'It is imperative that we make changes'
An interview with Cuban politologist and editor Rafael Hernández
By Manuel Alberto Ramy
The following is a condensed version of a long and revealing interview broadcast by Radio Progreso Alternativa on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2007.
"Cuba today is experiencing an intellectual movement never before seen," affirms Cuban politologist Rafael Hernández, who for years has promoted a culture of debate in our country.
That statement explains the existence of the quarterly magazine Temas, edited by Hernández, which -- in 52 issues -- has touched on practically every problem that affects intellectuals worldwide, particularly the most pressing problems of today's Cuban reality.
To Hernández, "the magazine is in some way the mirror of that intellectual movement, of that output of ideas, of that diversity of Cuba's contemporary thinking that looks not only inwardly but also outwardly, at the rest of the world."
In a small office on the fifth floor of the ICAIC building [Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry], Hernández sits in his trench of ideas. This thinker of average height, a forehead so ample that it has displaced his hair, of fragile appearance and solid thinking, chats not only with words but also with his eyes, which often appear tired of traveling to the future with a round-trip ticket.
To him, Temas "is a sort of stethoscope, the device doctors use to hear the heartbeats of contemporary society, primarily Cuban but also the state of thinking in Latin America."
This monitoring of Cuban hearbeats began in 1995 under the sponsorship of Culture Minister Abel Prieto, who asked Hernández to edit the magazine "so it could become a space for debate, from the perspective of a critical reflection of Cuba's and the world's contemporary problems. That was a necessity at the time, and still is."
The date is significant, because it places the promotion of the debate of ideas 12 years earlier than its beginning in Cuban society. In addition, Hernández says, the publication of the magazine for the purpose of debating -- and "debate is discrepancy" -- reprises a rich process of criticism and introspection that were interrupted by extraneous events that affected Cuba.
The politologist takes out his return ticket because "to understand the present, you have to look backward." He tells me that between 1986 and 1990 "a very important process of public discussion took place, which in my judgment is the most profound and democratic critical debate ever staged in Cuba, and it culminated with the call to the Fourth [Cuban Communist] Party Congress."
The debate "developed a docket of problems, of basic things that had to do with the mismanagement of the Cuban socialist model, not only in connection with economic aspects but also political, social, cultural, etc. At that point, an expectation for change was created; the temperature of public opinion, of the critical social consciousness about those problems, was already high.
"At that exact moment, the crisis of the Special Period unraveled and amid that crisis it was clearly impossible to go ahead with the agenda of the so-called 'rectification' and to implement policies that provided answers to the problems."
As I listen, I recall that Hernández is not the first of the personalities that I have interviewed who refer to that period (1986-1990) of strong critical debate, which I immediately associate with the early alert sounded by Fidel Castro about the likely collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc in general.
Another detail that many of the analysts and Cubanologists who write in the foreign press should be aware of is that the current debate in Cuba is focused on the need to perfect the "Cuban socialist model," not on the option between the socialist system and some other system.
"The system's principles must be defended, but the model itself must be transformed" so it may be buttressed, Hernández affirms. "I have heard -- and I don't know if the figure has been used officially -- that more than 2 million proposals have been received and recorded.
"No doubt, some of the proposals are not viable, but I am sure that all the proposals involve every important problem in Cuban society, all the problems that affect the operation of the Cuban socialist model. And I think that that's what the discussions have been all about."
The fluidity of the dialogue returned us to the present, so the question was inevitable: The open debates in the workplaces, nuclei of the Comunist Party and the barrios throughout Cuba -- are they a simple exercise by the people on the psychiatrist's couch, a simple catharsis?
"That cannot happen," he replies, emphatically. "We are in a crucial moment in the history of our country. Into this moment have come together an immense capacity of intellectual creation and an immense social energy. We have a truly educated population, people who think with their own heads. As a result, after all these years, we have at our disposal a public opinion, a citizenry with a capacity for consistent critical analysis, consistent and committed.
"The fact that the leadership of the Revolution summons us to a discussion of the nation's problems and asks us to express ourselves openly is a measure of the willingness for change that exists in the country. I don't think that the leadership of the Revolution can call to a discussion of a number of problems and then do nothing."
Before I can formulate my next question, Hernández answers it. "It's not a question of whether we should make changes or not. The fact is that it is imperative that we make changes. Politics is not the art of exercising human will; politics is the art of what's possible and meeting the needs that reality imposes upon us. Cuban society today demands changes and it is a fundamental element of socialism in Cuba that consensus should be articulated around the response to those changes."
Applying to the problems a traditional Cuban song, I tell him that the accumulated difficulties "are so many that they trip each other up" and that, in my opinion, they could exceed the responses.
Hernández's reply: "We have a number of material problems; we have a number of problems related to the scarcity of resources, but other problems don't have anything to do with that. They have to do with mentalities, with ways of thinking and conceiving socialism, with ways of thinking and conceiving participation.
"Without the effective participation of the citizenry in the control of politics and the decision-making process, we cannot solve any important problem, whether it's the production of milk, local transportation, energy supplies, the savings of resources or the construction of homes.
"All that involves the participation of citizens in the making of decisions involving priorities and in their control of politics. No bureaucratic administrative mechanism can control politics or prevent corruption like the people can."
Hernández tells me that, in its 52 issues, Temas has broached issues such as transitions, the role of the market in socialism, national consensus, socialist property, and the citizens' effective participation, among other topics.
In round tables and articles, the magazine has published the opinions of economists, sociologists, anthropologists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, and designers, as well as the discussions and criticism made daily by the ordinary Cuban. Not just print them, but also present them in forum-debates, which any citizen can attend and join. These discussions are even advertised on television, Hernández says.
Has the magazine received phone calls or reprimands for the articles it publishes? I ask. Has anyone tried to censor it?
"Everything that is displayed in the intellectual terrain with ideas, with critical points of view, has to overcome obstacles," he answers. "That's natural, that's normal. If someone doesn't want to fall ill with lead poisoning or silicosis, one should not work in a mine. If one doesn't want problems with the spine, one should not work at a computer.
"Professions, jobs have their own occupational diseases. Our job has them, too; it runs into mentalities that at some point resist the airing of certain things."
I try to interrupt him, but he continues: "In Cuba in the past 15 years, the battle has been waged in an adequate, negotiated manner, through dialogue. The dialogue between the institutions that make decisions and the institutions in the world of culture, the world of thinking, is increasingly fluid. And 'fluid' doesn't mean there is no disagreement.
"The resistance to new ideas, criticism and changes is something that I find in my neighborhood. I don't have to go to any government office to meet with resistance. In our civic culture, there are elements that resist change and refuse to accept specific criticism or reject the convenience of discussing specific problems in public.
"It's not a mentality that's exclusively installed in the head of some bureaucrats but in the heads of many citizens I know who are reluctant to discussion. They don't really believe that a debate can unfold and go to the core of an issue and contend that we are often not ready for debate.
"When we talk about debate or criticism, we often talk about censorship, restrictions, control, but we never talk about our own lack of a 'debate culture.' We must foster a culture of debate from the start, because our society doesn't have it.
"We often call a debate 'good' when the participants say the same as we think. That's not debate; debate is discrepancy. And it is very important that in a debate we express divergent positions in a spirit of dialogue, of mutual respect. And I think that politics is going through that stage right now."
To this Cuban politologist who has given courses in several U.S. and European universities as an invited professor, participation and criticism are essential to build the model of Cuban socialism.
"All the discussion about Raúl's speech on July 26 is a discussion that calls to discrepancy. And that is something that, to me, is essential for the vitality of a political culture. In our case, socialist cultural politics cannot be healthy if it is not developed from the debate and criticism of an immense majority of citizens.
"Public opinion in Cuba is represented by the immense majority of citizens, not by a group that controls a specific number of communications media. And that's essential to make changes and to express, to permit the media (including magazines like Temas) to confront and deal with the problems facing the ordinary citizen."
Hernández final words seem to coincide with the idea held by many
Cuban intellectual and politicians about the future of Cuba.
"All the formulas destined to promote, emphasize and deepen the social contents of socialism are formulas directed at the core of the central problems of Cuba's development. The Revolution must go forward and leave more and more room for the new generations.
"Those new generations are demanding capability, power, a degree of decision over their own ideas, their own problems and criteria about the meaning of a socialist society. And I think that the socialism of the future is the socialism of the young."
Manuel Alberto Ramy is Havana bureau chief of Radio Progreso Alternativa and editor of Progreso Semanal, the Spanish-language version of Progreso Weekly.