HAVANA TIMES — Some days ago, a French journalist who was shooting a documentary here told me he was surprised I could speak of hope when referring to Cuba – not because he doesn’t want to be hopeful, but because the impressions he gathered during his visit to the island were that Cubans are afraid to express themselves openly and aren’t confident in their country’s future.
Among those anxious to leave the country (particularly those about to embark on the journey and even burn their bridges), such optimism is almost experienced as a betrayal.
It seems that considering the slightest possibility of improvement in Cuba shakes the conviction with which they flee the island. Their aim in life is to live “anywhere except Cuba.” For those who have already left, the only words that describe our country are dictatorship, State control and decadence.
At the other end, the official (dis)information monopoly feeds us an optimism sustained by omission and deceit. How, then, are we breathe confidence into Cuba? How are we to detect any movement in a society that seems to have come to a halt in time?
“And yet it moves,” as the renowned astronomer once said. Today’s Cuba isn’t the one many (or most) of us want (for different reasons), but neither is it the same Cuba we had fifty years ago.
If we look deeply at Cuban history, we perceive the slow awakening of civil consciousness – an awareness that is perhaps still confused and dazzled.
We shouldn’t forget the significance of the Peruvian Embassy incident (1980) and the Mariel exodus and Malecon protest (1994), protests that bordered on mass disobedience, or downplay the importance of the Varela Project (1998), the first organized and legal civic initiative. The first unplanned, spontaneous, pluralistic and non-violent protest Cuba experienced was perhaps the “E-mail War” of 2009, which expressed the unyielding refusal of Cuban intellectuals to cooperate with a humiliating attempt to forget the victims of State repression and ostracism.
The blogosphere, an alternative to official information channels that also arose spontaneously and has been growing through personal blogs and journals, is one of the most tangible examples of Cuba’s latent civility.
The performance dealing with freedom of expression that visual artist Tania Bruguera staged in 2009; the protest over the arrest of musician Gorki Avila we saw at Pablo Milanes’ concert; the emergence of the organization Estado de Sats; the letter published on the Internet accusing the Cuban Ministry of Culture of theft and plagiarism in connection with Cuba’s Rotilla Music Festival; the call for rappers to unite and demand the resignation of the Cuban Rap Agency director, and, in 2012, the request that the Puños Arriba (“Raised Fists”) festival venue be restored are all examples of successful civil demands that took place in Cuba.
One of the most clear victories of civil activism – one which nearly no one knows about, not even people working in the public health sector – was the hunger strike carried out by Dr. Jeovany Jimenez Vega. Through his personal blog, Ciudadano Cero (“Citizen Cero”), Jimenez informed readers of how his right to practice medicine and complete the studies in his specialization he had started was taken away from him, for having, along with a colleague, given voice to the opinions of 300 health professionals regarding their salary. He won his case and was reinstated, including the payment of six years’ worth of wages (the time he was not permitted to practice). His colleague, exiled in Spain, was able to revalidate his degree.
Other examples are the civil initiative named Por otra Cuba (“For a Different Cuba”); the release of political prisoners (regrettably transformed into a kind of banishment), and the successful campaigns aimed at freeing dissidents, which average Cubans never hear.
We shouldn’t forget the existence of a still-fragmented opposition that begins to find a common ground; the demands musician Robertico Carcases sung in a no less important venue than Havana’s Anti-Imperialist Grandstand (during a hermetically sealed government-sponsored performance); the fact Samuel Formell, son of the renowned Juan Formell, declared in Miami he wished “more than one party could exist in Cuba and that free elections could be held;” the apathy people show towards official events, grassroots organizations and gatherings of People Power Assemblies; the emergence of non-State businesses, alternative galleries and cultural venues; the artistic events that meet with censorship and do not appeal to institutions, relocating to the privacy and freedom of people’s homes, and the emergence of independent film production houses that divulge their uncensored opinions about Cuban reality.
The fact Tania Bruguera’s call for participation at the performance she planned at Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion sincerely touched many people is another argument. This performance is now being carried out on the Internet with personal, 1-minute videos. Then there is the example of people whose homes collapsed daring to protest, carrying signs in the plaza.
The fact a group of rappers should get together to produce a song that responds to an official accusation; that people should be expressing their opinions out on the street more spontaneously; that independent cooperatives should be surfacing; that popular discontent should be taking on new and unpredictable forms – no matter how insignificant these developments may strike our impatient gaze-, they are unprecedented initiatives for Cuba’s civil panorama, signs of movement and – why not say it – reasons for hope.