Popular Education and Politics in Cuba: The Centro Memorial Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the Gramscian Civil Society Ideal

By Friedman, Douglas | The International Journal of Cuban Studies, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Popular Education and Politics in Cuba: The Centro Memorial Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the Gramscian Civil Society Ideal


Friedman, Douglas, The International Journal of Cuban Studies


Abstract

The Centro Memorial Dr Martin Luther King Jr is a well-known, but rarely examined nongovernmental organisation in Havana, Cuba. It seeks to go well beyond Paulo Freire's intent of empowering the powerless through popular education methodology by employing it to transform Cuban civil society into a Gramscian socialist civil society. This article examines the introduction of Gramsci's ideas about civil society to Cuba during the 'Special Period' and how they were appropriated and acclimated to the Cuban reality, though not without strong and continuing contention. It shows how, in the face of competing approaches to civil society - by the US government and the Cuban state - the Centre offers an alternative vision based on Gramscian civil society theory and popular education methodology creating a dynamic locus for change in Cuban contemporary society.

Keywords: civil society, state, Gramsci, popular education

This article examines the reception of Gramsci's theories of civil society and hegemony and the promotion of Popular Education methodology by the Centro Memorial Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Havana, Cuba.1 The Centre is one of the most noted examples of a civil society organisation in Cuba. Although it is quite small and has limited capacity and resources, it is at the centre of the debate about the nature of civil society in Cuba, its relationship to the state, the reconstruction of socialist hegemony and the role of pedagogy in that reconstruction. The Centre has imbued itself and all that it does with the philosophy of Popular Education - a philosophy developed in the work of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and philosopher - and a view of civil society development rooted in the ideas of Antonio Gramsci which together direct the Centre's efforts at building and rebuilding socialist hegemony in Cuba (Suarez 2008).

Antonio Gramsci's ideas regarding civil society and hegemony - as well as Freire's idea regarding Popular Education, are not without controversy in Cuba. Debates there over the meaning, appropriateness, and viability of these concepts within the context of Cuban socialism have consumed much of the 1990s and now early twenty-first century. While in one sense Gramsci's ideas and those of Freire could be construed as separate, there has been significant effort in the radical education movement to connect them and therefore the controversies surrounding both cross over. I will first try to briefly touch on these controversies and then bring the discussion back to how they inform and shape what the Centre does and hopes to achieve.

Centro Memorial Dr Martin Luther King Jr

The Centro Dr Martin Luther King Jr was founded in 1987 by Raul Suarez, a Baptist minister at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Marianao, a marginal neighbourhood in Havana. This has always been a poor 'rough' part of the city. It has a large Afro-Cuban population where the people, as Raul Suarez puts it, 'are still suffering the sequel of slavery'. The Centre grew out of the ecumenical work of Suarez and other clergy in Cuba during the 1970s and 1980s. They attempted to overcome what might be described as a dual alienation of church, or better, religion and the state in Cuba, in both protestant and Marxist discourse. Protestantism taught that the state was evil and Marxism even more so and therefore believers should steer clear of them. Marxism, particularly of the Soviet variant, held that religion was reactionary and excluded believers from the revolutionary fold. Worse, believers were seen as unreliable and deviant in need of corrective labour - in fact Suarez himself was subjected to such treatment (Suarez 2007). For Suarez and other clergy the question was what role a Christian could or should play in revolutionary Cuba. In the 1970s and 1980s, with the development of Liberation Theology and Christian Base Communities, it was more and more apparent that Christians elsewhere in Latin America could make the connection between revolution, socialism and Christian conscience. …

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