EXCHANGE WITH RADIO INTERVIEWER ON:
PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY, LIBERALISM AND LIBERALS
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Sylvia Richardson: …and that melody was entitled “Moment of Truth.” There are moments in our history where we come face to face with the truth and we are forced to look at ourselves critically and to look at the ways we have accommodated to lies. Someone who has been invested in exposing us to the truth not only about our systems of democratic process, but also the way we engage and look at the world, at the struggles and the victories of other people striving to create more transparent and participatory efforts is my next guest. Arnold August is an author; he is someone who has been looking critically at the democracy process in Cuba and exposing many of the lies that are presented in North America as a way to divide us from the struggles in Cuba, the struggles in Latin America to eradicate neo-liberalism and to expulse imperialism. Very happy to have him on our program. He is the author of Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion. Very privileged to have you on our program. Thank you for joining us.
Arnold August: It’s a pleasure for me to be back with you once again, Sylvia.
SR: Now let’s begin by talking a little bit about this notion of democracy because it has become a term that defines us, but we don’t really look at it critically. What does it mean and how do you define it in your book and what are the differences between democracy as it is practised in North America or in the American system and democracy as it is envisioned in places like Cuba?
AA: In fact, you are right. The term “democracy” is a very loaded term. I don’t really define democracy in a definitive way in my book. The goal is to bring readers to different experiences of democracy, different versions of democracy, starting with the United States’ type of democracy and then moving on to Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and finally Cuba, which has a very specific importance for this book. However, one has to deal with the issue of democracy. I know the word “democracy” comes from the Greek classical tradition, meaning “power of the people.” At the same time, I do not agree that everyone in the world — whether it’s the United States, Canada and especially in the countries of the south, such a Latin America — that we have to be stuck with the notion that the definition of democracy comes as a straight line from the Greek to the current western or northern civilization. On the contrary, I challenge that because there are other ways in which other peoples have experienced the question of power of the people, of political power, for example, some of the indigenous people in Latin America and North America. They have their own tradition of political power, on how to organize their society and the role of the people in participating in this society. However, it is not termed “democracy.” At the same time, as you notice in the very title of my book, I have the term “democracy.” Nevertheless, as I explain, I use it more as a catch-all phrase for want of a better term because everyone now uses the word “democracy.” Therefore, while I do not definitively define democracy, I do deal with it throughout the book so that people can, in a sense, reach their own conclusions. I do, however, point to one feature of democracy in the very large sense of the term as being important, and that is “participatory democracy”. Democracy without participation doesn’t really make sense to me irrespective of the system within which it is being practiced — whether it is the United States, Cuba or Venezuela — and so I deal with this common thread throughout the book: participatory democracy. However, I do not define it definitively because I see democracy as a process, an ongoing procedure in which people learn from the evolution, they build on that process and they construct a democracy according to their own views. So to define democracy, or even participatory democracy, prematurely will, I believe, interfere with what is going on in the world today. That is, irrespective of the system, people are searching for a participatory democracy in which people have real, effective power.
SR: I’m so glad you make that point quite clear because I think the minute we define something or say this is the truth, truth becomes this rigid object that doesn’t allow us ways to move or to even imagine new ways of being. In many ways, as you rightly point out, worldwide we are seeing multiple expressions of peoples’ struggles to liberate themselves from imperialism, from notions of economic development that impoverish not only the land, but the people and their political systems. Your book is titled Cuba and Its Neighbours. Can you talk a little bit about the legacy of the Cuban people and their struggle in this democratic process that they have engaged?
AA: I think the example of Cuba is quite interesting for people all over the world. One of the main reasons is that — it is not a very well-known fact — but Cuba, going back to the second half of the 19th century, on its own had developed a type of participatory democracy. They did not call, “participatory democracy” at that time. However, in the 19th century, they organized — right under the nose of the Spanish colonial empire which completely controlled Cuba — a “Republic in Arms.” In these liberated territories, people through voting, through proposing, developed constituent assemblies to work out constitutions based on the needs and heritage of the Cuban people. People completely participated in these constituent assemblies that resulted in four different constitutions in the second half of the 19th century. Later on, this was interrupted by the U.S. intervention in 1898 as Cuba was about to win its victory over Spanish domination.
Then the U.S. took over and they imposed their own type of political system on the Cuban people, which was diametrically opposed to the participatory political system that was being developed in that country by the people on their own. Now I chronicle this whole history in some detail in my book, but, in this short interview, I would just like to mention that with January 1, 1959 a major watershed was reached in Cuban history with the Revolution. However, looking at the 20th century only, the Cuban Revolution actually started in 1953 with the attack against the Moncada barracks. January 1, 1959 symbolizes or really reflects the fact that for the first time in the history of the Cuban people, they had political power in their hands. That is democracy defined — even if you take it according to the Greek definition — as the power of the people. They obtained that for the first time in 1959. I’m not saying that it was perfect. However, it was a major difference compared to the type of system that existed not only under the Batista regime backed by the United States after the 1952 military coup, but also compared to most of the 20th century. There is an important contrast between the Cuban tradition, which was rekindled on January 1, 1959, and what had taken place under U.S. domination before 1959.
SR: It’s interesting to speak of neighbours. Neighbours, to me, has this sound of friendliness, somehow courteousness, that in this case does not apply. Cuba is surrounded by very aggressive neighbours. Canada and the U.S. have been very outspoken in their criticism of Cuba. I wonder if we could talk a little bit about the way we have limited democratic processes in North America, constricted to a voting process. This complicates and denies the complexity of social movements where a real democratic process implies an embodiment, a participation that is not just to deposit a ballot once every four years.
AA: Yes, in fact, I use the word “neighbours” in a geographical sense. For example, I deal with four of Cuba’s neighbours: the United States, which is very close, and others — Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador — which are a bit farther. Nonetheless, they all offer distinguishing features and different types of democracy, so readers can have an insight into different versions of democracy. There is no one defining version that comes from the north and specifically from the United States.
The first version that I deal with is the American version from the United States. I don’t really deal with Canada as such. I deal with the United States as the main different type of democracy. Firstly, I think it is important to take into account that it is not enough to say that “Well, American democracy is very good. It’s the best in the world and it has to be imposed on all countries in the world one way or the other, even by war.” Nor do I agree — and this is very important, especially for people listening to your radio program who I imagine are generally progressive and perhaps left-leaning or open-minded — I don’t think it is enough to say “Oh well, American democracy — it’s a bourgeois democracy. It’s run by the wealthy and all that.” Of course, this is true, but it’s not enough to assert that. It is well known that the American democracy is run by the wealthy. For example, during the 2012 presidential election campaign, Time magazine ran a front cover with a very clear picture of the White House and, in front of it, they had a big “For Sale” sign, indicating clearly what no one can hide: that United States’ elections are bought by money. However, it’s not enough to say that. Everyone knows that those who are in power in the United States either are capitalists or are directly linked to the ruling circle. Nevertheless, it is important, based not only on what my view is, but on book reviews and praise from academics in the United States and other countries, I go into the nature of democracy in the United States. How does it actually operate? For example, it is well known that the United States is going through a major economic crisis, a recession. Everyone knows that. Can we just simply deduce from that that the political system in the United States is also in crisis?
I personally, based on my investigation as documented in my book, believe that the American political system unfortunately is not in crisis. It’s working very well. And I think my contribution is the following with regard to democracy in the United States, that version, is that I go into the whole history of the U.S. For example, people from the left are often attracted by the word “liberalism,” or even consider themselves as liberals, which is very good, but what is the actual nature of liberalism in the United States? Where does it come from, at the end of the 18th century and the 19th century? I clearly point this out, that it is directly related to the notion of the liberty or the freedom of individuals to accumulate massive wealth at the expense of the vast majority of the people. This capacity to accumulate unlimited private property only applies to some very privileged people who are able to do that. And so, this is how I deal with it.
What I think is important in my chapter on democracy in the United States is that I take the case study of Obama. There are a lot of things that are said about U.S. democracy, that it’s a bourgeois democracy and that it works or doesn’t work. But, how did Obama actually come into power? Why was he supported by an important section of the ruling circles in the United States? And so, in order to carry this analysis through, I looked at it in an open-minded manner and I read all of Obama’s main works, from his first book in 2004 to a second book in 2008 to his main pre-candidate speeches before the first mandate, during the first mandate election campaign, during the second election campaign. My findings, which I document in detail, is that, despite what some liberal-thinking people might consider or even some left-thinking people might think, as Obama actually went through his personal life, he rejected all progressive notions with regard to international affairs, with regard to domestic affairs, etc. And so, it is false to think that he in any way represents a progressive strand in the United States. However, he was very useful because he was able, on the one hand, to provide the impression to many people in the United States, and even more so internationally, that he represents change in the United States, that he is going to be different from Bush or the Republicans or whatever.
However, the fact is, while this image of change — which was carefully fostered by the image-makers in the United States, those who are paid, who have a business to work out an image of an individual who seems to be a good source for a presidential candidate — that this impression of change is fostered. However, at the same time, Obama always uttered the right buzzwords directed to the ruling circles in the United States that he is the best man for the ruling circles to get the United States out of the crisis, to get the United States out of the credibility gap with regards to other countries in the world as well as relating to the major credibility gap in the United States: the domestic situation especially with regard to African-Americans. And this is how he came into power. He came into power in order to save the system. The example is often given in history that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a liberal who was a good person and all that, but his own biographer, Conrad Black, wrote — and he is right, I have to agree with Conrad Black on that (who is a very conservative person) — he said that FDR was a person who saved capitalism in the United States. That is true. This is how the system operates in the United States.
Thus, with regards to Obama, I agree; I write how other people in the United States, for example, Black Agenda Report — specifically Glen Ford, who is an important writer for that website — as well as other academics, and other people in the United States; they are saying that Obama is not the lesser of two evils. As you know, Sylvia, this is the major refrain that is carried on every time there are elections for president in the United States. Who is the lesser of two evils? And unfortunately, some people on the left — progressive people — they feel sort of relieved to say, “Ah, I’m going to vote for Obama. He’s the lesser of two evils.”
I don’t agree with that. I agree with Black Agenda Report and other people in the United States who are saying that Obama is the most effective of the two evils, that is, he can get away with doing things, whether it is international affairs — for example, there are more wars going on since Obama came into power than was the situation under Bush. Obama can get away with it because of this aura of change that was fabricated around his personality, around his being. And this is, I think, an important point. He has also been the more effective of the two evils in maintaining a hold on the domestic situation. For example, he basically made what is known as the “post-racial society” speech as applied to the United States. In other words, there is no such thing as racial discrimination, racial division in the United States. What he said is false. However, as a result of that, he unfortunately was able to anaesthetize, or sort of put to sleep in a manner of speaking, an important section of the African-American population in the United States, based on the notion: “Well, we have an African-American in the White House as president. We don’t want to rock the boat. We’re okay.”
And this is, in my view, extremely dangerous and that’s why I have a great deal of respect for the African-American writers, intellectuals — and others who are not African-American but are living in the United States — who point out the real nature of Obama as being the most effective of the two evils and not the lesser of the two evils. I can give you one example. As you know, Sylvia, you mention the issue of grass-roots movements. For example, in the United States, there was the Occupy Movement that took place a couple of years ago and it is still going on in various cities in the United States — not in all cities because it is not a homogeneous movement. In most of the cities, or many of the cities, the main force of that Occupy Movement was mainly students, youth, other people, but mainly non-African-American. But I would ask you, and I ask your listeners, to think what would happen if the African-American population in the United States — which, in my view, has the most revolutionary and progressive tradition in the United States — if it had joined with the Occupy Movement and aimed at the ruling circle? The situation in the United States would be completely different now. This is not to say it cannot happen in the future, but this is how Obama was able to keep a hold — or a lid — on the boiling pot in the United States.
SR: I’m so glad that you make that connection: that the entire implied legitimacy that the elections can have does not in any way advance the democratic process, democratization, of creating inclusive and participatory spaces. And this comes to fruition when people are able to come together and see beyond those masks of illusion that change has occurred simply by changing the color of the skin of the person that has been put in charge.
Here in Vancouver, we just had an election in British Columbia, and, of course, the major issues of health, of the level of poverty that this province here, was not even touched upon and most of the commercial media reported on the personality of the candidates running: who is the most charismatic and how was their performance. The whole theatre of the political sphere is constantly, in my view, being diminished to just that, a series of performances. Who can perform best and then, of course, who will be the most effective evil. In this case, we have a government that calls itself liberal but is more conservative than the Conservatives themselves, and so this is an important lesson for us.
But what I want to ask you, and we only have a few minutes left, how do we then, as a society, bring together these lessons that we learned sometimes through very difficult battles and losses and create participatory efforts? So that participatory actions can transcend those issues of race, which have been entrenched by the political system and by the many ways in which we are educated in the society, and also overcome the issue of class because that’s another problem that we face. Workers do not identify with academics, and academics don’t see themselves as workers, and so there is a problem: even though they are both part of the working people, they are not coming together. How do we learn from the examples of Venezuela and the Cuban Revolution, and perhaps apply some of those lessons to our learning process?
AA: Yes, I am happy that you raise the other examples, such as Cuba and Venezuela comparing it to the United States. In the United States, as I mention throughout my book, the main common thread is participatory democracy. So, you might say, “Well, do you really think that the United States has a participatory democracy?” No. In fact, I give full details how it’s based on exclusion and racism right from Day One in the 17th century. But the point is, in the United States, participatory democracy is and can only take place from the bottom up against the ruling circles, against the so-called two-party system. Every time there is an election, as you mentioned, for example in the United States, we are bombarded with this notion there is “left” versus “right” amongst the ruling circles, “conservatives” versus “liberals”, Republicans versus Democrats. However, they are basically the same thing; it’s just the same system changing faces. So in the United States, it’s participatory democracy from the bottom up.
And perhaps one can learn from, for example, Venezuela. One of the main contributions of Venezuela, specifically Hugo Chávez, is that he stood against the old two-party system entrenched in Venezuela. And when he won the elections in 1998, it was against the two-party system and it was quite amazing that he actually won it through elections; and, since then, Venezuela has been able to advance because they have opposed the two-party system in Venezuela. Perhaps this can give us an indication of how to go in the United States and Canada, but, of course, the conditions are different in each country. Nevertheless, in my view, participatory democracy in the United States has to be from the bottom up against the political system in that country, which is based on excluding people; whereas in Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador, it’s different. Participatory democracy is developing there — even though it’s not final even in the Cuban case after more than 50 years. This is so because in Cuba participatory democracy is being sought after and carried out by the revolutionary leadership as well as people at the base, at the grass-roots level.
And that is the major difference between, on the one hand, my examples of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba and, and on the other hand, the United States. Participatory democracy in the countries in the South is sort of a fusion of revolutionary leadership and people at the grass-roots level struggling on their own alongside the revolutionary leadership in order to make sure that political power is in the hands of the people, that people are invested with sovereignty. In the United States, it’s not happening this way. There it is a contradiction between the grass roots and the ruling circles. And I think the biggest danger to the further development of participatory democracy, and the need and desire of the people in the United States to change a situation, is the necessity to completely get rid of the false notion of the lesser of two evils; because we can ask ourselves how long are the people in the U.S. going to wait before they make a move against the two-party system?
SR: That’s beautiful. Thank you so much for being with us. Your book, Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion, tell our audience how they can access it.
AA: Well, it’s easy. I have a website. It’s www.democracycuba.com. All the information is there, including the Table of Contents, Reviews, how to buy the book. And for professors and academics, they are informed how to order online an examination copy of the book in order to evaluate whether it’s appropriate for their course.
SR: Thank you again for being with us today.
AA: Thank you.SR: Take care. That was Arnold August. He is the author of Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion.
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