Rebel thinkers in Havana

June 4, 1999

Tony Kapcia looks at the Cuban's thirst for answers to problems outside the rhetoric of orthodox communism

At first sight, given the spring trial of four former academics as dissidents, the question of academic freedom in Cuba would seem to be a cut-and-dried issue.

Yet in Cuba nothing is ever what it seems. Beyond the stereotypical image of Soviet-style communism is a complex, often contradictory, political culture, with a network of "spaces" between overlapping official structures and what resembles civil society. The network is used not only by the system but also by most Cubans in their daily adjustment to the pressures and contradictions of the 40-year-old revolution.

Cuba's higher education system has had as chequered a history since 1959 as the whole revolution, but has often been at the sharp end of developments and evolving contradictions. Havana University was an early ideological battleground, with tensions between liberal and radical students and a middle-class exodus that badly depleted the teaching staff. These were replaced by committed but raw activists, pumped up by later radicalisation.

In the more institutionalised 1970s they too were replaced by a new Socialist Bloc-trained generation, more orthodox texts and more "Sovietised" structures, enlisting the bureaucratised but highly competent universities in the task of training the new citizenry. Finally came "Rectification" after 1986, resisting both Gorbachevism and the inertia and privilege of institutionalisation, replacing orthodoxy with a younger, more questioning, generation that wanted to debate and reassess.

That Cuba's universities should be a forum for debate challenges stereotypes. The bewildering phases through which the revolution has passed since 1959 have been characterised by interspersed periods of often open, public and even encouraged debate, usually following crisis and ushering in certainty. The universities' role has been fundamental, given traditional respect for intellectuals, academia and the "space" it occupies.

Strangely, academics have often been seen less as a threat than as a politically reliable elite with a privileged status, working in a highly selective environment capable of accommodating mavericks and geared to the preparation of the next, committed and technically equipped, generation.

Higher education's other function - furthering debate and exploring "space" - has been crucial, exemplified by the plethora of think tanks, academic centres attached to universities, the canonical Academy of Sciences, external agencies (usually churches), or the Communist Party's central committee. During the debates, these centres have frequently had a privileged role to think the unthinkable. If something useful emerges, then it is used; but if the parameters are breached, then the usual mechanisms can be applied. Yet that has not necessarily meant purges or expulsions: instead, those concerned have often been moved elsewhere but allowed to continue their work openly and even travel abroad.

Such a debate is evident today, responding to both the post-1991 economic crisis and the corrosive effects of the subsequent taboo-shattering reforms, and reflecting the inevitable reassessment, and even redefinition, of the revolution. That has led to a revival of disciplines long marginalised as irrelevant or ideologically problematic (such as political science or sociology), or taught within orthodox parameters (most non-scientific disciplines, except history).

The debate is open, and vigorous in some (but not all) quarters, revealing a renewed thirst for knowledge and answers outside the old orthodoxies but always within firm limits - the same limits set by Castro's 1961 Words to the Intellectuals - "within the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing", a definition that challenged an intellectual elite struggling then and since to identify the borders of the permissible. That struggle has since often produced painful, clumsy or downright wrong pressures; but it has also produced the "spaces" for manoeuvre for Cuban academia.

Part of the enigma focuses on the party's role in the universities. For high membership can be attributed to a number of factors: opportunism in the past (with a less selective party), vigilance, discipline, but also the fact that the party has repeatedly judged that the system is better served by the inclusion of intellectual quality than by its exclusion, and also by the fact that many academics are, in a highly politicised society under siege from the United States, genuinely concerned to be seen to be involved politically.

A further complication now is that academics generally do not share the growing access to the dollar permitted since 1993; educators thus suffer as a group, being paid in pesos and depending on a somewhat poorer peso-economy, despite the prestige and successes of education.

The resulting demoralisation is visible, with a growing brain-drain towards the tourist sector and self-employment. Yet this also means that those who remain tend to include the more genuinely committed academics, committed both to their work and to the system in a way that may often surprise outsiders.

This is not, of course, to say that the recent trial was unimportant (although Cubans certainly paid it less attention than the world media). It is simply that, whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, the underlying picture is less that presented by that media than one with much complexity, many contradictions and often a great willingness to question, debate and search.

Tony Kapcia is reader in the school of languages and European studies at the University of Wolverhampton and director of the Forum for the Study of Cuba.

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