HAVANA TIMES – Dario Alejandro Aleman left Cuba for Mexico City six weeks ago. He wasn’t sure up to the last minute whether he would be allowed to leave. In his chronicle he describes the turbulent events in Havana that unfolded in November and December.
This is his complete description of the historic events from El Estornudo.
Diary of a Spectator Embarrassed to Be Just That
By Darío Alejandro Aleman (El Estornudo)
I have left Cuba under unhappy circumstances that I do not want to relate. I will only say that I was escaping, or that is how it felt to me. I traveled by car during the early morning to the Camaguey airport, crossed my fingers as I passed through immigration and breathed a sigh of relief that I had not yet been regulated. As I waited to board my flight, I felt no regrets about leaving Cuba, and no fear about arriving alone in a country I do not know. By force I had left all my belongings behind, as if to bar the way for future nostalgia.
I arrive in Mexico. I talk to my parents before going to bed to tell them about the flight. “If anything ties me to that country now, it’s you,” I tell them. I know I’m lying to them. The last thing I do that night is read a piece of news that has reached me through social networks. A group of artists and activists are barricading themselves in the headquarters of the San Isidro Movement (SIM), after being harassed for days for demanding the release of a friend who was unduly prosecuted and imprisoned under Cuban law. Within the walls of that place that I remember well, they have gathered to read poetry.
I spend the day reviewing a text I have yet to finish about Iliana Hernández. I also listen to the recordings of the interview in which she told me her story and I am convinced that this woman is a character of Almodóvar through and through. She is also entrenched in San Isidro and from there she reports on everything that happens. In one of her videos I see Luis Manuel Otero on the street, half cross―dressed and dancing next to Maykel Castillo, making fun of the political police who have them under siege. The cheerful irreverence of both of them seems to me as much fun as it is admirable.
I remember that I once spent several hours talking to Luis Manuel Otero at the SIM headquarters while waiting for the rain to stop. We talked about many things. I told him that until then I felt I had been lucky for remaining unnoticed in the eyes of State Security, and he told me about an agent, Lieutenant Colonel Kenya, who had kept an eye on him in the days when he was protesting against Decree 349. In one of his many encounters, Kenya threatened to send him to prison for a long time. She said she was fed up with his defiance.
“I said, ‘Kenya, you’re going to lock me up, then you’re going to let me go, and so on. But when I get out I’m going to hide in a place where only a person I trust will be able to reach me. And look, this person is not going to tell on me because that would be the end of our relationship. And there, hidden, I’m going to go on a hunger and thirst strike until they abolish the 349. It’s like this. You know I’m crazy. Either they abolish it or I die.’”
I asked Luis Manuel if he had been serious then. He smiled and confessed to me that he had.
Other news: nine people have started a hunger strike at the SIM headquarters. Of these, four are also starting a thirst strike.
I think that, at least Luis Manuel and Maykel, have been pushing the limits of performance in Cuba for a long time. One went from dancing almost naked in a Central Havana corner to wearing the flag as clothing, and the other from dressing up as a prisoner to sewing his lips together. Thus, one performance led to another, and the sum of them to an incessant hostility by the dictatorship. The resulting escalation between them and the totalitarian state has finally led them to the current situation.
The strike is the definitive performance of “independent art” in Cuba; the ultimate implosion of their weariness. I feel that these displaced limits have reached a point of no return. Luis Manuel and the rest of the strikers have become radicalized, and the effort that once aimed at the freedom of a friend now aims at us as well. They have made their bodies into canvases, pieces of wood, notebooks of compositions, and they dare to give us the charcoal, the chisel and the pen, involving us all in the task of giving them one of the only two possible forms: life or death. We didn’t ask for it, but perhaps we needed it.
I know that social networks are a game of mirrors, however, I am convinced that they are also the only spaces that could be catalogued as the “public sphere” in Cuba. The democracy that is lacking in the Cuban analog environment is growing distorted here, but it is growing. I read news about the strike and also some random comments. A quick mapping of the vox populi indicates the following: many are in solidarity with the strikers, some are trying to discredit them with absurd slanders, and others, as the bastard children of the latter, are defending their right to not have an opinion.
How long can a person last without eating? Bobby Sands’ rickety corpse marked that on the almanacs all over Northern Ireland: 66 days. The hunger strike is a slow process, which halfway through reveals the saddest and most extreme forms of the body. The other half is just the long agony of autophagy. How long can a person live without ingesting liquids? A hasty Google search informs me that five days, although someone in good health can endure up to twelve. It is not necessary to reach the end for the body to suffer irreparable damage.
I would like to tell the strikers to stop, that it is enough, that the obituaries of the just are not good because they do not settle accounts or save anyone, but they are just emptiness. But out of shame I cannot ask them to act as I would from my instinct for self-preservation and my cowardice. Because, yes, anything I can do is already cowardice compare to them.
However this story ends, with the fortitude they have already shown, the strikers have set the bar very high for the future history of civic struggle in Cuba. The country should dig in its bowels and discover that it still has a functioning organ in San Isidro.
What do the purists criticize? Under what sheet are hidden the namby-pamby, the prudes, the neutrals? The purists like to keep their distance. They want to believe that they have inaugurated a third position that is neither supportive nor repulsive of the government’s pathological violence, but they do not found anything new. Cowardice is very old, as is the courage of the strikers and the banal evil of those who repress them.
The purists also demand romantic heroes, knights in shining armor, saints, martyrs with no more life outside the moment when they wait to be devoured by the beasts in a Roman circus. They reject everything outside this canon, it is not useful to them, they consider it impure. They prefer, as Virgilio Piñera would say, “that purity which stains everything in white” and belongs more to ideologized fiction than to historical reality. They do not trust, for example, Luis Manuel Otero because he can cross-dress without prejudice. They believe it is wrong for him to desecrate symbols, and they do not see ―or do not want to see― that his work consists of despising the worn-out signifiers to rescue the valuable signified. Nor do they trust Maykel Castillo because they feel that his loose and sincere tongue is so foul that it offends their educated ears. It seems that Cuban counterculture academics suddenly embrace neoclassicism and abhor graffiti, and that in the land of the reparto, almost without warning, the Lezamas multiple by the thousands.
Fuck, ut cum dignitate potius cadamus quam cum ignominia serviamus! Sapere aude, damn! Twerk! That’s it.
Rage. Shame. Today they attacked the strikers. The political police allowed an individual, probably one of their acolytes, to break down the door of the SIM headquarters and then he threw glass bottles inside the house. The strikers have not responded with violence. The only barricade they count on is their dignity. I feel like I’m missing out on “History”.
I listen again to the interview I did with Luis Manuel Otero. Just one year after that talk, the good luck I brag about of having in front of him is over. A few days ago, while I was boarding my flight, he was barracking himself in the same place where we talked. I was running away; he was confronting the state. Now he is fulfilling the hunger and thirst strike he once promised.
I call him using Iliana Hernández’s phone. “Why the strike?”, I ask. He, in a weak but confident voice, answers:
“You get tired of that situation where every time you say something, something normal, you go to jail. And there comes a time when the only thing you have to fight against it is your own body. So, to those who suffer from immobility as a result of a lack of political culture, of fear, of opportunism, to those who feel unconcerned about the other, you give your body to see what they decide to do with it. Let’s see if that prompts them to fight for their rights! The struggle in Cuba, as in the rest of the world, needs sacrifice, and the people in Cuba have lost the ability to sacrifice themselves for others. But I have faith and I would like to know how much this flesh is worth to others.”
Now I think about the text that that conversation gave birth to on Damas 955 while I was waiting for the rain to stop. I entitled it “Portrait of a Happy Kamikaze”, and I realize that I could not have done it any other way.
What is happening in San Isidro? What fibers did it touch? What has been so powerful there that it has stirred up the passions of much of the country? Perhaps it is the firm and real convictions of the strikers, or the suicidal extreme to which some have gone, or that it was all initiated by a friend unjustly prosecuted by the law, or the epic of the martyrdom of a few who stand up for the rights of many. Or no, perhaps that telluric force is to be found in the fact that the story of the San Isidro Movement is, above all, a story of love.
Six days of strike.
It would be so easy for all this to end without anyone dying. However, the government does not seem to want to give up. The elites, the senile and the opportunistic, believe that if they have held on to power for so long it is because they have almost never been wrong. And the mistakes they think of are not acts for which to apologize or compensate anyone. The failures of the system, according to them, are those few blind spots where they have not been able to exercise their will, the moments when they were not as tough as they could have been.
Today, in his office, Miguel Díaz-Canel must be very worried. A group of “troublemakers” that should never have reached his ears now worries him. The strikers were supposed to be simple stray sheep that his dogs would keep more or less close to the flock by barking and biting. However, these few voiceless sheep are tired and now they immolate themselves to show the others that not all roads lead back to the pen.
I imagine Díaz-Canel must be disconcerted, angry. The strike could not have happened at a worst time. He should be thinking now about how to avoid an absolute bankruptcy and return to the usual precariousness, that which in his fiefdom is more or less bearable, and not about a few individuals whom he has just heard about for the first time last week. Since he lacks the diplomacy necessary to solve such a crisis, he resorts to pressure. However, he cannot go too far either: free Denis Solís, guarantee economic and political freedoms? Never. Without a solid political capital, giving in would be taken as a sign of weakness. But what if he were to give in?
Perhaps Raúl Castro is also aware of the strike and gives pieces of advice like a guru. Perhaps he tells Díaz-Canel to wait and repress, that he already has experience and that it is not by being soft that he has grown old on his throne. Perhaps Díaz-Canel, for his part, does not see it so clearly, and he repeats to himself, over and over again in his head, something similar to the maxim of Ulrich Beck (whom he does not know): “When power becomes the subject, that is when its disintegration begins”. For the moment, the President clings to the apathy and the indifference of the people, even as far as he is concerned. That alone saves him.
Meanwhile, perhaps, he looks at the almanac in terror, as if he too were in danger.
There are those who remain silent because they say they “do not agree with the political ideas” of the strikers, but they do not stop to think about the heterogeneous nature of this army of fourteen people quartered in Damas 955. A democratic nation is built just like that, with entrepreneurs, scientists, poets, artists, teachers, each with a different idea of the country they live in and want to inhabit, but all united by a noble cause, as in this case the liberation of a friend they believe unjustly condemned.
There are, moreover, those who speak to say that they do not want to speak. Who disregard what is happening because there are “strikers who are right-wing”, as if the political criterion were reduced to a perfectly forked path. Let’s pretend for a moment to follow these simplifications…
If anyone is responsible for the “rightward leaning” that may exist in some Cuban activists and opponents, it is, in addition to the dictatorship, a sizable portion of the traditional left. Those “progressives,” hypocritical or not, who look at “revolutionary Cuba” like a medieval astronomer looks at a distant star that apparently is still there, but actually died millions of years ago. They prefer to ignore the reality of a country that is stopped in time, and not precisely in its happiest hour. If for one minute that sclerotic left was consistent in the case of Cuba, it would be betraying the epic tale that it believes sustains it.
It would put an end to the sweet nostalgia of their youth: when they painted graffiti and threw Molotov cocktails with their face painted, and at night they would read The Eighteenth Brumaire of Luis Napoleon to understand about tyrants and ideology, while smoking a joint, wearing a Che Guevara’s t-shirt. For those old-fashioned people, the Cuban Revolution is healthy only because it should be.
The Cuban government’s propaganda has blurred a whole spectrum of political paradigms for its citizens, letting them see only the most ridiculous extremes. It suggests that the idea of this crude and monolithic left is naturally opposed by the idea of an absolute, demonic and terribly conservative right. The people acting all innocent, the fake Pilates, want to place on that side many of the strikers and Denis Solís himself for saying, for example, that he supports Trump.
Denis Solís’ Trumpism is, as a matter of fact, quite naive, perhaps as much as the Fidelism of the nostalgic “woke brigade”, in love with the Revolution. Like him, other activists and opponents move in the dynamics of political Manichaeism without yet knowing that they are victims of the official propaganda. They see in the ultraconservative and nationalist right a denial of the left that they identify with Cuba, only because the government of the island describe itself as such. I don’t think I’m being paternalistic if I say that, in truth, they do not have a clear understanding of what is what, simply because they don’t know them, and they only know an asphyxiating dictatorship that functions under the sinister logic of a Platonic cave…
But none of this matters, not when six Cubans are willing to die in front of our eyes.
At this time, the lives of Luis Manuel Otero and Maykel Castillo are fading. I would not want them to reach a point of no return. I prefer to believe that it won’t be like that; that there will be a dialogue, negotiations. But if when death comes the Cuban society does not awake, then we will have to turn off every light bulb, every candle, the light of the Morro lighthouse, and leave forever a country that is no longer ours.
Luis Manuel Otero and Maykel Castillo have ended the thirst strike, but they continue —together with Iliana Hernández, Esteban Rodríguez (who ended the strike that same afternoon), Katherine Bisquet, Anamely Ramos (who started days later)— without eating.
At night, State Security intervenes at the SIM headquarters disguised as doctors. They have used the pandemic as a justification to end the strike, which is gaining support every day. At the time of the extraction they cut off access to Facebook and Instagram. I follow the events as closely as I can, not only through the flood of publications that follow a few hours later, but also through friends who go to the vicinity of the site and tell me what is going on.
No one knows where the detainees are. A friend tells me that she will go out to protest on the Malecón with a few others, after an acquaintance of hers summoned them. I tell her to be careful, but she is confident that enough people will join in. In the end, no one goes, not even the person trying to organize it. The Malecón is as crowded with the usual misunderstoods and lethargics. “This ended up in nothing. Those who were arrested have already been sent home and everything has calmed down,” she writes, disappointed. I ask her to go home.
It is early in the morning and the whereabouts of Luis Manuel Otero are still unknown. I talk to another friend, who is a night bird, on the phone to vent the indignation accumulated over the last week.
“This will not go unnoticed. If you check the Internet, you’ll see. More people have joined in and even the purists are speaking out. This could be the beginning of something big. People are outraged,” he says.
I think he’s right. I tell him that until recently Cuba was a frozen lake with springtime coming, and what happened in San Isidro has been a major break in its thin ice. There is hope.
Hundreds of people are standing in front of the Ministry of Culture to demand their right to dissent, justice for Denis Solís and the San Isidro strikers, and an end to politically motivated repression. At this hour many have ended their hunger strike. They tell me that only Luis Manuel and Maykel are maintaining it, although little is known about the former. There is speculation that he is being kept in the Manuel Fajardo hospital against his will, which contradicts the official discourse of delegitimizing the strike. For the dictatorship, lying is such a common practice that it forgets to do it well.
The place is surrounded by the police and some are denouncing the use of pepper spray by the regime against a group of young people who join the protest at the last minute. However, none of this stops people from joining in. Many of my friends are there. They say they don’t want to miss “History” and I, from here, just ask them to be my eyes and ears.
Enthusiasm consumes the crowd. For the first time they are ridding themselves of the greatest fear that has prevented spontaneous protest in Cuba for so many years: the fear of being alone.
“What happens now,” I ask one of them. He answers: “A group of artists went in to dialogue with the vice minister of Culture. Out here we applaud every ten minutes to support those who entered. They told me that they are already calling this protest the ‘Applause Revolution’”.
I am surprised by the enthusiasm and overexcitement of my friend, who is convinced that he is participating in a genuine revolution
“This is the closest thing,” he jokes, “to the March on Washington that has happened in Cuba. All that’s missing is a Martin Luther King speech and a Bob Dylan concert to liven up the evening.”
The artists who entered the headquarters of the Ministry of Culture finally come out. They announce that there has been a dialogue, although they recognize that it was complicated to reach a settlement.
The agreements of the meeting are the following:
- A channel of dialogue will be opened with the cultural institutions.
- The Ministry of Culture will inquire urgently about the situation of Denis Solís and Luis Manuel Otero.
- A multiple work agenda will be organized with topics by both sides.
- The recent declaration of the national leadership of the Hermanos Saíz Association will be reviewed, a ridiculous propagandistic mess that, as usual, drops the stigmas of counterrevolution and mercenarism on every type of dissent.
- The commitment to a cessation of repression against independent creators by the government.
The participants in the protest go home, and I go to sleep, but first I spend a few minutes talking with my friend.
“I am very satisfied with the agreements, and also excited to have witnessed a unique moment. Today, here, history was made,” he writes. I answer that I think the same way and that no matter what happens in the future, the protest is already a precedent impossible to ignore. “There is only one thing that worries me,” he tells me before saying goodbye, “Why hasn’t Díaz-Canel spoken out?”
Díaz-Canel has spoken out. I wonder how, in the reduced space required by a tweet, he can spin such an amount of lies. In short, the President is not willing to give in.
Totalitarianism, once again, despises dialogue and chooses to act in the only way it knows how: lies and repression. Several of the people who took part in the strike in San Isidro wake up with the police outside their houses to prevent them from going out; Luis Manuel Otero continues in a hospital against his will, and the agreements of the previous night are broken in a matter of hours. For tomorrow, the government has arranged a massive concentration of its acolytes, which it has already baptized “ruckus”. The official media announce the place, time and purpose of the “ruckus”, and afterward they will insist on the spontaneity of the event. Cuban television, for its part, presents a “special program” to discredit the San Isidro strikers and the artists who protested in front of the Ministry of Culture.
“We have been very naive. Did you expect the government to respect the agreements? Totalitarianism does not negotiate. Totalitarianism represses. It is in its nature. The dictatorship won,” I read a rather pessimistic Facebook post. I agree, but only in part. Just the fact that a sector of the population has rebelled against the fear and chronic immobility of the country seems to me to be enough.
Cuban society is publicly divided, as expected from a country that has little experience in matters of dissent and respect for the criteria of others. Egos and haste compete with the collective spirit and the patience of those who advocate for change, while the government grows stronger and acts. However, none of this seems fatal to me. The construction of a country has never been free of contradictions; it even demands them.
I would like to write unhurriedly about everything that has happened since the strike began until now, but I cannot detach myself from social networks. Things are happening at an accelerated pace and every passing minute makes any piece of news feel already old.
The “ruckus” is what was expected: a delirious and tasteless show. “The ruckus is spontaneous, the ruckus is spontaneous”, repeat again and again their barricade speakers, as if they wanted to defeat out of exhaustion the evidence of the premeditation of such a circus. It is enough to look at the audience to understand that in truth they have only responded to the call … However, I believe that not inconsiderable part of those present are there voluntarily, and in general I can only feel shame.
The gathered crowd is attending one more representation of the burial of their rights. They repeat in unison that democracy and freedom of expression reach their limits when they collide with the regime. They raise a racket with their masks down so they can shout louder, as if it were true that the coronavirus thrives better in a besieged shack in San Isidro than among this irresponsible crowd.
I can’t keep following this. It is chilling to see so many Cubans applauding the privilege of demonstrating and not being repressed simply because they have accepted to submit. If two nights ago I embraced the hope of a moderately normal country, this afternoon the “ruckus” has revealed to me Cuba as the incomprehensible absurdity it has always been.
“That is our history, bro, one attempt after another. Cuba is an accumulation of frustrations, an eternal ‘almost, but no’”, another friend just writes to me now. But I don’t want to agree with him.
My wife has begun to look for a house while we live in the houses of several of her friends; so to a certain extent we are nomads. Meanwhile, I start reading a book I was given when I first arrived: El vértigo horizontal, by Juan Villoro. This reading is supposed to be a sort of express guide to Mexico City, but I have been reading too little every night to learn something about this city. In fact, I don’t even know what this neighborhood looks like beyond the few blocks I have dared to explore on foot.
I’m still glued to the social networks, watching everything that happens on the island. Although I plan to spend a long time in this country, I don’t stop to watch Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s “mañaneras”, but rather the Cuban Television Information System’s garbage. Nor have I spent a minute reading about the victims of the pandemic, drug trafficking or the femicides that are increasing in Mexico at an alarming rate. I spend hours learning about the food shortages, the government’s slander campaigns and the police repression that is increasing in Cuba, also at an alarming rate.
I don’t think I have my head in Cuba, however, I am convinced that I have Cuba in my head. I wonder if the rest of the Cubans who are scattered around the world suffer from the same problem. I would like to ask them how long it takes for attachments and nostalgia to dissolve.
“Things are bad,” an old friend from Cuba tells me.
I ask him to explain himself. Are there political tensions? Have the people reacted to what happened in San Isidro and in front of the doors of the Ministry of Culture? Has the atmosphere in Cuba stopped causing the usual lethargy and now it is boiling and about to explode?
“No, not at all. The problem is that for a long time there has been no food or coffee, and now, to top it all off, there are not even any cigarettes. Damn, in this country you can’t even fuck up your life as you wish!”
Luis Manuel Otero is free, at least for a few hours. State Security releases him, locks him up, releases him again, locks him up again and so on, until this macabre game with the freedom of a man finally begins to seem natural. Natural to us, I mean, those of us who are not Luis Manuel Otero and who are used to hearing about him only on the news that reaches us at any time. The regime repeats to infinity the same arbitrariness, as if it wanted to defeat, out of exhaustion, the already weak sense of justice that survives in that country.
In the evening I talk to a friend whom I love very much. He calls me to recommend a video that was broadcast a few hours ago on Cuban television. I tell him that I have already seen it.
“And what did you think?”
“It seems as if the dictatorship has surpassed itself, and also that it must be very desperate to present such nonsense. Suddenly they are reporting on supposed terrorist acts that nobody knew about, some of them occurring three years ago, and all of them are united by a failed plot that supposedly leads to the events in San Isidro. Really? It is so timely that it is not credible! Conspiracy theories tend to be more elaborate. In fact, I think a paranoid flat-earther might sound more plausible than the Cuban regime.” I laugh, but he insists on believing the official version.
Convinced that the conversation will go nowhere, we end up talking about banal things, like the winter in Mexico City and the need to buy a decent, warm pair of shoes.
My friend was the first person I heard say that the Revolution had betrayed itself. He usually began by talking about the happy years of his youth, when there was no shortage of food or people convinced that the Cuban system was fair, inclusive and almost perfect. “Then everything fell apart and I opened my eyes like many people,” he concluded, as if it was too hard for him to acknowledge such a thing. I never knew if by saying that the Revolution had betrayed itself he meant that the Revolution betrayed him, or that he betrayed himself for the Revolution. Anyway, I always had the impression that the three ideas coexisted in that sentence.
Although it sometimes was long-lasting, his anger against the government was intermittent. In the end, it melted into a mixture of defeat, frustration and acceptance, like someone who stumbles and begins to curse, only to realize that perhaps the reason for him tripping was not so much the stone on the road as absentmindedness on his part. My friend grew up reading Fidel Castro, seeing him, hearing him, adoring him, and all that without realizing it. He is now 53 years old, just my father’s age.
The editor of the magazine tells me that it is necessary to keep a chronology of what is happening in Cuba these days. Since I barely have enough time and it is difficult for me to focus on producing an elaborate text, I promise him the only thing I have: my daily notes.
Today they released political prisoner Silverio Portal Contreras, who served half of a sentence imposed on him for the alleged crimes of contempt and disorderly conduct. I watch a video that circulates on the networks and I discover the differences between the Silverio Portal who arrives home sweaty and asks to sit down to take a breath and the one who was arrested in 2018. The current Silverio has a subtle inclination in his lips, a product of the ischemia and the stroke he suffered in prison. There are just two years of difference between the Silverio that, in front of buildings in ruins, denounced the deaths caused by the constant collapses in the city and this new Silverio, but those two years weigh heavily on him. The fact that he was released before completing his sentence does not reveal a recognition of arbitrariness on the part of the government, but rather the fact that every Cuban is subject to the conveniences of a regime that does not take justice into account.
Reports have come in: Tania Bruguera has been arrested and released several times in the last days, similar to what they have been doing to Luis Manuel Otero. On Facebook, Bruguera says that interrogators from the political police have insisted that she confess who is (or are) leading the 27N group. She told them no one, but State Security does not seem to believe her. It is logical that the repressors cannot conceive of horizontal power on any scale, given that their functions are not consubstantial with the very idea of democracy. The political police only know how to operate in the top-down logic of the pater familias, and do not believe that there can be a better order than that of a voice of command imposing itself on others.
Hanna Arendt said in The Origins of Totalitarianism that, in every great revolution, while the people fight for true representation, the rabble always cries out for the strong man, the great leader.
I have spoken to some of the participants in the protest on N27. In fact, I interviewed them, and although it is not the purpose of this journal to offer a transcript of these interviews, it is possible to gather my impressions on the subject.
San Isidro and the N27 broke the inertia of a paralyzed country. Cuba now moves as fast as a machine whose springs and sprockets have been covered with dust and rust for decades. The process of change it has set in motion will then be long and tiring, but it is necessary that it be so. The slow pace caused by the tepidness and indecision of some may help to achieve consensus in an extremely fractured society. However, until the idea that a totalitarian and despotic elite rules Cuba is accepted and spread among the population, no real change will take place.
The group of hundreds of people who stood up on November 27 at the gates of the Ministry of Culture (MINCULT) in Havana covers a heterogeneous spectrum, ranging from those who publicly aspire to radical transformations to those who disguise their timorous spirit as caution. It is the latter who interest me the most, because, to me, they seem nostalgic for a time that never was. These faint-hearted intellectuals and artists like the narrative of a “socialism with a human face,” and many would even dare to locate it at one point in our history, though they are unable to say exactly when was that. That point, in the end, is just an illusion that confuses the absence of rebellion with the presence of freedoms. There is no more censorship and repression now than before, but more accumulated frustrations and also a greater desire to resolve them. “Socialism with a human face,” whatever that means, demands, first of all, a democratic space that has not existed in Cuba and that the senile elite is not willing to accept.
Dictatorships never accept watered-down versions of themselves. Since the early morning of August 21, 1968, the deformed cobblestones of Prague have reminded us of this.
Due to an accident associated with my technological illiteracy and poor memory, I was forced this morning to open a new profile on Facebook. At first I was very worried, but then I felt a tremendous relief at being able to restart my virtual existence and choose my contacts carefully. Someone suggest I should make a clean break, to go on Twitter, but I have always thought that social network cannot coexist with one of the chronic national shortcomings: the inability to summarize.
After adding some friends and acquaintances and three or four media outlets that really interest me, I start following several official sites. The same person who proposed Twitter as a better option advises me not to do the latter. “You’re a newcomer. Take this advantage now to detoxify yourself,” he says. I think he’s right, but I haven’t known for a few hours what the regime’s acolytes are shouting, and that makes me uncomfortable.
The first thing that I watch from these media is a video in which a presumed terrorist, named Abdel Cárdenas, confesses to having participated in the protest of November 27 and then to having thrown stones to the windows of a store for “a payment” that someone would give him. As a teenager, I read detective novels whose first pages contained more information than what was offered by Cárdenas. The first thing I do is look him up on Facebook, with no success.
“If he really is a terrorist, he is the most mediocre of terrorists. I think he works for the State Security. In that case we would be looking at a mixture of Stirlitz, Ramón Mercader, the “Five Heroes” and Octavio Sánchez Guzmán. It’s terrifying, don’t you think,” a friend wrote in a collective chat, and we all started to laugh.
In the evening, when I have less of a workload, I read the Declaration of the 27th of November in view of the position of MINCULT and I extract two fragments from the text:
“Today we are not stopped by fear.”
“We have committed ourselves to a dialogue of reconciliation that can settle our differences”.
A great truth unites both phrases: to dialogue with the powers-that-be in Cuba requires courage, and even a certain spirit of martyrdom. I think these artists know very well that dictatorships do not dialogue.
Sometimes, when someone from the Cuban civil society speaks of a dialogue with the powers-that-be, it seems to be inferred beforehand that the power is one, that it is homogeneous. But I don’t believe that. The Cuban political elite is not an exception among the world’s political elites. The dictatorship’s leadership must also entertain themselves with nets of favors, bedtime gossip, court intrigues and little revenges. But the powers-that-be know how to appear hermetic and understands that in times of crisis it must also be like a phalanx, overwhelming and impenetrable.
There is more heterogeneity in the civil society than within political power; however, heterogeneity often translates into practically irreconcilable differences, something normal in a country so impoverished in matters such as activism and social struggles. Therefore, I believe that the civil society should first engage in an internal dialogue and strengthen itself by reaching a consensus, and then stand up to the government.
Power only knows how to exercise power, and the regime has already made that very clear. Any force inferior to its own can never aspire to a dialogue. The powers-that-be do not dialogue, they only negotiate with their supposed equals. Democracy can only arise from the tension between wills with similar scope. In the end, democracy is about coexisting in that tension, knowing that, if the balance is broken, only two paths remain: despotism or infinite chaos.
MINCULT is mounting a farce with a group of artists and intellectuals who live under the institutional umbrella; in this way, they are betraying the very essence of what it means to be an artist or an intellectual. The MINCULT is in fact talking to itself in front of a mirror to fall in love with its own forms, like a good narcissist.
I would like to think that the country’s artists and intellectuals — “the creative community”, as a friend recently called this amalgamation of characters— is divided into those who participated in today’s institutional monologue and those who support the demands of N27. But this is not the case. A great number of them, including some important names in the Cuban cultural sphere, remains hidden, afraid to take a stand; perhaps because the ghosts of the Quinquenio Gris are still flying around it.
The “creative community” is complex and undecided by nature. Artists and intellectuals are often a very particular piece of the puzzle; a wild card that can fill in the gaps of any ideology or political option. When they step aside, they do so not because they think they don’t fit in anywhere, but because they know they can fit in everywhere, and they are afraid to support the side that will receive a harsher judgement later.
I have a code with my friends to refer to the mass of Cubans who are not paying attention, those which cannot but invest all their time in bringing a plate of food to the family table, so that when night comes, they do not stop to think about hunger strikes, protests or police repression, but about the day of survival that awaits them tomorrow. We call them: “the line of the chicken”. The term, in truth, does not seem to me at all derogatory. It is rather sad.
A friend writes to me to tell me that change towards a democratic Cuba is near, that he smells it, that he can almost feel it on his palate.
“Artists and intellectuals will be the ones to bring about change. I am convinced of that,” he says.
I reply that he is wrong and that, although artists and intellectuals are a vanguard, alone they cannot generate anything decisive. As long as “the line of the chicken” remains “the line of the chicken”, there can be no change. The mass is necessary and always has something more to offer besides supplying the cannon fodder, even if the “macro-history” of revolutions says otherwise.
“Those people don’t count in the end,” he answers back, and we change the topic of conversation to avoid an argument.
If I were certain that many people think like him, the best thing to do would be to forget all about Cuba and concentrate on completing my reading of the express guide to Mexico City.