Years back what they call "civil society" became part of my life through my early engagement in a combination of community activism and links to the few NGOs working in Cuba, followed by participation in Latin American social movements and organizations that defend an ethical economy, the environment and human rights. Thus, as an activist and analyst, I can say something about the matter.
Autonomy with respect to the State, a dedication to making a difference, and ideological and thematic diversity are features that characterize any active civil society. Leading scholars from the North and South - J. Cohen, N. Fraser, P. Chaterjee and M. Svampa - recognize, despite their differences, that a plurality of voices and agendas, and the public and political nature of their actions distinguish the lower class's organization and mobilization with respect to the forms of social administration. Charity, social assistance and subsidiarity exist in every society. But they have little to do with a logic of movements and rights. Neither does the establishment of divisive systems that separate, within the same cause, actors whose struggles, and discourse share points in common.
I say this because I find strange and unfortunate the decision by a group of prominent activists and academics of the Cuban racial cause to exclude their fellow dissidents from a forum in the US, arguing that it was a "consensual decision," as the latter "do not consider the fight against racial discrimination their main objective."
It is not theoretically or civically consistent to engage in activism on some fronts - race and gender, gender and poverty - and then exclude someone for their defense of an allegedly divergent (political) agenda. It would be necessary to demonstrate that the use of race is merely instrumental and subordinated to politics, when it gains prominence. In each given case. Is it legitimate to exclude activists who, considering themselves revolutionaries, perform meritorious work in the Island's cultural and community institutions? Should we ignore the cruel reality of the dozens of Afro-Cubans imprisoned for their political activism? It seems to me, in both cases, that we should not.
If we review the documents and work by groups such as the Citizens' Committee for Racial Integration (CCIR), excluded from the forum, we find an effort to shine a light on racial discrimination as part of a concrete logic of power. That – and not an abstract emancipation – was Paulo Freyre's cause. The use of international bodies for publicity, communications and protest are congruent with the practice of Afro-descendant organizations in the Americas. And they are, incidentally, an illustration of the nexus between racial activism and use of the right addressed at the important event.
Dissidents do not constitute “civil society” all by themselves. Their aims and efforts have as many upsides and downsides as those of any other segment. But excluding them is not the solution. Rather, it is part of the problem. If these activists have been rejecting the US blockade for years, as well as denouncing racial, labor and gender-related discrimination, and not just political repression, why couldn't the event's organizers find a way to discuss these issues with their counterparts?
Waving the banners of the movement, activism and public education is not consistent with embracing the logic of state exclusion, which seeks to fragment and control to repress more easily. I have been an organizer and taken part in similar events bringing together a whole range of actors from Cuban society, and in my experience people have much more in common than what the ideological intelligentsia would like to dictate. Without betraying our ideas, we can discuss and engage in dialogue while respecting our differences. When that is frustrated there are rarely coherent arguments: the fear of being associated with others, the calculation of benefits and authorizations, and the pressure of power, prevail – just the opposite of the lexicon and aims of a civil society.
This article originally appeared (in Spanish) in the Mexican daily La Razón. It is published here with the author's permission.