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.
On this occasion, we are presenting the responses of Carlos Alzugaray1 and Alex Fleites.2
How did the conflict which unfolded around the call for the demonstration on November 15 arise?
Carlos Alzugaray: Cuban society is experiencing a serious economic, political, and social crisis. There is practically no sector that is not affected. This caused the J11 “scream,” as Leonardo Padura called it. Little has changed since then. External factors continue to have an impact: the pandemic (although its definitive control is beginning to be seen); the cruel sanctions that Donald Trump added to the blockade and that Joseph Biden has maintained; and the toxic nature of social networks, partly stimulated by the millions that the United States spends in its program of political subversion against the Cuban government, but also and in no small measure, because it is the only public space in which we citizens can express ourselves freely. In that space, in addition to a high level of fake news, there is extreme polarization.
Additionally, and this is possibly the most obvious thing, a state of popular discontent with the country’s authorities persists due to their errors in economic management, of which the most evident is the practical failure of the so-called “Reorganization”; the insensitivity of the entire bureaucracy to the tribulations of the common citizen; authoritarian practices that cross all spheres of government action; the excessive repression and ignorance of the Constitution that the organizations in charge of public order and security have shown in their handling of the events of J11; and the persistence, in the upper echelons of the government, of an opaque and little self-critical attitude towards their obvious errors. Although it is difficult to determine without the help of opinion polls, there is a perception that there has never been so much dissatisfaction with government performance.
In this climate, a new phenomenon has emerged, a group on Facebook and Twitter called Archipiélago that has become an important opposition political actor. What prevails in it is the idea of the frontal challenge to the government and the questioning of the constitutional order of the country. Since its creation, it became clear that the group’s primary political objective was to summon citizens to a march similar to that of J11 to put on the table various demands, some totally legal, but others frankly contrary to the existing order. The idea persists among some members that it would be so massive that it could lead to the overthrow of the government. In this, Archipiélago posed challenges to the authorities on two important levels: one, it questioned the old axiom that “the street belongs to the revolutionaries”; two, it confronted it with the very formulation of Article 56 of the Constitution and with a phrase from the president of the Supreme Court, Remigio Ferro, in the sense that in Cuba it is not a crime to have different political ideas or to express them publicly.
Alex Fleites: More than the how, I care about the why we got to this point. I think the cause is the lack of a deep and sincere social dialogue. But for dialogue to take place, both parties must be interested in hearing what the other has to say. A priori disqualifications, believing that all plausible answers are on your side, make any productive exchange of ideas difficult.
Once the historical leadership ended, with all that it implied in terms of moral authority, a not inconsiderable sector of the population wants to question the leaders, hold them accountable for their decisions, plebiscite those most controversial issues, such as the existence of a single party whose provisions may even be above the recently approved Constitution.
Which actors, sectors and trends can be identified in the case of this call and the processes associated with it?
C.A.: In the first place, there is the party and the Cuban government, essentially made up of the first generation of leaders born after the Revolution, but it would be inadvisable to assume that the Cuban State is a monolithic actor, in which there are no different perspectives and trends. The guarantees introduced in the 2019 Constitution show that there are sectors that are aware of the need for reforms that make the system more democratic and tolerant of dissenting opinions. But so far few cracks have been seen. The U.S. government’s harassment and persecution fosters that typical unity of a besieged fortress, akin to what some authors call “authoritarian regime of revolutionary origin.” It is important to understand that, despite everything that has happened, the Cuban leadership probably still has a majority that either supports or accepts it.
The other actor in this conflict is Archipiélago. This Facebook group can be said to be an “unidentified political object,” even though its top animator, Yunior García Aguilera, is clearly recognized as its leader. Beyond his virtues and defects, the first thing to underline is that García Aguilera is the typical young man resulting from a higher educational system with strong liberal traits and patriotic roots such as the one that exists in the National Schools of Art and in the University of the Arts. He is the concentrated expression of those virtues. As has happened with many young people trained in those policies that were imposed in the national culture after the so-called “Gray Quinquennium,” when they began their professional lives they faced the authoritarianism and discretion that characterizes the Cuban bureaucratic apparatus.
Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that liberal and republican ideas typical of today’s developed societies, in which everything is not black and white, prevail. It is therefore logical that they are attractive to these young postmodern social democratic models, in which capitalism is modulated by vigorous protection policies, such as the Nordic societies or Canada.
This group is not at all a monolith or a single rational actor, despite the notorious projection as leader of García Aguilera, whose capacity for political performance is unquestionable. Therefore, this postmodern ideology is not the only one present. This group is not immune to the influence exerted by a certain sector of the diaspora, paradoxically made up of young people who emigrated since the second half of the 1990s and who did so mainly to the United States. For lack of a better term, this is a right-wing “Trumpist” or authoritarian current. This is a group whose presence is palpable in Archipiélago and that proposes not only the overthrow of the Cuban government but its replacement by an openly neoliberal model. In this group, the set of unilateral coercive measures or blockade that the United States imposes on Cuba either does not exist or is a harmless “embargo.” In addition, they justify it as a method to destroy all that currently persists of the revolutionary model. The influence of this group gives Archipiélago a counterrevolutionary character.
The third actor in this drama is the U.S. government. I am not going to expand on it here because there is a specific question on the subject. I only point out what is incontestable: U.S. political actors (government, congress, groups of Cuban origin) openly intervene in the conflict and do so in a perverse way.
A.F.: The spectrum is very wide. At the extreme are those who think that only socialism can be saved if it assumes democracy as the sole exercise of government, and those who believe that socialism and democracy are incompatible terms; the latter advocate a system change.
The platform that convened the march has a high percentage of young people, many of whom were born within the margins of the Special Period; In other words, the crisis has been its natural ecosystem. I note that it is more difficult for them to accept moral relativism than for previous generations. They cannot explain how the police brutality to which the Colombian and Chilean protesters are subjected is reprehensible, and its Cuban counterpart is not.
And there is a large group that only wants to be heard, who do not ask the big questions, but who still refuse to accept the criminalization of dissent, the murder of reputation and civil death as daily government practices.
What alternatives exist for the solution, containment or processing of this specific conflict from the government and from diverse civil society?
C.A.: It is difficult to make a set of proposals like the ones the country needs, that depends on actors present in the government and in civil society. From the government it seems essential to prioritize the solution of the serious economic-social effects, applying the planned reforms with boldness, rigor and intentionality. The recommendation would be to overcome the resistance of the bureaucratic sectors and apply solutions based on economic rationality and not on ideological rigidity as has been done so far. But as important as that would be to radically transform the way of doing politics, abandoning the traditional methods of what is designated as a “political-ideological battle” that does not comply in any way with the current circumstances. It is very important to finish accepting in practice that Cuban society is already diverse and that there is no going back. More than formal dialogues with different sectors, reforms should be introduced that promote a vigorous and vibrant public sphere in which deliberation prevails as a way of making decisions so that citizens are reflected in this process.
The Cuban leadership would do well to update that axiom that Fidel used in “Words to the Intellectuals”: he who is not irremediably opposed to the Revolution, fits within it.
In my opinion, civil society must be convinced that the way to transform Cuba into a socialist republic with a strong rule of law is through a process of gradual reforms negotiated with the government in which two central elements prevail: a fruitful dialogue in any field in which possibilities are seen, avoiding challenging the authorities in an uncompromising and frontal way along the whole line; and to issue clear signals that any foreign interference in the Cuban process is unacceptable as improper and, consequently, to maintain an intransigent position contrary to U.S. policy in its two tendencies, economic coercion and political subversion.
It is important that all actors show tolerance for different opinions. It is what the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has called “deliberative politics.”
A.F.: All, except the violence. It would be necessary to start based on mutual recognition, on the consensus that each in their own way has a common goal: to achieve an economic and political status for Cuba that ends so many decades of scarcity. The establishment of a modern republic where there is room for everyone. The president of a country is due to each one of the citizens, even to those who oppose him, and his obligation is to listen to the demands of all equally, because in the long run he is nothing more than a public servant.
It takes creativity, intelligence and audacity to solve the crisis from power. It would be up to the other party not to ally itself with spurious interests trying to fish in murky waters. There is a danger that the conflict could lead to a civil war, which is the worst thing that could happen to the nation. And that terrible possibility should be valid for all of us, urgently, to sit down and talk.
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?
C.A.: The four laws that reform the judicial system approved by the National Assembly in its last session show that there are possibilities of moving forward. There are factors that must be overcome with patience and understanding. One is an authoritarian tradition that comes to us from colonial times. A tolerant civic culture that accepts diversity as natural must be fostered. This is linked to the education of the young generations themselves. It is illusory to pretend a total change overnight. Civil society will have to promote that the law on demonstrations is prioritized. The Constitution approved in 2019 has some limits that perhaps should be eliminated gradually. It is up to the jurists to evaluate whether it can be done by reforming the Constitution or by means of the laws that are in the legislative program. It would be convenient for civil society to look for the issues and times when it will be more propitious to promote a demonstration that is not perceived by the government as a challenge or threat to its existence.
A.F.: No. The way in which the government has reacted to this crisis limits the validity of articles 54, 56 and 61 of the Constitution to those that are in absolute accordance with its designs, and sets, in my opinion, a bad precedent. In this way, only those who are summoned by the “officialdom” to reaffirm themselves, within the narrow margins of the official, could demonstrate.
The right to publicly express dissent in Cuba could only be guaranteed with the enactment of the regulatory law that unambiguously establishes how the population can exercise it. That is, the Constitution cannot be applied based on a political bias. It is about the Fundamental Law for all and, as in its very letter it is made explicit, resorting to Martí, “for the good of all.”
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, criticism, dissent and the need for dialogue to create consensus? What does this imply for the exercise of citizens’ rights?
C.A.: As I pointed out above, the United States plays a perverse role with its policy that combines economic coercion — one could say that even more than coercion it is persecution — with millions of dollars spent on fomenting political subversion. The result of this course of action is that it fosters the polarization of Cuban society, stimulating the most virulent and aggressive opposition (which is clearly seen in some demonstrations in Archipiélago) and strengthening the most intransigent currents among the Cuban authorities.
A.F.: The role of the United States as the world’s gendarme is not something that affects only Cubans. We have been subjected to its extraterritorial laws for six decades, which do not seek anything else, as they themselves have recognized, than to encourage popular uprising and the reversal of the established order. Sixty years are hardly a blink of the eye in historical terms, but it is enough time for several generations of citizens to be born and develop.
Of course, the hostility of the greatest economic and military power in the world makes things more difficult for us, but in no case can it justify bad internal policies or the limitation of citizens’ rights. The greater or lesser degree of harmony that exists between us should not be conditioned to the moods of the occupants of the White House.
The rights of citizens must be inalienable and, therefore, the firm foundation of the democratic state to which we must aspire.
1 Carlos Alzugaray: Cuban diplomat, educator and essayist. Political analyst.
2 Alex Fleites: Poet, narrator, editor, critic, film scriptwriter and journalist, columnist for OnCuba. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, his general training and his professional life have been carried out in Cuba.