Reflections for Reconstructing the Cuban Nation

For Miguel Uria Rey, flawless friend.

Thinking of Cuba brings forth an image that I read about forty years ago in the "Notebooks of Laurid Malte Brigge". Rainer Maria Rilke describes a building in ruins where he sees, on a wall standing alone from the rest of the destroyed building, faint traces of the lives that took place there. This is, for me, an effective image of the current condition of Cuba as a nation, and of the task required to reconstruct the Cuban nation.

What is required to reconstruct the Cuban nation, a nation culturally bled through forty years of marxism? In the defunct USSR, as in the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' has only delivered the first of the two words, 'dictatorship'. Neither the proletariat, nor any other social class has maintained a dictatorship, except for the bureaucratic class generated by marxism, as Milovan Djilas perceptively pointed out in "The New Class" over forty years ago. It is a paradox, among many shown in history, that a political system based on the economic interpretation of history failed economically: "symmetry with appearance of order" in the luminous words of Jorge Luis Borges.1

Returning to the question: What is required to reconstruct the cuban nation? I believe this task has several components:

  • Economic: (the most obvious) food, medicines, jobs, free enterprise, attract investors that benefit the republic, fiscal systems, etc.;
  • Social: norms and modes of living in community which return Cuba to western civilization;
  • Political: freedoms rooted in the dignity of the human person; democracy following the USA model—which with all its faillings, as Winston Churchill once quipped: 'Is the worst system invented, except for all the rest";
  • Juridical: a legal system that returns Cuba to the democratic way of living, with the appropriate rights, checks and balances;
  • Cultural: cultivation and enrichment of our traditions, free fostering and development of sciences and humanities—philosophy, literature, plastic and performing arts, cuban history in the context of world history, etc.; and
  • many others.

All this must be done, but today I want to focus on another kind of inquiry: On what does being a nation consist ? We can think of the word "nation" in the way that we use it when we refer to a particular nation, as in the Cuban nation, the French, the German, etc.; in terms of a network of elements more or less clearly perceived in themselves and in their interrelationships: its geography, climate, architecture, flag, cuisine, commerce, music, language, history, traditions, customs …That is, observable expressions which are as the weaving on the reverse of an intellectual tapestry on whose front we read 'nation'.

Using this metaphor of a network of elements let us ask: How are these elements interrelated ? What gives them unity? There have been peoples that in spite of having these elements have ceased to be a nation, others which have never become one. What then is a nation ? Perhaps, if we can clarify what constitues a nation, we may clarify somewhat that daunting task of reconstructing the Cuban nation.

The perspective from which I am going to invite the reader to reflect upon the reality "nation" is the philosophy of José Ortega y Gasset. The selection of this perspective, correct or not, is anything but whimsical; it is born of the conviction that the most radically profound and creative philosophy of this 20th century has not been written in German or French, but in Spanish, by Ortega.

The central intuition that propels the total thought of Ortega, from the genial anticipation of the Meditations on Quixote in 1914, where he formulates, after just completing his doctorate, his response to overcome the German Idealism received from his teachers at the University of Marburg2, until his death is: human individual life— that of each one of us—as radical reality.

Let us find out how, from the perspective of individual human life, we can arrive to an understanding of nation. Rather than being a fact, the life of each one of us is constantly being made. That is to say, to live, is always to live in light of a future.

    Want it or not, human life is constant occupation with something in the future. From the present instant we occupy ourselves with the forthcoming one. This is why to live is always, always, without pause or rest, to do. Why has it not been noticed that doing, all doing means realizing a future ? Even when we engage in remembering. We remember in this second to achieve something in the next, even if it is only the pleasure of reliving the past. This modest solitary pleasure presented itself to us a moment ago as a desirable future; that is why we do it. Notice, thus: nothing has meaning for man but in function of the future.3
This future dimension, constitutive of human life, also affects the shaping of peoples. These "Do not coexist to be together, but to do something together." …4 "Nations form and live out of having a program for tomorrow."5

This program for tomorrow, which reflects, in a larger scale, the program of life which each one of us fashions in the task of living, is an essential element of a nation: "… incorporation into a nation, the living together of peoples and social groups, demands some lofty enterprise of collaboration and a suggestive project of life together."6

Enterprise, project, task, are concepts which reveal the dynamic nature of both realities: human individual life—that of each one of us—and nation. We encounter both realities incomplete and to be made, open to the future, unyielding to be imprisoned within the Aristotelian notion of substance, within which there is change, yes, but change that is regulated and predictable.

Ortega probes this dynamic reality of nation and shows it as the striving to maintain a dynamic equilibrium between forces of integration and dispersion:

It is thus necessary that we get used to understanding every national unity not as an inert coexistence, but as a dynamic system. As original is for its maintenance the central force as it is the force of dispersion. The weight of the roof, resting on the pillars, is no less essential to the building than the opposite push, exerted by the pillars, to hold the roof.7

In the same way, the central, unifying energy (…) needs in order to avoid weakening of the opposite, dispersive force, the centrifugal impulse that survives in groups. Without this stimulant the cohesion will atrophy, the national unity dissolves, the parts become unglued, float isolated and have to return to living each one as an independent whole.8

Great nations are not made from within, but from without; only an accurate international policy, a policy of great enterprises, makes possible a fertile interior policy, which is always, when all is said and done, a policy of low rank.9

Now we can more clearly see the meaning of the expressions 'lofty enterprise of collaboration' and 'suggestive project of life together' quoted above. Frequently the nation is thought of in terms of its past, its history, what it has been, ignoring this essential element of project, of lofty enterprise to be done.

Let us now pause briefly to examine how history and project are related in the existence of a nation.

… [B]ut before the nation had a common past, it had to create this community, and before creating it had to dream it, want it, project it. And it suffices to have a project of itself for the nation to exist, even if it does not achieve its goal, if its execution fails, as has happened so many times.10

… [A] nation is composed of these two ingredients: first, a total project for living together in a common enterprise; second, the adherence of men to this inciting project.11

Because, truthfully, a nation is never done. In this it differs from other types of State. The nation is always being made or being unmade. Tertium non datur. It is either gaining adhesions or losing them, according to whether or not its State represents to date a lively enterprise.12

The history of a nation is made from a project, a common dream that preexists the nation, dreamt by men with their individual and group histories 'at their back', as Ortega is fond of saying.

The nation is first of all—but not solely, as we shall soon see—project, and will to realize it. The reality that is the nation is in perpetual becoming, without guaranty of triumph but without being fatally condemned to failure or extinction.

In addition to being complex, the concept of nation is often seen through State or city tints, thus increasing the confusion. Let us now distinguish between nation and State.

The Polis lives in a perpetual present … it arises out of a deliberate will toward an end. It has the formal character of being an instrument for13 … Accordingly, the genetic process of the Polis is the inverse of that followed and must be followed by a nation. The Polis society starts already as a State, as lucid and voluntary political, juridical, administrative, and military organization; while the nation only becomes State in its phase of full maturity.14

The city, as I say, is first, foremost, and more basically than anything else, State, while in the nation this is only the sharpened point of the broad pyramid formed by its other attributes. From this it follows that many nations have never become States and have remained in stages of their evolution prior to the last one that makes them «sovereign».15

The city starts as State; the nation culminates its evolution in sovereignty, in State. The above quotes contain implicitly Ortega's social theory, which understands social reality in terms of usages [vigencias]. Usages encompass a broad enclave of realities: from language as an historical reality—in his theory of etymologies—to laws, customs, the State, etc.
The name «nation» is extraordinarily felicitous because it insinuates of course that it is prior to any constituting will of its members. It is there before and independent of us its individuals. It is something in which we are born [nación, nascere: to be born] not something that we have founded. The history of the Polis starts with a—real or legendary—ctisiV, ktísis, foundation. On the contrary, we have the nation at our back, it is a vis a tergo and not only a figure in sight, present to our mind, as the Polis was for the citizen. Nationality makes of us compatriots and not primarily co-citizens. … It does not consists in our wills, does not live from them, rather it inevitably exits by itself— as a natural reality. It is in this sense a less purely human phenomenon than the Polis if we consider as most human the lucidly conscious behavior. Clearly, by the same token, it is more real, more firm, less contingent and aleatory. Everything that is fully conscious is—it goes without saying—clearer more perspicuous and translucid than the unconscious, but, at the same time, more ethereal and exposed to sudden volatilization. Vice versa, the Nation is not us, rather we are Nation. We do not make it, it makes us, constitute us, it provides our radical substance.

         For this motive normally the individual does not preoccupy itself with his Nation. It seems to him that it is already and will continue being, by itself, with no need of our particular collaboration.16

This is a quite dangerous attitude, because it ignores the precarious balance between forces of integration and dispersion that constitutes the reality "nation". In the case of Cuba, it may lead us to the naive notion of assuming that after the death of the tyrant it will suffice to restore buildings and envigorate commerce; shoot into the economy a concentrated dose of productivity, hold elections, restore democracy, reform education—obviously no small task—for the Cuban nation to recover from forty years of marxist bleeding. It is the danger of forgetting that 'lofty enterprise of collaboration', that 'suggestive project of life together', in which the nation fundamentally consists.

We have seen the nation as enterprise, project, future; but when we speak of nation in conversation, we usually think of it as inseparably linked with its traditions, with its history, that is to say, with its past. The word Italy, if it refers to the Italian nation, conjures images of Scholastic disputes at the University of Milan, Dante, Petrarch, the Renaissance, the Sistine Chapel, Bernini … How are these two dimensions, past and future, related in the concept of nation that we have being examining?

To see this relatioship from the perspective of individual human life we are going to reflect on man as enterprise and tradition. We are, thus, going to glance at the issue of how past and future constitute human life.

This is, thus, about the great difference between what man is at his back and what he is moving forward, what he is as tradition and what he is as enterprise. The latter consists of everything he has in sight because it is for him problem and project, what preoccupies and occupies him, what he desires and mobilizes his energies, in summary, what he wants to be and feels he «has to be».
…To make more diaphanous what follows, it suits us to formalize this in two terms saying: man, as person or collectivity, is always an equation between its inertial being—receptive, traditional—and his agile being—resourceful, confronter of problems.17

What we have been and what we want to be, in constant dialectic, constitute us. And the roots of both forms of life extend in the nation. Nation is, in this sense, one of the sources in which our life nourishes itself to acquire character and integrity. Through effort, achievements, and luck, this unity may become exemplary: a form of life that we esteem and inspires us to continue it. The nation represents in this case, as Ortega keenly observes, an integral mode of being human.

But what is characteristic of the Idea of Nation resides in the fact that all these inertial forms of life developed and grew richer until they constituted an integral mode of being man. Being English, French or Spanish means being integrally man in the English, French or Spanish mode. This mode affects all human dimensions— religion, poetry, art, economy, politics, love, pain, pleasure—it penetrates, impregnates, and modifies them. Well now, since against these particular modes of being man there is no absolute man, a man without mode, each European came to feel that his «national» mode of humanity was not only an inertial residue of the past, but rather something that he should be in the future, that it was worth to be. The vis a tergo of traditionality became, at the same time, exemplary, thus via proiectiva, a future creating force, an ideal of life for what is to come. The English first, then the Spanish and the French discovered that not only they found themselves—without knowing how or why—being English, French and Spanish, but that it was the best that they could be. 18

Let us notice how the characteristic of being exemplary arises in a nation among, and in contrast to, other nations; analogously to how we discover the 'I' by contrast with the 'other' 19 The nation always exists among nations. The project that the nation is can only be fully understood juxtaposed against the projects it finds in its surroundings.

… [I]f the Idea of Nation contains as one of its essential ingredients—truthfully, the primordial—the belief of belonging to a society that has created an integral mode of being man and that this mode, whether absolutely, or for partial and relative reasons, is the best, this means that all consciousness of nationality presupposes other surrounding nationalities that have being forming alongside its own and with which it co-lives in the way of permanent comparison. For this reason … the Nation can never be only one, rather its concept implies a plurality of them. Certainly the European nations have crossed swords innumerable times, but much more important is that their «collective souls»20, century after century, have being sharpening as swords, each on the others, that they have coexisted in constant emulation, in perpetual agonistic contest that made them «train» and perfect themselves. The continuous emulation leads to frequent reciprocal jesting. In front of our mode of being man, that of another country seems to us in many things ridiculous ….21

The exemplary character of the nation is the culmination of an evolution that starts with a people and ends with a nation. Historically, the city precedes the nation. Let us now briefly distinguish between one and the other.

Undoubtedly, one is born in the nation and individuals do not just make it one good day, but the point is, on the other hand, that there is no nation if in addition to being born in it individuals do not preoccupy themselves with it and go ahead, day by day, making and remaking it. Clearly, this intervention of individuals in the continuous creation of their nation only starts at a certain stage of its development, precisely when it ceases being a «people». That intervention is only one of the factors that make the Nation. Alongside of it are all the other irrational factors of history, the happenstances of every kind, invasions, wars of conquest, dynastic liaisons, etc. This is why, ultimately, we should say that the City is made by individuals—which is why its content is so poor—, but the Nation is made by history, which is why it has such succulence. History, as reality, is the precipitate that results from the encounters of Man, Tradition and Luck.

As man, so is nation also enterprise and tradition; but it is the ideal character, the exemplary character of nation which distinguishes it from city, mere juridical entity, lacking that trumpet call to an integral mode of being human that fills us with enthusiasm to the point that we consider it superior even to the value of our own life.

… [F]or the Greek, as for the Romans, the City is a collectivity of men and gods. The juridical creation that is the City and makes of individuals politai makes also politai of the gods. It provides them with a juridical statute and makes them supreme members of the body politic. This is the reason why law in the cities has two branches: sacred and civil.

But in the Nation the energy, the agility of its members is not only preoccupied with law and exterior policy, defending the City, dominating other Cities; it also lives enthusiastically the integral mode of being man, which is the content of its collective Idea, it strives to perfect and enrich it; in summary, it prolongs toward the future, as an ideal to be realized, the very figure of its past, intending its perfection, and in this way the inertiality of a past is constantly transmuted into a goal and exemplary condition for the future. Only men capable of living in every instant in the two substantive dimensions of time—past and future—are capable of forming Nations. The polites lives in a perpetual present. Past and present are only given in it as stumps.23

The idea that animates this essay is, simply, that the true reconstruction of the Cuban nation, the fundamental reconstruction, the one demanded by our human condition; has to start at the level of a vision, of a suggestive project for total co-living, of a lofty collaborative enterprise. Everything else: restoring buildings, envigorating commerce, strengthening the economy, holding elections, returning to democracy, reforming education …yes, it must be done; but all this, which is necessary, only takes meaning and value in function of that project which culminates in an integral mode of being man. In summary:

What must happen in «peoples» so that at a certain time it germinate within them this longing to feel each one exemplary? It must happen that at at sufficiently matinal time they have in sight the awareness that life does not consist in being what one already is by tradition, rather that they see themselves belonging to a broader unity, which is not their own a tergo, to wit: the great space of a prior civilization. This was for the European peoples the Roman Occident. We can say, of course, that when the new Germanic peoples entered this area and combined with the Romanized peoples, they found themselves … having to lead a double life, their own traditional one and the exemplary roman life. The latter was life «as it should be». Roman civilization appeared as «an integral mode of being man» already consecrated and sublimated. If there was a time in history when the exemplary was anticipated, this was here the case. … This is why the «material» content of the tradition of each people, informed by the imperative of the exemplary and certain normative Roman frameworks which impregnated the soil where they lived, yielded as fruit a type of society whose Idea included, at the same time, being tradition and enterprise. This is the Nation.24

After forty years of tyranny, looking at the ruins of my fatherland, I take hope from the last scene of Antigone, where Sophocles, instead of concluding with the undescribable pain that he has made us live through in the blackest moment of the tragedy, brings to the stage a blind old man led by a sighted child. I take hope that inspired by the genius of the poet we have the wisdom to build an alliance with the generation that follows us, forged in mutual respect, nourished in freedom, illuminated with intelligence; and the courage to, together, dream this total project of living, this integral mode of being human which is the essence of the Cuban nation. Everything else is accesory.

Carlos T. Atalay
Houston, Texas
October 1998
Ad maiorem Dei gloriam

1Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones, Emecé Editores, S.A., Buenos Aires, 1956, p. 33.
2It thus anticipates, from a profoundly original perspective the central themes which, from a different viewpoint, Martin Heidegger will publish in his famous Sein und Zeit [Being and Time] 13 years later
3José Ortega y Gasset, La Rebelión de las Masas [The Revolt of the Masses], Obras Completas [Complete Works] Herein quoted OC (Madrid: Alianza Editorial/Revista de Occidente) Vol. IV, pp. 265-66.All translations are mine.
4J. Ortega y Gasset, España Invertebrada, [Spain Invertebrated] OC, Vol. III, p. 56.
5Ibid., p.57.
6Ibid., p. 63.
7Ibid., p. 54.
9Ibid., p. 62.
10La Rebelión de las Masas [The Revolt of the Masses], OC, Vol. 4, p.267.
11Ibid., p. 268.
13Meditación de Europa [Meditation on Europe], OC Vol. IX, p. 271.
14Op. Cit. p. 271.
16Op. Cit., pp. 271-72.
17Ibid. p.278.
18Ibid., p. 279.
19Cf. El Hombre y la Gente [Man and People], OC Vol.VII.
20“…«collective soul» [is] (…) the system of intellectual and estimative usages in effect in a society.”
21Meditación de Europa, OC Vol IX, pp. 280-81.
22Ibid., p. 282.
23Ibid., p.283.
24Ibid., pp. 284-85.

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