A new culture of dissent is remaking Cuba’s politics

worldpoliticsreview.com – William M. LeoGrande Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Anti-government protesters march in Havana, Cuba, July 11, 2021 (AP photo by Eliana Aponte).

In mid-February, a court in Holguin, Cuba, about 500 miles east of Havana, handed down sentences of up to 20 years in prison to 20 people convicted of sedition the previous month. Their crime, and that of the hundreds of others like them still awaiting verdicts elsewhere, was to have participated in widespread protests last summer, some peaceful but some violent, that took the Cuban government—and the world—by surprise.

As shocking as those protests were, they didn’t come out of the blue. Right now, Cubans are enduring the worst economic and social crisis since the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union plunged the island into a decade-long depression. Today’s upheaval, though, comes at a time of even greater political ferment on the Caribbean island.

The collapse of the tourism industry due to the coronavirus pandemic has cost Cuba more than $3 billion in annual revenues, and the United States’ ban on wire transfer remittances has cost it $2 billion more. The resulting drop in foreign exchange earnings has forced Cuba’s government to cut imports by 40 percent, leading to shortages of food, fuel, medical supplies and other basic goods. On top of that, an ill-timed and poorly implemented reform of Cuba’s dual currency system and exchange rates in January 2021 has unleashed runaway inflation, eroding the real incomes of most Cubans.

By last summer, the public’s frustration with COVID-19, economic hardship and the government’s inability to alleviate either was mounting. It finally burst forth on July 11, 2021, in the most significant anti-government demonstrations and riots since the 1959 revolution that ushered in Fidel Castro’s regime.

The July 11 protests revealed just how much Cuban society has changed in recent years and how these transformations have disrupted the prevailing political order, fostering discontent and creating new spaces for politics outside the regime’s control. Ever since 2011, when then-President Raul Castro launched economic reforms to push the country toward market socialism, Cuban society has become more stratified. Today, different social sectors with divergent interests have begun making demands from below, powering a surge in political activism both within and outside of state-sponsored vehicles for participation. The question now is how the Cuban government will respond and adapt to these demands.

Politics From Below

Prior to the development of the internet, virtually all political discourse in Cuba, though vigorous at times, was tightly controlled—initiated from above and channeled through institutions authorized by the state. The small dissident groups that tried to mobilize opposition outside of the established channels faced persecution and imprisonment, rendering them ineffectual.

Then came the internet. Despite fears that digital communications would be exploited by the United States to try to subvert the regime—as Washington has, in fact, done—Cuban leaders recognized that web access was a necessary condition for building a 21st-century economy. So, beginning a decade ago, the government gradually expanded Cubans’ access, first through public Wi-Fi hotspots and then through 3G and 4G cellphone service.

The expansion of internet access has enabled Cubans with common interests to connect with one another, spurring the growth of virtual social networks that constitute an independent civil society beyond state control. Cuban bloggers and independent journalists now offer regular reporting, commentary and debate, circumventing the state’s media censorship. Social media apps like Facebook have generated virtual communities of every description—including some that do not remain confined to cyberspace.

In recent years, Cubans interested in promoting specific interests and issues have found one another on social media and then convened in person to pursue common projects, including social, economic, artistic and even political ones. Importantly, these new groups are distinct from more traditional dissident groups that contest the central ideology and legitimacy of Cuba’s political regime.

The expansion of internet access has spurred the growth of virtual social networks that constitute an independent civil society beyond state control.

The impact of this new civil society became apparent in 2018, during a series of public meetings on reforming the Cuban Constitution. Evangelical churches launched an unprecedented campaign, joined by the Catholic Church, against a draft provision that would have legalized same-sex marriage. Not only did church leaders speak out against the measure, but believers distributed leaflets and put up posters promoting marriage as a union between a man and woman. One hundred heterosexual couples dressed in wedding clothes held a demonstration at the National Capitol Building in Havana to advocate for this definition of marriage, and the churches launched a petition against the provision that collected 178,000 signatures.

When the government realized how controversial the provision was, the National Assembly dropped it from the final version of the constitution. A few months later, the government canceled the 12th annual March Against Homophobia, Cuba’s version of a gay pride march. Undeterred, LGBTQ activists organized their own march via social media, drawing more than 100 participants.

Later that year, another burst of political organizing broke through when the Cuban government proposed a series of new regulations on the rapidly growing small business private sector. Rather than just accept what they saw as crippling constraints, a group of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs wrote to Margarita Gonzalez, the minister of labor and social security, to explain their objections. Gonzalez’s office went on to meet with the letter-writers over several months and ultimately rolled back some of the most onerous regulations.

Then, a few months later, private taxi drivers came together to protest new government regulations that had increased their business expenses. Many of the estimated 6,000 drivers on the island organized a de facto work stoppage that they referred to as El Trancon, or the Big Traffic Jam. Although the strike gradually subsided after a few weeks, the government again eventually backtracked on some of the regulations.

The following year, 2019, brought a handful of similar stories. That April, some 500 people joined a peaceful march organized via social media to demand a new animal protection law. In November, this same group organized another protest at government animal control offices in response to a rumor that officers had rounded up and killed hundreds of stray cats and dogs. Shortly after, government officials met with the group and subsequently promised to draft an animal protection law.

Much of this new political activism has been dampened by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, but these and other examples have much in common. All were organized online, and in every case, the government tried to placate rather than repress the protesters, although protest leaders have reported some subsequent harassment by the police. The state’s relative tolerance for these newly mobilized special interest groups stands in sharp contrast to the harsh, preemptive repression it generally deploys against traditional dissidents—presumably because the new groups do not challenge the basic tenets of Cuba’s socialist one-party system. The artists’ protests were different.

The Artists’ Revolt

In April 2018, the government unveiled Decree 349, a new law requiring artists, musicians and performers to register with the state and pay a 24 percent commission on their earnings from private engagements. It also prohibited works with pornographic or racist content, or that promoted violence. The decree provoked an outcry from artists, who feared a return to the heavy state censorship of the 1970s. The arts community mobilized via social media, using hashtags #NoAlDecreto349 and #artelibre—Spanish for “No to Decree 349” and “free art”—and more than 100 artists signed a letter to President Miguel Diaz-Canel calling for the law to be repealed.

The controversy was unique in that it created an uneasy alliance between dissident artists like Tania Bruguera and mainstream artists who worried as much about the commercial impact of the law as they did about censorship. Together, they mounted a series of symbolic protests—including a performance on the steps of the Capitol, a “concert without permission of Decree 349” and a sit-in at the Ministry of Culture—none of which were successfully completed, because police detained most of the dozen or so participants before the protests began.

Young artists protest in front of the Ministry of Culture, in Havana, Cuba.

Young artists protest in front of the Ministry of Culture, in Havana, Cuba, Nov. 27, 2020 (AP photo by Ismael Francisco).

At first, the government was conciliatory, suspending implementation of the decree and promising to modify it to address the artists’ concerns. But the movement kept growing, as new collectives emerged, including the San Isidro Movement, a small group of dissident performance and hip-hop artists who bedeviled the government for the next two years with various creative protests. On Nov. 27, 2020, the arrest of San Isidro Movement hunger-strikers touched off a spontaneous demonstration at the Ministry of Culture by some 300 artists of diverse ideological viewpoints, including several well-known figures. These protesters then formed their own community called the 27N movement. A second, smaller demonstration on Jan. 27, 2021, led to a scuffle between demonstrators and ministry officials, derailing a planned dialogue.

A few weeks later, in mid-February 2021, a group of hip-hop and reggaeton artists in Miami released a music video, “Patria y Vida—“Homeland and Life”—created in collaboration with two rap artists from the San Isidro Movement, which spread rapidly on social media. The song’s lyrics are sharply critical of the Cuban regime, building gradually to a climax that, referring to “the Revolution,” declares, “It’s over.” The government responded with a campaign of blistering attacks, calling the song unpatriotic and the artists paid U.S. agents, and claiming the record was part of a U.S. strategy to promote a “soft coup” in Cuba by stirring up public discontent.

July 11, 2021

On July 11, 2021, a small rally took place in San Antonio del los Banos, an inland town south of Havana, organized online by a Facebook group of local residents and emigrants from there now living in the United States. The initial crowd of several dozen people grew spontaneously into several thousand as they marched through the streets and chanted anti-government slogans. Participants streamed the march live on social media, sparking similar demonstrations elsewhere. Before long, anti-government demonstrations and riots had broken out in several dozen cities across Cuba.

Authorities were initially taken by surprise, but by that afternoon, they had regrouped and dispatched riot police to disperse the crowds. Diaz-Canel went on national television to denounce the protesters as counterrevolutionaries and accuse the United States of launching an attempted “color revolution,” a term referring to the early 2000s uprisings that toppled regimes in post-Soviet states. The president called loyalists into the streets to defend the revolution, leading to violent clashes with protesters. In other places, demonstrators battled with police and looted several dozen stores. In the aftermath of two days of protests, police arrested some 1,300 people, 790 of whom were charged with violent crimes.

Within days, however, Diaz-Canel adopted a more conciliatory tone, acknowledging that many of the demonstrators had legitimate grievances and that the state had failed to meet people’s needs, especially in marginal communities. He appealed for national unity in the face of economic difficulties and U.S. hostility. Shortly thereafter, the government launched a nationwide program to rehabilitate 302 “vulnerable communities”—65 of them in Havana—including many that had erupted on 11J, as the day is now known.

The events of that week left many Cubans shaken. While the authorities were surprised by how quickly thousands of people had mobilized with minimal organizational infrastructure, many Cubans were stunned by the images of young people looting stores and of police using excessive force. Almost everyone was left with the feeling that this outburst of popular anger and frustration was the beginning of something, not the end, and wondering what might come next.

Archipielago and 15N

Two months after the July demonstrations, a few dozen artists from the 27N movement created a Facebook group, Archipielago, to promote a new round of anti-government demonstrations on Nov. 15, or 15N. In partnership with the Council for Transition—a coalition of traditional dissident groups led by Jose Daniel Ferrer’s Patriotic Union of Cuba—Archipielago petitioned authorities in several cities for permission to hold a peaceful “Civic March for Change,” citing Article 54 of the 2019 Constitution, which guarantees the right of assembly, demonstration and association “for legal and peaceful purposes.”

The government denied the petitions on the grounds that the protests were aimed at regime change and therefore violated Article 4 of the constitution, which deems Cuba’s socialist system to be “irrevocable.” Archipielago’s leader, playwright Yunior Garcia, called the denials a crime, declared the government a “dictatorship” and announced that the marches would proceed regardless.

The government did its best to discourage participation in the days leading up to 15N by declaring the marches illegal, hinting at violence, branding the organizers as foreign agents and harassing them to impede their ability to organize. When the day arrived, Archipielago’s leaders were either detained by police or held under house arrest to prevent them from participating. More importantly, no one else appeared at the appointed hour to march. The complete failure of the planned protest was surprising, given how much attention it received in Cuba’s independent, social and even state media.

The challenge facing Cuba’s leaders today is navigating this new political landscape while buying time for the economy to recover.

No doubt the government’s aggressive messaging discouraged participation, but the more salient issue was that, as some organizers acknowledged, Archipielago’s appeal did not resonate with the broader public. The group had hoped to harness the anger and frustration expressed on 11J and use it to power a program of political reform. But the spontaneous outbursts of last July did not imply a common set of political demands, notwithstanding the anti-government chants used by some protesters. Interviews with 11J participants reflected their frustration and anger over food shortages, electricity blackouts, COVID-19’s spread and the state’s apparent inability to solve these problems.

Archipielago failed to tap into these frustrations because its calls for political reform, delivered by young artists and intellectuals, did not speak to the issue that has long been the top priority for most Cubans: the state of the economy and their standard of living. This difference in priorities reflects the different life experiences and priorities of Cuba’s emergent young and educated middle class on one hand, and the working class struggling to survive on state-sector salaries on the other.

15N’s failure also illustrated the limitations of organizing via social media. Archipielago is not an organization. It is a Facebook group with a small team of coordinators who speak on its behalf—and not always with one voice. Because they had no on-the-ground capacity to organize for political action, Archipielago’s leaders were left with no choice but to hope the public would respond to a call to march without any organizational preparation. They didn’t.

Looking Ahead

Two days after 15N, Yunior Garcia left Cuba for self-imposed exile in Spain. Internal recriminations over the failure of the march took a toll on Archipielago, prompting prominent members of its coordinating committee to resign. On Nov. 22, the group issued a new program, redefining itself as a “platform … to promote a new social pact, a model of Republic that integrates the desires of all the Cuban people.” With this mission statement, which amounts to little more than a vague endorsement of more citizen participation without a specific call to action, it is hard to see how Archipielago will have any more success mobilizing people going forward than it had on 15N.

Other dissident groups also failed to capitalize on the discontent on display on 11J. The 15N march’s co-sponsor, the Council for Democratic Transition, was also unable to mobilize participants, betraying its own lack of organizational capacity. By early December, the council had moved on to a new project that aims to organize grassroots “Citizen Assemblies” to rewrite the Cuban constitution—a goal that seems improbable given the organization’s track record.

The state’s response, meanwhile, has been to intensify repression against opposition leaders, arresting them or forcing them into exile. San Isidro movement leaders Luis Otero Alcantara and Maykel Castillo are in jail, as is Jose Daniel Ferrer, the head of the Patriotic Union and coordinator of the Council for Democratic Transition. Almost all the other members of the San Isidro movement are now in exile, along with several of Archipielago’s leaders. The organized opposition is demoralized and in disarray, weaker today than it was before 15N, and struggling to find a path forward in the face of government pressure.

To forestall another social explosion in the face of the continuing economic crisis, the Cuban government has imposed draconian sentences of up to 20 years in prison on those accused of violent crimes on 11J, including charges of sedition for those who attacked police, government buildings and Communist Party offices. The heavy sentences have generated international criticism, but the government has been willing to endure the reputational cost in order to deter new outbursts of violence.

The Cuban leadership’s response to civil society’s increasingly vocal demands and the independent media’s unrelenting criticism is shaped by the traumatic experience of watching the Soviet Union disintegrate. Then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s simultaneous easing of political and economic controls through his glasnost and perestroika policies led to the delegitimation, destabilization and eventual collapse of the Soviet system. China’s communist regime, by contrast, launched its economic reforms while maintaining tight party control, repressing demands for democracy.

But Cuba’s economic reforms have produced social and economic dislocation, exacerbated by external economic shocks from the pandemic and increased U.S. sanctions. And as long as the hardships that triggered the outburst of anger and discontent on July 11, 2021, go unresolved, the political situation will remain volatile. The challenge facing Cuba’s leaders today is navigating this new political landscape while buying time for the economy to recover. So far, their strategy has been to accommodate demands that do not challenge the system, while cracking down even harder on those that do. But one thing is clear: The Cuban government will have to get used to dealing with demands from below. The genie of online activism cannot be put back in the bottle.

William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University in Washington, and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

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