Repercussions of the San Isidro Movement Protest in Cuba

By Haroldo Dilla Alfonso


HAVANA TIMES – There are diverse views of the events emanating from the San Isidro Movement (MSI). Most of them are imbued with that Latin American characteristic of breathing passion into politics.

Here, in Chile, the events have generated vilifications and praises, much frustration, and many hopes. I’m inclined towards the more enthusiastic position. I believe that there are some novel elements in what has happened. I feel it could mark a “before” and “after” in Cubans’ public actions under the current repressive and dictatorial political system.

In general, the great events that mark political change in humanity’s history haven’t been determined by organizations or sophisticated programs. Instead, they spring from diverse and catalyzing frustrations at tiny unsuspected moments.

What happened in Chile?

Likewise, the agreements for change haven’t come all at once, but little by little, after a tortuous learning curve. In Chile, for example, the country experienced a massive insurgence during several months in 2019. The rebellion brought the neoliberal system and the political right to their knees. This insurgent movement began when a group of high school students decided to protest a 30-peso (a few cents) increase in subway fares. They also objected to the arrogant declarations of government functionaries.

It had all been preceded by fragmented social mobilizations, but the government was able to manage these. The “kids’” protests had the virtue of representing all the demands. They then produced an explosion that could no longer be managed through speeches and quick remedies. A Chilean woman, a housewife, summarized it better than anyone in an interview. “Our problem isn’t the 30 pesos of the fare, but the 30 years of frustration.”

Differences in Cuba

There’s some distance between what the San Isidro Movement did (probably all they can do) and what the Chilean students achieved. Especially since Cuba is a society controlled by an elite with totalitarian aspirations. This elite still manages to elicit the support and mobilization of significant sectors of the population.

But the fact that the MSI position was echoed by hundreds of artists, protesting before the Ministry of Culture, is very relevant. It’s important for the effect on Cubans. It’s the first time I can recall that a considerable group of citizens has met in a public space to demand their civil rights. Moreover, the State found themselves obligated to receive them.

This represented a fundamental and qualitative novelty in political action. It’s true that artists under the wings of UNEAC (National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists) have enjoyed a beneficent shelter. However, that shelter was cemented on premises that are no longer acceptable. For example: 1) The state granted them their rights, and – as such – could also take them away. 2) The rights were individual, and the price was not trying to pass them along to the rest of society. 3) Although there were some rights to catharsis, these were to remain behind closed doors and under control.

This was the autonomy that politically sterilized a large part of the Cuban intellectuals. Even now, it continues to form the horizon for those spaces that the regime tolerates. The autonomy now being rehearsed is something quite different.

It’s a learning process

Diverse judgements have been issued. I omit here the crude smears of the officials. I also leave out some emigrees with great desire to shine, who feed their egos with questionable solidarity. Apart from these, many interesting and sharp opinions have coincided in affirming that little has been achieved. They assert that more could have been obtained, especially from the meeting with functionaries of the Ministry of Culture.

That’s all probable. But it’s part of the learning process that we must all go through. This is a society that demonstrates alarming levels of frustration and cognitive dissonance. The youth want a different life, and not somewhere else, but on the island.

I believe we’re still far from a social movement that could force the Cuban government towards effective change. Or simply destroy it, as has happened in many places. Totalitarian dictatorships like the one in Cuba, turn fragile when their capacity for control diminishes and their support begins declining. That’s where the brutal repression of the San Isidro Movement stemmed from.  But that repression has its costs when applied to vaster and more visible social sectors. That’s the relevance of the protest in front of the Ministry.

When the Chilean students began to protest for the subway fares, a government functionary appeared on television with a phrase we all remember: “I’m sorry, kids, this didn’t ignite.” The slogan, “Yes, it ignited” took off from that time on. To the courageous protagonists of the San Isidro Movement I wish only to say to them: “Kids, this one ignited!”  

Read more from Haroldo Dilla on Havana Times here.