After almost two years in which managing the pandemic and implementing the economic reforms have been at the center of the Cuban government’s action, a fact has been capitalizing on the media agenda on the island: the call for an anti-government march that its promoters have described as “peaceful and civic” and the government as “illegal because it is promoted by the U.S. government.”
Cuba is experiencing a deep economic crisis, a very critical moment in relations with the Biden administration, which by changing direction has maintained the policy of sanctions at extreme levels, inherited from his predecessor. The country is at the center of economic changes that accentuate inequality and the precariousness of the most vulnerable sectors.
With the antecedents of N27 and J11 and their political and media management, the convocation proposed by the Archipiélago group — which coincides with the opening of Cuban borders to tourism and various sectors’ return to normality — constitutes another moment of tension. On its possible causes and solutions, OnCuba asked Cuban intellectuals of different learnings and positions.
Here are, to begin with, the responses of Dmitri Prieto1 and Arturo López Levy.2
How did the conflict which unfolded around the call for the demonstration on November 15 arise?
Dmitri Prieto: After July 11, the Archipiélago group was created on Facebook by playwright Yunior García, who had acted as a kind of mediator with the authorities during the sit-in in front of the Ministry of Culture on the night of November 27.
From the beginning, the group set a goal to summon people to a peaceful demonstration to defend a set of demands against the government, including the release of people imprisoned since July. Presumably, the peaceful and planned nature of that demonstration would act as a counterpart to the acts of July 11, which were assumed to be a spontaneous social explosion and not devoid of violence.
The political agenda that future protesters would raise was not entirely clear, but their character as opponents of the current Cuban system was.
In addition to becoming a space for expression, fundamentally for users of liberal-capitalist tendencies inside and outside Cuba, and among those who quickly established majority consensus that included considering the existence of the U.S. government blockade and an intervention in Cuba more as a component of the discourse of official political propaganda than as reality. As a consequence, Yunior García and other activists in charge of Archipiélago’s coordinating have avoided placing the end of the U.S. blockade of Cuba among the demands of the march.
In the Archipiélago group, he requested permission for the demonstration from different provinces, first for November 20, and once the week of national defense was called by the government, which included that date, for the 15th. Once presented, the municipal authorities declined them, motivating the refusal with the personal characteristics of the applicants: they maintained that they are, basically, agents of U.S. interference, and this denies the premise that they could lead a peaceful march.
That is why it was argued that the right to demonstrate is not applicable in this case. Subsequently, accusations against those who called the march, mainly playwright Yunior García, were incorporated into the official media, and there were several acts of repudiation against them, at the same time that they were informed by the Prosecutor’s Office about the alleged illegal nature of the demonstration they called.
Yunior is accused of being supported by agents of the U.S. power, by terrorists of Cuban origin, by other emigres in the United States who are enemies of the current Cuban government, as well as by international structures that work to destabilize nationalist state regimes. On the other hand, photographs and news have appeared on the networks about groups of people favorable to the Cuban government who supposedly would be preparing to give a violent response to any attempt to march or protest on November 15.
At the same time, Yunior himself and his followers have been accused of wanting not only to violate the Constitution by proposing a regime change and associating with enemies, but also of promoting violence. Violent images of the protests of July 11 have been reproduced on television as a model of what the opposition forces intend to do on November 15.
On the other hand, a group of Facebook and Telegram users called Utopía Revolucionaria–Cuba, of mainly left-wing integration (both critical and official) organized an audio chat debate between Yunior García and Yassel Padrón, owner of that group. It is interesting that the opinion on “who won” in the debate varies by 180 degrees depending on whether the person issuing the opinion is a defender of Yunior or of the ruling party.
More recently Yunior changed the format of the call, committing to a solo march through La Rampa on November 14, and calling his followers to go out the next day in white clothes, alone or in small groups, under the pretext of avoiding violence. The Cuban Catholic bishops have also published a pacifying statement, and another blunter text was released by a group of Cuban priests from the same Church.
Arturo López Levy: There are two structural reasons: 1) the economic, commercial and financial blockade of the United States against Cuba, reinforced by Trump and maintained unchanged by President Biden, 2) the errors of the Cuban Leninist system, negligent in the face of the costs of the poverty, inequality, inflation and corruption derived from an excessive gradualism in the conduct of the reforms.
At the juncture, there is the COVID-19 epidemic and its instrumentation in the United States’ information war with the concourse of opponents without loyalty to Cuba’s sovereignty, as conceived by international law. In light of the openings of the past decade, including access to the Internet, those opponents, Cubans in favor of the administration in office in Washington, woke up the government early on July 11 using legitimate demands mixed with disinformation and misrepresentations of an alleged humanitarian crisis, with a misplaced request for intervention. That event served as a spur and they have thrown themselves into an attempt without solving the dilemma of being a loyal opposition, never apostasy.
Which actors, sectors and trends can be identified in the case of this call and the processes associated with it?
D.P.: There has been a trend in Archipiélago, probably not a majority, but extremely active within what can be seen in the group’s digital media, and tolerated by its leaders, which tends to deny the real existence of a blockade by the United States government, as well as of interventionist projects against Cuban territory (claiming an alleged agreement with Russia, which they say is a continuation of the commitment assumed as a result of the 1962 crisis with the USSR).
The self-styled Marxists and “revolutionaries” are also usually fervent defenders of Chinese capitalism and fundamentalist, misogynistic and homophobic regimes such as Iran’s (although they also position themselves as defenders of LGBTIQ+ groups and feminism), “therefore they are opposed to the United States.” It is a purely ideological polarization, and based on medieval type loyalties, assuming the ideology=false consciousness meaning, where the facts (as well as any non-Machiavellian ethics) are put aside, and an attitude of true believers is assumed, mimetic of the one that Cuba already lived through in the 1959-1961 period.
Many of the most radical positions within the Archipiélago group, especially those that call for a direct violent insurrection, correspond to people who are not in Cuba, if one checks their digital profiles.
Political identities are assumed as fixed, the full truth is self-attributed in the face of a “Great Satan” or “Prince of Lies” that can be called “communism” or “imperialism,” interchangeably. That which could eventually turn out to be “bad” corresponds to “minor evils” or simple “collateral damage.” That fixed, Manichean and Machiavellian construction is teeming on both sides.
It is a situation that mobilizes contingents of young people under opposing banners, a situation difficult to imagine some ten years ago. But this is another generation, and another level of alienation.
Obviously, there are also people of more sensible minds and endowed with empathy. They are many, but the distinctions of popularity belong to those of the previous contingent. And, apparently, they have had to configure the very terrain on which the confrontation of ruling hegemonic discourses occurs, not of ideas.
A.L.L.: There are four actors internally: 1) the government and its wide range of active supporters, 2) passive supporters of the government who, differing from it, have interests, values, ideological and political motivations — for example nationalists —, who lead them to concur with it in the face of threats to the country’s sovereignty, 3) passive adversaries of the government, who have oppositionist reasons but who due to interests, fear of repression, cowardice or double standards, convictions or reservations do not embark on the oppositionist action, 4) active opposition.
These actors operate in an external context marked by the sovereignty conflict between the Cuban State and the imperial policy exercised by the United States with the majority support of the active opposition. In terms of trends, if the health crisis and the postponement and mismanagement of the promised reforms act to the detriment of the government, the intensification of the blockade and the ambiguous or submissive attitude of the opposition reinforce the patriotic agglutination around the flag. Whoever supports or has an ambiguous attitude towards the blockade is not a human rights activist.
What alternatives exist for the solution, containment or processing of this specific conflict from the government and from diverse civil society?
D.P.: Already in the previous question I spoke of the possibility that, for example, a brotherhood of artists could become an intercessory force. But simple declarations and statements are no longer enough. In the harsh summer of COVID-19, Cuban society showed its empathy in the hundreds of actions of spontaneous medicine donations throughout the country. A grass root organization, from the roots of the community, is what saves the situation. We must learn, relearn how to do it. And if necessary, come between the false extremes, sprinkle them with ice water so that they can reason with the facts. Intervene, if necessary, physically. Cure.
A.L.L.: There is no conflict between the government and the diverse civil society, but rather between the government and a sector of the opposition political society. To speak of a conflict between the government and the people or of the march representing civil society is a lack of objectivity or a manipulation. Even at the level of theoretical structure, it is not from civil society that projects are developed to compete for the right to exercise state power. The distinction between civil society and political society is very important in post-totalitarian contexts such as the Cuban one, particularly to understand the differences between democratization and liberalization.
Unfortunately, I do not see alternatives for the solution, containment or management of the conflict in the short or medium term, given the identity of the preponderant actors and the context of external harassment, adverse to the action of moderate and post-revolutionary actors. It is not about lack of knowledge or communication between the parties. It is about positions on both sides that are polarized and irreconcilable.
On one side is the vanguard Leninist single-party system, incompatible with the political pluralism that exists in today’s Cuban society. Its identity is partially patriotic, but not democratic. Instead of popular sovereignty, it postulates the sovereignty of the Communist Party of Cuba. It is a paradigm incompatible with the model of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
On the other, an opposition that, like the Bourbons in France, neither forget nor learn anything, without breaking with the long Platt Amendment (annexationist) tradition of the Bay of Pigs and the Helms-Burton Act. Its identity is anti-Castro, but without any commitment to the sovereignty of the country, nor to international law, nor to the place within it of human rights conventions. They are not a loyal opposition.
With these actors in the leading roles, the alternative would be a context change that allows the construction of other actors and trends. That is why a policy change by the United States or a period of market-oriented economic growth that raises a prosperous middle class with more political autonomy in transnational Cuban society would be so important. It is a difficult scenario, but possible in the long term.
In the future, do the declarations, regulations and measures that the Cuban government has taken in this case allow the possibility of public demonstration as a form of unofficial social expression? What limits are raised? In your opinion, how could this right be exercised in Cuba?
D.P.: A precedent has been set that the Constitution is the interpretation given of it. Interpretation based on hypotheses, sometimes without evidence, but almost always extensive, creating assumptions. It would be interesting to find out what legislation governs the demonstrations under the Law of Laws and if it was violated or not. There may be provisions in force even from colonial times. The difficult thing is that the precedent of the prohibition can be reversed, once established.
But the government must also take into account that there are between a quarter and a fifth of the electorate that did not vote “yes” to the Constitution. Rather, there was in 2019 among those who voted “no,” blank, annulled their ballots, or simply did not attend the ballot box of the referendum at a time when there were ballot boxes even in hospitals and bus terminals. And since 2019 the social situation has only gotten worse, which suggests that spontaneous opposition already constitutes more than one inhabitant out of every three or four of us who walk this land.
A.L.L.: It is not correct to say that the government closed all legal margin to the public demonstration. At least it wasn’t tested. The promoters of the march did not go to court to dispute the reasons given in the denial of their request, as allowed by articles 98 and 99 of the Constitution, nor have they tried to address the conditions and criticisms raised from the executive within the constitutional framework which both parties cite.
Hypothetically, the government has not closed the door to a public demonstration from civil society or even from politics. It has said that the questioning of its actions or positions is “illegitimate” and “illegal” but includes: 1) total repudiation and dissociation of both the blockade and the financing mechanisms of regime change imposed from outside in accordance with the purposes of the Helms act, 2) repudiation and rupture not only with the blockade policy but also against any supporter or beneficiary of it, 3) acceptance of the legitimacy of the Cuban legal structure to resist this external harassment and any act of violence, including acts of vandalism committed in parallel to the peaceful demonstrations of July 11.
Is it possible to think of a loyal opposition to the country and criticism of the government within these frameworks? The question becomes more complex if the invocation of perpetual socialism, reiterated in the official response, is included. Here the interests of the Communist Party begin and the patriotic interests end. It would be necessary to see before a court or the National Assembly what is the content of that fiction of “perpetuity.”
It is not that the party-state is run by misunderstood Democrats in the closet. Its leaders are Leninists and have justified multiple abuses based on the construction of the “new man” and the condition of a besieged fortress. They have not complied with international regulations on the exercise of power in emergency conditions. It happens, however, that the legality of the exercise of a loyal opposition, critical of the government, but accepting the conditions set out above, was never tested.
For example, on November 27, 2020, Deputy Minister Fernando Rojas proposed continuing the dialogue by excluding those participants in the regime change agenda, financed from the blockade legislation itself. It did not take place, since the opposition group refused to distance itself, exclude and condemn those sectors for the sake of an alleged unity. Dialoguing with everyone or no dialogue with anyone is atrocious political amateurism. The only thing worse than a professional politician is a non-professional politician.
What role does the U.S. siege and interventionist policy and its program for “regime change” in Cuba play, in the face of the government’s obligation to deal with differences, criticisms, dissent and the need for dialogue to create consensus? What does this imply for the exercise of citizens’ rights?
D.P.: The imperialist policies towards Cuba are a clear invasive and destabilizing factor that weighs down the autonomy of the Cuban people. It is obviously not the only one. It must be taken into account and assumed as a strategically adverse reality. Not to play alliance games. Neither to fall into “colonialism of resistance” when liberation becomes dependent on the existence and power of the adversary who thus, by contrast, endows it with form and dramatically limits its ability to create. This “colonialism of resistance” is seen in the almost fanatical attitude of those who practice anti-Semitic positions in the face of the globalist tricks of a Soros while they sing praises to the “socialist” president of Belarus, the same one who precariousized the entire working class of his country by depriving it of permanent employment contracts. They believe that opposing the United States automatically makes someone “progressive.” Hence, they also sing praises — albeit sometimes silent — to the Taliban.
An awake and aware popular self-organization in the face of the blockade and also in the face of other dominations is the way out, in my humble opinion.
A.L.L.: The U.S. siege and interference are proving, once again, how negative they have been and are for Cuban politics. Defeating the U.S. blockade and its favorite Cubans is crucial for the construction of human rights (neither the colonies nor the protectorates are democracies) from what José Martí called “the proven moderation of Cuba’s spirit.”
Now, as long as only external factors are blamed, its own responsibilities will not be assumed.
The government has the sovereign responsibility to put the country above its ideological preferences, implement reforms and policies that make the blockade irrelevant, prioritizing development as a national goal, above the Leninist preference for totalitarian control. Of course, it has emergency powers to defend sovereignty, public order and national security, but these prerogatives are not unlimited and do not exempt it from the duty to respect human rights as they are conceived in the Universal Declaration, building spaces for dialogue and consensus at least within the patriotic historical bloc.
The opposition also has a responsibility to be loyal to the country, differentiating itself in unequivocal terms from the apostasy, lashing out against and distancing itself from the U.S. blockade, its supporters and favorite financiers. It is a policy against the Cuban people, illegal, immoral and counterproductive. A systematic, flagrant and massive violation of human rights. If a stance of denunciation and repudiation of the blockade divides anti-Castroism, deprives it of important sources of its financing, and forces it to think only about long-term solutions, then so be it. Democracy cannot be the result of a Faustian compromise.
1 Dimitri Prieto: Professor, researcher and social activist, aspiring Doctor in Social Anthropology, and author of the book Transdominación en Haití (2011), among other texts.
2 Arturo López-Levy: Professor of Politics and International Relations at Holy Names University. He is a Doctor of International Studies from the Josef Korbel School at the University of Denver. He studied Master’s degrees in International Affairs at Columbia University in New York and Economics at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. In Cuba he graduated from the Diplomatic Academy (ISRI). He is co-author of the book Raúl Castro and the New Cuba; A Close-up view of Change, McFarland, 2012. In 2005, he won the Leonard Marks Award for Creative Essay on U.S. Foreign Policy from the American Academy of Diplomacy. He was born in Santa Clara, Cuba. He lives in Berkeley, California.