Nobility, dignity, certainty and a certain smiling courage. Everything that makes up greatness has essentially been the same over the centuries. -Hannah Arendt
By Armando Chaguaceda
HAVANA TIMES – Thirteen years ago on May 1st, a group of citizens (mainly young people) paraded through Havana. Down with Bureaucracy, Long live the Workers, were their slogans. In spite of police pressure, fear, immaturity and sectarianism, these reformists of Socialism broke out into the public space, of their own accord. For many of those that took part (including your faithful author), that event was a watershed, an existential and epistemic one, in our lives.
Last week, other young people took to these same streets in protest. With much greater creativity, awareness and civic values than those protesters in 2008. Socialism yes, Repression no, was one of their slogans. Today, the State has banned the right to have rights, just like it did yesterday. Especially to defend them in the public space, physically or virtually.
Every once in a while, social pressures climax in Cuba. The Government tries to resolve this by opening up the migration valve, passing half-hearted reforms and repressing the popular initiatives that emerge. It’s a recurring cycle, where the State is successful in its efforts to crush collective action, renovating its domination to a greater level.
Some of the leaders of these events end up leaving the country, which breaks the build-up of resistance. Protesters still represent a minority, if you take the entire population into account, who don’t manage to mutate into a mass social movement. There are still individuals (mainly the elderly, the misinformed and politically subjugated) who justify the Government’s violations. On the other hand, mass organizations (which are bureaucratized, incompetent and parasite-like) are unable of guaranteeing their members’ rights or their representation.
However, if you examine the current situation, you can see a tense landscape with a few noteworthy points. There is a State which is losing its legitimacy (its calls and narratives for support prove this, just like people’s spontaneous rejection for their repressive acts) and is breaking out its coercive frame of mind with greater brutality. A State with a great deal of power. Its apparent overreaction (cutting Internet access, full-blown media campaign) reveals that while they have every adavantage over their adversary, they must be somewhat worried to react in this way.
The budding social and intellectual movement and the Cuban State represent two minorities in a face-off, with the majority half-way between expectancy and indifference. The State holds all of power’s earthly resources, but it is resting on a vertical logic that is unable to crush an emergency organized by a network that challenges it, by defending its rights and challenging the State with its bodies, the streets and symbols. Civic protest can’t manage to topple those in power, and those in power can’t disappear from protests. Nobody wins. But protestors aren’t being suppressed.
Last week, there were many articles about the correlation between and increase in protests and repression. The Cuban Human Rights Observatory identified April as the worst month in 2021, in terms of repressive action, with thousands of these kinds of acts. Cuban Prisoners Defenders identifies the existence of 145 political prisoners in Cuban jails. Furthermore, the Cuban Conflicts Observatory recorded a total of 203 civil protests in the month that just came to an end. The presence of protesters on the country’s main streets, as well as the surrounding population’s solidarity with them, offers a different panorama to the old socialist consensus in the ‘80s.
So, while there still isn’t a mass national movement, it is in the works. Three factors have been key to this civic emergence. They are also the factors that put its survival at risk. Increased repression of artists and any individual who demands the rights they have been stripped of. Growing uncertainty in life and the health situation across the nation due to COVID-19. Add to this the problem of maintaining collective action in an authoritarian environment.
Over the past year, worldwide restrictions on human rights and civic spaces have been identified in different studies and observations. Violations of protest rights have been documented; with arrests of protestors and mobilizations being, sometimes violently, dispersed. Activists, journalists and human rights defenders have suffered abuse and intimidation. Countries are promulgating states of emergency that limit human rights. Including restrictions of freedom of speech, information access and establishing additional hurdles for already marginalized groups (1).
John Keane reminds us that “civil societies can be pulverized and wiped out, and that their destruction happens much more easily and many times faster than their slow-motion, step-by-step practical construction” (2). This is the scenario we see unfolding in many Latin American countries. Including Cuba. Civil society actors find it hard to overcome their repressive context; but this is the battleground where they are fighting to reverse this situation. Despite this, citizens continue to mobilize, influencing public policies and exercising different forms of social auditing and accountability.
Processes of collective mobilization have already taken small steps on this “paralyzed” island. Every week, there are more protests, proposals and manifestos in public squares and online. Voices are rising up, from an important institution like the Catholic Church, to denounce the status quo and request that things begin to be rectified.
In spite of repression, popular resilience is growing, which is capable of giving room to hope. As Arendt would say, the political miracle will emerge from this search and action. The kind that defeats the seemingly never-ending and opens up new horizons to the world. The horizon of human freedom, which is always problematic, besieged and uncertain.