Cuba’s San Isidro Movement: Classism & Re-marginalization

By Enrique Guzmán Karell (El Toque)

Photo: Facebook / El Toque

HAVANA TIMES – My grandmother always spoke of Quintin Banderas with a mixture of amazement, admiration and terror. She did it from a distance I only understood much later. Without knowing it, she sought to differentiate herself from the Mambí General from a desired, imposed social class. However, the evidence showed otherwise. She was humble, with only elementary school, a housewife in a poor neighborhood, and far from being white.

My grandmother used to tell me: “Enriquito, Quintín Banderas would ask the Spaniards, “Hey, ¿what’s your name?” But even before the Spanish soldier could pronounce his name, the brave Cuban would respond: “¡your name was!”, While striking a machete in his neck”.

Despite the fear her face projected and self-imposed class distance towards “them”, my grandmother did not disqualify the Mambí General´s actions. She enjoyed telling the stories she knew from oral tradition.

However, I recently understood she was not only referring to the Mambises, their tastes, preferences, and “devilish and loud drums”. She was also talking about herself.

These days I have remembered her sayings, astonishment and projection towards a phenomenon disturbing her more than the Spanish domination and war itself. It came regarding the distances, fears and disqualifications of part of the Cuban public opinion towards the members of San Isidro Movement (MSI). Towards the neighborhood it takes its name from and other signs of discontent, citizens’ disorder or public protest around the country.

These alarms and media recriminations have not only been seen in Cubans residing on the island, but also in those of the diaspora. They are perceptible both in people who embrace the ruling party and among the critics of that system. In other words, the rejection to these lower class sectors crosses the entire ideological spectrum and goes beyond. They express something else.

San Isidro Movement: “Don’t expect the impossible”

One issue attracting the attention in all Cuban social media videos is the impoverishment and material, aesthetic and, much worse, the human precariousness, observed everywhere. Those neighborhoods, whether in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Camagüey or Granma, are more similar than different.

Even the way citizens express themselves about different events are also similar- be it to demand civil and political rights, express joy over a sports victory (Bayamo), stand against an eviction (El Cotorro) or try to stone an alleged rapist (Santiago de Cuba). In all there appears a citizenry with values ​​and forms of expression that are a consequence, a manifestation of much deeper causes. However, in no way do they have their origin or primary responsibility in those neighborhoods and towns, but elsewhere.

There are those who ask the members of the MSI not only to protest, but also to have perfect oratory; to behave according to the norms and behaviors (of others); to coordinate civil society and to establish a government plan; so that by then, and only then, be accepted as valid interlocutors. ¿Do they really mean it?

Luckily the MSI makes several things visible. Among them, the lack of rights, citizen helplessness, social marginalization, state repression; but also, and this is important, the civic and ethical limits of the rest of the society.

The objectives of the MSI do not appear to be aimed at coordinating political projects or achieving power. They come to politics from the side. And they do as in judo: they use the momentum, their opponent´s strength and reactions to expose them to public opinion. Who is the violent here?

Understanding them could be simple, although some of us must deconstruct inherited, assimilated precepts and exclusions. They claim rights based on their interests and the tools they have. They expose the limits of the social ordering system that exists in Cuba.

Other social actors would be responsible to make theories and elaborate strategies, matrices, action programs and economic, political and social proposals for a reform process or eventual transition. And those responsible to demand our rights could well be all of us, not just the MSI, the 27N and a few more.

In the battle for more civic and political rights of all kinds, the MSI must be given fair merits, from an approach avoiding disqualification. Without them and their leadership, the 27N would not have existed, neither the subsequent groups or proposals. As we have seen, the movement is not a carbon copy of the traditional opponents in the country. Nonetheless, they have contributed to its dynamism and visibility.

What is being asked of and expected from the San Isidro Movement?

In this exchange of simplifications and impositions we are witnessing, anyone would say that the terror experienced by El Vedado, Nuevo Vedado and Miramar neighborhoods to San Isidro, Bayamo and Santiago protests is like that of the Havana elites and inland landowners to the “colored people” outbreaks, during the colonial period, the wars of independence and republican history.

There are values ​​and patterns of domination and control that, although they may change, remain in the collective imagination over time. They continue to be expressed in the language, habits, and customs of social subjects. Often through new and subtle forms of subjugation towards less favored groups.

“They look prettier from far away,” many would think, while the sonorous and defiant “you don’t represent me” is handed to them. Even if it is they and not others who defend the rights of all, as the underdogs have always done everywhere.

Attempts to make invisible and deny the MSI and the citizens of poor and marginalized Cuban neighborhoods are annoying. It hurts to subtract their rights and merits by calling them “vulgar, ambitious, delinquent, marginal”, among other insults, more from prejudices than from facts. With an even more dangerous result, as by denying them legitimacy the State and repressive organs’ violence is automatically justified: “Don´t worry, they are criminals. They must have done something bad”.

Here it doesn’t matter to say or even to know that among the MSI members there is a varied spectrum of people (university professors, artists, people very well qualified as citizens). This should be enough to understand in any republic. But no. Their critics aren’t interested if they read poetry, have parties, and hand out candies; that they dance, sing and laugh.

Well, that’s what they do. Their critics couldn’t care less if they live and move in the humblest spaces. That doesn´t matter. They transmit in those people that fear my grandmother felt, a fear and a distance prior to their own existence. An uncritical distance, because those Cubans, with their actions, have not violated or attacked anyone.

The MSI is also told to attach to others´ forms and tools, to become the people they cannot or don’t want to be. Also, that they should respond to another time and other spaces of life [1]. Many of its critics go to the extremes by accepting and even sharing its claims but not its executors. Others tell you “27N yes, but MSI no”; something like explaining the meringue without eggs, reaching a social revolution without previous unmet needs, or understanding circumstances without causes.

Class biases and defenses

They seek to re-victimize the MSI and the neighborhoods mentioned here. Both the system that has marginalized them (no one comes there for pleasure) and those who from their class, aesthetic or intellectual elite positions. They are more afraid of “Díaz-Canel, motherfucker” and “Hey, police, pinga (fucking asshole)” than of those denying us all rights. Those who have led the citizens, towns and neighborhoods of Cuba to a sad and widespread poverty; the same that have left available civic tools not existing in practice. However, ask yourself why they make demands by confronting the authorities while others move in the safe and quiet shadows, intellectualizing dissent and scandalous silences.

Part of the society and intelligentsia only sees what it wants to see. They do so once again making invisible and classifying as violent the groups, sectors, neighborhoods, municipalities and provinces they dislike and consider unpleasant. That qualifies itself. And many of us know what it is called. We use very well related theoretical arsenals to describe and approach many other realities, but not the one having to do with us directly.

But there is something else. The MSI and its projection not only speak of them. Their actions and sayings not only qualify them. San Isidro also exposes those of us who have had the privilege of higher studies, readings and theses, tourist trips, foreign bank accounts, scholarships, publications and events of all kinds.

They expose those of us knowing for decades that this State violates rights and denies others, but we have done little or nothing. At most, we timidly describe the reality, but we are unable to try to articulate and change it. Therefore, as it happens with my grandmother´s projection, the invisibility, denial and re marginalization of San Isidro, also speaks of those who practice it.

What is the use of consulting Locke and his theories of popular rebellion; Fanon [2] on social inequality and marginalization; Arendt on totalitarianism and violence; Foucault on subjugation; Mbembe on contemporary forms of subjugation; the indispensable Honneth on reciprocal recognition, the struggle for recognition and moral tension in the dynamics of social life; and so many others, if in the end all that theoretical and conceptual baggage remains in abstraction? Do we want to change reality or just be right, based on ideas ordered with a certain coherence?

The MSI has only put forwards demands and gaps we all know on the national scene. They have said enough is enough that from Vedado, Miramar and Siboney we are told and ordered how to speak, laugh, dance. And above all, how and when to shut up.


[1] To delve into the issues of discrimination, subjugation and revictimization, it is of great interest to consult theorists of the category of Axel Honneth, Frantz Fanon and Achille Mbembe.

[2] Referring to this issue, Frantz Fanon deserves special attention. His work delves into racial marginalization, cultural subjugation and assimilation, new forms of discrimination and the relevance of cultural factors in the emancipation of the oppressed. Although Fanon addressed the decolonization processes and defended the use of violence – nothing to do with MSI – a good part of his contributions could be used to understand the distances, imposed but real, that certain groups of Cuban society establish with respect to the Movement. Likewise, the reactions of the marginalized to social exclusion and subordination. His texts, especially “The Wretched of the Earth” and “Black Skin, White Masks”, are essential works on these issues.

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