Decree-Law 349 and Cuba’s Civil Rights Struggle

By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

HAVANA TIMES – In recent months, we have witnessed some very important events that will have an impact on our immediate future as a country. A kind of civic awakening in different sectors, especially among artists, in a struggle for one-off objectives, that are still ultimately linked to a greater civil rights struggle in Cuba.

Civil and political rights, or just civic rights, protect individual freedoms from being violated (repressed) by those in power(whether that is a government or any other public or private political actor), and they guarantee citizens’ ability to participate in civic and political life as equals with the State and without being discriminated against.   

Based on this concept and our reality today, Cubans have had more than enough reasons to fight for our civil rights for a long time now, but the fear we have of the system has stopped us. However, several factors have meant that there has been a small but important breach in the government’s efficient “civic inaction” plan, and non-violent protest was effective. These might be the following:

  1. We have a new president, who isn’t a military man, nor did he fight in the Sierra Maestra, and his surname isn’t Castro either.
  2. Just 24 hours after taking office, he signed a Decree-Law, 349, which is clearly clumsy and dangerous, affecting such a sensitive and liberal sector: the Arts. There was an immediate reaction.
  3. The existence of an important group of artists who are completely free from the State’s tutelage. Some of them openly stand up against the government because of the extreme and abusive way they have been treated by state institutions.
  4. The ability to communicate, mobilize and report what is happening online, even though access is still very limited in Cuba.
  5. The fact that the controversy could be seen without a political lens (although it’s impossible to completely separate the two) as it was a response to a one-off problem that was created by a specific law, in a clearly identified sector. It was difficult to officially attribute this dissidence to “the Empire” or the “enemy”, like they normally do. Only insinuations were made.

This struggle was also connected with our society’s widespread discontent with the new Self-Employment regulations, which stifle the private sector rather than regulate it, and that was without anyone saying anything explicitly or wanting it to be linked. 

“Silent protests” held by private taxi drivers (boteros) in Havana were proof of this. They are being subjected to strict government regulations and have become “guinea pigs” for their experiment. And complaints from the self-employed at seminars about these new regulations and the general discontent of people on the street, whose opinions are becoming more and more daring and in keeping with what they really think. Although unfortunately, hypocrisy and double standards are survival mechanisms for Cubans.

It is worth highlighting the participation of some key figures from that artistic movement that held the anti-349 protests. Although if there was a leader of that movement, it was only moral, based on example. Everyone deserves a mention, but I will mention Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, Tania Bruguera and Yanelys Nunez on their behalf. The latter is an art historian and independent journalist who regularly collaborates with this newspaper, Havana Times.

As we already know, Decree-Law 349 hasn’t been repealed and I’m sure it won’t be for now. They didn’t even manage to get government representatives to sit down and talk to the artists who were protesting, which doesn’t come as a surprise because ignoring, defaming and belittling their adversaries has become a tradition for the Revolution. And this is what we are in their eyes.

However, the artists managed to achieve a lot more by forcing them to be implemented in state institutions only and say they would soon present the “complementary provisions”. Which won’t be what they originally had in mind, but more tolerant and conciliatory, I don’t doubt.

But, the most important thing they were able to achieve was to prove that yes, we can! Yes, we can peacefully fight for a better Cuba and survive the system’s repression. And yes, we can force the system to listen to the Cuban people, to recognize their popular sovereignty and change authoritarian/populist government methods for truly democratic ones.

It’s also worth highlighting the fact that the most viable form of social struggle in Cuba is what has been adopted in the anti-349 campaign (in my opinion). And even though it wasn’t part of a planned strategy, but the result of a moment, it really did hit the nail on the head. It’s the same struggle that made Martin Luther King’s social movement so successful: non-violence, clever social protest and struggling for one-off and symbolic aspects of the problem, not for “everything”, which would be faced with more resistance.

A better Cuba is possible, and we need to slowly conquer it, piling up victories and winning our freedoms in a gradual struggle for our civil and political rights. This is the path and I truly believe there isn’t a better one, even though it may be dangerous and imply sacrifice.

This is why the anti-349 movement is marking a before and after in Cuban social movements. Because of its symbolism, it’s value already transcends the just right to freely create as artists, which is what pushed them in the beginning. It is inevitably moving towards more: for an entire people’s rights that have been violated, whose sense of civic spirit is being rescued, for good Cubans’ dignity and hope.

Osmel Ramirez

I'm from Mayari, a little village in Holguín. I was born on the same day that the Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975. A good omen, since I identify myself as a pacifist. I am a biologist but I am passionate about politics, history and political philosophy. Writing about these topics, I got to journalism, precisely here on Havana Times. I consider myself a democratic socialist and my main motivation is to try to be useful to the positive change that Cuba needs.



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