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'The diaspora and artists functioned as a laboratory for market Castroism'

French sociologist Vincent Bloch spoke with DIARIO DE CUBA about 'struggle,' 'rabbleization' and 'empowerment' in Cuba.


How do the Castro regime's mechanisms of domination work?  What are the means by which it perpetuates itself in power? These questions constitute the central axis of the work by the French sociologist Vincent Bloch.

An Associate Researcher at the Raymond Aron Centre for Sociological and Political Studies in Paris, he is the author of Cuba: A Revolution, published in 2016, and of La Lutte. Cuba après l'effondrement of l' USSR (The Struggle: Cuba After the Collapse of the USSR), published this year.

Descriptions of current Cuban society are trapped between two narratives: “rabbleization,” and empowerment, Bloch states in an analysis for DIARIO DE CUBA based on his studies of Cuba's reality.

In your book La Lutte: Cuba Après L'effondrement de l'USSR, you speak of the peculiarity of the Cuban struggle in relation to other ways of survival, such as Colombia's rebusque (getting by), for example. What is it, specifically?

In Cuba, the different ways people scrape to get by constitutes a series of tactics reminiscent of other forms of "material survival," from Colombia's rebusques, to Brazil's jeitinho, to Algeria's trabendo, and goorgorlou in Senegal. Nevertheless, in Cuba, lucha (struggle) is a term that alludes to more than a form of survival, and far more than a local informal or underground economy. 

In the first place, due to the centrality of the black market as a source of supplies, and the magnitude of theft across every level of state companies, are compounded by the opacity of the calculations allowing the Government to gauge the state of the economy.

Struggle is a symptom of the economic stagnation, and shortages, and reflects the routine acceptance of living in a world where all the official economic books are doctored. 

Secondly, the inevitable criminalization of all the different ways to survive perpetuates the arbitrary use of power by the authorities.

Struggle indicates a peculiar form of equality or equalization of conditions: all are subjected to the same unpredictability, to the same vulnerability with regards to the law.

 Does this mean that struggle is a practice that affects all of society?

Struggle is a disposition, without clarifying who the adversaries are, or the nature of the conflict that obliges one to struggle. In all the Latin American countries, one "defends himself," "fights," "performs" ... but resorting to folkloric explanations does not yield an understanding of the elusive nature of the term in Cuba. 

A mother in Cuba, referring to her sense of responsibility, or moral values like "decorum," might say that she struggles so that her daughter "does not take to the street," or so that her son "does not end up with the neighborhood delinquents." One can think of the owner of a little market who says that he has to do whatever it takes, "luchar su yuca," using the term as a pretext to justify the theft of goods designated for the people of his district. 

However, for Cuban leaders, struggle has become, for want of clear objectives, the residual form of the revolutionary process. Therefore, struggle is also the principle of action and the ruling elite's horizon of intelligibility. No other political regime upholds el rebusque(getting by) or la brega(struggle) as principles of action. This confirms, once again, that material survival is only one aspect of this struggle

The breadth of the lexical scope of lucha, (struggle), therefore, reflects less a subversion or a recovery of revolutionary language than the existence of a common set of practical knowledge, an interpenetration of imagination and a shared sense of reality. Struggle has the effect of blurring the lines between the mundane and the symbolic, between official norms and officious behaviors, between getting by and breaking the law. 

Its range of forms hardly leads to forms of collective action. Rather, they resemble a set of individual responses to forms of coaction that cannot be evaded, in practice, and with which it is necessary to comply over the course of time. 

To struggle is to act on the edges, to accept chronic indecision and, in this sense, it is a reflection of a way of life.

What do you mean you when you write that struggle perpetuates the political regime's rules?

If we gather the fragments that are most often repeated in street slang, we see a description of the social experience expressed in the following way: "You are being choked, so you resort to innovating, you cross the line, and then you have to clean up, by which point you have fallen into their dynamics, those of the [elite in power]."

In addition to the daily instability of life and its material circumstances, and the limits imposed by the State on private economic activities, there is the impossibility of observing socialist legality by the book, and the irrationality of production and work regulations. 

In this context, everyone, or almost everyone, is forced to innovate to get by. Whether in neighborhoods or at companies, all the members of the committees of mass organizations are marcados; that is, no one can be considered untarnished. All are at the mercy of the sudden legal changes and directives decided at the highest levels of the State.

As the rules of the game and political ground rules cannot be known with certainty, as they are subject to frequent changes to thwart potentially subversive speech and conduct, unpredictability constitutes the central dimension of struggle, and strugglers continuously strive to “cleanse themselves.” Thus, the different ways to cleanse oneself are dynamic and diverse. 

Since the 60s, this practical imperative has consisted mainly of "not talking trash about the Revolution" or the leaders, and participating in activities based on the Revolution.

Different people have different reasons, from keeping up appearances, to avoiding exposure to the "Law of Danger," to mitigating damage in the event that a crime is suddenly punished, to social climbing, to entering and leaving the country freely. However, as a whole these operations perpetuate signs of the existence of revolutionary society and the regime's social operation.

It is this vicious circle which Cubans seem to refer to when they talk about "their mechanics" to designate the continuous renovation of a production system of "merits" and of "cleansings. " This is traceable to the inextricable logic of struggle: the strategies used to avoid sanctions are, at the same time, ways to empower oneself, without managing to entirely evade risky and unforeseeable situations, which are perpetuated for the people of the diaspora - a concept that, since the collapse of the Soviet block, is defined in opposition to those in "exile."

All this contradicts the perception of struggle as a form of resistance. But also it entails rethinking the very nature of the Cuban regime and its evolution, an aspect that is a central topic in your first book: Cuba: A Revolution.

The Castroist conception of politics – a unanimous people, radical justice, the same education for all, and the metamorphosis of the social reality thanks to work and the eradication of vices – sought to lay the foundations of a new order, continuously molded by the State and the revolutionary vanguard, where the affirmation of the absolute unity of the nation's political body meant the suppression of the other, of the dissonant element.

However, the reference to the concept of struggle by the regime - which became manifest by the end of the 60s with the slogan "100 years of Struggle," indicates a phenomenon of fluctuation between the imperatives of ideology and the limitations of reality: the regime is condemned to oscillate between abrupt, disruptive revolutionary reactions and the logic of institutional stabilization.

The concept of totalitarianism has been denigrated by certain historians as a cliché proceeding from political science: a single-party regime in which the State quashes, by means of terror, police control and a monopoly on the economy and mass media, a society stultified by ideology and condemned to meekly obey if it wants to survive. 

Nevertheless, it continues to be a concept that is flexible enough to measure the singularity of the type of domination that has allowed these regimes to endure over time. 

Following the example of struggle, it can be verified empirically that all the routine conduct, and even resistance, that initially departed from socialist legality ended up establishing a symbiosis with the strong rules upon which the regime's social operation rests.

Obviously, no regime is static or immune to the passage of time. Thus, there exist normative cycles and readjustments of the political lines that the totalitarian power, embodied by a sole party, seeks to control, always from a fragile position. The elaboration and arbitrary application of legal norms, as well as ideological coaction as prerogatives of the sole party, are the essential tools Cuba's ruling elite continues to wield. 

In this sense, even when the ideology is not based on a belief – on the "Yankee threat," or the Revolution as a regime of equality and social justice, for example – it continues to be effective as a constriction: no new reality, no social phenomenon, and no form of conduct, from the use of the Internet, to reguetón, escapes the reasoning imposed by the highest levels of the Party, which perpetually draws a contingent line between revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries.

After Raúl Castro's resignation as president of the country,  how do you view the situation of the Cuban regime?

Descriptions of current Cuban society are trapped between two narratives: rabbleization and empowerment. Let me explain that.

Referring to post-Machado Cuba, the writer Lorenzo García Vega condemned the rabbleization spawned by the revolution. This disconcertment has returned, among exiles and on the Island, as an even more radical uncertainty regarding Cubans' capacity to behave in a civilized way. 

Thus, not pronouncing the "erre" or "ese," to say lucharinstead of esforzarse(strive), listening to reguetón instead of boleros, or going from Miami to enjoy a weekend in Havana, have become unmistakable signs of the decline of a multisecular civilization. 

This disgust with la chusma, Cuba's deplorables, reflects an authoritarian conception of culture. But, above all, it may be interpreted as a manifestation of spite in the face of "anthropological injuries" resulting from six decades of revolutionary experience. 

The problem is not cultural, but political: struggle is debasing, and does not let allow for the acknowledgment of new political ideals. It is highly unlikely that leaders like Raul CastroRamiro Valdés or Abelardo Colomé Ibarra will ever appear before a court to be held responsible for the crimes of which they are accused, which would make it possible to lay the foundations for a new order. 

The immense majority of Cubans continue to be hostages of a distorted historical narrative, lacking the tools that allow them to distinguish the accurate from the erroneous, truth from rumor, compensating for the impossibility of defining criteria of exactitude by embracing order and racial prejudices.

Meanwhile, observers who describe the empowerment of civil society in Cuba stress the capacity of certain groups (artists, emigrants that come and go, the self-employed) to negotiate a new contract with the State. 

With respect to this, it is true that the Cuban authorities are forced to act on a case-by-case basis, capably manipulating the carrot and the stick. But, even so, they manage to perpetuate the constraining of behavior and rights, under their political logic, as they always have. For this they wield powerful resources that are out of proportion, such that it is difficult to speak of negotiations or contracts.

To a certain extent, the diaspora and artists in the international cultural market served as a laboratory for market Castroism. Instead of being infected by democracy, as Barack Obama had hoped would occur, Cubans who travel to and from the Island relinquish their political rights in exchange for greater freedom to move about, consume, and start businesses. They live divided between various forms of territorial, social, professional, and family ties, whose mutual incompatibility is accepted without much resistance. 

Therefore, the Cuban regime continues to benefit from the convergence between heterogeneous actors (the nouveau riche, the diaspora, the leadership) at the same time that it continues to receive support from broad social sectors that fear disorder, insecurity and the unknown.

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