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Invertebrate Cuba and Lessons from José Ortega y Gasset

Cuba invertebrada

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In memory of Dr. Virgilio Beato

Invertebrate Spain (as in without backbone), and The Revolt of the Masses are two of José Ortega y Gasset’s best-known works. Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), a Spanish philosopher and essayist, wrote during the first half of the 20th century when Spain wavered between monarchy, republicanism, and dictatorship. For him, the Basque and Catalan separatists of his day were manifestations of the existential ordinariness of societal values, and of the mediocrity of Spanish institutions. Spain had ceased to be “an active and dynamic reality” and had become a society without ambitions or illusions.

In Invertebrate Spain, Ortega y Gasset defines a nation as “a project suggestive of life in common” and argues that Spain “invertebrates” itself by the intellectual poverty and deficiency of its political class. He emphasizes that the shortcomings of a mediocre, invertebrate ruling class transfer to the institutions they lead. This fosters a radical demoralization of society. He expands on the theme in The Revolt of the Masses noting that “masses” are the aggregation of individuals that have become “de-individualized.”

These individuals have stopped being free thinking and have been dissolved into a mixture that thinks and acts for them. Thus, Ortega y Gasset argues, Spain has ceased being a nation and has become “a series of deadlocked compartments.” These reflections of José Ortega y Gasset came to mind as I read of the latest (July 2018) surreal controls imposed by the Cuban government on its population. In 2011, the 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba introduced some minimalist economic reforms consisting primarily of allowing self-employment in some 200 trade activities such as the purchase and sale of used books (activity #23) and being an attendant of public restrooms (activity #29). These self-employed attendants are presumably responsible for the upkeep of the restroom and charge users a fee.

The bizarre list of economic activities that became permitted in 2011 corresponds to Ortega y Gasset’s depiction of decision-making by a mediocre an invertebrate ruling class. And yet, some observers foolishly portrayed these changes as those of inspired new leadership. The need, of the Cuban military and Communist Party, to control every aspect of life is antithetical to the individual freedoms and empowerment necessary to bring about an economic renaissance.

That need for control was intensified by the new package of measures designed to limit the accumulation of wealth by self-employed Cubans. The 2018 measures stipulate that Cubans may only participate in one self-employment activity. For example, Cubans who operate an eating establishment in their home (known as Paladares) may not rent a room in their home to tourists. No one can have more than one license for a self-employment activity. In addition, each activity that had been supervised by municipal and provincial governments will now be supervised also by a state ministry.

For instance, under the new regulations, Cuba’s Gaceta Oficial has published a table classifying public restrooms and specifying the “leasing rate” applicable to attendants of public bathrooms noted above as self-employment activity #29. And, sellers of used books, activity #23, are now prohibited from selling books that have “contents harmful to ethical and cultural values.” These are the first significant measures announced since Miguel Díaz-Canel replaced General Raúl Castro as president of the Council of State in April 2018; so much for the idea that Cuba is changing its totalitarian ways.

In practice, government economic planning suppresses our individual plans, and replaces them with collective plans imposed by the bureaucracy. Government economic intervention does not improve our lives because Individuals, and not government, are best able to assess the cost and benefits that affect us.

Moreover, totalitarian economic planning of the Cuban type, which promises to bring heaven to earth, is most damaging because it abolishes our liberties and our individual sovereignty; it transforms citizens into government marionettes. Oppression does not beget the virtues of liberty. Instead, the intellectual mediocrity of Cuba’s political class has fomented a “de-individualized” society without ambitions or illusions. In Ortega y Gasset’s wording, Cuba has ceased to be “an active and dynamic reality.” It has become: Invertebrate Cuba.


Dr. José Azel is a prominent Cuban academic and author. Dr. Azel’s latest book is Reflections on Freedom. This article is part of a partnership between the Interamerican Institute for Democracy and El American.

Editor’s Note: This article was translated from Spanish to English and edited for publication.

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