DEMOCRACY: A CUBAN
The Aims of Education Address
New School University Convocation
September 4, 2003
On January 1, 1959 the Cuban people
awoke to find that Fulgencio Batista, the dictator who had ruled the island
since 1952, had left the country and that a group of revolutionaries led
by a young lawyer named Fidel Castro had taken over the government. I
was ten years old at the time and I remember my father leading my sister
and me out of the bedroom to the back yard where the rest of the family
was celebrating the end of the old regime and the beginning of the new.
The celebration, fueled by the jubilation the rest of the country felt,
went on the rest of that day and spilled into the following week. Schools,
factories and offices were closed. People were wandering the streets in
a state of euphoria breathing what they thought was the fresh air of freedom
for the first time in seven years. There would be no more torture or political
executions. Jail doors would be opened and political prisoners freed.
There would now be freedom of speech and the press. Democracy would be
restored and elections held.
These were the hopes that fed us during the first few days of the new government and allowed us to put aside any doubts about the public trials and executions of former government officials and Batista supporters that were aired almost daily on national television. I still remember one in which the top of a mans head was blown apart by the firing squads bullets. It was the subject of my nightmares for weeks afterwards. We accepted the official justification for these executions: these people had done awful deeds, had tortured and killed their enemies. They deserved no more than a few hours before the revolutionary tribunals and they certainly deserved no mercy. We put aside any doubts we had that some of them were not guilty, as they themselves claimed, or that the trials seemed to conclude too quickly, with the frenzied audience screaming, Paredón, paredón (To the firing squad). The country needed to be purged. The new order needed to be established. Under the laudable banner of social justice, the new leaders had promised great things: agrarian reform, the end of government by corruption, free education and health care for all, and democratic elections. Schools eventually opened, people went back to work, and an apparent sense of normalcy ensued. Over the next few months several members of Fidel Castros inner circle, among them Huber Matos, a hero of the revolution, were arrested, tried, and given long prison sentences. Others, such as Felipe Pazos, Cubas foremost economist and a supporter of the revolution, were forced into exile. Negative elements needed to be pushed aside in favor of the great agenda. We watched as private property was inventoried and businesses, large and small, expropriated by the government. Land would be distributed to the peasants, good housing would no longer be the exclusive privilege of the rich.
Among the first businesses taken over were magazines, newspapers, and radio and television stations. Now that all media was in the hands of the state, freedom of speech would no longer be the province of the wealthy but a right accorded to all Cubans, rich and poor alike. We accepted the peculiar logic behind these activities. Large crowds were allowed entry into newspaper buildings. They destroyed the printing presses contained therein, threw typewriters out of windows. Typewriters, my God! I was already a fledgling writer and a great admirer of José Martí, the greatest political and literary figure Cuba has ever produced. I memorized his poems. I longed to be like him. When I saw those writing instruments hit the sidewalk and shatter, something in me changed. Much as I tried I was unable to find a rationale for such actions. I turned from the television and went outside
The seed of doubt was planted in my parents when three uniformed militia came to our small two-bedroom house in the suburbs of Havana to inventory the contentsfurniture, appliances, even books. My mother pleaded with them. We were supporters of the revolution, had helped the rebels in the mountains with money for food and armaments. In school our new teachers taught us that the yanquis were evil, that it was all right to hate them, that we had to obey the state above all things. If we did so, great things would happen and we would live in a society where everyone was equal, everyone was happy. It was at this point that my father and mother decided it would perhaps be best if we left the country to wait out the changes and hope that things would settle soon. In little over a week we were in Cubana Flight 412 headed to Miami, and a few days after that we were watching snow fall in Manhattan.
In March and April of this year 75 people were arrested in Cuba, summarily tried, and given prison sentences ranging from 6 to 28 years. None of these people were common criminals. They had not robbed anyone or threatened their fellow citizens with violence of any sort. Most were highly educated individualsdoctors, lawyers, economists, engineers, poets, journalists and independent librarianswhose only crime was that they dared to speak up in favor of democratic and human rights initiatives. The best known of these initiatives is the Varela project, which used a loophole in the Cuban constitution to present a petition to the Cuban parliament calling for free and democratic elections, freedom of speech, and the release of all political prisoners. The petition was supported by 11,020 signatures, 1, 020 over the 10,000 required by article 88 (g) of the Cuban constitution.
Spearheaded by Oswaldo Payá, a man of great conviction and moral courage who has been in the forefront of the human rights struggle in Cuba for many years, the Varela project is but the latest installment in a movement rooted in and inspired by the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. It represents but the tip of the iceberg of Cuban aspirations, which predate the current regime to the early 19th century when a number of Cubans began to formulate the idea of a Cuban nation independent from Spain and a Cuban character distinct from others in the Caribbean region. Foremost among these was Felix José Varela, after whom the Varela Project is named. Priest, writer, philosopher, educator, Felix Varela was born in Santiago de Cuba in 1787 and raised in St. Augustine, Fla., when that city was in Spanish hands. He returned to Cuba as a young man to study at the Seminary College of San Carlos, where he eventually became a professor of philosophy. His book Lecciones de filosofía (Lessons of Philosophy) became a standard text throughout Hispanic America. He was the teacher of a number of prominent Cuban thinkers, one of whom said, As long as there is thought in Cuba, we will remember him, the one who taught us how to think. Felix Varela was the first teacher at San Carlos to conduct his classes in Spanish, as opposed to Latin, the accepted language of instruction, and the first to speak his lessons rather than read them, a common practice today, but back in those days in Cuba, a truly revolutionary act. An avowed empiricist, Varela organized a scientific laboratory at San Carlos, the first on the island. He was as well a competent violinist and founded the first Philharmonic Society of Havana, where he taught violin. Eventually he entered politics and was elected Cuban deputy to the Spanish courts. While there he argued in favor of Cuban independence, the abolition of slavery, and the institution of democracy. Facing imprisonment for his views, Varela sailed for the United States, eventually settling in New York, where for twenty years he ministered to Irish immigrants in lower Manhattan at the same time that he promoted the cause of Cuban independence. When his health faltered, he retired from his priestly duties and moved to St. Augustine, the much loved city of his childhood, and died there in 1853.
The life and work of Father Varela empowered Cubans to think for and by themselves. He encouraged his students not to accept orthodoxy, but to question, and, if necessary, attack dogmas presented to them as inviolable. As holder of the Chair of Constitutional Studies at San Carlos, he defended Cuban culture and explained that society should never be a slave to its government, nor should it renounce its rights to progress and advancement. His legacy was two-fold: he showed Cubans the importance of a liberal education and he highlighted the value of freedom and civic responsibility. They are, in fact, are inseparable. His views deeply influenced the thinking of many Cuban intellectuals and teachers who came after him, among them José de la Luz y Caballero, José Antonio Saco, José Martí, and the five people the University is honoring today.
Marta Beatriz Roque, Oscar Elías Biscet, Raúl Rivero, Vladimiro Roca, and Oswaldo Payá are all highly educated people. In many ways they are representative of the dissidents, many of them anonymous, who have been harassed, jailed, exiled and executed in Cuba not just during the wave of repression that began this past March, but throughout the forty-four-year history of the present regime. This latest group of dissidents grew up in Cuba and took advantage of the educational opportunities available to them. Roque is an economist, Biscet is a medical doctor, and Rivero is a highly esteemed poet and journalist. Roca studied aeronautics in the Soviet Union and was a MIG pilot in the Cuban air force. Despite constant harassment from government agents, Payá, essentially self-taught, became a telecommunications engineer by studying at night.
But these individuals did not stop at being competent professionals. Education, no matter how narrow or limited, instills in human beings the ability to think independently. Education also shows us that no one individual or group of individuals has control of the truth. I dont know the truth, Oswaldo Payá has said. Let us search together for the truth, but dont impose yours on me. We in the educational profession understand the power of that posture. When an atmosphere of trust prevails, when knowledge is not the province of one group at the expense of the other, an extraordinary thing happens: the teacher learns as much as the student and both become engaged in an exploration which is, by its very nature, democratic and reciprocal. This exploration changes them, making them less certain but also less rigid, less prone to making pronouncements, more willing to entertain dissent and respect noncomformity. A liberal education does not end within a certain time perioda semester or yearcapped with a grade of A or B, but becomes a practice that informs and guides the life of the individual and of the society to which he or she belongs. Ideally, such a practice lasts for the rest of the individuals life and allows him to live fully and actively within society; it balances passion with reason so that his decisions are not based on whim alone; and it accords him the right and the moral courage to challenge those who would usurp society to achieve their own selfish ends. As José Varela showed us, education is the Achilles heel of dictatorship; it is, as well, part and parcel of the practice of democracy and of that greater practice we call civilization.
What these dissidents have been calling for is the establishment of the civic trust without which none of these practices can flourish. For years they and their colleagues have challenged the powers that be. Their only armaments are their courage, their ideas, and their hopes for a free and democratic Cuba. I think of them: Raúl Rivero and Oscar Elías Biscet in jail in conditions that would horrify the most jaded criminologist; Marta Beatriz Roque in a prison hospital receiving minimal medical attention; Oswaldo Payá and Vladimiro Roca, harassed constantly by agents of state security, their homes spray painted with insulting slogans, their children shunned at school, their families ignored by neighbors, and I am saddened and angered. I am reminded of the great Cuban poet Heberto Padilla, who dared to oppose Castro in the late 60s and early 70s with his poems. As a consequence he was jailed, tortured, and forced to confess his anti-revolutionary sins before a public gathering in 1971. Padilla, who died in exile in 2001 and was never again allowed to publish his work in his own country, may indeed have the last word. In a poem titled Note to be Written in a Tyrants Album he says,
Protect yourself from the wavering ones
Because one day they will learn what it is they do not want.
Protect yourself from the speakers of nonsense,
From Juan-the-Stutterer and Pedro-the-Mute,
Because one day they will discover their strong voice.
Protect yourself from the timid ones and those you beat down,
Because some day they will no longer stand up when you enter.
Cubans are no longer wavering and they are no longer timid. They are refusing in ever-increasing numbers to stand up whenever He enters for they know what has been kept from them all these years: the birthright of every human being, democracy. I am extremely proud that my university, the University in Exile, is honoring Oswaldo Payá, Marta Beatriz Roque, Oscar Elías Biscet, Raúl Rivero, and Vladimiro Roca today. In doing so we pay homage to all of those who struggle for freedom and democracy on this earth.