Cuba Forum Calls to Boost Participation

Dalia Acosta

The Critical Observatorio supports inclusion to construct Cuba's future. File Foto by Isbel Diaz

HAVANA TIMES, March 31 (IPS) — The annual Critical Observatory Social Forum discussed the need for new spaces of dialogue, debate and participation in Cuba, including the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) and decentralization to empower local communities.

“If we are going to make a revolution that is consistent, many Cuban bloggers are committed to the idea of improving the situation, not going backwards,” said feminist blogger Yasmín Portales, who attended the forum held in Havana last weekend. “And the way to improve things is to be critical in a systematic way,” she said.

“Blogs are for talking about whatever we want; we have to exercise that right because this is our country and we have the right to talk about it however we want,” added Portales, in whose view creative uses of ICT and social and political activism should not be seen as incompatible.

The sharp polarization between government opponents and defenders in the Cuban blogosphere, and the extension into cyberspace of the five-decade political conflict between Cuba and the United States, occupied one of the sessions at the Observatory Forum, which declared itself in favor of expanding ordinary people’s access to the internet.

Cyberwar as an excuse

In the view of participants, the so-called “cyberwar” denounced by the government of President Raul Castro in a documentary serial titled “Las razones de Cuba” (Cuba’s Reasons) should not be used as an excuse to avoid opening up internet access to the population, once the island has better connections to the global network.

Under the trees in the courtyard of playwright Manuel Gonzalez’s house in the Havana neighborhood of Coco Solo, Observatory Forum participants shared opinions and experiences on subjects as diverse as communication between genders, sexual diversity, the current debate on racial issues in Cuba and real opportunities for citizen participation.

“The Forum is above all a place where meetings, encounters and groups can be planned, and social activism can be constructed freely and independently,” Mario Castillo, the coordinator of the fifth edition of the Observatory Forum, which attracted 60 people under the slogan “Create, Show Solidarity, Revolutionize”, told IPS.

Castillo said the Critical Observatory, founded in 2006 as a convergence and coordination mechanism for the Haydeé Santamaría Critical Thought and Emerging Cultures Collective, has managed to “remain a living organization, without owners or fixed schedules, through the determination of a group of people.”

From the First Forum of the Critical Observatory. Photo: Isbel Diaz

This sense of freedom is one of its characteristics to this day, and “is what makes it interesting to young people,” he said.

The Haydée Santamaría Collective is a social and cultural project, attached since 2005 to the Criticism and Research Section of the Saíz Brothers Association (AHS), an organization of young creative artists. Under AHS sponsorship, it held its first Social Forum in 2006, and over time has opened the event to projects and people from all over the country.

Autonomous forum

In 2009 the Critical Observatory Activist Network emerged as a natural development. In addition to promoting different activities and projects all year round, it sends out a regular e-mail information summary about a wide variety of controversial topics in today’s Cuba.

For the first time, this year’s Forum was truly self-managed, and transcended the narrow confines of an academic meeting on social and cultural research and criticism to become “a real social forum,” according to its organizers.

Among the projects that come together in the Network are the Cofradía de la Negritud, a citizens’ association that promotes debate about racial discrimination in Cuba, El Guardabosques, an environmentalist electronic newsletter, and NotiG, an independent news service on sexual diversity issues.

As well as the democratization of internet use and the media on the island, there were debates on the changes in Cuba’s economic model and institutional responsibilities and procedures to encourage self-organization and popular freedoms, self-management and cooperatives.

Decentralization for citizen participation

Decentralization as an effective means of citizen participation was the first topic of discussion at the Fifth Critical Observatory Social Forum, held ahead of the Sixth Congress of the governing Cuban Communist Party announced for mid-April.

Researcher Jorge Luis Aleman, a member of the Haydée Santamaría Collective, said decentralization in Cuban society today implies the transfer of power to small local bodies capable of self-management, and the creation of effective opportunities for participation at neighborhood level.

A larger role for people like elected delegates to the local government so that they can sign contracts with other local actors, like self-employed workers, and wide opportunities for citizen participation, will be essential for achieving decentralization, said Aleman.

For more on the Critcal Observatory see this post.