Cuba: the Measure of a Revolution
Closing Remarks at the International Conference –
“The Measure of a Revolution: Cuba, 1959-2009”
May 7-9, 2009
by Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada
May 13, 2009
Reprinted from CounterPunch
I should start with words of gratitude to Queens’s University and all those who participated in the organization of this Conference on the Cuban revolution. Their initiative, hospitality and excellent preparations have facilitated three days of useful discussions in an open and constructive atmosphere.
It was not an easy endeavour. Any attempt to look at the Cuban Revolution and to analyze it with objectivity poses challenges that defy intellectual integrity and, many times, personal honesty and candor.
In a brilliant work for which we will never be thankful enough, Louis A. Pérez Jr. wrote:
“Cuba occupied multiple levels within the American imagination, often all at once, almost all of which functioned in the service of U.S. interests. The North American relationship with Cuba was above all an instrumental one. Cuba-and Cubans- were a means to an end, to be engaged as a means to fulfill North American needs and accommodate North American interests. The Americans came to their knowledge of Cuba principally by way of representations entirely of their own creation, which is to suggest that the Cuba that the Americans chose to engage was, in fact, a figment of their own imagination and a projection of their needs. Americans rarely engaged the Cuban reality on its own terms or as a condition possessed of an internal logic or Cubans as a people of an interior history or as a nation possessed of an inner-directed destiny. It has always been thus between the United States and Cuba” .
That persistent resistance to assume Cuba as it was and to ignore its history and reality has accompanied both nations for their entire lives. That was a formidable obstacle to many Americans when trying to understand what happened in the island fifty years ago. There were not many intellectual heroes who tried to bridge that gap.
One of them was C. Wright Mills, a rare human being, an exceptional person, and a very ignored and forgotten one. He even chose to speak as if he were a Cuban in a beautiful book, to which contributed a younger Saul Landau, that is as relevant today as it was in 1960. Let’s remember him: “We are so far apart that there are Two Cubas –ours and the one you picture to yourselves” .
During the years of American undisputed hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, trapped in the dynamics of the Cold War, that picture of Cuba was also projected elsewhere and it continues to be a difficult task to ascertain with impartiality what Cuba was and really is, its achievements and shortcomings.
Fifty years ago few people could have anticipated that Cuba would attract the international attention it has gotten. In those days, when we were anguished by the departure of half of our then six thousand doctors, nobody in the island dare to conceive the establishment of a universal free health care system, much less to imagine that thousands of our medical personnel will be serving in dozens of countries and saving millions of lives around the globe.
In those distant days we were preparing to launch the national literacy campaign with a view of liberating from ignorance a quarter of our population. That was the first and decisive step towards a profound educational and Cultural Revolution. An important part of it was the creation of a State publishing house, Imprenta Nacional, which was born with a massive edition of Cervantes most famous novel. Even in those quixotic days we didn’t anticipate that thousands of Cuban teachers, with a Cuban method, would have contributed to save from illiteracy, millions of peoples in far away lands.
That was done, with the participation of millions of Cubans-workers and students, elders and youngsters, women and men- by a government that was damned to fail.
Because Cuba, in those days, was facing total bankruptcy. The Batista’s people had escaped the island bringing with them practically the entire financial reserves of the country in what was probably one of the biggest robberies in history.
A lot of words have been used, for decades, talking about the “embargo” or the economic “sanctions” imposed by the US against the revolutionary regime. Liberals and conservatives alike, and experts who have written much about the US policy towards the island, paid very little attention to the big robbery, the first and harshest blow in an economic warfare that has lasted half a century.
Cubans have not only contributed to the social development of other peoples. They have also shed their blood. Without Cuba’s unique example of internationalist solidarity there will not be now an independent Namibia, Angola could not have won sovereignty and peace, and South Africa would not be a democratic nation. We contributed to their struggle unconditionally and without taking anything from them.
Cuba has gained recognition by millions in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and even the Pacific, for what we have been able to do in the areas referred to above. If others with by far more wealth and human and technical resources had made something comparable the UN Millennium goals would have been fulfilled easily long ago.
Allow me a parenthetical note. I want to recognize the presence here of a group of Cuban teachers, who are working, together with Canadian authorities and NGOs to implement the YO SI PUEDO (YES I CAN) program to the benefit of those communities in Canada still affected by illiteracy. Those Cubans are young, but they have accumulated some experience in helping to improve the education of others in New Zealand, another developed country.
But what happened after the resolution of the conflicts in Southern Africa was perhaps more astonishing. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba suffered the most severe blow to its economy, lost its markets and trading partners and what was left for her in terms of technical international cooperation and assistance. More of one third of its GDP disappeared overnight.
At that crucial moment we were absolutely alone without any ally in the region or beyond. And it was then when the US decided to strengthen its economic warfare with the Torricelli Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton law of 1996, both of them, by the way, still in force and being implemented while we are holding this Conference.
In those years some presumptuous storytellers rushed to write about the imminent demise of the Cuban Revolution. Like Torricelli, Helms and Burton they felt sure in giving the exact date of our end.
Obviously they didn’t listen to what none other than Henry Kissinger was telling them. In the post Cold War era “America” needs to “learn its limits”, because “what is new about the emerging world order is that, for the first time, the United States can neither withdraw from the world nor dominate it” .
Those words were published when many believed in the “end of history” and a unipolar world under one and only superpower, a way of thinking that may be going out of fashion.
We are living at a time were more pondered reflection is called for. A time to listen, to reach out and learn. A time to discover reality and dissolve myths and prejudices.
A light of hope in that direction seemed to manifest itself at the so called V Summit of the Americas, held in Port of Spain, Trinidad-Tobago a couple of weeks ago.
To meet other persons and listen and communicate with them as equals is a very old human experience, familiar to everybody since the earliest childhood. Nobody should expect to receive a special recognition for just doing that.
Nobody except if you belong to a special nobility, a superior category, a particular race above all others.
For a very long time, that was the Latin-American and Caribbean experience. We never met with others as equals save if and when we met among ourselves, exclusively, without any stranger.
At the Conference, with Cuba proudly absent, all our brothers and sisters in the region found the President of the United States.
It has been said that the meeting was a historic one, but without providing solid arguments to sustain such an appraisal. Certainly out of it came a record breaking long document that the participants did not sign and very few will read. Apart from that everybody seems to feel happy about the cordial atmosphere that prevailed in the encounter.
President Obama tried to make most of certain decisions regarding Cuba that he had announced already before initiating his trip. Essentially he eliminated the cruel restrictions that George W. Bush had imposed on Cuban-Americans travel and remittances to the island, turning the clock back, on this matter, at the situation existing in May 2004, a time that, according to his own calculations, was a thousand years back.
It is rather ironic that the same person that insisted on forgetting history and on just looking forward towards a future of diffused and vague promises try to make much a do about something signifying nothing more than a partial return to the past. Partial because he didn’t return other American citizens certain rights on those matters that they have had, some of them, even during the first years of W. Bush. Listening to the President, I can not help but remember Kierkegard’s warning: “Life is lived forward but it is understood backward.”
That’s the problem with history. One can pretend to ignore it, but nobody can live out of it. I submit that it is wiser to recognize that history exists and to learn from it.
Anybody who does that would have been astonished by those words coming from Washington, which at the same time reiterated the continuation of the economic aggression against the island –the “embargo” in their sweetening language- and said that Cuba should do something to pay back for the generous “gesture” of lifting those restrictions on Cuban-Americans, a gesture that, after all, was dictated by a domestic growing demand by those affected as was recognized by candidate Obama himself.
In other words Cuba must change and behave in accordance to Washington wishes. If it is about change they are talking about, change that they can bring into reality right now, let me be very specific.
Why doesn’t Washington finally respond to the formal request for the extradition to Venezuela of Luis Posada Carriles? It was received more than four years ago with no answer.
The international Conventions against terrorism are very clear and leave the US no way out. Posada must be extradited to continue his trial for the destruction in mid air of a civilian airplane or the US is under the obligation to prosecute him for the same crime “without any exception whatsoever”. Extradite or prosecute immediately Posada or the US will continue to be in violation of Article 7 of the Montreal Convention on the Protection of Civil Aviation and all others legal instruments against international terrorism and UN Security Council resolution 1373 of September 2001.
If the rhetoric about change also includes beginning to abide by the principles of justice and moral standards, the President can not keep ignoring the unjust unjustifiable incarceration of Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and Rene González. He simply should exercise his authority by dismissing the charges fabricated against them and immediately free the Five.
Yes, he can. He just did that last week with those found guilty of espionage for Israel. In the AIPAC case there was a number of secret documents related to US military and national security. In the Cuban Five’s case, as was determined by US Court of Appeals in a unanimous decision last September, there was no secret information involved.
The shameful accusation against Gerardo Hernandez – conspiracy to commit murder, the infamous Count Three of the indictment – could never be proved as was recognized by the US Government itself in an emergency motion with no precedent in American history. Only an intimidated jury, after such an admission by the prosecutors, could have found Gerardo guilty, a result that demonstrates that it was impossible to have a fair trial in Miami.
The Cuban Five case is first and foremost the most notorious example of government and prosecutorial misconduct and the US Government should free them if they want us to believe that something fundamental is changing in Washington.
US 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 US role in the world. In the words of a distinguished American researcher “the long shadow on American historiography cast by its mythic character as a struggle for freedom” is “the greatest of our national misunderstanding” which “fixed in the national consciousness the idyll of liberty to which American society to this day remain hostage” .
This false self-representation goes all the way back to the moment of the Thirteen Colonies separation from England and has been fabricated by statesmen and politicians and deliberately instilled into the minds of the populace. That effort was present in the Declaration of Independence and the writings in The Federalist. It has been exponentially and successfully multiplied with the modern communication technologies.
This is how a person so notoriously involved in genocide in Vietnam and Cambodia could write about “American idealism” as “an expression of faith that our society is eternally able to renew itself, transcend history and reshape reality”. And he, who masterminded the fascist coup that destroyed democracy in Chile and torture and killed thousands of unarmed peoples, was able to define that invented “idealism” as “America’s traditional quest for a world in which the weak are secure and the just free”. Such a vision is a reminder of the expression attributed to Otto Von Bismarck: “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.”
Turning specifically to Cuba the official US narrative goes beyond all intellectual boundaries. The very well documented facts, in a history that we are suspiciously invited to forget, show that as early as 1805, Jefferson advocated for the annexation of the Island. Since those days Americans have developed a narrative according to which they have special, God-given rights over Cuba, to incorporate the Island to the Union, to intervene in Cuban affairs and to dictate our present and our future. All that based on a version of reality that has nothing to do with the truth, but promoted by a country that was made to believe that it has a divine mission and destiny and “is eternally able to … transcend history and reshape reality”, ideas so cherished by the neo-cons with the consequences that everybody knows. As Lou Perez put it, “the Americans’ capacity for self-deception was exceeded only by their insistence that the Cubans, too, subscribed to the deception – and should be grateful” . But in more recent times the US has shown an incredible capacity in trying to deceive and mislead millions around the world. Billions of dollars, taken from taxpayers pockets, have been devoted to an anti-Cuban propaganda warfare with no historical parallel, during half a century and encompassing practically all areas and means from TV and radio broadcasts, films, books, newspapers and magazines, lectures, conferences all the way down to a million copies of cartoon books.
All that is made in the name of democracy, a concept that was not particularly of the liking of the founders of the Republic and the drafters of its Constitution. The adoption of the term and its usurpation to transform it into a tool of imperial policy will come much later in history and in the process it will be deprived from its original meanings.
The very notion that any country’s institutions should mirror those of their neighbours is a radical negation of any democratic ideal.
We are convinced that a lot more has to be done to advance in terms of real people’s participation on every aspect of our system of government. On every aspect from the nomination of candidates directly by their own constituencies; the process of regular accountability assemblies in which delegates and deputies report back to the people and discuss with them many issues; the despachos – the one-on-one meetings between citizens and their representatives; the speedy and proper answers to the complaints, criticisms and proposals that citizens present through those and others avenues; the solution of a large variety of problems or the implementation of initiatives with the direct participation and real involvement of the community, in all those areas we need to continue working, guided by the fundamental and motivating principle of any revolutionary: the dissatisfaction with what has been achieved and the permanent struggle to attain higher goals.
Those efforts have absolutely nothing to do with an unthinkable return to the fake and corrupt regime of the past. To impose upon the Cuban people a “representative democracy” regime will not be an advance in democratic terms, but a regression. It will be depriving the masses of rights and powers they have conquered and not giving them anything in exchange but words, meaningless rhetoric of a dogma which does not have many believers among those forced to live with it.
Instead of copying a fictional caricature we will keep trying to advance in what Kelsen described as the “parliamentarization” of a society that at the same time should include all its citizens, eliminating all and any manifestation of exclusion or discrimination due to racial, sexual, religious or any other motive. Not less but more socialism is the only way to a more democratic society.
Our adversaries like to criticize the National Assembly I have the honor to preside over, because we are not used to the methods common in most Western parliaments. No, we don’t indulge in the long journeys of speeches in front of cameras whose handlers are the only listeners. Yes, we devote a couple of weeks for our formal plenary sessions.
But, believe me, we really work hard and meet many more times along the year. The real difference is that in our meetings a number of people take part who are completely absent in the proceedings of other parliaments. We do not take any mayor decision without previously discussing it with all those concerned. As soon as I return from Canada, for example, I will rejoin my colleagues in the discussions that we have been holding since April on the main issues that we will take up formally at our next summer Plenary Session. We are doing that at every province and every municipality of the country with the participation of thousands of our citizens.
Before considering the new Law of Social Security last December we had tens of thousands of meetings with the active participation of millions of workers, who discussed, modified and approved by an overwhelming majority the text that was finally approved.
We do not want to impose our system to others. Nor do we believe that ours is the perfect realization of the democratic ideal. We simply say that in Cuba we are striving to develop a legitimate project to contribute to one of the oldest debates of our civilization, trying to introduce, as much as possible, direct democracy within the unavoidable forms of representation in a modern society. In all humility allow me to suggest that all those who consider themselves democrats should recognize that democratization is an ongoing process that is needed in all and every country and that there is not such a thing as “democracy” by imposition.
Back in time, in what Norberto Bobbio describes as its “most famous praise”, Pericles had a very different idea of democracy: “we live under a form of government which does not emulate the institutions of our neighbours; on the contrary, we are ourselves a model which some follow, rather that the imitators of other peoples … is called a democracy because its administration is in the hands, not of the few, but of the many” .
The American system of government was clearly identified by its Founders as something very different from the classic or ancient forms of democracy. “It is clear that the principle of representation was neither unknown to the ancients nor wholly overlooked in their political constitutions. The true distinction between these and the American governments lies in the total exclusion of the people, in their collective capacity, from any share in the latter, and not in the total exclusion of the representatives of the people from the administration of the former” .
Such exclusion was needed “to avoid the confusion and intemperance of a multitude”, a threatening vision to Hamilton, Madison and their peers. So much that they wrote “had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob”. From such an aversion for multitudes evolved a concept of democracy that sought to restrict their participation in the exercise of political power and control of the administration; what came to be defined as “representative democracy”. Its substance was to reduce the role of the masses, or the mob, to that of electing their “representatives” and delegating to them people’s sovereignty. This reductionist approach has been transformed successfully into a kind of undisputed dogma.
Such a success is rather astonishing taking into account that the concept was the object of some of the most convincing criticisms since it first appeared in the Western World. To that effect Jean Jacques Rousseau devoted some of his most eloquent pages. Nobody has ever been able to refute his arguments about the impossibility of real democracy in societies deeply divided between the rich and the poor and the fallacy of “delegation of sovereignty” unless the “representatives” were fully controlled by the masses with a “mandat imperatif”.
These egalitarian aspirations were clearly expressed among the Jacobins and played an important role in the intense and bloody infighting of the French revolutionaries. It was also present in the process leading towards the Thirteen Colonies’ independence and during the first stages of the Republic, but was cleverly handled with Jefferson’s rhetoric and also with the suppression of Shays and other rebellions, and with such instruments as the Riot Act and the Sedition Act, pieces of legislation that inaugurated a well-established American tradition.
The notion of “representative democracy” and its implementation in real life has always been a subject of discussion.
In the 20th Century, Professor Hans Kelsen, the principal author of the Austrian Republic's current Constitution, dedicated to it specific essays and several chapters of his most famous books. In those important texts Kelsen insisted in the fallacy of “representative democracy”, to him just a “fiction” . Bridging the gap between ideal democracy with direct participation of the people, only feasibly at small scale levels such as in the classical Greek experience and the necessary representation unavoidable in modern states, was only possible in what he defined as “parlamentarization of society”, a system by which the people through the entire network of groupings and instances – factories, schools, neighbourhoods and social organizations – would take part in the process of defining policies and controlling the administrations.
The discussion about direct and representative democracy and on their different forms and combinations has been long and is a source of a rich and ongoing debate. From a theoretical perspective it seems to be unfounded and rather naïve to assume that someone has solved the dispute, even more to pretend having achieved the realization of the definitive final expression of democracy.
That pretense only appeared among Western politicians who present themselves as the creators of the perfect society and preachers of a new dogma. They face an empirical hurdle.
If what they have produced is the insurmountable summit of societal evolution, the ne plus ultra of political development, the subjects of that society should considered themselves very happy with no desire of changing their paradise. If the substance of that idyllic organization is voting to choose their representatives, casting ballots must be the most important activity in their lives attracting enthusiastic and massive involvement by everybody. Real life appears to indicate otherwise and proves that what really motivates the advocates of “representative democracy” is not a belief in a dogma but its use as a defensive instrument to protect their interests from the masses.
As the process of globalization has advanced, so has the evidence of the fictitious character of “representative democracy”. Thomas Friedman, not precisely an enemy of that process, has kindly explained how its main feature is the powerlessness of human beings facing over-powerful and anonymous market and technological forces that decide and even destroy their lives .
Citizen’s empowerment is the heart of democracy. Globalization is exactly the opposite. With its advance countries are deprived of their sovereignty and individuals from their citizenship.
The global economic crisis we are going through right now is the best demonstration.
At the international level a very limited group of countries, among them those responsible for the crisis, are taking decisions affecting all others without even consulting them. After overcoming many obstacles the UN General Assembly will meet, at last, next month, to discuss the crisis. The Assembly should not adjourn until we can find and implement solutions. Solving the crisis should not be left in the hands of those who have created it.
At the national level millions have lost their jobs, many factories were closed down and trillions of dollars have been given to the rich to bail them out with the money of their victims. The next generations will be born with an incredible huge burden that will weigh over their shoulders for an unforeseeable time. They will have only one consolation: in these dramatic days, their parents were not consulted; they did not have a saying in what was going on.
It was the job of their “representatives”, the “chosen” but unaccountable individuals that had usurped their parents’ sovereign rights.
I remember the Nineties, when Cubans begin facing the “special period”, very difficult economic years, justly compared by some independent, objective observers as being worse, for us, that the Big Depression of 1930’s.
In those days we didn’t take any decisions but one: to consult every citizen. We went to the factories, to the farms and the neighbourhoods and openly discussed our problems with everybody. And in that way, discussing and voting, a national consensus was built and specific, many times dramatic, decisions affecting many individuals were taken directly by those involved.
At the very same time, very different meetings took place elsewhere with few participants and secret negotiations almost finished with the adoption of a Multilateral Investment Agreement which was never discussed at any national parliament (some of them complained for having been kept on the dark) much less, of course, were consulted the millions whose lives the MIA would have deeply altered.
The experts mentioned above recognized that our method was crucial in helping us overcome the crisis and thanks to it, even in those terrible days, our situation was better than the one prevailing in Latin America .
Latin-American regimes that were so obedient to the then prevailing dogma had disappeared, swept away by the people. In a growing number of countries throughout the Continent peoples are “reshaping reality” and opening for themselves a new epoch, transcending the history that was imposed upon them, creating a new one. It is the result of efforts and sacrifices of generations. It was a long and difficult road.
But I have to say that we reached this point also because my people succeeded in opening the way fifty years ago.
Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada is president of the Cuban National Assembly.
“Cuban in the American imagination-Metaphor and the Imperial ethos”, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2008, p. 22-23.
“Listen, Yankee –the revolution in Cuba”, Ballantine Books, New York, 1969, p.13.
Henry Kissinger, “Diplomacy”, Simon and Schuster, 1994, p. 19 and 834
“A nation of agents – the American path to a modern self and society”, James E. Block, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 184, 236 and 237.
Henry Kissinger, “Years of Renewal”, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1998, p. 1074 and 1078.
Louis A. Pérez Jr., Ibidem, p. 227.
“Psywar on Cuba – The declassified history of US anti-Castro prtopaganda”, Jon Elliston, 1999, Ocean Press.
Thucydides, “History of the Peloponnesian War, II, 37, quoted by Norberto Bobbio in “Democracy and Dictatorship”, University of Minnesota Press, 1989, p. 139.
“The Federalist, a commentary on the Constitution of the United States”, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison, The Modern Library, New York, p. 413.
Ibidem, p. 361.
See, for example,, “Teoría General del Estado”, Editorial Labor S.A., Barcelona, 1925 adn “Esencia y Valor de la Democracia”, Editora Nacional, México DF, 1974.
“The Lexus and the Olive tree”, New York, 1999.
“La Economía Cubana. Reformas estructurales y desempeño en los Noventa,” Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe de las Naciones Unidas y Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1997.