New Players, Old Practices

By Armando Chaguaceda

Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES – It’s no secret that different demands, identities and proposals have emerged in what we call “civil society”, in recent times. Community activists, animal rights advocates, LGBTI activists, anti-racism activists, environmental activists, feminists, independent journalists and a long list of others have joined besieged Human Rights activists and members from a few government-recognized NGOs, in both public and virtual spaces.

It makes perfect sense that this would happen: Cuba is becoming a more socially diverse – and more unequal – country every day; it is becoming more connected – because of the Internet and international travel; while it continues to be a country of poor people governed by an authoritarian system. It is precisely this last characteristic, the psycho-social and political impact of old authoritarianism on attitudes of new activism, that is worth examining.

Features of the traditional model of socialist citizenship include induced fragmentation and civic selectivity, which persist in this new activism. Under its influence, people organize for their own cause, in their part of the neighborhood and society, but they can’t see the bigger picture.

They exercise something that – very slightly- resembles freedom of speech, organization and protests, as long as it doesn’t step over the line drawn out by Daddy State. Lines that weaken the call to question the ruling power’s make up or policies, to the point of making any real movement impossible. “I’m not joining X, because it’s not my struggle.” “If Y joins, the cause will be contaminated.” “We aren’t interested in Z’s problems.”

From an analytical standpoint, it would be unfair to boil down why these attitudes exist under the sign of simulation and complicity. We can’t forget that these activisms have sprung from heartfelt causes and are growing with personal learning. Our historic memory of identities and subordinate struggles takes on in Cuba a broken and irregular continuity, full of silences and exile.

When a young person, educated within the system and, in some cases, in the bosom of revolutionary families, discovers new needs, the transformation process to become an activist can be hard and painful. If the young person comes from provinces that are more cut-off from the changes that are taking place in cities such as Havana, it can often drag along a multi-dimensional tradition of social conservatism. The person needs to overcome mental barriers, the news and the double influence of coercion/blackmail from the State and family.

However, when this young person grows up – in the literal and cultural sense of the word – within society and activism, it can be harder to accept the persistance of certain attitudes. Not because of a double standard that has been imposed from a canon or foreign coordinates, but because of the effect it has on the cause itself, there are movements that are incoherent in practice. If we take the dictionary’s meaning for the meaning “incoherence”: “something that is lacking in a logical relationship with another thing.”

Examples of this action are clear for us to see. When independent journalists write, but they don’t write a word about what this means for their repressed colleagues. Proposing anti-racism, without defending imprisoned black artivists. While feminism is being pushed forward, (normally black, mulatto and poor) women languishing in prisons because of their opposition are forgotten.

Within these contexts – which aren’t exactly democratic – similar causes have caused a wide-ranging and cross-cutting solidarity, bringing different voices together for the liberation of a journalist[i], indigenous person [ii]or judge[iii] who have been wrongfully imprisoned. However, in Cuba, this continues to seem difficult given the fragmentation and selectivity of civil society’s activism, which is replicated and resilient. Also because of the extreme polarization effect that official and replicated discourse has, to some extent, on certain opposition and exile groups.

Such incoherent attitudes weaken this activism to power-induced selectivity and fragmentation, rather than obeying a standard of activism’s underdevelopment. Because it makes repression invisible and vilifies the condition of selective activism. They disconnect it from the cause they want to push forward, quite frankly, with the injustice they say they are fighting.

Activism isn’t a moral judgement here, it’s more of a descriptive term, taxonomical. Pulling from different ideologies, you can have different visions to understand and face the world’s problems. Some activisms can, by their very nature, not attack the government’s abuse against human beings. Certain animal movements, for example, develop focussing solely on animal abuse; even when the mere existence of these groups also depends on the government’s authorization.

However, this excuse isn’t valid for other activisms: where there are people being repressed because of their political views, whose identity and demands are in keeping with the social cause that one has chosen to defend. People whose situation one chooses to be silent about. A lack of solidarity is, quite simply, a perversion of activism. Roberto Quinonez, Silverio Portal or Keilylli de la Mora are currently victims of similar attitudes, coming from Cuba’s new wave of budding activism. 

The fact this is happening doesn’t invalidate the efforts and partial results that these selective activisms might display, in terms of public awareness and one-off recognition. However, accepting that Cuban activism’s trousers – because of fashion, convenience or sincere belief – might be a little loose. Maybe there is a belief that civic development in Cuban society and the State’s intolerance are responsible for this stunted activism.

If this were the case, it would be a good idea to make this clear instead of turning to other kinds of excuses: that I didn’t know about that abuse, that it doesn’t have anything to do with my struggle, that it was manipulated by darker forces.

Being honest is the first act of – moral, civic and intellectual – rebellion, under an autocratic system where everyone has to ask for permission to exist. Where we are all crucified for our dogmas, our fears and our forgetfulness. Vaclav Havel, who wrote Power of the Powerless, stood up to Czech society (and himself) with his everyday poverty, without ever giving up on his belief and fight for change that he thought was possible.

Our experience in recent years tells us that, in spite of everything, some progress has been made in Cuban activism. A lot of the best Creole activism, in its many dimensions, comes from completely subordinate social and regional origins.

Some activisms – the San Isidro Movement, the Hannah Arendt Institute of Artivism, the Women’s Network, the Citizens’ Committee for Racial Integration – bring together movements which have learned to take their demands for social diversity and political pluralism together; to legitimize agendas for recognizing different communities and building a comprehensive citizenship.

It is from this intersectionality of struggles and transversality of alliances that a more complete, articulate and powerful civil society can take shape in the Cuba of tomorrow.

Culture & Freedom. Photo of the San Isidro Movement




Armando Chaguaceda

Armando Chaguaceda: My curriculum vitae presents me as a historian and political scientist. I'm from an unclassifiable generation who collected the achievements, frustrations and promises of the Cuban Revolution and now resists on the island or contributes through numerous websites, trying to remain human without dying in the attempt.

One thought on “New Players, Old Practices

  • It takes a political scientist to write such articles.

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