought both the regionalism and the Latin American solidarity that marks much of the foreign program of the Cuban state.  Likewise the, for its time, quite radical outreach to the lowest orders--both the working class white population and the non-white peoples long ignored in the political struggles of the 19th century in Cuba and beyond non white

As it turns out after independence it was indeed the US and its interests did prevail and through Cuba pioneered neo colonialism where control of states can be effected indirectly through the control of the economy of the state. This neo colonialism is inherent in neo liberalism and through it to globalization and the institution of global production chains. Thus true independence comes form national control of its macro economics. It was against this result that Marti fought—both against the colonialism of Spain and the neo-colonialism of economic control through the United States. And it to Marti that Cubans must turn to fight globalization and its neo colonialism while continuing to love the people of the United States while opposing its use as a tool of global monopoly capitalism.

There was a great symmetry between the plastic expression of the modern relevance of the life and thought of Martí performed through the museum exhibition and the quite elegant lecture provided by Professor Lozano.  And it is not unreasonable to return to the source of national self consciousness to refresh  and renew its legitimacy and it continuity into the future.  In that there is a great lesson for the United States, whose intellectuals have chosen to dismiss their founders the way 9ndiciduals are thrown off modern reality television shows.  And yet there is a richnes that is contemporary even in the most remote figure and valuable to renew and refresh the legitimacy of the modern expression of ancient ideas.  That Cuba has managed to achieve this with Martí speaks well of their determination to preserve the relevance of the national sources of their autonomous being, and that Martí remains relevant to that discussion speaks to the importance of the thought he expressed.
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