On Monday, May 16, the U.S. administration of Joseph Biden ordered a series measures that will reopen the relationship with Cuba and were immediately interpreted as a mere revival of the “bilateral thaw” announced on December 17, 2014. Let us recall that this “historic event” was presented to the world, in both capitals, as a “new beginning” that would definitively close the last chapter of the Cold War. By extension, it also put the lock that was missing on the elusive 20th century. We then witnessed the materialization of gestures and decisions unheard of in decades of rupture and hostility. There was a general atmosphere of expectation and, above all, of unforeseen hope. Later on, when the forced rhetorical adjustments in Granma and the symbolic revamping of the political platform —especially the bitter pill of that speech by the U.S. president in Havana’s Gran Teatro— seemed too much for the old island nomenklatura, when the state allocation of autonomy for economic entrepreneurship began to be transformed into increasingly less controllable spaces of socialization, the process showed signs of slowing down in Havana. Those were Barack Obama’s last months in the White House. With the advent of Donald Trump —supported by the confusing dossier of the “sonic attacks” against U.S. diplomats—, official political ties between the two countries were frozen again, until this week.
What has changed by May 2022, and why would this thaw 2.0 constitute a radically different moment for the island when compared to the precedent of 2015 or 2016?
Beneath the surface of the bilateral relationship between Cuba and the United States, there now flow the promising waters of a citizenry that has accumulated experiences of creative autonomy and contestation to power, that has increasingly become more interconnected in virtual and practical networks, that possesses greater access to information and debates independent of the State, that is closer to the exile and diaspora, that has diversified its activism in terms of methods and agendas (LGBTIQ+, feminist, animalist, professional, etc.), which has come to take over the public space and has even staged a major social outburst, and has paid a high price for it. We are talking about a growing portion of the citizenry that has not only become centrifugally politicized since 2014, but has been multiplying and radicalizing public discussion in the face of censorship, surveillance, physical, psychological, media and judicial repression that ensued —along with a multifactorial aggravation of the inveterate economic crisis on the island— after the frustration of the first thaw.
The emergence and progressive maturity of that independent civil society —in which hundreds of political prisoners recognized themselves, as well as the most recent exile— should be a decisive factor to ensure, for example, that the interplay of the governmental leaderships of both countries does not end up making the repression and political imprisonment in Cuba invisible. That remains the responsibility, first and foremost, of human rights activism, the political opposition and, of course, the independent Cuban press. Assuming the new circumstance as an opportunity, and not as a fatality, if a bilateral rapprochement equivalent to Obama’s were to materialize, it is that citizenry, i.e., the political community independent of power in Cuba, the one in charge of supervising the negotiating elites, denouncing the opacities and authoritarianisms of the process, and articulating demands that allow building it also from below and from the outside.
There is nothing to suggest that such concealment is the objective of the current U.S. administration, which is currently occupied in seeking a solution to the migratory crisis on their southern border, but which is now likely to have not only a more expeditious means of communication with its counterpart in Havana, but also cards in its hands to negotiate, for example, the eventual release of the 7/11 prisoners. Those bodies are the priority. And if their freedom were to come in the context of a new thaw, or through papal mediation, that freedom will also have to be celebrated as ground won by the Cuban civil society, although at first sight —and especially to Caribbean Trumpism— it only seems a barter at the top between the rulers of Castroism and a White House that is too soft.
It is time to give due weight to the impact of citizen action and protest: when the regime is forced to repress in full view of everyone and to issue disproportionate and exemplary sentences, the veil of totalitarianism, the illusion of absolute and continuity is being torn away, and the time of the political as an attribute of the citizen is just beginning; when a regime long closed in on itself seeks a relative opening it is also due in good measure to the multiple forms of social pressure, and it is to be expected that, however small the new spaces of freedom may be, in them the citizen will have more to gain than the satrap.
That is exactly what happened during the first thaw. And that is why the old partisan curia ordered to put on the brakes even before Trump became president. The Communist Party took the helm out of the hands of the technocrats and reformers —that novel zone of Cuban power, globalist and pragmatic, with military ranks and almost unimpeachable cynicism— and presumably sent them back to the shadows to continue managing the insular state capitalism from there. The dismantling of Obama’s policy and the return with Trump to the useless and macabre Cold War game must have been celebrated in the luxury bunkers of the old guard.
Between December 2014 and Obama’s Havana speech in the spring of 2016, the dizzying and rather brief period of the thaw, various collectives outside officialdom began to thrive and to acknowledge each other. Dissatisfied people articulated around inevitably political ideas and purposes. The diaspora returned more than ever to the island and a phenomenon of circularity began to take place on the basis of the 2013 immigration reform, one of the adjustments prior to the bilateral rapprochement. Numerous autonomous art spaces appeared and several independent newspapers and magazines were founded on the web. Since then, the State has lost perhaps too much of its symbolic monopoly. When the cultural policy of Castroism tried to catch up with the economic reality through Decree Law 349, a document that updated the legal mechanisms of censorship, Cuban dissidence received an injection of new faces, young figures who did not accept another imposition and gradually gained a vital prominence. The path of political awareness and activation of the Cuban civil society that led to San Isidro, to 11/27 and, finally, to the protests of July 11 has, if not its absolute starting point, a fundamental connection with those years.
We believe in the dialectical challenge that every —even the narrowest— opening brings with it, fraught with risks and new political demands. Those who limit themselves to opposing the government en bloc and disdain the occupation of small spaces of political opportunity, the emergence of modest liberating agendas, sometimes limited to specific communities or specific collectives, those who ignore the unequal rhythms at which different individuals become more aware in the highly regimented conditions of Cuba, and that the possibility of political deliberation and action usually depends on a minimum of satisfaction of basic economic needs (better if outside the State), those who only hope to “overthrow” the dictatorship once and for all, and grumble against Biden because he did not decide to seal even more that infernal cauldron that is supposed to be the island, blithely ascribe to magical thinking.
In a stadium behind closed doors, nobody plays better than them: the owners of the bat and the ball for more than 60 years. The cauldron will never explode if they continue to control all the valves: symbolic, economic, migratory, military.
On the other hand, perhaps we should review the moral background of this totalizing opposition strategy that prescribes, or applauds, more sanctions and more isolation. The powerful have never ceased to live splendidly, and yet the fatigue of sanctions will sooner or later take its toll on the existence of ordinary people. Finally, sanctions and isolation function as a rhetorical alibi and political fuel essential for the reproduction of the system.
This form of opposition or totalizing —and well-intentioned— activism appeals in its statements to the citizens, but often fails to recognize their agency in social processes and conceives every political event —except the most immediate ones, such as a social outburst or the denunciation of a specific issue— as the univocal work of state power. For instance, the possibility of a new “bilateral thaw” is usually considered as just that, a scenario where only the two governmental actors act; from there derives, of course, a naive posture with colonizing overtones which calls the US government to account and pretends —only pretends— to take Biden to task, forgetting that each president of that country makes their decisions, first of all, according to his own domestic political interests. This attitude imitates, in certain very common opposition discourse, as if it were an inverted mirror, the classic rhetorical —that is to say, political— dependence of the Cuban regime on the “Empire.”
Finally, we should perhaps point out how this opposition model is dressed up in a mostly reactive language, something understandable in the blatantly repressive circumstances of recent years in Cuba, and perhaps also due in part to the spontaneous, immediate but fragile, fleeting logic of social networks. Here: if there are hundreds of political prisoners, there can be no other opening than their freedom. And nothing could be more praiseworthy, if it were not that sometimes the freedom of political prisoners, and the future cancellation of political imprisonment as a possibility on the island, is achieved precisely by expanding inch by inch the circle of freedom in which the citizen, who today is not behind bars, is standing. Nothing could be more praiseworthy, if it were not an instrumentalization of those imprisoned bodies to justify an iron fist strategy that has proved to be unsuccessful for six decades. Nothing more praiseworthy, if in that instant it was not being overlooked that the drama of Cuba is the drama of an entire country, and that those prisoners, before being in jail, just before leaving their houses on 7/11, were those same nameless men and women —who get up to go to study or work within the system, who live in material poverty and hopelessness— who are now forgotten in the name of the prisoners.
Let’s consider a hypothetical situation: a foreign institution proposes to open a bookstore in Havana; the bookstore will put into circulation a limited, though not negligible, number of books and authors that otherwise would not be published on the island; those books and authors will have to be accepted by the official censorship apparatus, which as we know always acts very clumsily; those books and authors will spread an immeasurable number of potentially subversive ideas and images, while an important part of the profits from their sale will certainly go to the military coffers of those who control everything in Cuba. Who thinks of the administrators of GAESA? Who thinks of the teenager who has just arrived from the provinces? Who thinks of the poet who lives in seclusion in a country that lies outside the global circuit of “too many books?”
It is the kind of choice that sometimes arises when we look at Cuba. The immediate effect is the benefit of a military and/or bureaucratic elite; on the other side lies a rather incalculable effect, impossible to trace in the psyche of the citizen, in the virtue of the future Republic.
The thaw experienced between 2014 and 2016 is also there as a learning opportunity, for us to outline a critical roadmap: how power sheds its discursive skin to adapt to the new rules of the game; what devices are activated or updated —something we have not ceased to see during these years— to contain any probable democratic drift; how the Cuban political elite reengages with global economic flows; how the local economic initiative is depoliticized and private initiative is celebratorily co-opted at the expense even of labor rights; how large historically impoverished and racialized areas of the population are once again left out of state corporatization and the sublimation of entrepreneurship; how the ideologically exotic theme park is sold to the tourists who visit us from the future.
It is worth betting on the configuration of a new territory for political creativity, and this involves taking advantage of the new bilateral circumstances, without abandoning the demand for justice for the victims of political violence, and without renouncing public discussion in a moment whose full interpretation will undoubtedly be more complex. Once again, empathy and shared responsibility for the generation of community, of solidarity, and of an agora for deliberation and the dispute of our freedoms in the face of a tyrannical order seems like a good place to position ourselves.