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Social Capital, Civil Society and Democracy in Cuba

In a free society the network of relationships between citizens is extensive. Today Cubans' way of life on the island is characterized by the poverty of their relationships with other Cubans.


Some admit it, and others do not, but there are Cubans who harbor doubts about whether democracy is possible in Cuba. Some even dare to suggest that the country should be annexed by the US. Frustration and hopelessness about the future of Cuba lead some to give up. Fortunately, there are many other Cubans who will not give up, and continue to fight for democracy.

It makes no sense to reduce the issue to a simplistic and defeatist dichotomy about whether democracy is feasible or not in Cuba. It is more logical and productive to identify the factors that make it possible, and to act accordingly. Believing and acting like democracy is impossible means doing a great favor to the current Castroist oligarchs and other dictators, hampering the work of dissenters who are struggling heroically for a regime change. The triumph of democracy in Cuba would also encourage those who are fighting for democracy in other countries.

The future of democracy in Cuba depends mainly on Cubans overcoming the many obstacles they face, especially government repression, and establishing the corresponding institutions. In this way we can focus on those forms of individual and collective behavior that could produce a democratic opportunity, especially in view of the impending generational changing of the guard in the country's Government. I start from the premise that the future of democracy in Cuba depends mainly on certain collective actions by a critical mass of citizens. That is, a group that, though relatively small, has the conviction, organization and determination necessary to alter the course of history of Cuba. Virtually all members of Cuba's internal dissent and opposition already form part of that critical mass, but it still needs to grow in size, organization, influence and resources.   

Since 1959 the organization of citizens in Cuba has been monopolized by the Government.

It is noteworthy that the lifestyle of the typical Cuban on the island is currently characterized by the poverty of his relationships with other citizens. In a free society the network of relationships between citizens is huge, including a myriad of family, social, political, economic, cultural, religious, sports and other kinds of bonds. This set of relationships is known today as a nation or community's social capital. It's like a neural network or nervous system that reflects the activities of a society, allowing its members to connect and communicate in countless ways, exchange ideas, identify common interests, establish institutions and organizations of all kinds, and take collective action based on their personal interests. Social capital increases in parallel to the degree of freedom citizens enjoy in any society.

A basic component of social capital is the level of confidence that citizens have in other citizens. That interpersonal trust is what cements relationship between citizens, which can lead to stable agreements and forms of collective action. For example, the formation of a business, a club to read and exchange ideas about books, a community organization, a political party or a protest or public demonstration. Such initiatives exist in Cuba, but it is necessary to extend, enlarge and consolidate them so that Cubans gain confidence in their ability to take collective action.

Social capital is the connective tissue of a nation's civil society, which is composed of family and the private activities of citizens, excluding the Government and the private business sector. Through social capital, interpersonal relationships foster, facilitate and lead to the formation of civil society's institutions and organizations. That is, without social capital there can be no civil society. And without civil society there can be no democracy.

In a totalitarian state there are all kinds of restrictions to thwart the development of social capital and the organizations and activities it gives rise to. The first measures of Castroism in 1959 included precisely the systematic demolition of almost the entire network of relationships of social capital, as it formed the basis of civil society and, as such, could spawn serious opposition to the dictatorship. Although virtually invisible, we can say that the minimization of social capital in Cuba was the most devastatingly successful achievement of Castro's assault. By wiping out social capital, what little remained of civil society was a paralyzed body, unable to defend itself against the Government, which controlled everything. In fact, totalitarianism can be defined as a system of government that seeks to minimize a nation's social capital.

It is social capital that Cuba now lacks if it is to have an influential civil society. Its absence is what also makes the typical Cuban citizen feel like he exists in a kind of limbo of impotence, or a state of weightlessness, largely disconnected from other Cubans. He cannot, therefore, participate freely in the affairs of his country, or undertake actions to progress in life. It was in this way that many Cubans lost many of their organizational skills: by delegating to the Government and depending on it.

Under current conditions, democracy in Cuba must be built with the elements that constitute its foundations: precisely the interpersonal relationships of social capital. Democracy is a superior form of social organization, based on citizens' deliberate participation. But that organization can only be carried out by citizens who have relationships with their compatriots. Hence the critical importance of social capital. Note that the basis for totalitarian power in Cuba is the Government’s organizational monopoly, in contrast to the citizens’ disorganization and disarray. This is why the Government devotes so many resources to the repression of social capital, through punishments for organizing meetings, or exchanging and circulating ideas and information that allow people to organize, and for taking any kind of collective action that threatens the Government’s monopoly. This is also why it prevents Cubans from having unfettered access to the  Internet and the modern social networks.

The Cuban opposition began the reconstruction of its social capital and civil society years ago, as prerequisites of democracy. The examples are many and varied, such as associations of journalists, economists and other independent professionals; the Social Communicators Network; the "Ladies in White"; the Dissenting Municipalities; the Patriotic Union of Cuba, the Varela Project; the Cuban Human Rights Commission; local chapters of Independent and Democratic Cuba and many others.

All these efforts testify to the fact that a large number of Cubans on the island, at a very high personal cost, do not accept a form of government that is not a democracy, that in which man's full dignity can be realized. These Cubans are heirs to the spirit of independence of 1895. They are, in fact, our new mambises, our freedom fighters. They struggle without machete charges, out in the open, without the jungle's protection. And they deserve our admiration and our support.

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