What We Know about the November 20th Protests in Cuba

Havana, July 11, 2021.   Photo: Roy Leira

By El Toque

HAVANA TIMES – The Archipielago group has launched an appeal to hold peaceful anti-violence protests in Cuba. Members of civil society who have joined the group up until now sent permission request letters to the corresponding municipal bodies in Holguin, Santa Clara and Old Havana; as well as to the Provincial Government of Havana and Santa Clara.

The protests have been scheduled for November 20th, five days after the date which the Cuban government has set as the day it will once again open up the country to international tourism. They are estimated to be three hours long.

In Havana, the itinerary involves walking from the Malecon and Prado to Prado and Monte streets, to place flowers at Jose Marti’s statue in Parque Central, and will end in front of Capitolio. In Holguin, the protest will begin in Loma de la Cruz and will move towards Parque Marti, where flowers will be placed in front of the statues of the National Hero and Calixto Garcia. In Santa Clara, the protest will begin in the park outside the train station, to then offer a bouquet of flowers to Jose Marti, and it will then move towards the El Carmen church, ending in Loma del Capiro.

The purpose of these letters is to request authorization from the responsible government bodies; while arguing that peaceful protest is a human right and “violating or preventing the full exercise of this right is a crime.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which Cuba has signed – establishes in Article 20 that “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”

Meanwhile, peaceful public protest is a civil and democratic act, and is recognized in Article 56 of the Cuban Constitution, which the initiative’s coordinators are using to seek protection:

“The rights of assembly, demonstration and association for legal and peaceful ends, are recognized by the State as long as they are exercised respecting public order and in compliance with what is established by the Law.”

The inexistence of a law that regulates the right to protest and assemble in Cuba has been a reason for legal insecurity for citizens who don’t have the parameters they need to determine the requirements and procedures they must follow in order to hold a protest with legal safeguards of zero repression or any other consequences. Nevertheless, constitutional recognition of the right to protest and the absence of complementary regulations that define it is enough legal grounds for the initiative’s organizers, who say that if they don’t receive a response from the corresponding government bodies, they will still move ahead with the peaceful protest.

Public protests that promote this initiative could gather up to 5000 people, according to the organizers. Those who signed the requests presented to local authorities argued that they want to march “Against violence, to demand that all Cubans’ rights are respected, for the release of political prisoners and for the solution to our differences via democratic and peaceful channels.”

The documents also state that protestors will respect health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They are asking government bodies to keep telecommunication services up and running during the time of the protest and to ensure protection for protestors “from those who try and stop the protest from unfolding peacefully.”

On September 20th, Cuban actor and playwright Yunior Garcia Aguilera, admin of the Facebook group Archipielago, posted on this page the urgency for a protest of this kind and the intention that belies the letters addressed to municipal and provincial governments.

“If it is authorized, it will be the first time in over 60 years that the Cuban State will allow an anti-government protest, with every safeguard for protestors. If they don’t, like the vast majority of us don’t believe they will, they will once again prove, and without a shadow of doubt, the totally anti-democratic nature of a regime that represses our most basic rights. While the strategy of filing a request will attest to our civic spirit and, at the same time, force those in power to take off all of their masks they hide behind in front of the international community, trying to sell a face that is completely different to the reality in Cuba,” Garcia’s post added.

The Cuban government’s response to these petitions is still unknown, and legally-speaking, there is no definite timeframe in which they need to respond to letters. The Archipielago group – which has over 20,000 members since it was created in August 2021 – proposes to be a platform for a debate about a future Cuba as a place where children are not excluded because of the way they think or their political persuasions, and for there to be a real Rule of Law.

“It is supposed to be a channel for us to seek a civic-led response to the crisis, without violence and in total sovereignty. It is a space where we all fit and we don’t have to think the same, nor do we have to subject our opinions to the hegemony of a ruling elite,” one of the group’s statements reads.

Archipielago says that it advocates for plural opinions, and is thereby inviting “those who want to join, multiply, without setting aside or dividing. You don’t have to renounce your principles, affiliations or ideological stance. Archipielago isn’t a political party, nor is it a movement. It’s a plural and ecumenical space. You are free to express your stance and you might hear ideas that are different to your own, and you don’t have to agree with them.”

What happened before the creation of the group Archipielago?

Resolution 15/21 by the Human Rights Council, which Cuba (proudly) forms part of, reaffirms that “everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” This provision should be read in hand with Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which stipulates that “Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect  and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the  rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as  race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social  origin, property, birth or other status.” One of these rights is the right of association and peaceful protest.

Cuba signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2008, but it never ratified it; as a result, it can’t be considered a State Party nor is it forced by International Law to comply with its regulations. Nor does it have a law that regulates the right to protest, in spite of the fact that the current Constitution recognizes this right, and in spite of the fact that it holds respect for “public order and rules established by the Law.”

The legal abyss that exists in this regard doesn’t stop the Penal Code from punishing organizers and protesters for protests held that violate the laws that regulate the exercise of this right. Thus, Cuban judges don’t have legal references to appraise the conditions that a protest has taken place in, because there is no law to establish the limits and way this civil right can manifest itself.

Deregulation when it comes to the right to protest is unconstitutional. Over all this time, Cuba has blocked the exercise of a basic right, and those who have used public spaces to protest have been dealt with case-by-case and for whatever reason.

In Cuba’s recent history, the protest held by the animal rights movement on April 7, 2019 particularly stands out, as it had no political undertone and was condoned by the State. This was the first protest to demand an Animal Protection Act. Protestors walked down 25th Street, in Vedado, Havana, up to the grave of US philathropist Jeannette Ryder (1866-1931) in Colon Cemetery.

In spite of there not being a legal framework for protests, the animal rights protest proved that local Government authorities can issue authorizations to legitimize this kind of civic initiative. People’s Power committees proved they had the power to transmit these petitions and authorize or deny them.

The closest precedent to a protest in Cuba happened, spontaneously and without State authorization, on July 11, 2021. In this case, the constitutional right to publicly protest was not respected by the Government. The Cuban Government unleashed its repressive forces against protestors and president Miguel Diaz-Canel condoned violence in a TV speech broadcast in the afternoon on that day.

Arrests on the spot multiplied and others were randomly prolonged as the authorities identified protestors. A list drawn up by activists and the Cubalex organization has compiled the names of over 1000 people arrested for their participation in these protests; dozens of them have had summary hearings without the presence of a lawyer and have been sentenced for causing public disorder, in most cases.

Forty protestors condemned without a defense

The majority of the 11J protests that have been sent to trial in Cuba until now, did not have access to a lawyer. This proceeding has sparked much criticism of the Cuban government.

The 11J protests and events in the days that followed led to the creation of Archipielago, which has now launched its call for a public protest.

The Cuban authorities’ silence has been one of its most common responses to this kind of civic request. The lack of legal tools to fight this silence and a lack of recourse has been used by the Government to protect itself from popular complaints by the implicit rejection in their omission.

Meanwhile, they have turned to illegal and arbitrary instruments to stand in the way and limit the movements of protest organizers. Illegal house arrests, the selective suspension of Internet and phone services – which were once illegal and are now legal under Decree-Law 35 — or any other legal trick that is protected by the almost unlimited authority of Cuban politce to hold any citizen in detention for 24 hours, form part of a catalog of tools that the Cuban government has to deal with the challenges that the Archipielago group poses today.

The landscape that is being set by the call driven by Archipielago is still uncertain. However, History has proved that the Cuban government’s likely repressive response to legitimate and legal initiatives – according to its own Law – is always a plausible possibility.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.


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