Friday, November 14, 2014

Horizontal Paradigms – Cuba Style

Marina Sitrin        

Havana's Revolution Square during the May Day march May 1, 2014 (Photo: Reuters).


There are several examples of projects in Cuba that develop the autogestion muscle – something many are trying to work on in society as a whole, from workplaces to neighborhoods.
This January groups in Cuba will hold the eleventh semi-annual Paradigmas Emancipatorios en América Latina (Latin American Emancipatory Paradigms) gathering. These gatherings, and how they have been changing over the years, are emblematic of other changes and shifts from below that have been taking place in Cuba for at least the past fifteen years. In addition to a few of the projects of the well-known Martin Luther King Jr. Center (CMLK), there are now a number of other groupings of people who focus on self-organization, use the assembly form as a way of making decisions, and are dedicated to non-hierarchical forms of organization. Each sees themselves as a continuation of the revolutionary process begun in 1959. These groupings range from the Paradigmas gathering as well as those trying to facilitate self-organization in workplaces and neighborhoods, using the language of participatory socialism, to popular education, poetry and art grouping. One, the network of the Observatorio Critico (OC), specifically uses the concepts of autonomy and horizontalidad.

 This article will introduce the Paradigmas gathering and the Observatorio Critico.

Having participated in a few of the Paradigmas Emancipatorios gatherings over the past years I can say with absolute confidence that this will be an inspiring event, and especially eye opening for those already familiar with Cuban politics and meetings. Paradigmas is not a traditional conference, As they explain in their call for this next gathering, “From the beginning of these encuentros, in the 1990s, we have put forward more of a process of collective construction than an event in itself ... The workshops differ from traditional academic events based on their methodological and epistemological strategies.” It goes on to explain how the construction of theories in the gatherings will come from practice and people speaking from experiences of everyday transformations. The idea is to create a “dialogue of knowledges and experiences between leaders, activists from popular organizations, networks, social movements, researchers and academics, teachers and popular educators, students and all those who want to share in emancipatory practices.” The writing uses specific language and tools common in the newer movements, such as making sure to use both genders and using phrases such as “diálogo de sabers”, harkening the Zapatista and other indigenous uses of collective and historical knowledges. 

The Paradigmas gathering brings together people from all over Cuba and other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, organizing the gatherings in assemblies and open discussions, with topic areas this year such as the Zapatista escuelita (small school), anti-capitalist autonomous experiences in our territories and research from and for our movements.

I have met young women who work in the interior of Cuba doing popular education around lesbian and gay issues, participants from the Landless Movement in Brazil, Argentine autonomous movement activists, Zapatista supporters and independent media activists from Mexico, cooperative and autonomous organizers from the Basque country, as well as scholars and participants in unions and more formal organizations.

Different than the organizing group of Paradigmas, both in intention and composition, though very similar in some of the practices is the Observatorio Critico. I met participants in the then newly formed Observatorio Critico in 2009, while living in Havana. They were participating in the yearlong discussion series, Hagamos Nuestra la Revolucion (Together We Make the Revolution), facilitated by the CMLK and Juan Marinello Cultural Center, among others. What was totally different from any experience I had ever had in Cuba was that these conversations took place in small circles, with everyone facing one another, and speaking from personal experience. Each person’s opinion was valued the same as the others, and facilitators helped make this happen, including creating gender and age balance. In other words, striving for horizontal discussions. It thus made sense that people interested in horizontalidad and other non-hierarchical forms of organizing were there, such as the OC.

The Observatorio Critico is now a space for the exchange of ideas, and to this end facilitates a website with numerous projects and an open writing section for participants. Within it people in the different groupings that comprise the network organize discussions and activities. Of the many initiatives, the vaccination project, local playground renewal and 15M assembly discussions are some of the most innovative.

The first, the neighborhood vaccination, included volunteer veterinarians who went into a few neighborhoods where the stray dog population was rampant and the neighbors frustrated. After many attempts at getting the local government to respond, people eventually took matters into their own hands, and with the OC vaccinated the strays. They also vaccinated any pets that people had, which is huge considering veterinary care is not free in Cuba.

The second, with a similar history of no response from requests to repair a playground in disrepair, the OC organized together with neighbors to repair and paint the playground themselves. This effort also extended to how play happens, with the group facilitating non-competitive games and activities with the children in the neighborhood – fostering collaboration. A similar initiative has been underway for a number of years now in the area of Alemar, in the Eastern part of Havana, where mass apartment complexes are also in disrepair, and neighbors are self-organizing and working together to help fix one another’s homes.

The last was a conversation with a guest from the 15M in Spain. It took place in a park, with people sitting in a circle, as the movement of the squares around the world is known for. These may seem like small examples, but in a culture of political organizing where one waits until the government responds for action to take place, and public conversations using direct democracy and the assembly form does not take place, the practice of self organization and horizontality is huge. 

It is these sorts of examples that develop the autogestion muscle – something many are trying to work on in society as a whole, from workplaces to neighborhoods.

Dmitri from the OC, explained, 
“The ‘generation’ (cultural-political & non-statist) of the Observatorio began to self organize in the 1990s when Stalinism (state totalitarianism) constituted a strong negative reference point for us, and we did everything possible to avoid its practices and outrun its ideological roots. We explored various forms of organization and when we began to call together the Observatorio Critico we tried to be as horizontal as possible. Horizontalidad and autonomy form part of the agenda and praxis of the OC, and while we are not always able to implement them as we would like, we have the intention and experience of going in the direction towards horizontalidad.
We define ourselves among the alter-mundista (global justice movements) and in a radically different way from the “right wing opposition” in Cuba, who want to make this country “normal” (ie liberal-democratic and capitalist), while we realize that this “normalcy” is leading the world into the abyss, as seen with the resulting exploitation, oppression, discrimination, violence, authoritarianism etc – which is precisely what constitutes the “social object” of the work of the Observatorio.

We have had contact with the 15M and Occupy, and other similar movements in Latin America and Europe, and see ourselves aligned and similar to them – just on a smaller scale.” 
These are just two of the many relatively new formations and experiences in Cuba. All too often the conversation about Cuban politics today falls into one or another camp, those that support the revolution without question, or those that want to see its demise and the resurgence of capitalist relations on the island. Few know that there are many spaces from below that do not want capitalism and are also challenging the state form as it exists, looking instead to one another and horizontal forms of relating and power construction

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