Monday, April 03, 2017

Cuba Beyond the Cusp of Change (Executive Summary of the Program): 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. 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 have been posting reflections of the activities and lectures for each of the eight days of the course program. Links for full contents and course syllabus HERE.

This last post of the series serves as an Executive Summary of the Program, Activities and Reflections on Our Experiences. 


I was fortunate enough to have been given the space at the institution where I work to develop a week long graduate course to be held in Cuba.  The course was developed in partnership with the Centro de Estudios Martianos whose members proved to be marvelous hosts. For some of my students this was the first trip out of the country.  For most it was the first trip to Cuba.  Few had any sense of the nature of the ideological, legal, social or cultural systems in Cuba other than as reported in the popular press and in the debris of almost three quarters of a century of mutually intense conflict. This short essay serves as a reflection 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), and also, but to a lesser extent, to that in the United States.

                  Like many of these short courses abroad, this one was structured around half days of lectures and half days of site visits.  We were fortunate to hear lectures from quite distinguished faculty of the University of Havana along with my own. These were organized to provide a maximum amount of cohesion so that each built on the other.  The object was not merely to learn about Cuba but to consider the Cuban model in its own context—regionally and globally.  But most importantly, the course was crafted to avoid molding student to any political or normative viewpoint—they were to take Cuba as they found it, its ideology, politics, social organization, religions, and the translations of all of these into the everyday lives of people. These rigorous but dispassionate observations were then to be the basis of analysis and to the extent any student was so inclines, to judgement, free of outside (that if my own) interference.  In the end, my sense was that students developed a much more sophisticated view of Cuba and of the context in which it finds itself embedded. They discovered that like any other state, the realization of the great potential of its people remains a work in progress even when measured by the metrics of national political and economic ideology.

                  We started the course with a look at the emerging tourist sector outside of Havana.  We traveled to Viñales—one of the several points of eco-tourism being developed to draw tourism (and its revenue potential) from Havana to outlying regions.  The revenue potential of a World Heritage Site designation is too good to resist and there is a strong correlation between site designation and tourism center—a very smart move. Beyond the beauty of the site and the hospitality of its people our students were able to learn a number fo things. First infrastructure can make a difference; the road to Viñales suggests an uneven application of planning  that is as uneven as the road between Havana and Viñales.  Second, tourism in Cuba is also about managing flows of people—foreigners—to direct and concentrate their visit within designated spaces. This is not a criticism so much as an observation of choices. In a state that remains wary of foreigners, especially those whose visit from states that have only recently been viewed as adversaries, it may well make sense to figure out ways to both invite tourism, bit also to manage its insertion within the Island. The creation of tourist “safe spaces” where interactions are anticipated and can be planned around within rural areas and outside the Havana metropolis is one response.

                  Lectures and shorter site visits started on Day 2. 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 was especially useful for bringing out a number of themes.  The first touches on the upbringing of Martí as a student who is radicalized by the growing consciousness of the injustice around him. The second touches on the initial expression of revolutionary action that naturally followed the maturing intellectual basis for action. The fourth touches on the willingness to engage in violent revolutionary action to led from the position of a vanguard force.  The fourth touches on the willingness to engage in violent revolutionary action to led from the position of a vanguard force.  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. The lecture nicely described Martí’s thought, but more importantly the way that Martí’s thought could be the basis of contemporary Cuban nationalism and its Marxist Leninist system.  

                  The third day moved us from the living theory of José Martí to the cities of the dead. We started at the most important necropolis in Havana—the ColónCemetery. The arrangement of the cemetery represents the physical manifestation of the social and political structures of the society at the time of the burials of the dead, and thus also of its evolution over the centuries. The Colón evidences in death the eternal organization of status based colonial society, and of the even more rigid status arrangements of post colonial states that retain a dependent status within global power structures.  And within these one sees peaking out the manifestations of the new order, which in its own ways substitutes but does not eliminates the ranking and orderings of the dead. More interesting still, perhaps, was the visit to the much neglected Chinese cemetery.  Despite the fact that it serves as the resting place for Chinese participants in the revolutionary struggle, this necropolis appears as abandoned as the dead within it. The disrepair of the Chinese cemetery speaks volumes for the gulf that always separates the majority and those at the margins of social organization, even within structures of equality and solidarity. Tourist do not visit the Chinese cemetery for the most part.  There are no fees to visit.  And the caretaker was surprised to see a group interested enough in the social status of death to come over. Perhaps the Chinese state might be persuaded to aid in the rehabilitation of this cemetery in the name of solidarity. It was to those notions of solidarity within the structures of Cuban Marxist Leninism that I devoted my lecture, Regional Commerce: ALBA, Martí, Bolívar y Fidel.  It served as a bridge between the visit of the cemeteries and the discussion of Cuban efforts in the Pharma sector that took the class through the afternoon. Our afternoon lecture provided a brilliant contrast and parallel to the morning visit. But in this case the bodies that are the object of ordering are the living, and the space within which that ordering is undertaken is defined by the sector of medical research and the delivery of medical advances to targeted populations. To that end we heard a marvelous presentation, “The Organization of the Cuban Biotechnology Business Opportunities, from Dr. Manuel Raices, Researcher, Scientific secretary  of the International Congress Controlling Diabetes  and its main complications. The lecture was notable for its description of the ways in which Cuban authorities have sought to develop the Cuban pharma sector in parallel with the development of the tourist sector. The lecture provided an excellent introduction both to the history of that focus and its current state of development.  But like the tourist sector, the lecture also revealed the constraints under which such development  was structured—centrally planned and designed to ensure strong and continuing state control and state ability to seek income from every level of the production chain.

                  The fourth day continued our discussion of the economic organization of the state and its legal framework. The first lecture was given by Dr. Yailenis Mulet of the University of Havana.  It was entitled Implementation of the Cuban Economic Model: Agriculture  and Tourism. Her focus has been on the process of economic decentralization in Cuba.  She spoke to the Cuban economic model in the principal sectors of agriculture and tourism.  Her presentation was in 3 parts: (1) on the Cuban economic model and the character of its reform; (2) main aspects of Cuban agriculture, and (3) major aspects of tourist economic model.  The lecture nicely tied together the focus of the earlier site visits and helped explain the challenges of economic development within the parameters of the political and legal systems of Cuba. o that end, Professor Mullet suggested more specifically the course of reform the government had sought to emphasize.  First a reform of the state sector would be necessary.  Second, a similar reform of the SOE sector would have to be undertaken. Third, the agricultural sector reforms would be directed toward achieving sustainability. Fourth, the state would have to encourage a broadening of self employment. This presentation was followed by a lecture on law and politics given by Professor Hasan Pérez Casabona: History of Cuba: Population, and Governmental Structures. Professor Pérez Casabona provided an excellent overview of the structures and fundamental premises of the Cuban state.  It offered a perspective that Americans rarely receive in its unfiltered form. Professor Pérez Casabona did an excellent job of describing the Cuban emerging position, one likely to be aggressively pursued in negotiations for compensation touching on Cuban property expropriations of the early Revolutionary period, of American businesses.   The lecture also provided an elegant window onto the way that the embrace of a state ideology can serve as a potent means of ordering information and interpreting both history and context.  To that extent certainly the lecture was profoundly valuable.  My own initial observation, the Revolución as a noun. The Revolution has been personified and incarnated.  It has become not so much an event as the incarnation of a historical stage the manifestation and the preservation of the character of which now serves as the core ordering principle of the ideological structures around which political consciousness is ordered and manifested. The Revolución, then, has acquired an autonomous personality through which it acts of state and party. One of the most interesting  aspects of the lecture was not about its substance, but rather about cross cultural communication—especially cross cultural communication of politics.  To an American ear it might be easy to hear in the modalities of the communication expressed in this engaging lecture the conveyance of a substantial amount of fear, a communal elite fear expressed through protective belligerence (“In any scenario Cuba will remain firm” “The United States must renounce any intent to assert domination of Cuba”).Yet to a Cuban ear, the very same words might express the opposite, it might verbalize a collective sense of self confidence and a signal about the integrity of the nation. One of the most interesting events of the trip occurred after the end of the formal portion of the course.  We had been visiting the Asociación Cultural Yoruba de Cuba.I invited the small group of students with us to the hotel next door—one of the so-called flagship remodels around Habana Vieja that is meant to draw top tourist dollars.  We were refused entry.  The security guard told us the hotel ewas closed; it was closed to us.  And so we got a sense of the everyday indignities that are foisted not on well heeled foreigners, but on everyone else within the tourist machine that is meant to consume revenue but is quite selective about who can enter its particular varieties of fantasy tourism. (See more here).  

                  Day 5 of the course turned to ideology and the role of the Cuban Communist Party. We started with a visit to a center of Afro-Cuban culture in Havana--the municipality of Regla and the Church of the Virgen de Regla. And then we toured the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Moro and lighthouse at the mouth of Havana Harbor. These visits were woven into my discussion, The Future Direction of Cuba: From the Guidelines of the 6th PCC Congress (2011) to the Conceptualzación of the Cuban Socialist Model of the 7th PCC Congress (2016). In Regla the student were introduced to some of the differences among the religions brought to Cuba by African slaves, in particular the religion that became Santería and Palo Mayombé. The Castle provided an opportunity to reflect on the economics of geography. Second, one gets a sense of the physical manifestation of garrison culture. Second, one gets a sense of the physical manifestation of garrison culture. Third, one understands both the need for a new Port in Mariel and to repurpose Havana Harbor to its highest value use. We then considered the evolution and current articulation of the Cuban Communist Party Basic Line. For that purpose, we focused on the current trajectory from the 6th PCC Congress' Lineamientos (Guidelines) for political, economic and social development, to the articulation (albeit in draft form) of the 7th PCC Congress' Conceptualización del Modelo Económico y Social Cubano de Desarollo Socialista was presented to the 7th PCC Congress in April, 2016. 

                  Day 6 of the course offered an opportunity to consider urban gardening and the way it is embedded in the social programs of economic development under conditions of Cuban Marxism. To that end the class visited the Organopónico de Alamar. It appears to be very popular as a site for tourists to experience (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here) the movement within Cuba of sustainable organic urban farming that has had some success in feeding local communities and supplying local markets with their excess production. It has thus broadened its scope to include a more direct connection to the tourist sector on which Cuba generally, and central Havana more specifically, increasingly rely for income. The urban food coop provided an interesting window on the way that organizations strategically use the law and respond to economic conditions to maximize their organizational welfare while adhering to their social objectives.  Much of the work of the coop is turned toward the needs of the community, providing food to locales, area hospitals and others and serving as a place for programs for local children. More importantly, perhaps, the local agricultural cooperatives, have now branched out into "export" production and, especially near sites of tourist sector activities, are now augmenting income by selling excess production to the hotels and restaurants that service the foreign tourist sector. At the same time, the cooperative is a business.  It has a core of full time members, whose pay is tied to seniority.  But it also employs a large number of seasonal workers.  To make that work, the coop must strategically apply the new cooperative laws enacted since the 2011 reforms.  Those regulations permit cooperatives to hire provisional workers for up to three months at which point they must be terminated or they become permanent members of the coop (see, e.g., HERE).  As a consequence the core coop members are augmented, especially during peak labor period with temporary workers form the neighborhood (HERE). Today, the tourist sector also provides a source of support.  Guiding tourists eager to learn about organic farming and the history of Cuban urban agriculture provides tourists with a diversion and the coop with income.  A fair trade I suspect. But one also wonders--how healthy is this sort of tourism for its objects. To some extent such visits, to the extent they are lucrative enough, can also serve as a trap.  The coop might easily become  a hostage to the expectations of tourists to see something.  That is, tourists expect a "show" that lives up to their need for consuming "experience." In the worst case the coop becomes a specimen, a circus act, in the global circus that is international experience tourism. The coop dies as a vibrant social institution and re-emerges as a sideshow to a week long vacation for the consumption of tourists.

                  The course ended on Day 7 as it had begun, with a close look at the tourists sector.  This time the object was the tourist beach sector with a visit to Varadero. The Varadero beaches are a crown jewels of Cuban visions for a vibrant and profitable tourist sector.  It also nicely provides a physical manifestation of the way in which tourism is viewed as both central to the economy and marginal to the society around which it is manifested. What makes this even more interesting is the way in which the Cuban authorities have taken models at the heart of capitalist markets based tourism--with its inherent notions of containment, management and controlled experiences generating maximum revenue and minimum risk--and turned to it the service of the social and political aims and requirements of a European Marxist Leninist state with respect to its program of class struggle and resource mobilization int he service of the state. And of course with that comes irony.  The Cuban authorities tend criticize Chinese Marxist Leninist projects as inherently capitalist (borrowing the mechanics of markets in the service of a Leninist political and social project), yet here the Cuban authorities have also borrowed heavily from the mechanics of the West (not markets but the core business practices of Western capitalist enterprises) in the service of their own version of the Leninist project.  oint venturing extends the life cycle of money making for the Cuban state, and especially for the military controlled SOEs.  The state makes money in the planning and constriction of these compounds, they also direct and approve the operating plans and to some extent the pricing.  They take a cut of the profits and also provide the employees and other services (food, entertainment, maintenance, etc.) from which the state tales a cut. State owned tour companies and the state owned buses that ferry travelers to and from the resorts for extended or day trips brings revenues as well.  And of course, the tour operations that take people from the Tourist zones for day trips--to other points of interest on the Island also provide multiple points for value added state revenues, for the employment of labor and the managed planning for development of tourists related resources throughout the Island. Having segmented the operations of these compounds, the Cuban state has been able to take a cut of value added everywhere.  Bravo.  As the sole capitalist on the Island, the owner of all of the means of production, it makes sense--and certainly is deeply embedded within Leninist notions of Marxism, that the state exploit its capital.  Of course that exploitation ought to be solely in the service of the social projects with respect to which the vanguard party has a primary obligation.  In the absence of transparency, however, it is not easy to see where or how these profits are used. 

Our time in Cuba ended on Sunday, 12 March, when the group returned home to the U.S.  Our travel back to the United States served again to remind us of the promise and challenges facing Cuba--indeed was emblematic of the great test that the Cuban state now faces as it seeks to retain its autonomy even as it seeks a greater integration in the world around it and more intimate relations with its northern neighbor, large enough to overwhelm Cuba even it does not mean to. The day also provided an opportunity to reflect on the course and the trip.  Cuba in a quite unremarkable way, exhibits some of the same strengths and weaknesses of states with which it will increasingly deal, including the United States. These common challenges are not special to Cuba, though they may appear  so in the unique context that is Cuba in this stage in its development.  Let me suggest some of the common challenges that both Cuba and the United States may be sharing now.  First, there is a danger when national elites become disconnected from the realities of ordinary people; elite echo chambers tend to be destructive of a system irrespective of its ideological basis. Second, popular sentiment can easily move from annoyance to anger, especially when the people feel neglected or disrespected (for the U.S. see, e.g., here). Third, it is always dangerous ti turn a population against itself, especially where regional differences are exploited. Fourth, petty corruption over time can substantially reduce loyalty.  More important it can reduce worker productivity and contribute to an unofficial economy. Fifth, the appearance of equality may be more enraging than an admission that it does not exist (though it remains a political objective). Sixth, the danger of one crop economies applies as well to tourist based economic planning as it did with sugar; as the United States will find out—a desperate search to rebuild old models whose viability was undermined decades ago will likely produce ill effects. With any kind of luck that chasm between theory and reality may be narrowed as Cuba slowly moves toward reform (on its own terms of course). But that is very much a work in progress.

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