By Yassel A. Padrón Kunakbaeva
The founding of a republic is no trifle. It’s one of the most significant moments in the history of a society. The mistake is often made of analyzing such an event merely as a legal act, recognizing the direct intervention of the people in a Constitutional Assembly. And thus one sidesteps, however, the multiple historical processes which come together in that foundation. For a true republic to be born, one always needs an epic, an act of historic creation in which at least part of society actively participates.
So we see that the most important modern republics were born out of revolutions. Such is the case of the French and American republics, for example. In the case of Spain, the proclamation of the Second Republic was the beginning of an arduous transformation process which, one might say, was in fact a revolution; one that began to shape a future republic. But even when there’s no proper revolution to speak of, the birth of a new republic must be accompanied by a civic movement, by the appearance of a national conscience which takes shape in the constitutional text.
As it usually happens, the significance of this moment, one of the most meaningful juridical events, goes well beyond the purely legal. And this makes sense, because in the act of founding a new republic, not only is a new legality being constituted, but also the legitimacy that legality will have. Such an event necessitates a legitimizing discourse that takes root in the collective conscience with the force of a new myth. For the strength and future health of a republic, the legality of the process that lead to its foundation is not as important as the blood that was spilled for it and the scale of participation in the struggle to attain it. This is so because only when the legitimizing discourse connects with the experiences of the people who lived through a process of social transformation, will it acquire enough power to establish the supremacy of the new laws.
What am I driving at? Lately, when I read the opinions some share in the social networks on a variety of topics, which bring up the deficiencies of the rule of law in Cuba, I get the feeling that something very important is being forgotten. Not that it’s unimportant to demand human rights, including the so-called civil rights: freedom of expression, freedom to demonstrate, freedom of the press and freedom of association, among others. The problem is there’s another right that must be defended as fervently as the rest, lest the republic lose its way: the right to a community governed by social justice.
The civil rights I mentioned above do not protect people from the asymmetries routinely generated by the capitalist society. They barely offer them a small window of opportunity to try to improve their situation. But when those asymmetries become more acute, a large part of the population effectively loses the possibility of exercising full citizenship, for one cannot be a citizen without the basic material sustenance.
In the developed world, where the global value chains generate a large accumulation of capital, the effect of this is muted. A large part of the population can exercise their citizenship effectively and the republic survives. But in Latin America, experience shows that peripheral capitalism, with its oligarchic, landowning, colonial, patriarchal and exploitative order, casts a considerable sector of the population into such exclusion and economic precariousness that it prevents them from living as full citizens. That’s why Mariátegui said that ‘the Latin American republics have been nothing but false republics’.
In Latin America, the civil rights discourse plays a much more perverse role than in the developed world. While over there in the North the historical circumstances forced the bourgeoisie to surrender part of its privileges and thus fulfill the republican promise, over here in the South the oligarchies have always understood the republic as their republic. They then use the civil rights discourse to whitewash their political systems; it’s a way of telling the poor, the farmers, the Indians and the women: ‘you have the same rights we have, don’t ask for more’, while in practice they deny them all the material possibilities to exercise citizenship. Of course, distinctions should be made within the whole of Latin America across a range of nuances, counter-hegemonic moments and partial revolutions, but that’s too complex to do here.
In Cuba, before the Revolution, the same thing happened as in the rest of Latin America, apart from those nuances. Despite the popular nature of our wars for liberation, and the radical character of Martí’s republican and democratic proposal, the US guaranteed with their intervention that the first Cuban republic were born in full Latin American style. The domestic oligarchy, mainly connected to sugar, used the republican discourse in a way that was demagogic, classist and exclusive.
Now, connecting with the initial consideration on the foundation of a republic, what happens when —as it is customary in Latin America— the legitimizing discourse of the republic has no basis in the experience of the people?
A lot of blood was spilled and many myths were created in the formation of the Latin American republics. However, if one looks closely, one will see that the oligarchies were always quick to throw the most popular contents of the thought and discourse generated during the struggles for independence into the trash heap of history. Bolívar died believing he had been plowing in the sea. Quintín Banderas was killed, essentially, for being black. The new discourse of oligarchies was always a dishonest diatribe, and the discourse of the republic and civil rights became a tall story, with barely any basis in popular experience.
These false republics, in addition to being distinguished by the practical exclusion of a large part of the population, have lacked the strength of a truly sovereign republic. The contradiction between the legitimizing discourse promoted by the ruling classes and the life experience of the common people, has doomed them to suffering from chronic weakness. The hegemony crises in those political systems are cyclical.
In Cuba, the political systems of the first and second republics suffered the same crises, for similar reasons. The demagogic use that the ruling classes made of the republican discourse had a detrimental effect on the very hegemony of those classes. The fact that the biggest crises happened not during ‘democratic’ times, but during dictatorial episodes may cause confusion, and some have chosen to interpret that as proof of the republican fervor of the Cuban people. But the dictatorships of Gerardo Machado and Batista were part of the same system that prevailed during regular republican periods, since they were solutions found by the dominant classes themselves to their inner contradictions. In general, all of the republican period was customarily considered corrupt and false.
Which right was violated the most in Cuba before the Revolution? Same as it happens today in Latin America, the right to a community governed by social justice was swept aside in Cuba. Without that social justice, the peasants had little use for the right to have freedom of the press or the right to free association. Without the material institution of a community able to exercise citizenship, the establishment by law of an ideal community with full rights was pointless.
At this point, I know the advocates of the 1940 Constitution will want to crucify me. They will say that my criticism perhaps fits the first republic, but not the second, which was born out of the Revolution of the 1930s, and which had a Constitution that wasn’t exactly liberal, but was a world pioneer as to the inclusion of social rights. They will say that the fall of the second republic was not brought about by its internal contradictions, but by those who buried it, beginning with Batista.
Yes, the 1940 Constitution brought social rights to the fore. In many ways, it was a taste of what was to come. But something was missing. The Constituent Assembly was not forged in the heat of the Revolution of the 1930s, or during the Hundred Days’ Government, but under the administration of Batista, when the bourgeoisie had the situation under control. The social rights arrived like just another bit of discourse, while the people didn’t have the experience of having truly conquered those rights. In practice, the Revolution of the 1930s had ‘flown away in the wind’. Guiteras had been killed at El Morrillo.
Most of the progressive measures of the 1940 Constitution remained only on paper. It couldn’t be otherwise, for the power of the Cuban bourgeoisie and its omnipresent ally, the American companies, was left untouched. If all of the property in the country was in the hands of those entities, and if the experience the people had was one of respecting that private property, on what life experience could one construct the social rights discourse in the second republic? It was a stronger republic than the first one, undoubtedly, but it didn’t reach the might of an authentic sovereign republic. The March 10 coup revealed how the ruling classes held that republic hostage. It was a plaything for them to institute or violate at will.
Only the Revolution that triumphed on January 1st, 1959 broke the vicious circle of our false republics. For the first time, the right to a community governed by social justice became the country’s core value, which drove the nascent revolution to tackle each of the forms of asymmetry that affected Cuban society. It stood up to racism, landowners, the exploitation of women, and finally, it came up against the underlying cause of the unfair social order that existed in Cuba: American capital. To be able to found a real and material community of free men and women, the first step was returning the country’s resources and economy into the hands of the nation.
That’s why, when I reflect on the inalienability of human rights —keeping history in mind—, I also think about the right every people has to life, and to building a harmonious community with social justice. Defending that right, in the specific case of Cuba and Latin America, means defending the right the Cuban Revolution had to take the companies and the resources away from the Americans and the domestic bourgeoisie, even through the use of violence.
For me, that question is a deal-breaker. It’s a question I ask in conversation: Do you defend the right the Cuban Revolution had to seize the properties of Americans and the bourgeoisie, even through the use of violence? When someone answers affirmatively, then I can really believe they care about the common people. That person and I can then talk about human rights, and wonder why the new republic born out of the revolution regressed in something as important as civil rights. We may debate profound issues.
But when someone says: ‘no, they shouldn’t have done that, it was an excess of Fidel’, then that person and I don’t have much left to discuss, for I recognize a person to whom human rights are nothing more than a spearhead to try to undermine the Cuban system.
Donald Trump and Marco Rubio do not care about democracy or human rights in Cuba. Their math is strictly election-driven. Behind them there are other forces interested in punishing the Cuban indiscipline. Faced with the challenges to American hegemony which are appearing across the continent, they want to use Cuba to send a disciplinary message: ‘See what happens to those who stand against us. They live in misery and eventually have to come around and bend the knee’. It is essential to realize that they represent the absolute worse threat to our possible democracy.
The strength of the Cuban system lies in the fact that it built a powerful legitimizing discourse, based on the experience of a generation which took control of its country and started a process of popular emancipation. With the blood and the ideas of the heroes, they laid the foundations to build a truly sovereign republic, an extremely hard thing to do in this part of the world. Having then lacked the knowledge or the ability to build a republic that lived up to those foundations is a whole different story.
Human rights advocates often see things only partially, and they underestimate the danger that contemptuous North represents to any possible Cuban republic. At the same time, they hold in high esteem the civil rights discourse, whose performance for the benefit of the popular classes in our region has been mediocre, and they turn a blind eye to what’s right in front of them: the Cuban Revolution with its anti-colonial and counter-hegemonic character. They fail to see that, in our context, the civil rights discourse will be insufficient to found a truly sovereign republic, while it will be effective as a platform for the restoration of the same powers that existed before the Revolution.
Only by raising both flags will we advance in the right direction: the inalienable rights of each individual and the right to a community governed by social justice. That’s why, to clear the way, I always repeat the question: Do you defend the right the Cuban Revolution had to seize the properties of Americans and the bourgeoisie, even through the use of violence?
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(Translated from the original)