NEWS
Major public protest in Cuba might be turning point for free expression

In an extraordinary move, Cuban intellectuals and artists are airing their grievances publicly and collectively. Will it make a difference to freedoms in the country?

22 Dec 2020
BY COCO FUSCO
27N, a community of Cuban artists and intellectuals formed at the end of November 2020 during a peaceful demonstration in front of the Ministry of Culture, Havana. Credit: Reynier Leyva Novo

In the middle of the night on 28 November, 32 Cuban artists emerged from a five-hour meeting with officials of the Ministry of Culture. They had called on the Cuban government to refrain from harassing independent artists, to stop treating dissent as a crime, and to cease its violence against the San Isidro Movement, a group of artists and activists that had staged a hunger strike to protest the arrest and sentencing of a young rapper. The news of the encounter was shared with a crowd of about 300 artists, writers, actors and filmmakers who had stood outside for more than 12 hours to pressure ministers to open their doors. Nothing like this had ever happened before on the island.

Cubans may complain about food shortages and other restrictions on their lives, but members of elite professions rarely stick their necks out to defend anyone that the state labels a dissident. It is unheard of to exhort Cuban officials to listen to their most vocal critics in person. Although the artists of the San Isidro Movement were known to many, harassment of the group had not generated a major outcry. But in the past three years the Cuban government has issued laws imposing restrictions on independent art, music, filmmaking, and journalism, incurring the anger of many creators. When they saw live streamed videos of the weakened hunger strikers being attacked by security agents disguised as health workers, they decided that enough was enough.

“This is the first time that artists and intellectuals in Cuba are challenging the constitution,” said Cuban historian Rafael Rojas in a radio broadcast. “Their emphasis on freedom of expression and association challenges the legal, constitutional, and institutional limits of the Cuban political system.” In an interview with journalist Jorge Ramos, artist Tania Bruguera said the uprising started because, “a group of Cuban artists have gotten tired of putting up with being abused, harassed and pursued by police because of their political views and for their independence from state institutions.”

Within 48 hours, the Cuban government began to renege on verbal promises made at the meeting not to harass the protesters. President Diaz-Canel, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, Minister of Culture Alpidio Alonso, and Casa de las Americas director Abel Prieto all tweeted defamatory statements about the protesters. Cuban state television aired several programmes lambasting the San Isidro Movement, Tania Bruguera, and journalist Carlos Manuel Alvarez as mercenaries paid by the USA to destabilise the revolution. Bruguera and Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara were threatened by state security and detained for walking outside. Police blocked off and guarded the street where the Ministry of Culture is located. Several activists and independent journalists were placed under house arrest. Police shut down the headquarters of INSTAR, Tania Bruguera’s International Institute of Artivism. The San Isidro Movement was accused on Cuban television of breaking the windows of a hard currency store, but it was soon revealed that the man who committed the act was an agent provocateur working for Cuban police.

The protests come at a moment when the Cuban government has been shaken by the colossal loss of tourism revenue during the pandemic, the dwindling support from Venezuela, and the tightening of the US trade embargo during the Trump years. It was a sign of weakness that officials ceded to the demand for a face-to-face encounter with protesters.

But the state’s reaction is not surprising. Cultural Ministry officials are expected to respond to the demands of the Communist Party and State Security, not to citizens organised outside state sanctioned organisations. The slanderous campaigns on state television and social media are intimidation tactics aimed at preventing more Cubans from rising up. And it is also not unusual for the Cuban government to clamp down on dissent during economic downturns, as happened after the failed 10-million-ton harvest in 1971 and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

What is extraordinary is that young Cuban intellectuals and artists have chosen to air their grievances publicly and collectively, and to support each other regardless of divergent political opinions. They have not been seduced by promises of favourable treatment from the state in exchange for silence, nor are they succumbing to the self-doubt that police states are so adept at inculcating in the citizenry. Most importantly, despite persistent police harassment, they are not giving up. They have adopted a name–27N–in commemoration of the day they first came together. A few members of the San Isidro Movement are part of 27N, but the group also includes representatives of other cultural fields that participated in the mass protest. 27N has formed subcommittees to attend to various tasks, from media relations to visual documentation to legal consultations.

27N continues to prepare for the next session with officials. They posted an initial list of demands in an online petition: political freedom for all Cubans, the release of the rapper Denis Solís, the cessation of state repression of artists and journalists who think differently, the cessation of defamatory media campaigns against independent artists, journalists and activists because of their political views, and the right to and respect for independence. On 27 November, Cuban officials promised a second meeting, but on 4 December the Ministry of Culture terminated the dialogue due to an “insolent” email from the protesters, who had requested to have a lawyer present and asked that harassment against them cease. Instead, the Ministry convened a meeting with small group of artists that were deemed to be loyal to the revolution. A 27N meeting at the Institute of Artivismo (INSTAR) in Havana.

The retreat may have been a result of orders from higher ranking officials as famous Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez suggested. Rodriguez, considered by many to be an apologist for the regime, nonetheless understands that the officials in the cultural ministry were engaging in a defensive, though morally illegitimate, political move.

It is not surprising that prominent but independently minded Cuban artists and intellectuals such as singers Carlos Varela and Haydee Milanés have voiced support for the protesters. But it was nothing short of astonishing that the regional chapters of the Union of Cuban Artists and Writers (La Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba, UNEAC) and the Hermanos Saíz Brigade on the Island of Pines posted a message of solidarity with the San Isidro Movement on 7 December on Facebook, decrying the Cuban government’s defamatory campaigns, writing on Facebook, “We will not advance toward a dialogue and mutual respect by resorting to dismissive insults.” Cuba’s political culture does not embrace public expressions of dissent within its ranks, nor do regional representatives of organization tend to speak out about activities in the capital.

Changes in Cuban culture played a significant role in the November 27 protest. For the young Cubans who rose up in rebellion, their smartphones are weapons they use both to inform and defend themselves. The legalisation of cell phone possession in 2008 and the opening of phone-based internet access in 2018 utterly transformed Cuban public discourse. Young Cubans use Facebook as an alternative public sphere in which to share news, air grievances, galvanise support for causes and cast aspersions on their leaders. Official state media has been upstaged. Cuba’s leaders are being thrust into arguments with disgruntled citizens on social media – and their responses are undignified to say the least. The Cuban government tries to block access to opposition media, but young Cubans fight back with VPN networks and mirror sites. In her daily podcast, Yoani Sánchez explains to listeners how to use a VPN. Dozens of independent journalism publications and streaming channels have blossomed on the internet, providing Cubans with news and views that would never appear in state media.

Communication between Cuban exiles and islanders is fluid and constant, signalling a complete breakdown of the state’s effort to drive a wedge between those inside and outside the country. Cubans have grown more emboldened by being able to see what others like them do and by witnessing what the state does to other Cubans. WhatsApp chats facilitate the creation of organisations based on special interests, including Cuban doctors on medical missions who share information about the oppressive labour conditions and constant surveillance they experience. The island now has independent animal rights groups, LGBTQ groups, feminist groups and anti-racist groups, all of which have organised smaller protests in recent years using social media.

The Cuban government continues to dismiss all forms of dissent on the island as the works of mercenaries trained, financed and mobilised by the United States government as part of a long-term regime change strategy. More than a few progressives outside Cuba parrot that rhetoric or at least feel obligated to prioritise their condemnation of US policies over concerns about Cubans’ civil rights. Many Cubans and Cuban-Americans, myself included, would argue that it is a mistake to rationalise or diminish the Cuban government’s repression of civil liberties and blame the embargo for the government’s stance toward its citizens. While USAID has awarded $16,569,889 for Cuba pro-democracy efforts since 2017, including financing of some of the opposition media, not all Cuban media beyond the island government’s control was invented by the CIA, nor is all Cubans’ opposition to their government a product of American meddling. Cubans do not need the United States to “help” them develop critical views of their government. “Anger rather than fear is the widespread sentiment among Cubans—a constant, built-in discomfort,” writes Carlos Manuel Alvarez. “We’re fed up with blind, doctrinaire zeal. Navigating Communism is like trying to cross a cobblestone road in high heels, trying not to fall, feigning normalcy. Some of us end up twisting our ankles.”

Most complaints of police repression, domestic violence, animal mistreatment, food shortages and poor public services in Cuba come from ordinary Cuban citizens who post their grievances on Facebook. No American planes are dropping leaflets from the sky to provide instructions. Cuban exiles send billions of dollars to relatives and friends each year, and much of that money pays for cell phones, internet, computers and other tech equipment that allow islanders to send and receive information. Important opposition media outlets, such as 14yMedio and CiberCuba, are entirely privately financed. Tania Bruguera and Yoani Sanchez have made a point of not accepting any funding from the US government, and savvy musicians and filmmakers use crowd funding campaigns to support their projects. The bulk of US State Department funding for Cuba-related activities stays in Miami, where media companies, publishers and cultural promoters can operate freely.

Cuban citizens may have limited legal rights, but they do not lack agency; they choose to apply for foreign grants or to work for media outlets funded by American sources. I do not make these points because I favour US-backed regime change –  I am arguing for a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics that are leading to more frequent, more visible and more organised protests in Cuba. I am also arguing against the Cuban government’s position that does not differentiate between a CIA-financed assassin and an independent journalist who writes a brilliant essay about Cuba’s public health system, or an artist who recites poetry outside a police station.

The recent confrontation at the Ministry of Culture raised the hopes of many Cubans around the world. It also generated skepticism from those who say that dialogue with the Cuban government is futile, and that artists don’t have the knowhow to bring about political change. It’s worth recalling that the Charter 77 civic movement in former Czechoslovakia started in response to the arrest of a psychedelic rock band. The myth of Cuba as a political utopia is the revolution’s jugular: it draws tourist dollars and foreign aid, but its claim to truth is undermined by the harsh lived realities of 11 million citizens. Cuban artists and intellectuals have been enjoined to sustain that myth for 60 years. Their collective refusal to do now is a clear sign that change is on the horizon.

Coco Fusco is an artist and writer and the author of Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba (Tate Publications, 2015). She is a professor at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

This article was originally publishing in the North American Congress on Latin America here. Some minor alterations have been made to conform to Index house style

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