A thicket with many thorns

Adrian Hearn makes a fruitful foray into Cuban civil society and uncovers amid the foliage some healthy shoots


Cuba: Religion, Social Capital,
and Development

Adrian H Hearn
2008, Duke University Press
220 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

CIVIL SOCIETY is a thicket with many thorns. This conceptual realm populated by non-state actors – from neighbourhood self-help groups, religious and mutual societies to cultural initiatives and business lobbies – is a complex, unruly space in which it is hard to predict where democratic flowers will bloom but also difficult, from a state’s point of view, to identify growths that need to be nurtured and weeds that should be trimmed back.

In Cuba, civil society is simultaneously seen by the state as one of the most promising domains for encouraging participation from below and reaping the political benefits of this husbandry, and by its enemies as a fertile source of potential opposition to that state. It is considered the most promising target of anti-Castro foreign policy initiatives by the US through devices such as the Cuban Democracy Act that has sought to reach out to social actors in an effort to destabilise the government.

Adrian Hearn’s journey into the civil society of a Cuba undergoing considerable changes through an exploration of the evolution and activities of Afro-Cuban religious grassroots initiatives provides valuable insights into how the thicket grows and the state’s forays into it. Cuba: Religion, Social Capital, and Development looks at the emergence of Afro-Cuban religious communities as key players in urban neighbourhood development initiatives. By contrast with Christian organisations, these are only just beginning to benefit from dialogue and co-operation with state authorities.

Exchange and negotiation

The Cuban context differs from that of other post-socialist states, such as those of eastern Europe, and the neoliberal west, in that civil society groups have not tended to become sites of independent institutional representation but sites of exchange and negotiation between state and non-state actors. This has helped them to engage with the state on their own terms, suggesting a much more desirable and potentially egalitarian process of social development. The author writes:

“While a ‘democratic ecology of associations’ does not in itself protect against co-option from above and the infiltration of dominant, potentially non-democratic practices … the political gravity of grassroots initiatives in contemporary Cuba has endowed them with a greater capacity to engage with the state on their own terms. As the decentralisation and diversification of social welfare mechanisms progresses it is possible that Afro-Cuban religious networks could come to fill an expanded role in protecting the interests and rights of their constituents…” [p. 12]

Cuba is also significant in terms of the degree in which economic problems – in particular the severe retrenchment that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union – have played a prominent role in shaping the terms of engagement of sectors of civil society such as the Afro-Cuban religious communities. An important response of the government to economic crisis was an effort to develop the tourism industry, and Afro-Cuban heritage has played an important commercial role in this strategy, enhancing their profile.

In many Cuban neighbourhoods, leaders of Afro-Cuban religions have risen to prominence as influential figures capable of mobilising popular support for projects ranging from health education to housing construction. Although Santería continues to be practised mainly by the poorer, darker sectors of Cuban society, the author argues that the expanding scope of popular participation in the religion has endowed it with significant social capital. Hearn writes:

“Interpersonal bonds of this sort have begun to attract the attention of domestic and international development organisations, which identify here an unparalleled emerging human resource for building voluntary neighbourhood health and education programmes.” [p. 20]

In some impoverished areas of Havana, state development agencies have attempted to build collaborative relationships with locally influential Santería priests who command authority in their neighbourhoods. The author suggests that the intensifying collaboration of grassroots associations with decentralised state institutions suggests the former’s increasing political significance in contemporary Cuba.

His journey into the fate of these organisations leads him to conclude that civil society in Cuba is unlike that of developed democracies and eastern Europe, where it is either well established or expanding rapidly. State authority and independent action are more mixed in Cuba than in these other examples, but although religious groups have not coalesced into a coherent independent movement, Hearn suggests they have shown more flexibility and plurality than in eastern Europe.

We can read from his fruitful and fascinating journey into the thicket that the implications of this development are, ultimately, positive. He writes:

“It is more likely that their lack of political consensus, underscored by openness and flexibility at the grassroots, harbours broader representative potential than a ‘democratic ecology of associations’ constantly under pressure to fall in line with dominant interests.” [p. 182]

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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