Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cuban Conference: The Measure of a Revolution Cuba 1959-2009

I have just returned from an excellent conference, The Measure of a Revolution: Cuba, 1959-2009, held May 7-9, 2009 at the lovely campus of Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario CANADA. The conference was jointly organized by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Havana University, Boston University and Queen’s University.

The conference statement provided an excellent summary of the themes considered by a global group of academics, government officials and civil society actors.
The Cuban Revolution was one of the most important hemispheric events of the twentieth century, with both a regional and a global impact; and the country had to re-imagine itself. The conference, “The Measure of a Revolution: Cuba, 1959-2009”, will assess the Cuban Revolution on its 50th Anniversary through a variety of lenses: international relations, culture, gender, the economy, environment, sexuality, politics, migration, race, education, health and religion. The Conference provides a superb opportunity to encourage critical thought on the Revolution, what it has and has not accomplished, and on its future prospects. This forum is important in that it will bring together scholars from different disciplines, as well as writers, artists, film makers and government officials – past and incumbent – to present and debate issues arising from the subjects of their expertise.
Conference Statement, The Measure of a Revolution 1959-2009. The Conference Program and List of Paper Abstracts are available. All are worth careful study. The conference organizers plan to publish an edited collection of representative works presented.

One of the highlights of the Conference was the speech presented by Cuban National Assembly (Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular) President Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada that was widely reported in the Press. See, e.g., Rob Gillies, Cuban Parliament President Dismisses Obama's Recent Overtures to Cuba, Newsday.com, May 10, 2009. The reports are interesting both for what its focus and for what it left unsaid. Reports of the speech emphasized the immediate political dimension--the initial moves between the American and Cuban governments to feel each other out over the nature and course of potential moves aimed at changing the nature of current relations between these states. The response of Mr. Alarcón was characterized as combative. "Cuban Parliament President Ricardo Alarcón dismissed President Barack Obama's recent overtures to Cuba and said Saturday for the first time that the new U.S. administration's stance is 'the continuation of an illegal, unjustifiable and failed policy.'" Gillies, supra. Mr. Alarcón suggested that the overtures were poisoned fruit.
Obama has suggested it may be time for a new beginning with Cuba, and the White House authorized unlimited travel and money transfers for Americans with relatives in Cuba. But his administration has said it would like Cuba to respond by making small political and social changes to its single-party communist system."In other words Cuba must change and behave in accordance with Washington's wishes," Alarcon said at the close of a Cuban academic conference in Canada. "That attitude is not only the continuation of an illegal, unjustifiable and failed policy, it is also the consequence of a profound misconception, a false perception of itself that lies as the foundation of the U.S. role in the world."
Gillies, supra. Indeed, Alarcón suggested that the overtures were actually being made to internal constituencies rather than to Cuba itself, which would play an incidental role in the construction of American policy. "Alarcon said Obama's gestures were dictated by growing domestic demand and don't amount to much." Gillies, supra. Alarcón then urged, as the Cuban government has suggested consistently for some time, that "Obama should exercise his authority and immediately free five convicted Cuban spies. The so-called Cuban Five are communist agents who were convicted of espionage in Miami in 2001. . . . He also said the United States should extradite an anti-Castro Cuban militant accused of plotting the 1976 bombing of a Cuban plane in Venezuela that killed all 73 people on board." Gillies, supra.

All of this was to be expected. It reflects well established positions of the Cuban state. It does suggest that half a century has produced a wariness and suspicion that will require time and some effort to overcome. And with that comes the risk, often realized, that the Americans will become distracted by other events and leave the improvement of relations with Cuba to another day. It is clear, after half a century, that this status quo can be maintained without fatal threat to the stability of either state. And that, more than anything, may be at the hearty of the stasis in relations.

Still, a large part of the speech was pointed in another direction, one that tends to be overlooked, but the importance of which should not be underestimated. The theme that Mr. Alarcón devoted a substantial amount of attention was directed to the legitimation of the structure of the Cuban state government as legitimate and democratic. Citing Enlightenment theorists, and particularly Jean Jacques Rousseau, with whose works Mr. Alarcón is particularly familiar, Mr. Alarcón attempted an elegant defense of the democratic fundamentals of the Cuban state and political apparatus as a more successful application of democratic ideals. He contrasted that constructed application to notions of representative democracy represented, in their highest forms, by nations like the United States. He suggested that Republics built on delegations of authority, that is that are grounded on republican ideals, are ultimately incapable of realizing the institution of democratic states. This is an old old debate. Its origins go back to the conceptual differences between Athenian democracy and Roman state structure. It touches on the meaning of democracy and the nature and character of political citizenship within a state. Mr. Alarcón, of course, is right to point out the difference between states grounded in democratic ideals of the Athenian sort and states constructed on the basis of the democratic ideals of the Roman Republic. And Americans fussing with the integrity of their own state structure ought to remember those differences in the defense of the integrity of and fidelity to the republican ideals on which the American state has been built and which define the legitimate and fundamental values of American democratic state organization. All the same, Mr. Alarcón's main point is worth considering--that states may be constructed on the basis of democratic principles that may vary in their notion of the character of political rights of citizenship and yet retain their fundamental character as democratic. This is a point that has been advanced in the development of Chinese constitutional theory. See Larry Catá Backer, The Party as Polity, the Communist Party, and the Chinese Constitutional State: A Theory of State-Party Constitutionalism (January 10, 2009) Journal of Chinese and Comparative Law, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2009. On the other hand, Mr. Alarcón takes the argument too far when in the defense of the legitimacy of the democratic foundations of Marxist Leninist mass movement states he seeks to attack the democratic legitimacy of other forms of state structures, particularly those of republican systems like the United States. A focus on a construction of arguments for democratic legitimacy of one's own state structure might be more valuable than efforts to achieve the same result by a comparativist construction whose premises are more questionable as a matter of theory, history, national context, and especially the principle points of the otherwise substantial theoretical points propounded.

Still, the implications are both important and ironic. A good chunk of importance goes to the Cuban project of augmenting the legitimacy of the ideological basis for the construction of the state. The Cubans have taken an alternative path to what they regard as legitimate democratic state construction. It is related to but distinct from the Chinese variant. See Larry Catá Backer, The Rule of Law, the Chinese Communist Party, and Ideological Campaigns: Sange Daibiao (the 'Three Represents'), Socialist Rule of Law, and Modern Chinese Constitutionalism, 16(1) Journal of Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems 29-102 (2006). But the irony of the stance is important as well. For any generally accepted proof of the legitimacy of the construction of a democratic state represented by the current Cuban state apparatus would appear to meet the core condition imposed under American law for the end of the American embargo. Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1996, Pub. L. 104-114, 110 Stat. 785. Unfortunately, that is merely the first step of a set of American conditions that includes the elimination of the Castro brothers from leadership, compensation for prior expropriations and other conditions set forth in that and other provisions. But Mr. Alarcón has made the point. The future of both the theoretical and political implications of the path Mr. Alarcón suggests will provide much grist for the mill in the coming years.

The speech was recently posted to Counterpunch: Ricardo Alarcón, The Measure of a Revolution.

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