Thursday, March 16, 2017

Cuba Beyond the Cusp of Change (Day 5): 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 Programs, 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 next 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 5--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).

After the excitement of the last part of Wednesday, the activities scheduled for Thursday provided an excellent opportunity for reflection and summing up. We started with a visit to a center of Afro-Cuban culture in Havana--the municipality of 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).

We started our day in Regla (for an intersecting tour, see HERE). Regla is one of the municipios that together make up what we know as the city of Havana.

Our object was the Church of our Lady of Regla (Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla), the home of the syncretic worship of the Yoruba religion Yemanyá

The virgin, represented by a black Madonna, is venerated in the Catholic faith and associated in the Santería religion with Yemayá, the orisha of the ocean and the patron of sailors (always represented in blue). Legend claims that this image was carved by St Augustine 'The African' in the 5th century, and that in AD 453 a disciple brought the statue to Spain to safeguard it from barbarians. The small vessel in which the image was traveling survived a storm in the Strait of Gibraltar, so the figure was recognized as the patron of sailors. In more recent times, rafters attempting to reach the US have also evoked the protection of the Black Virgin. (See HERE; for more HERE).

One of the best parts of Regla is that it is less overwhelmed with tourists.  That provides a glimpse of the Capital without the overlay of a tourist fueled economic culture that is refreshing. Even though ity is easy to reach Regla (and the sanctuary) via ferry that leaves passengers off a short walk from the sanctuary, we took the long way on the bus. We noted that this part of Havana had not yet lost its aspects as a port and allowed us to see a little closer the old industrial infrastructure of Havana. Much of this will be gone soon.  As the Port of Mariel begins to come on line much of the industrial and shipping activity in Havana will move out of the city and the entire Harbor area eventually will be prettied up, developed, and devoted to the hoped for profitable business of entertaining tourists with substantial disposable cash to spend on hotels, food, entertainment, and souvenirs of all kinds. In this Havana is not unique--many cities with historic centers have chosen to turn their historic areas to more lucrative use  by devoting their geographies and structures to the tourist trade. Of course, in all these places the city ceases to grow and becomes frozen in time--a living picture of another time (seen through current sensibilities and adjusted for the taste of those paying to indulge the experience of history). Yet, this preservation is not unwelcome, if only to keep even a modestly accurate sense of the past embedded within the otherwise living geographies of places with historical significance.

Because we arrived during a Requiem Mass we had a wait a while to enter the sanctuary.  We used that time to get a feel for Havana from the "other" side and to walk around the Church, which though founded centuries ago remains modest. We also took the opportunity to walk a little way along the main street (José Martí) and enjoyed the large open square near the sanctuary. This allowed us the opportunity to enjoy the small museum now operated and devoted to art, artifacts and religious objects of the neighborhood. Most interesting were the objects of Afro-Cuban religions--Santería and more surprisingly Palo Mayombe (Las Reglas de Congo).  Santería, of course, is well known as the Cuban expression of mostly Yoruba and West African religions. It has become more established, open, and accepted within the Western Hemisphere and Europe. 

 (Palo Nganga)
Palo, on the other hand, with origins in the Kongo Kingdom, has a darker history. And in the UNited States it is viewed with much disfavor (see, e.g., HERE). Palo's use of sticks in the construction of alters lend its name to the religion itself.  Palo has two branches--Palo Cristiano referencing that branch of Palo that is heavily syncretized with Catholicism (even int he Congo) and Palo Judio referencing that branch of Palo that remains apart from Catholicism.

We then returned to the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Regla where we were able to  walk through the sanctuary. The Regla herself sits in a chapel of honor with people, many women, praying Regla-Yemanyá is invoked both by those who work the waters, but also those who seek protection for the  maternal aspects of life. Outside the Church were a number of people holding themselves out as practitioners of Santería who, for a fee, might "read" the person. It was interesting to see them at work.  The Sanctuary, in many ways, evokes some of the spirit of the City and the land--its connection to the sea, its fusion of the African and European cultures of the people; it depiction of a journey from Roman Africa through Spain and then to Cuba where the image of the Virgin again encountered her more African self. She represents the mother in a variety of senses from the most intimate to the most abstract. And in those senses, perhaps, Regla also touches on a cultural perspective that serves as the center from which one might make sense of the pieces that together constitute Cuba. 
Having lingered a bit too long, we then made our way from this physical manifestation fo the complex interweaving of history and culture to its more physical expression in the form of the Castle that stood at the mouth of Havana harbor and whose iconic lighthouse (a mid 19th century addition) has become a symbol of the city itself. The Castle itself is a model of its type, variations of which can be found throughout colonial Spanish America.  It was not less magnificent for its fidelity to type.A few observations.

First it is especially from this fort that one gets a sense of the geographic importance of Havana Harbor--as well as the way in which technology has made what were once critical geographical assets into fatal geographic impediments. Havana harbor was extremely well suited for three principal reasons. First was its physical location within the production and exploitation chain that was the Spanish colonial empire.  It was the first and last port of embarkation depending on the direction (to or from Spain). Independence, ironically enough, started a process of irrelevance for the port.  Where the production-exploitation chain was broken, geography no longer contributed to the economic potential of the port.  Second, was its large protected harbor.  For ships made of wood and requiring substantial manpower to load and unload, a large space in protected waters ensured a substantial volume of shipping activity that also contributed to wealth.  But the harbor was understood that was in an age of wooden ships and smaller freighters.  Like the Panama Canal--technology made both increasingly unable to service the new sorts of ships used in commerce or accommodate the new methods of loading and unloading cargo. Third was its defensibility for pre 20th century weapons technology and strategies. The entrance to Havana Harbor is like a long relatively thin neck of a bottle.  Like Byzantine Constantinople and its protection of the Golden Horn a millennium before, Havana Harbor could be protected by lifting a chain across the neck of the harbor entrance.  And it was. As well, with large banks of guns lining the entire neck, raiding or invading forces would either have to apply overwhelming force ¡or seek to attack Havana from its flanks, a difficult task given the difficulty of landing forces. With the revolution of military technology after the 19th century, this advantage dissipated.  The neck of the harbor contributed little to security and became an impediment rather than an advantage where airplanes could now more easily wipe out a fleet at rest with no quite exit.

Second, one gets a sense of the physical manifestation of garrison culture.  It is useful to compare that of colonial Havana--restive after the 18th century, with that of Barcelona, whose population was also restive around the same time.  In both cases Castles and garrisons served to both produce a physical manifestation of power and the physical expression of the separation of the governed from the agents of the governing groups. That membrane was performed in the separation and interaction of garrison and locals.  It provided a template that, after 1959, would prove useful in new form--membranes between the masses and the vanguard, and between the Cuban people and foreigners who might taint or threaten the socio-political experiment that was the Cuban Revolution after 1961.

Third, one understands both the need for a new Port in Mariel and to repurpose Havana Harbor to its highest value use.   Havana Harbor no longer serves well its intended original purpose.  It makes sense to abandon it as a principal working port for the nation.  Yet its history and beauty suggest an equally appealing use, one consonant with market demand--as a travel destination. The Port itself especially lends itself to cruise ship tourism.  That is useful  to the state both as a means of expanding the tourist sector but also as a means of managing tourist populations to ensure maximization of exposure to tourist destination and venues for the expenditure of money.

Our excursions to these two locations, separated by such a small physical distance but divided by such wide gulfs, provided a useful foundation for our discussion of the state of the political ideology of the Cuban state.  Indeed Havana Harbor and Regla appeal as a vaguely relevant metaphor for the challenges and opportunities that face the Cuban state apparatus and its vanguard Party--both born in another century and facing a new stage in historical development that the past can inform but not cintrol. The focus was on the history and basic line of the Cuban Communist Party, from a comparative perspective--not the usual (the U.S.) but the useful (China and its Communist Party).

We started with a short discussion of the origins of the current vanguard party in Cuba.  We noted the difference between the traditional Cuban Communist Party that came into existence at the time of the rise of the first Communist International, and the Communist Party that was recognized years after the conclusion of the Revolution.  This marked the first of the differences between the Cuban and Chinese experiences.  The Chinese Communist Party was at the vanguard of the great Patriotic War and lead the people and army  towards the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949.  The Cuban Communist Party followed but did not lead the efforts toward revolutionary victory.  The resulting context shaped the relationship between military and party apparatus in ways that are in some ways quite distinct from the Chinese context. Fr further reading my students were directed to my essay: "The Military, Ideological Frameworks and Familial Marxism: A Comment on Jung-chul Lee,“A Lesson from Cuba’s Party-Military Relations and a Tale of ‘Two Fronts Line’ in North Korea," Papers and Proceedings of the Twenty-fifth Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE) 25:165-171 (2015) (ISBN 978-0-9831360-5-7).

We then considered the evolution and current articulation of the Cuban Communist Party Basic Line. To that end 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. 

We started with a basic lesson in contemporary Marxist Leninist theory and its impleemntaiton in leading Marxist countries.  We noted the distinction that is rarely made but important between the substantive principles and objectives of society and political engagement that is bound up in Marxism, and the principles of government that are the central element of Leninism (discussed in the Chinese context here).  Marxism provides the baseline for the substantive responsibility of vanguard groups dedicated to its fulfillment.  The organization and operation of these vanguard groups are in turn framed within Leninist principles. Both Marxism and Leninism have become more complex subjects since the early part of the 20th Century.  Marxism and Leninism as practiced by a revolutionary party out of power  ought to be different from both Marxism and Leninism practiced by a vanguard party in power.  That difference, so crucial for the fulfillment of theory and objectives, became the subject of either neglect or intense debate.  Also important to emphasize was both the dynamic development of both Marxism and Leninism, and contextual variations among states lead by a vanguard party in power.  (For Cuba see, e.g.g, here, here, and here; for China see, here, here, here, and here, and here).

With that baseline established, we turned to the specifics of the Cuban context. The recently concluded 7th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) produced little by way of surprises. The tone was set by the First Secretary when he suggested that a slow and steady course, with little deviation, should be the guiding principle of the Congress. And indeed, there was some dissatisfaction and a sense of anticlimax that marked a congress most notable for its lack of either transparency or popular engagement (see e.g. here form a usually sympathetic observer). These comments drew on my essay: "Central Planning Versus Markets Marxism: Their Differences and Consequences for the International Ordering of State, Law, Politics, and Economy," Connecticut Journal of International Law 32(1):—(forthcoming 2017). 

Raul Castro also noted the dilemma of the future of Socialist macro economic planning, balancing between direction by the state, open markets and managed economic activity. “El reconocimiento del mercado en el funcionamiento de la economía socialista no implica que el Partido, el Gobierno y las organizaciones de masas dejen de cumplir su papel en la sociedad de enfrentar cualquier situación que dañe a la población, ni mucho menos decir: “es una cuestión del Gobierno, yo no me puedo meter”. (Informe Central al 7mo. Congreso del Partido Comunista de Cuba, presentado por el Primer Secretario del Comité Central, General de Ejército Raúl Castro Ruz, La Habana, 16 de Abril de 2016, Año 58 de la Revolución, at p, 9). In this Chinese Press, this was interpreted as a broad commitment to gradual movement toward what the Chinese might understand as a version of a Socialist market economy (see, here). They quoted an official commentator to that effect: “Rafael Hernandez, Cuban political analyst and head of the Temas magazine, said the task is among the hardest challenges facing Cuba in the last 20 years. “We are not rushing towards a free market economy, nor is our government taking us there. This is a gradual process of transformation, economic diversification and development of a nationalist private sector,” Hernandez told Xinhua.” It is in that context that the draft of the Conceptualización del Modelo Económico y Social Cubano de Desarollo Socialista was presented to the 7th PCC Congress in April, 2016.

For that reason alone the document is worth considering. But it is also important as an attempt to theorize a very different (that is different from Asian) approach to the principles and theory of Socialist Markets Marxism as an economic and political force. In contrast to the development of Asian socialist theory, grounded in the notion of socialist markets, distinct from capitalist market constructs, the Conceptualización appears to reject the primacy of markets, unable to distinguish markets from capitalism (as it understands that notion) and sets at its center the ideal of economic activity, including market activity, managed by and under the direction of the state as the highest expression of socialist economics–and politics.

The Conceptualización is now is meant to serve as the basis for a debate about the future of Cuban political economy. For students of markets, and that includes most people involved in the construction and management of the global economic order, including Marxist markets, this effort is worth considering. Not that it is right, but that it may be influential is alone worth the time to engagement with its principles and approaches. Indeed, the Conceptualización may serve as the most interesting theoretical counterpoint to the development of Marxism in a generation. Perversely, that interest is generated in large part by its anachronisms. Ironically, the advent of big data, of the algorithms that now increasingly automate markets, may itself make it possible to move the mechanism of the markets out of the private sphere and back into the state. But that touches on the markets and not on states, and a broad and historically informed application of the principles of the Conceptualización might fail precisely because it inverts cause and effect. The state can manage markets–can substitute itself for markets–only by becoming the market maker itself. And that is possible only because markets themselves are becoming free of individual volition, except in those areas that the Cuban state has left to the individual–the detritus of economic activity with the lowest value added and the most marginal expressions of power. Data management in transactions may make that possible (cf here). In this form, in the form that big data, that technology, makes possible, that this poses the most interesting challenge not just to Chinese socialist market theory but also to the core of Western neo liberal market ideology.

As I concluded in "Central Planning Versus Markets Marxism: Their Differences and Consequences for the International Ordering of State, Law, Politics, and Economy":

The 7th PCC Congress and its Conceptualización suggests both the necessity and the difficulty of theorizing the normative basis of the state in times of crisis. Both necessity and difficulty is made more acute in the shadow of normalization of relations with the United States. That perverse relationship has colored Cuban Marxist theorizing in ways that have led it to reject the emerging Asian Markets Marxism Model (socialist market economy) in favor of a system grounded in the rejection of markets as a means of ordering either economics or politics. Instead, economic and political power—the conflation of markets within the state apparatus itself contributes to a larger goal. That goal—the use of economics and politics to substantially reshape the social construction of the masses, of the individual as a part of the mass of individuals which when aggregated becomes both the source of economic productivity and its object—is fundamental to the differentiation of the state from both the markets driven United States and China as the great Asian polestar of Marxism. Within this thought structure, culture, democracy and social dignity is impossible in systems in which economic control is separated from economic production.[1] Cuban Marxism has advanced only to the point of refining the Cuban orthodoxy well developed by the 1980s, and the essence of Fidel Castro thought.[2]

Those who thought that the reform and opening up of the 6th PCC Congress would lead to some form of effective engagement with markets, even within the parameters of Asian Markets Marxism will be deeply disappointed by the Conceptualización. Those who tend to read Cuban reform in Western or Chinese terms will likely misunderstand and overestimate the form and character of reform in Cuba. Like it or not, the Conceptualization is an important document—not for the truth of what it states, but as a referent for the foundation about the way that key actors in Cuba think about the world. To fail to take it seriously will cause substantial misunderstanding. This takes on its most important form in the context of the focus of the re-making of the person to better fit within an economy in which markets are themselves rejected. Where the revolutionary transformation of the individual into the ideal worker/citizen is at the center of macro-economic policy, it will be difficult to speak the language of markets based regulatory governance of economic activity. The likelihood of miscommunication and incomprehension thus increases substantially.

Yet, at the same time, the vanguard appears to distance itself from the masses that are the object of the Conceptualización, and the core of its obligations. Critics have summed up the 7th Congress, and its theoretical Model in pessimistic terms: “If I were asked to sum up the Congress, in a nutshell, I would say that the civil-military elite of the West's only single-party state doubled down on its reactionary positions and presented the rawest evidence in 57 years of the disconnect between the dictatorship's leaders and the Cuban people.”[3] The PCC’s Conceptualization remains complex and remote; a specialist text. It does not speak to the masses. It appears more to speak to its own cadres and to the United States, against whose systemic premises it appears written. And yet even so, the theory remains embedded with ambiguity. The document is opaque and complex enough to require a large addendum of definitions of terms of art.[4] That is not negative in itself—but in a political and economic order in which substantial discretion is vested in both vanguard party and state apparatus, the remoteness of text makes it effectively impossible for individuals—even the model revolutionary worker that is the object of especial treatment, to know or understand either the structure, foundation to principles of the system that has been erected in her service.

That disconnection between the masses and their elites appear to be a worldwide problem today.[5] And Cuba does not appear to escape its consequences—an increasing inability of elites to manage and lead their masses under whatever economic-political system they appear to operate. The 7th PCC Congress highlights a fundamental crisis in theorizing state power. Its Conceptualization remains complex and remote; a specialist text. It does not speak to the masses. It appears more to speak to its own cadres and to the United States, against whose systemic premises it appears written. And yet even so, the theory remains embedded with ambiguity. The embrace of a “Central Planning Marxism” Model may suggest that the PCC is finding it hard to move even from soviet style central planning ideologies to Marxist market ideologies that have proven more successful in other states. It may also suggest not a dynamic evolution of European Marxism but instead a creeping paralysis that may be more dangerous to its long term authority than any machinations originating in its enemies. Options and likely movement over the short term moving forward.


[1] De Seattle, 89 (“Nadie trate de engañarnos y confundirnos con las nuevas terminologías salidas de la propaganda hipócrita de los especialistas en engaños y mentiras, al servicio de los que han impuesto a la humanidad un orden económico y politico cada vez más desigual e injusto, que no tiene absolutamente nada de solidario o democráticoni siquiera un ápice de respeto por los más mínimos derechos que son acreedores los seres humanos.”) [“No one should try to fool and confuse us with the new terminology flowing from out of the hypocritical propaganda of those specialists in lies and deceit, in the service of which there has been imposed on humanity an economic and political order increasingly unequal and unjust, that has absolutely nothing to do with solidarity and democracy, nor even a hint of respect for even the most limited rights that every human being deserves.”].

[2] See, e.g., Fidel Castro Ruz, Discurso pronunciado por el Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro Ruz, Primer Secretario del Comité Central del Partido Comunista de Cuba y Presidente de Estado y de Ministros, en el acto central por el XXXI aniversario del asalto al cuartel Moncada, efectuado en la ciudad de Cienfuegos, (July 24, 1984), (; See also, generally, discussion infra at Part III.

[3] Roberto Alvarez Quiñones, The 7th Congress: A Reality Check, Diario de Cuba (April 21, 2016),

[4] See Conceptualización, supra note 19, at 27-32.

[5] In the United States, see, e.g., David Frum, The Great Republican Revolt, The Atlantic (Jan./Feb. 2016) (last visited Oct. 2, 2016); in the European Union, see, e.g., Darrell Delamaide, Opinion: Brexit is Just the Beginning of a Popular Revolt Against Elites, MarketWatch (June 26, 2016),; in China, see, e.g., Russell Leigh Moses, For China’s Communist Party, Stability as Usual Isn’t Enough, Wall St. J. (May 26, 2014), Larry Catá Backer, Ruminations 65: Thoughts on the 2016 United States Presidential Election--Consequences and Tragedies, Law at the End of the Day (Nov. 9, 2016, available

But the lecture was not the end of the day.  After lunch we drove to the University of Havana.  We were happy for the effort.  Beyond the usual photo opportunities of a beautiful campus designed with echos of the Columbia University Campus in Morningside Heights,we wanted to get an opportunity to consider te possibilities that our Global Programs Office appears to be opening for Penn State in partnership with the University.  Most interesting from our perspective was to get a tour of the Faculty of Law building in the heart of the historical section of the main campus.

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