On Sunday, July 11, Cubans embarked on a journey of no return to the future. Determined to escape from oppression and misery, they protested massively throughout the island, claiming for freedom. It is almost impossible to make a true x-ray of the situation in Cuba now on July 15. The news coming in are scarce and confusing, due to the communication blackout imposed by the Government, which in the last few hours is just beginning to be lifted.
While there are testimonies that invite to think that the popular revolt has been contained for now, the images of the demonstrations, of the brutal repression and the strong militarization that has filled with astonishment Cubans on the island and all over the world, emerge in dribs and drabs and soon become viral in the virtual community of the networks. Independent media report thousands of detainees and the official press has admitted one death during the protests, although the videos and reports that are circulating suggest a higher toll.
Miguel Díaz-Canel, who this year took over the leadership of the Communist Party from Raúl Castro, thus becoming the first leader from outside the Castro clan to head both the government and the single party, has not hidden the fact that his administration represents a continuity in all aspects of those of his predecessors. In the face of citizen protests on the island, the ruler has undisguisedly called for violence against broad sectors of the population demanding freedom and citizens’ rights, and has blamed, against all evidence, the U.S. Government for provoking the popular revolt.
Thus, in his reaction to the protests, the current Cuban president has not deviated one iota from the ideological narrative with which Fidel Castro consolidated his omnipotent power and managed the moments of crisis that occurred during his almost half a century in power. The rhetoric with which he has distorted the legitimacy of the demonstrators, justified the repression and incited violence among Cubans takes up again the discourse of political apartheid with which the regime has cemented its hegemony until today. The historical doctrine that states “the streets belong to the revolutionaries,” reactivated these days by Díaz-Canel, has sustained for decades the expressions of public violence and social exclusion through which the Cuban State has managed citizen dissidence.
The criminalization of the demonstrators–described by those in power as “vandals,” “criminals,” “annexationists” or even “alcoholics”–not only links the Cuban government with its right-wing counterparts in Colombia, Chile or Puerto Rico in its characterization of the protests, but it is also part of a discursive tradition in which the existence of poor or racialized social sectors, which it was impossible to “integrate” completely into the dynamics of social control, has been masked by the eugenic rhetoric of social scourges, the antisocial element and the vices inherited from the previous society.
There are no fundamental differences in substance between the way Cuba’s power elite has reacted to the current conflict and the way it handled, for example, the 1980 assault on the Peruvian embassy –which triggered the Mariel exodus– or the 1994 protest along the Havana seaboard known as the Maleconazo.
Fidel Castro used to describe as “scum” those who showed their discontent or opposition in the early eighties and, in a famous speech, he went so far as to say that “we do not want those without revolutionary genes [sic], we do not need them.” His words became the substratum for all these events of planned violence –led, as today, by paramilitary groups– throughout the country with the consent and logistical support of the government. Prompted by him, it was staged the alleged social repudiation by the majority of those who made their dissent public. In 1994, Castro called “unpatriotic” the Havana residents involved in the demonstration that extended for hours from the Malecón to the neighborhoods of Old Havana and blamed the United States for wanting to promote a “bloodbath” on the island.
The Mariel exodus or the rafters’ crisis that followed the Maleconazo were purge events through which the government solved social crises; the “invitation” to leave the country for opponents and disgruntled people was the escape valve with which the State placated dissent. Invariably, the crises of governability have been assumed by the revolutionary power with high doses of violence. The stability of power has been sustained by the systematic annihilation of pluralism.
But if the supremacist discourse and the planned violence of the power elite in Cuba are the continuity of an ideology and a historical practice, Cuban society is today, on the contrary, much more diverse and plural, it gets organized, interacts and communicates progressively outside the control mechanisms and the communicative monopoly of the State. In recent years, the emergence of feminist, anti-racist, environmental, animal, LGTBIQ+ movements, as well as the resistance of the San Isidro Movement and the protest of artists and intellectuals in front of the Ministry of Culture on November 27, 2020, demonstrate the obsolescence of the binary opposition narrative, typical of the Cold War, with which the media banners, organizations and international figures of the most orthodox traditional left begin to assume the conflict between the Government, civil society and the people in general.
This time, as always in Cuba’s recent history, the U.S. embargo has been instrumentalized by collaborationist politicians, ideologues and intellectuals to condone repression, to qualify crime, to guarantee immunity and eternalize despotism. Although the embargo has had an impact on the deterioration of the living conditions of Cubans and there is no empirical evidence that it has contributed to a greater democratization of society in six decades, its most harmful outcome in the end has been to serve as support for the rise of supremacist ideological currents, to subordinate the possibility of democracy to the Manichean anti-liberal agenda and, above all, it has served as a letter of legitimacy for the totalitarian exercise of power. The voices of thousands and thousands of Cubans who have taken to the streets to demand freedom and the end of the dictatorship are cancelled today by an intellectual elite that has decided to look the other way, to deny reality and its contradictions: an elite that, incapable of uttering a sentence that the authorities could perceive as insulting, advocates peace and solidarity while winking at power.
In Cuba, as Iván de la Nuez has pointed out, there is a communist State that is forced to rule over a society that is already post-communist. A State that assimilates features of the market economy, but is, on the contrary, incapable of admitting the democratic plurality that corresponds to an increasingly diverse citizenry.
Those who, from certain sectors of the left, due to perks, partisan interests or ideological loyalties, make invisible or deform the struggle of Cuban society and its yearning for a future of prosperity, democracy and freedom, swell, like the neo-fascists with respect to the protests in the neo-liberal States in the continent, the ranks of reaction. Those who subordinate the complexity and the range of the demands of the Colombian, Chilean, Puerto Rican or Cuban peoples to a geopolitical determinism are definitively on the side of the oppressors.
The Cuban citizenry, under siege by a despotic political class striving to prevent the mutation of society towards a democratic horizon, needs the support of the international intellectual community in its struggle for social and political demands, and in its resistance to the synthesis of the discourse of domination.
Democracy in Cuba exists today as a symbolic force, as a demand in the streets and also as a potentiality still without a foothold or precise referents or leaderships, as a yearning of an atomized society, aggrieved, resentful and excluded by decades of oppression and expropriation of rights. From the assumption of a plural community, it is now necessary to generate the conditions of possibility for a democratic Republic.