Cuba: Religion, Social Capital, and Development

December 18, 2008

What is Cuban civil society like? This is a difficult question, and one that many scholars have attempted to unravel with little success. Efforts tend to range from, at one extreme, Cold War frameworks in which the Caribbean island is depicted as a tropical version of the Gulag, to, at the other, a polity in which rulers and the ruled enjoy a more or less perfectly harmonious relationship, which is complicated by the intense and sustained hostility emanating from the US.

Adrian Hearn throws some piercing insights into the complex relationship between the Cuban state and grassroots neighbourhood initiatives and formal and informal local organisations that, the author contends, have flourished after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the onset of what was known as the "special period in peace time". As he puts it: "Despite the decline of the committees (for the defence of the Revolution), ordinary residents have come together of their own accord to protect the social and physical well-being of their neighbourhoods through forms of associational life based as often on religious, ethnic and professional connections as on political allegiance."

It is in the complexities arising out of the efforts of the Cuban state "to incorporate them into official structures of governance", and the problems and opportunities stemming from their collaboration with local, state and urban institutions and international non-governmental organisations, that one can discover how community groups have been able to enhance forms of self-representation over the past decade, and, Hearn argues, an understanding of this is critical to gauge the potential of Cuban civil society. This is clearer at the end of the book where Hearn concludes that "international engagement with the island based on capacity building and support for the institutional reform already under way has better prospects for strengthening civic democracy than antagonistic attempts to bring about 'regime change'".

The study examines some concrete examples of neighbourhood associations, especially religious communities, "as key players in urban neighbourhood development initiatives"; more specifically, the Afro-Cuban religions that have played an important role in the development of the tourism industry and in bridging "the widening gap between state structures and community life". These analyses are the result of field work that the author carried out during two periods of residence in Cuba itself (Old Havana and Santiago de Cuba, from 2000-02 and 2005-06, respectively). Thus, the book contains an astonishing amount of detailed knowledge of local social and cultural projects in various poor districts in Havana in which Hearn, a research fellow at the University of Technology Sydney, got to know personally (and befriended) many of the leaders of these associations.

With this intellectual/academic framework, Hearn carried out surveys of community associations and neighbourhood projects, such as Casa del Caribe and Asociacion Cultural Yoruba, both of which are organisations that promote the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria, and the Office of the Historian of Havana and the Group of Integrated Development of the Capital, both of which are decentralised urban planning agencies. He also undertook studies of the Cabildo Carabali Isuama, the Pena Deportiva Felix Roque Pecora, the Munanso Tutuka Ensasi Cultural Centre of Atares, the House of Okan Oddara, the Catedral Pena (all Afro-Cuban religious groups, sport and recreation associations and mutual-aid societies).

Hearn's narrative gives glimpses of Cuba's reality. We are told, for instance, that an active Christian "may also belong to an Afro-Cuban religious house, and simultaneously be a loyal member of the FMC (Federation of Cuban Women) and the UJC (Union of Communist Youth)"; or that the mother of the head of the Catedral Pena "was a powerful Santera with many ahijados (godchildren) and her two resident sons were practising priests of Ifa (and she) was also the street's Committee for the Defence of the Revolution representative, making her a woman with an unusually wide range of friends and contacts".

We also learn that "in a socialist society like Cuba, the universities, professional and religious associations, community and labour organisations, and cultural and academic publications are also spaces of civil society where the cultural and ideological variables in the equation of hegemony are daily reproduced"; that the "harsh and sometimes violent treatment of Catholics and other Christians by the governing regimes in (Eastern Europe) was never replicated in Cuba, even when church-state relations were at their worst"; and that there is no question that Cuban civil society is different. It "is neither an exclusive space for the maintenance of the existing order nor an exclusive space for political opposition to the regime", comments Hearn. Such depictions, however, are combined with the occasional jibe against the regime: "Apparently their school wouldn't have been finished in time for Fidel's televised visit if they hadn't taken our cement and our roof."

Had Hearn confined himself to focus on his surveys and studies, from which some more general (albeit provisional) conclusions could have been drawn both about the civic democratising potential of religious neighbourhood community associations and/or further scholarly inquiry, this book would have resulted in a more coherent proposition. Unfortunately, the cultural-religious analyses, the rather brief - though not uninteresting - background historical material on Afro-Cuban religious traditions, organisations and communities, and the sociological, anthropological and political discussions are not coherently integrated. They seem to hang on as disparate bits of a totality that cry out to be brought together.

Furthermore, many of those analyses cover too much and therefore tell us too little that is conclusive or definite in relation to the central aim of Hearn's book, namely, "the way social loyalties at the grassroots are influencing patterns of socioeconomic development and the evolution of civic democratisation in contemporary Cuba".

Owing to the fragmentary way the evidence is presented and the organisational - and intellectual? - dispersion of the narrative, the key argument of Cuba: Religion, Social Capital, and Development that "a more entrenched and serious challenge to the state's claim of stewardship of civil society has emerged from its own efforts to integrate Cuba into the world economy" is therefore not convincingly demonstrated.

Cuba: Religion, Social Capital, and Development

By Adrian H. Hearn
Duke University Press
232pp
£62.00 and £15.99
ISBN 9780822341802 and 41963
Published 11 August 2008

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