Parallel Worlds

Photo: Granma

By Yassel A. Padrón Kunakbaeva

There are many Cubas within Cuba, same as there are many Havanas. Social fragmentation and the paradoxical coexistence of the most dissimilar realities –sometimes with nothing but a wall in-between– have become part of our daily lives. One of these divisions is the one separating official institutions from the streets. Occasionally, I’ve come to feel that, in Cuba, socialism only begins when you cross the threshold of your school or workplace.

That division, as I see it, is first of all a mental construct. The same people who know the reality of the streets, who suffer it in one way or another, are transformed inside the institutions into defenders of the official stance. Before they know it, they can grow so identified with the view ‘from above’ that they come to believe it. Well, for those of us who have read Freud, this type of light sociopathic behavior is not scandalous.

I believe what’s happened with the reopening of the market in Cuatro Caminos is archetypical. In a show of laudable effort, the political authorities and the executives of CIMEX materialized a luxury, well-stocked market in an area of the capital characterized by the precariousness of housing, labor and standards of living. Then, what we all know happened. The aspiring consumers thronged in; there was violence, broken glass panes, etc. Afterwards, and uncharacteristically, we got the official version of the incident in the TV Newscast, where Talía did everything but use the words ‘vulgar mob’ to refer to the events.

That way of referring to the people is not new. For a long time now, the bureaucratic establishment has juggled three terms when referring to the citizens. When it wants to strike a revolutionary chord, and reaffirm the revolutionary social pact, it calls them ‘the people’. When it wants to turn them into an easily manipulated object, the passive beneficiary of official policy, it calls them ‘the population’. When it has to deal with the ugliest, most savage and non-conformist side of that citizenry, then it speaks of ‘lumpen’ and ‘antisocial elements’. The worst part, in my opinion, is that there’s less and less reference being made to the people, and more and more to the population and the antisocial elements, which makes me think about a slow conservative turn.

Let’s be clear. Creating such a market in that area without at least stocking the neighboring markets wasn’t a stroke of genius. On the contrary, what happened is an indication of authorities with a mentality that’s paternalistic and disconnected from reality. In turn, Talía’s segment in the news speaks of an ugly and bourgeois side of our socialism, whose existence we sometimes find difficult to accept.

Those who broke the glass panes of Cuatro Caminos are the real people, the one in the streets. It’s uncivilized, brazen and disrespectful, as were the French masses that stormed the Bastille. That lack of civility shouldn’t be so frowned upon in a socialist country, given that the hegemonic form of civilization in the world today is the capitalist one. Anyway, the truth is that, when socialism is left half-done, when it gets stuck in its vanguard phase and degenerates into bureaucracy, it becomes a Frankenstein monster made of stitched pieces of capitalism.

The remarks by Talía, who only sees the problem from the side opposite the one of those ‘lacking social discipline’, shows what I mentioned above about the gap between the institutions and the streets. Those who organized the market apparently did it without taking into account what happened in the streets, oblivious of the frantic jungle the black market in the streets of that part of town has turned into. It seems these are officials who, once again, live inside their own discourse.

I don’t know what kind of socialism they’re trying to build with their backs turned to the streets. Only the popular education of that citizenry –a pedagogy where there is no one teacher at the top, but where everyone teaches one another– can generate civility, of a community and non-bourgeois kind. That popular education, of course, needs its agents, those who would take the first step and fight next to the humblest. For the record, by the way, I don’t deny the pedagogical power of violence and coercion backed by the law; but this should be a last resort.

I believe one of the most ambiguous results of the Special Period was that the State and its organizations lost the streets. The hegemony of socialism, which is undeniable, retreated into the institutions. Daily life on the streets continued on its own path with relative independence. It was ambiguous because, on one hand, some obstacles which hindered the citizenry were eliminated, but, on the other hand, the idea of building socialism on the basis of society was abandoned.

That space, the one in the streets, is a space where the values of socialism are in constant ebb. We could say in freefall. The State, meanwhile, is satisfied with the knowledge that the people will respond positively at critical junctures, in defense of sovereignty or social conquests. But socialism is not just a thing for critical junctures. If the cultural struggle isn’t won in daily life, it’s all headed towards failure.

Who’s fighting in that space? Today it’s difficult, at least in Havana, to stand in a street corner and defend communism. People start looking at you sideways. Someone dismisses you as a hard-liner. The guy who does shady business tries to avoid you, just in case… Even people who show up frequently at voluntary work start to seem suspicious.

Many of us on the left now defend our views on the social networks, in academia, in meetings. But, how many of us are devoted to building up hope from the community? I say this as criticism and self-criticism. I believe that, in my time, I failed as a grassroots leader of the FEU (University Students’ Federation). What I do now I deem useful, but I don’t forget that working in the physical world, with communities and organizations, is indispensable so that there may be socialism. Someone has to do that work.

Contact the author at: yasselpadron1@riseup.net

(Translated from the original)