Scarcity is a constant category in any of the formulas that try to decipher Cuban reality. There are shortages of everything: food, hygiene products, medicines, and also political and civil liberties. In addition to this all-encompassing precariousness, the other great constant in the country is the violence against those who dare to question the immutability of destitution. Just a month ago, this static stopped being absolute and suffered two great shocks that threatened to shake it off its axis: one occurred in the San Isidro neighborhood and the other, as an echo of the first, in front of the doors of the Ministry of Culture.
On November 27, hundreds of people, including artists, journalists and intellectuals, planted themselves on a street that was soon surrounded by the regime’s forces. Although technically it was a public protest, the protesters only demanded a dialogue with the authorities. There seemed to be no other alternative: the Cuban totalitarian system outlaws demonstrations and dialogue alike. Where the military logic of order and obedience rules, freedom of assembly and speech become sins.
For a moment, power gave the impression of giving in. The agreements established between those who protested and the officials at the Ministry of Culture bode well for a significant change, more due to the fact that they have managed to put pressure on the regime than the content of the agreements themselves. The next day, the illusion of a citizen power vanished. The pact was broken and the reprisals came swiftly. However, although the country returned to its inflexible order of imposition and punishment, something transcended from that small shock. Sitting in a street, while singing, applauding and protecting each other from an exaggerated police siege, hundreds of people rehearsed the most democratic version of Cuba that has been seen in decades.
Reynier Leyva Novo. Artist
What brought us to the Ministry of Culture that day was, basically, a deep outrage. The day before we felt (not only those of us who were there, but a large part of the people of Cuba) fragile in every way as we saw basic rights being violated. And it was not just the rights of the San Isidro Movement that were violated, but the rights of all of us. The next morning, at the protest, people said that what had happened to the San Isidro strikers could happen to anyone. Another important thing was that we all felt we were being attacked when they cut off access to various social networks the night of the assault on the headquarters of the San Isidro Movement. They cut off our access to communication, they took away our right to know what was happening there, where human lives were in danger.
We reached that point out of exhaustion. The people were exhausted with so much injustice. We had all been following what was happening in San Isidro since the strike began. We followed it in real time, through our cells. I even tried to approach the headquarters of the San Isidro Movement and they wouldn’t let me get there. The day they called for the demonstration in Central Park I was also going to go, but State Security intercepted me and did not let me get there. A few hours later they turned off my cell line, and that was my life for a few days. I could access the Internet only from the Wi-Fi hotspots or through my wife’s phone. Imagine the uncertainty.
Like many others, I did not sleep well during those days. I believe that some even maintained a constant state of vigilance. I set the notifications on my wife’s cell to maximum volume so they would wake me up at any time I got a message. All the time I was waiting for fatal news. These were days of great anxiety.
A group of friends organized several actions in the days before the protest, including the poetic vigils we held behind Paula’s church. We were trying to offer support to the strikers, so that they would know that we were with them even though we were not physically with them. Already on the day of the assault we all felt the need to do something more concrete. We had planned to hold the vigil in front of the Museum of Fine Arts, but at some point during the night I received information that it would be in front of the Ministry of Culture.
To my surprise, the next morning I found artists from other guilds in the agreed place: actors, filmmakers, musicians. They had all organized themselves independently to show up. So we decided to plant ourselves outside until the Minister of Culture showed up. At 11 in the morning we knocked on the doors of the Ministry and his secretary came out to tell us that he was not there, that he was in a video conference somewhere else, and we told her that we were going to stay there. Later, more people arrived, especially from the world of culture, until there were hundreds of us.
During the day we kept our discipline very rigorously. Those of us who were kind of in charge of what was happening asked people not to shout slogans or anything that had no relation with our request to see the minister so we could present our demands. Around us we had many military and police officers in civilian clothes inciting violence, but we remained calm. All the time we appealed for civility and calm, for nothing to happen that would trigger a violent event that we would regret. If we had fallen for their provocations, everything was ready for them to attack the protest with a lot of violence.
At six o’clock in the afternoon we began to applaud every ten minutes, as if demanding an answer to our request to meet with the minister. In that sense, Yunior García was our spokesman. He was communicating by phone with Fernando Rojas all the time. Before that, the Ministry made several proposals to us. One was to leave at four o’clock in the afternoon for the Hubert de Blanck theater and have a meeting there, but we said we would not move from where we were. Then we were told that the minister was not in the province, which contradicted the version of his secretary. In the meantime, more people kept coming.
There was an atmosphere of freedom and hope in the protest. People were excited to meet again after the quarantine, to know that we were doing something for everyone’s freedoms, and because we were demonstrating, something we don’t normally do here, or not in that way. I think people thought something was going to happen this time and that’s why we stayed there.
What we have to do now is what we are doing: maintaining a multipurpose alliance that operates on various fronts: from the intellectual community, from the art community, from the civil society as a whole, with the support of lawyers who can channel this through the legal paths so that our demands get somewhere. The government has ignored our demands, criminalizing us, but it seems to me that at some point this will necessarily change. The legal ways to do it are scarce because the system is designed so that those demands do not proceed. I believe that we must unite and add more citizens who are on this same wavelength in order to become a larger group and so our voices can be amplified. We continue to advocate for the dialogue, which is the right way. But it’s hard to dialogue with someone who doesn’t want to talk to you. It’s hard to dialogue with a wall that’s been up in front of the people for sixty years. It’s hard to dialogue with someone who doesn’t listen.
Camila Ramírez Lobón. Artist
On November 27, in front of the Ministry of Culture, we experienced a mixture of strange feelings, at least those of us who arrived at the beginning. When we saw that there were 20 of us, we were very happy. Suddenly the group began to grow and we realized that this was a real intervention of the public space in Cuba, where it is known that the right to protest does not exist. It was a moment of tension, joy, euphoria. A lot of solidarity and understanding was generated among those of us who were there. There was a community of artists, yes, but also of people we didn’t know, or who we didn’t know much, and as the day progressed, the ties between us grew closer.
That was a process of empowerment, in which we knock down the barriers of fear, although the tension remained. State Security was present among the groups, although they kept calm. We were very careful not to allow anything that could be construed as provocation on our side.
It was the first time I did that and it was a stimulating feeling: the pleasure of knowing another dimension of freedom unknown to me before. I had already taken to the streets once, on October 10th, to support the San Isidro Movement, and was detained by a patrol. But in front of the Ministry I felt something else: empowerment, the security of knowing I was not alone. And, well, also uncertainty, nerves. That day we moved on to a plane that none of us had experienced before, that it had not been present until that moment in our personal stories. In short, it was something really exceptional.
On November 27, I knew in full what the exercise of a right is, regardless of whether the demands were received or not. It was a first big step. This simple exercise showed us the power we can have. That is what has provoked so much astonishment among many, and also the state’s fear, because they are not prepared to face something like this, of a completely peaceful and civic nature.
I was, in fact, with a group that had gone the day before to read poetry on the Alameda de Paula, very close to San Isidro, in a gesture of solidarity. We had “rapid response brigades” around, just for reading poetry. Then we thought of another series of actions of the same kind in public spaces. Through private messages, many people began to discuss the possibility of going to the Ministry of Culture and, anyway, we went there. Actually, I think we arrived without being completely clear about what to do and what to demand concretely. There was no clear script of what was going to happen that day. I think that we were moved by the desire to say, “Enough, this can’t keep happening. This is wrong.”
Some people went for different reasons and we had to consider how we could accommodate all those positions in terms of more general demands. We were a very heterogeneous group, and we all coexisted without conflict. There were all kinds of people, from the San Isidro Movement to journalists, from independent artists to people closer to the institutions, all demanding that what had happened in the previous days never happen again.
I believe that we achieved this capacity for mobilization due to the feeling of absolute indignation generated by the series of events that have been following each other. During these events, the repressive strategies of the State Security in the face of the exercise of the most elementary civic rights, such as freedom of expression, became more evident and public. The raid and eviction of the people in San Isidro, and the impossible fictions and justifications given by the State to explain what had happened, showed that there is an extremely vulnerable and marginalized community. I think this caused that even those who have not suffered this type of censorship could empathize. I was driven by that feeling.
As for the civil society, instead of pressuring for the fulfillment of the demands already made, it would be better to try making Cuba’s problems more visible so that more people can come together and find common ground. I think that we have to continue expressing ourselves freely in all possible spaces, be it public, virtual, it doesn’t matter. We have to generate ideas. This has been only a small step that shows that we can understand each other and act as civil society. It has also been an exercise in democracy that involves people with different experiences in the face of the power of the State. The fact that several communities recognize each other and share the idea of demanding their rights is already an achievement. For the first time there has been solidarity with the spaces condemned by the State, and that is something that must be preserved to see what else can come out of it. I believe that way of thinking of many is already being transformed. The stigmas are gone, and so is the isolation of those who dissent and are punished. Fear is gone.
Juan Pin Vilar. Filmmaker
The protest was motivated by a year of violence in a society where violence is uncommon. There have been femicides, rapes of minors, a policeman who killed an unarmed young man, a criminal who murdered a policeman, domestic violence. There has been social unrest due to food shortages. The shortages have generated queues, fights, and has caused the forces of law and order to take to the streets. In the midst of this violent panorama, independent artists and the opposition have also been repressed. The final outcome of all this was San Isidro. From this scenario, in which San Isidro turned out to be the most visible, the really important thing was the social violence that continued throughout the year. And we must put an end to that violence, because only when it is over will the dialogue begin.
It would be childish to claim that everything that happened was because of San Isidro. San Isidro does not represent the country and neither those of us who were in front of the Ministry of Culture. Another act of immaturity is to try blackmailing the powers-that-be or demanding things of them as if we were on equal terms, especially when you have nothing to offer to them and they can do without you. We need to gain space, but that can only be achieved by conciliation.
The N27 took place in a fabulous atmosphere. I have never experienced anything like it. It was an atmosphere of camaraderie, where there were no personal agendas, no “this is my group and that’s yours”, because we were all there for the same thing. We all wanted to be welcomed and we all wanted the violence to stop.
During the N27 meeting there were many interventions, expressed in different ways, from different starting points, but all of them said that independent artists should be recognized and that freedom of expression should be respected.
In front of the Ministry there were 300 people who supported each other, united also to demand the end of the repression. No one should be criminalized for what they think. No one should be criminalized for an artistic work, nor because they are for or against a government, nor should the government repress them or mutilate their citizen personalities! Those who are repressed are not even given the possibility to go to the media and defend themselves from these attacks. And not all those who are repressed are criminals, nor mercenaries, nor paid by anyone. Of that I am absolutely sure.
The fact that some opponents were received at the Ministry of Culture is due to those 300 of us who were there. It’s not because they were pressuring the government. That pressure ended when the repressive forces attacked them. This has to be understood. From my point of view, the dialogue was broken by the opposition. The first people who began to delegitimize those who had represented them in front of the Ministry were opponents on the social networks. It is clear to me that in the opposition there are two sides: those who want to dialogue and those who want confrontation. In the Ministry, in the institutions of the Cuban government, there are also two sides: those who want to dialogue and those who do not. Those who want to dialogue met with us. I know that for a fact. I was there. Those who attacked first, saying that “you cannot dialogue with the dictatorship”, destroyed the space that had been conquered. In the end, the first thing for the Cuban civil society needs is to learn to behave as such.
The conflicts within the protest of November 27 and with some of those who were involved in the events in San Isidro are not at all positive, because they show that they are not mature enough to understand what the political struggle is about. But it is understandable this should be the case, since Cuba, in 60 years, has not developed a democratic culture with regard to the alternation in power, nor with regard to the visibility of different political agendas and different leaderships that compete to reach power.
The civil society is immature, unprepared, and easily contaminated by foreign agendas and the agendas of State Security itself. As long as it is not understood that there must be a single goal, which is dialogue, and that we have to build on top of that to achieve greater things, as long as there is false leadership, we are lost. As long as there is a lack of democratic culture and of spaces to develop different ideas and ways to express them, besides the foreign interests and the interests of State Security itself that gravitate above all, we are lost.
In spite of everything, what happened outside the Ministry of Culture is also “Cuba”. I believe that Cuba should be like that: an inclusive and supportive environment.
Julio Llópiz-Casal. Artist
What led to all this, what triggered it, were the events in San Isidro, which put the focus on the obvious: there is no freedom of expression in Cuba. Cuba reached its golden state with the San Isidro phenomenon. Perhaps all this also has to do with the fact that social networks help make things more visible. Perhaps it was also influenced by the particularly unjust way in which things happened: the imprisonment of Denis Solís, the peaceful protest that was repressed and led to the strike and, in turn, what we all did. Personally, I think that the fundamental trigger was the obscene way in which the strikers were “extracted”. This helped create solidarity due to the fundamental fact that freedom of expression is not respected in Cuba.
The word I would use to define the protest in front of the Ministry of Culture is “beautiful”, because it was not only something that is not common in Cuba; something like what happened that day had not happened in 60 years. It was “beautiful” because I am convinced that people spontaneously joined in. At the beginning there were twenty-something of us, then we were 40, then 60, and so on, little by little, until we reached the hundreds. It was “beautiful” also because those 30 who went inside were democratically elected. Democracy was practiced in Cuba for the first time by people lying on the ground, sitting on the curb. And it was four times “beautiful” because we managed to include in the meeting a representation of the San Isidro Movement, a representation of the independent journalists’ guild, also Tania Bruguera—who is a personality in the art world and at the same time public enemy number one of the system—and representatives of the performing arts, music, literature and visual arts.
I don’t know at what point I lost my fear, or if I have ever lost it. Nor do I know if this is a call to action. But I think that the civil society in general, beyond the creative community, should concentrate on the idea that the most important things cannot be taken away from them, and also on asserting their right to lend their support to our demands, if so they wish. Let them do it whichever way they want, because there is never only one way. Let them express their support or their rejection of this, but let them express themselves. What we are demanding does not have to do exclusively with the San Isidro Movement. The San Isidro Movement has simply been the vanguard because they have been on the front line, because they have been the most attacked. What we want with this is to take a first step, one that may not be absolute, but is fundamental in order to achieve change in Cuba. I am talking about achieving somehow—and I don’t know how—that the right to freedom of expression is respected.
Luzbely Escobar. Journalist
For me, the reason why all those people mobilized at the doors of the Ministry of Culture was the indignation that provoked in many, above all in artists and intellectuals, the images that were shared on the social networks of the assault by State Security forces on the headquarters of the San Isidro Movement using the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse.
Before the first images of the assault began to circulate, I received through WhatsApp many messages from people saying, “What are we going to do?” That was the question we were all asking ourselves. We quickly formed groups. The visual artists in one, the actors in another, and we all agreed and converged in that place.
I experienced from my home what happened in the morning and in the afternoon, when those who would enter the Ministry were selected, via the communication I had with some of those who were there. Thanks to that, I was able to write in 14ymedio about what was happening. It was not until between seven and eight o’clock that night that I was able to go to the Ministry, because I have two little girls and I had not been able to organize things to leave before that time. When I arrived I saw that the Ministry of Culture was surrounded by the police. There were patrols, State Security agents and uniformed officers surrounding every street to the building. I didn’t go around. I just went through the cordon. At the time I arrived, it seems that the order was to let everyone in. At no time was I asked to explain where I was going.
That stretch of street was full of people, especially young people who sang and shared the water they had, their cell phone chargers, coffee. Important figures like Fernando Pérez and Robertico Carcassés were giving interviews, because the foreign press was there. I think the latter helped assure the safety of the protesters.
We shared our indignation there, but also our joy. That was revealing. Every ten minutes there was applause to keep our spirits high and to let the thirty selected to represent the rest of us in the dialogue know that we were still there. At two o’clock in the morning, the thirty came out and explained the agreements to the rest of us. We were all very exhausted. From what they said it seemed to us that an agreement had been reached, that there would be a truce, and that something had started to move. But in less than 24 hours all that was broken.
What happened on N27 showed that we can organize ourselves in spite of everything. For many years, the Cuban civil society was in disarray due to the fact that freedom of association and expression do not exist in Cuba. All it takes is for four people to gather on a corner to protest against something and that is followed by raids and police arrests. But thanks to the 4G network, many of us are now connected through WhatsApp, and so we can organize a meeting. When there are forty or fifty people protesting they can’t get rid of them in that violent way. I think that on November 27 the government underestimated what was happening and it went beyond their control once there were already hundreds of people gathered.
Right now, the civil society has the responsibility, in the face of that flame that has displaced fear, to take advantage of this moment before the fear returns. If the fear returns, it will do so as a tremendous and very strong wave. That is why we must take advantage of what happened to organize ourselves, to define what unite us and try to launch an idea: in Cuba not everyone blindly follows what the Communist Party dictates, but there are also those who have other criteria and want an inclusive country, where everyone has the right to express themselves freely without paying the price for doing so with their freedom. In general, I think that is something that unites us all. We need as a nation to decriminalize political dissent. That will be the point of origin for other ideas and projects. When everyone can express themselves without fear of being repressed, there will be real debates.