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A year has passed and yet his booming voice has not gone away. As many men and women in Cuba and elsewhere, I enjoyed Juan’s human and intellectual qualities for many years. Today I choose to remember him on a September day last year, just a month before the unexpected end. I had sent him some comments about an excellent article of his, published a few weeks earlier, which his interviewers entitled From State Socialism to the Socialist Republic. At eighty-three, Juan paid as much attention and with as much dedication as a teacher to the drafts sent to him by prestigious intellectuals before publishing them, the queries of university students and the reflections of friends. He quickly recorded the response to my message, expanding it, of course, to other topics about Cuba, with his usual humor and rigor. He recorded it, his preliminary notes in hand: “Let me see if I understand what I wrote here». He announced at the beginning that he would be brief, but there were eight consecutive audios. Now I am listening to them again. He recorded them in the early morning hours at his home in La Víbora neighborhood of Havana, and speaks for 95 minutes, his finger glued all along to his telephone’s microphone key. “Wait, I’m struggling with this little ball that keeps sliding away from under my finger». He speaks with the sound of the rain and sometimes the distant voice of his inseparable Daysi in the background.
Juan maintained in all circumstances his critical views without drifting away from the field of the revolution. I transcribe herein some of the comments that he sent me that day:
«If I use a tone that may sound academic it is because I intend to address these issues with a more serious approach, not as mere opinions but with references to well-established and conventionally accepted knowledge. The academic tone also compels me to use concepts with a certain precision and thoroughness and to avoid metaphors and excessive praise.
«I picked the concept of socialist republicanism from a group of Marxists in Barcelona. I did it to try to answer the question of what socialism we wanted, aware that we did not want the real socialism that we saw in the former socialist bloc. The liberal republicanism that existed in Cuba before 1959 had something Jacobin about it, and it incorporated the issue of equality. In the last chapter of my book The Evolution of Power in the Cuban Revolution I commit myself to the republican socialist affiliation”.
About the importance of the Constitution and the legal system as a source of legitimacy:
«The Cuban revolution always attached great importance to the constitutional order. That is why there have been several constitutional reforms. Respect for the legal order has been a source of legitimacy for the revolution. This has been distorted in practice because the rule of law, understood as a state in which all institutional or personal actors are subject to the law, and the law is produced by a representative body, has not fully functioned. Power has been exercised in many cases in a discretionary manner. The new constitution, adjusted and approved with wide citizen participation, defines Cuba as a socialist state based on the rule of law. That is why it is important to embrace it as a key instrument, also for the political treatment of the current situation. In my book I state that some historical sources of legitimacy of the revolutionary process have lost momentum, and I highlight its legal legitimacy and its democratic legitimacy as valid sources».
His insistence on the centrality of reforms:
«All of the above works, of course, if a minimum of economic welfare is achieved and our basic needs are met. We learned from the 1990s that the population withstands periods of crisis if they see some clear-cut signs of recovery and if the political discourse encourages them sufficiently to reach the other shore. Hence the importance of implementing the program of reforms. Expressions such as ‘a revolution within the revolution’ make no sense; a revolution within the revolution is counterrevolution. In order to achieve socioeconomic and political viability in changing circumstances, a revolutionary process has to make reforms. Of the socialist experiences that have survived, China and Vietnam are the ones that made structural reforms. In our case, the prevailing political culture has not been reformist; the reforms have been considered rather as weaknesses, concessions, exposures that the enemy will take advantage of, blah, blah, blah», Juan liked to repeat. «Of course, there are always external factors; in our case, in the first place, the extreme aggressiveness of the United States; but the viability of the revolutionary project requires that the country develop in the midst of this situation”.
«One thing I do whenever I can, and totally on purpose, is to counteract the discourse of Cuban exceptionality. I argue that Cuba has been just another case of real socialism, with its denial of market relations and its resistance to reform. The reason that reformist positions gained a foothold in Cuba was the crisis of the 1990s. We have moved from one crisis to another. If only we did not have to take up again the first steps, the ones to recreate a market that we had many years ago and was extinguished. That is what happened with several cases of the real socialism experience: spaces were closed which in the end had to be reopened. The reforms that we make to the economic model must include again those components that we crossed out in the past, such as the role of the private sector and market relations. However, there are other and more complex elements of the reforms that do not entail going back to where we once were. For example, the approach to foreign investment, the autonomy of state enterprises, and decentralization. We have less experience in this, and there has been plenty of debate about the positive and negative aspects of the Chinese and Vietnamese reforms. Faced with the different stances on the new things to be reformed and the usual suspicion of the critical voices, what proves feasible is to implement what is already approved, which should no longer be the subject of debate. For instance, the Guidelines of 2011 and their amendments in subsequent party congresses; the Conceptualization, which draws a model of socialism; and the new Constitution and all the supplementary laws still pending. This is the basis of the consensus that we already reached but has not yet been fully implemented».
Juan also talked that day at great length about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the archeology of the so-called opposition, and the enemy strategies to destroy the Cuban revolutionary process. I close these quotes with another assertion that he would always stress about the cultural dimension of the changes: «Everything we do requires the promotion of a new culture. If we do not create a new legal culture, the new Constitution will be useless; without a new economic culture, we will not be efficient; without a new civil culture, we will never understand each other».
We miss you, Juan. What a big void you left us. It is still hard to get used to the fact that your sharp comments, your loud, very loud sarcastic remarks are no longer there. You were a true teacher for anyone who came to you with questions. You encouraged everyone to read, reflect rigorously and think for themselves. You were a scholar, both for knowing a lot and for always being eager to learn and study to understand better. A scholar close at hand and never arrogant. In spite of the bad times you went through, you never lost your way, your critical eye or your loyalty to the Cuban revolutionary project. The youth of today’s Cuba, so full of questions, also needs you. To many young people you are still a guide, and they will keep looking for answers in your books and your interviews. This is not an exaggeration, Juan, so stop laughing.
Nestor Napal, October 2022
Traductor: Jesus Bran