How to Read the 11-15 Protest?

Seventy-two hours after 11-15, many are focusing exclusively —how could they not— on the departure from Cuba of Yunior García Aguilera. The Cuban playwright, intellectual author of the Archipelago platform, left Cuba —without informing any of his colleagues— and is now in Spain. In the face of what has happened, public opinion debates between mixed feelings —from euphoria to disappointment, from triumphalism to demobilization— that hinder the possibility of a calm assessment.

The result of the 11-15 protest and the decision of Yunior García demand a much deeper and less prejudiced assessment. In this article we offer our perspective and use as a starting point a predictive analysis that we published on November 11, 2021.

In the article “Possible Scenarios Before the 11-15 Protest” we proposed three possible scenarios. The first, which we described as negative, implied: “the failure of the call and, with it, of the initiative and the civic impulse that had been achieved. Mass exile, the imprisonment of all the leaders, the massive restoration of fear, distrust and social paralysis.”

We also described the possibility of a sub-optimal scenario in which we predicted that the initiative could partially survive because protests could take place in different territories while only some leaders and participants would be imprisoned. Here we considered the possibility of a broad support from the community of Cubans abroad, expressed in the demonstrations called in more than 100 cities around the world. In this case, we assumed that, despite the violence, a physical and media presence and the image of a moderate success would be achieved.

Finally, we analyzed the possibility of a best-case scenario that could present itself in two variants. One with a lower probability and involving a demonstration similar to or greater than that of 7-11 and a more realistic one that would derive from a mediation driven by the Catholic Church that would facilitate a win-win scenario for all parties. This would prevent the escalation of repression from causing greater damage to the image of the Cuban government abroad and the imprisonment of all the members of the movement and thus its complete annihilation.

However, the 11-15 protest went beyond any of our predictions and ended up producing a scenario that included elements of the three described by us. First of all, the repression deployed by the Cuban authorities —who made the most of the time they had to prepare themselves— before 11-15 was intense and went unpunished. On the day itself, the resources mobilized were substantial. Moreover, it was preceded by the closing of any institutional avenue for the solution of the demands of Archipelago. The intendants, in an unconstitutional manner, declared the 11-15 march illegal and the Public Prosecutor’s Office —despite its apparent unconstitutionality— validated their decision and warned several Archipelago moderators about the possible crimes they would commit if they went out to demonstrate after the Government’s decision.

At the same time, the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented before the courts petitions for sanctions against 7-11 demonstrators that reached up to twenty-seven years of imprisonment; and the judges denied Archipelago promoters the possibility of discussing in court the decision of the intendants. Cuban judges considered that they were not competent to resolve constitutional issues. In short, the decision of the intendants became an unappealable act supported from the beginning by the entire propaganda apparatus.

The institutional position made it clear to Archipelago members and to those who supported their cause that there was no protection against state terror and its impunity. This reality made an impression on several Archipelago members, many of whom had no previous repressive or political experience. Shortly before 11-15, several of those who had shown the most determination in their decision to march began —some under visible coercion— to dissociate themselves from the initiative and demobilize.

The government repression was meticulously implemented: hundreds of illegal interrogations that even included intimidating people for liking a Facebook post on the Archipelago group. In those interrogations, the political police threatened ordinary citizens, activists, independent journalists, cartoonists and in some cases even their relatives —depoliticized or unaware of the expressions and activism of their relatives. The authorities used the impunity they enjoy to threaten activists with the possible criminal repercussions they could face if they went out to demonstrate on 11-15.

Likewise, acts of repudiation and house arrests were carried out, Internet cut-offs and police blockades to prevent those who had insisted —after all the repression— on their idea of marching from going out to the streets or to organize themselves. Organizations such as the Cuban Observatory of Human Rights report that only on November 15 there were a hundred arrests and a similar number of detentions in homes, accompanied by acts of repudiation.

Terror also ended up breaking the most visible figure of Archipelago, Yunior García Aguilera. The playwright —in a decision that, most probably, ended up impacting the coherence of the call, already eroded by the incessant repression— decided to deviate from the initial plan —decided in a collective and horizontal way— and announced that he would march alone on November 14 and not on November 15 as planned. The decision, as stated by the artist, was supported by the majority of Archipelago’s team of moderators. On November 14, 2021, Yunior García could not and did not try to leave his house, as he had announced hours before in a direct transmission through his social networks. From there came hours of incommunicado detention that led Archipelago to ask for a proof of life, and then the news that, on November 17, the playwright —while his companions considered him missing— had arrived in Spain.

In the handling of these events, we need to move from personal judgments to political analyses. The former magnifies the moral dimension, with the focus on questioning or deifying specific people. The latter evaluates the actors —including individuals— and the resources at stake in terms of their effect on power disputes.

We must differentiate between Yunior García’s recent attitude as a human being and the role he has played as a leader. He deserves all the understanding as a person, for having been subjected to the incessant direct pressure (defamatory, police-related, psychological) of the entire state apparatus, and for his feeling of responsibility for the fate of his threatened followers and his family. Few could have behaved differently. His pacifism and his declared condition of being a man with only one weapon, his words, allow us to understand his reluctance to undertake forceful actions or expose himself to unleashed repression.

However, regardless of perceptions and self-perceptions, in environments such as the Cuban one, all activism is political, much more so that of Archipelago, which was born with the aim of freeing political prisoners and bringing about democratic changes on the island. Whoever founds, brings together and convokes this activism becomes, whether he wants it or not, a leader. Hence, no form of understanding and human empathy prevents an evaluation of leadership and communication failures.

If in an authoritarian environment a protest action is launched with a risk of repression, the convening leader has two alternatives before him: a) to convince his supporters of a tactical retreat or b) if he persists in sustaining the pulse, to be in the front line. Because, despite the attempt to build collective leaderships, the symbolic and effective role of individuals (due to their ability to synthesize ideas, messages and examples) has an unquestionable impact on the organization’s members and sympathizers. Let us think, for example, of what Luis Manuel Otero, Maykel Osorbo and Carolina Barrero mean today, young activists and artists who have aroused all the anger of power with their attitudes of civic resistance to state violence.

There are notable examples of leaders who have assumed responsibility for their role in adverse political situations. In order to transcend national philias and phobias, we recover several examples. Martin Luther King Jr., during the second march from Selma to Montgomery, faced with the encounter with National Guard soldiers and the precedent of Bloody Sunday, decided to redirect the marchers back to the church. King did not want to put his people at risk, as he hoped for more support and a federal court decision granting them protection. Aung San Suu Kyi accepted the prolonged domestic confinement instead of fleeing the country in order not to leave without a leader the movement she led in Burma. Alexei Navalny returned to Russia this year, after being poisoned, to lead protests against Putin. His movement was outlawed and, from the dungeons, he asked his followers to prepare for future struggles. Today in Nicaragua, Ana Margarita Vigil and Félix Madariaga —among others— are paying with jail for their decision not to give in to Ortega.

Not all people are capable or strong enough to act as leaders in authoritarian contexts. Of course, leaders can also go into exile and, in doing so, can use their political and personal capital to strengthen the movement. But only in rare cases —such as Belarusian presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya or Venezuela’s Leopoldo López, after his departure to Spain— can an exiled leadership continue to have some kind of connection and ascendancy with the movement they left behind. And even in those cases, it is a fragile link because there is a deep gap between the conditions of exile and the fate of the leaders and rank and file who remain in the country of origin.

What is not positive from the political point of view —and this criticism has been made to Tikhanovskaya, who was expelled from the country while other figures remained in Belarus— is a leader adopting a personal solution at the peak of a call without involving their team and followers; especially if it is a citizen network that tries against all the fragility and inertia of an autocratic culture and political praxis to change people at the same time as reality. If the recourse to a personal escape was foreseen in the face of the worsening repression, this should at least have been known by the coordinating team and the movement that launched an S.O.S. to declare its most visible figure disappeared in the middle of the repression of that day. If it was decided to leave —despite the variable of the lack of communication—, it would have been preferable to demobilize, to show humanity and fragility in order to preserve the movement’s drawing power and to demonstrate in situ the —undisputable— strength that the system retains to break, through terror, those who oppose it.

Of course, these are decisions that are very easy to consider from the outside, without being surrounded by a mob of vociferous people, with the capacity to attack you. But critical political analysis should be indispensable in the Cuban civil society’s quest to rehearse democracy and to build knowledge and strategies of struggle. To deny the possibility of criticizing the leader Yunior would imply reproducing the idea, defended from officialdom, that these analyses help the enemy or that the actions of those who govern Cuba cannot be criticized because they earned those privileges in the Sierra Maestra.

It is unlikely that Yunior García, after his decision and the way it was implemented, will retain the leadership capacity to guide Archipelago to greater ventures. It will be up to its members to process, as best they can, the founder’s role in an organization that has established the collective deliberation of goals as a guiding principle. Voluntarism and sudden changes of agenda have no place in such a network movement. Its cost, real and symbolic, is too high for the type of articulation and civic change they aspire to implement.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the playwright has all the testimonial and intellectual capital to denounce, as a victim, the terror, violence and impunity with which the Cuban government acts. Not only before the international public opinion and international organizations, but also before a left movement to which Yunior feels he belongs and which acts warily when it comes to condemning the Cuban regime. The value of the repressed intellectual, due to his personal condition and communicative capacity, can be very important at a time when part of the international community seems to begin to see Cuba for what it really is: an oppressive tyranny, like others that are subject to condemnation and sanctions.

The way in which Yunior García’s exile took place, the lack of transparency with which it was handled, affects Archipelago politically. The Cuban government has shown that it has total control of the situation. The failure of the protests and the untimely departure of the creator of Archipelago serve on a platter the contents for the propaganda apparatus—whose lies are increasingly disbelieved—and demotivate a citizenry that appreciates the effectiveness of a call to protest for its material and not symbolic results. That same citizenry had seen in Yunior—among other things because of the personal exposure that he assumed as valid and necessary—a leader that Cubans—most of whom do not understand collectivities and horizontalities—believed could drive the definitive change.

Archipelago, as a movement, lacked advocacy and effective communication strategies to involve the families of the more than 600 Cuban political prisoners. Archipelago did not succeed in getting those who had the greatest capacity and authority —for human and not necessarily political reasons— to march, to demonstrate on November 15. Beyond Andy García’s family in Santa Clara, there were no signs of public support from those who should have been won in the first instance.

The overall results of the day should serve to evaluate the strategies of those who promote maximalist solutions.

All that has been said so far does not seem to be a mixed scenario, but rather one more similar to the one we have catalogued as negative. However, this would be a reductionist and defeatist view that is not completely in line with reality. Although we cannot consider the Archipelago call a success, we can evaluate as positive some of the results of 11-15.

During the day there were no major collective demonstrations, but there were reports of individual acts or small groups of citizens who came out dressed in white or who followed some of the protest initiatives recommended by Archipelago. On social networks several people shared graphic evidence —most of them individual actions— that showed support for the call and the occupation of the Cuban physical public space. Several people hung white sheets, rang pots and pans or shared some kind of symbol alluding to 11-15 on social networks. The attempts or isolated protests led to the arrest of several people, some of whom are still in detention or missing. These isolated protests are part of the suboptimal scenario described by us. As is the fact that a good part of the Archipelago moderators remains active in Cuba and that the support for the initiative by the Cuban diaspora community was far-reaching.

The joint action of Archipelago and the civil society actors that accompanied it contributed to deepen the deterioration of the international image of the Cuban regime. On the eve of 11-15 and as a result of the visibility of the repression, unprecedented pronouncements were made by international actors such as the European Union and Canada. The UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Association expressed concern about the limitations to the right of demonstration of Cubans. The Office of the UN High Commissioner, which on previous occasions had decided to remain silent on Cuba, announced that it would monitor the situation and after 11-15 called for the immediate release of those detained during the day. If in Nicaragua and Venezuela, which are also experiencing an ebb in social mobilization, the international community has been involved in actions of concrete solidarity with local democrats, it is plausible to demand that they should act in a similar way in Cuba —with more than twice as many prisoners as those countries combined— and the island should cease to be an exception.

Archipelago and its initiative also contributed to obtaining irrefutable documentary evidence that demonstrates the non-existence of an independent institutionality, not linked to the decisions of the Communist Party and the State Security apparatus. In other words, Archipelago’s strategic litigation provided more proof that the unity of power only leads, in the best of cases, to the dictatorship of the majority and in the worst of cases —and closer to the Cuban reality according to our perspective— to the dictatorship of a few.

Archipelago’s actions also produced more arguments to dismantle the discourse —held by the Cuban government and its allies in international organizations and academic institutions— that Cuban institutionality is sufficient to channel political dissent in the country. The group demonstrated that the Cuban Constitution is symbolic and that it can be boiled down —despite the efforts of some renowned academics— to two articles, 4 and 5. They provided the documentary evidence that the “socialist” state of law is a fiction, otherwise only reserved for those who support the Cuban political system.

Archipelago also seems to have brought about a greater humanitarian and civic involvement of the Catholic Church in the socio-political reality of the country. The participation of priests, nuns and laypeople in accompanying the protests, the message of the Episcopal Conference and the personal accompaniment of the Cardinal to Yunior García demonstrate this. Although these actions are not the same as those we defined in one of the variants of the optimal scenario, they do demonstrate that the Catholic Church continues to be a social actor of weight in the Cuban reality. They also seem to demonstrate the decision, especially of the hierarchy, of wanting to deepen the mission of the Church in Cuba and to place itself once again as a relevant actor —as in regimes of the area such as Venezuela and Nicaragua— in the political game after years of statements that denoted a tacit agreement with the Cuban Government.

The abusive mediocrity of Cuban power —unable to provide justice, prosperity and social participation— will continue to generate unrest that will continue to translate into an increasingly poor and unequal society. And this will end up transmuting into dissidence. There are people and groups that cannot and will not remain silent, escape or accept the status quo. A challenge for Archipelago —and for the initiatives to come— will be to maintain and rebuild the social fabric and narratives that confront this exclusionary order of issues.

To this end, it is imperative to place the focus of any action taken by the Cuban civil society —domestic or international— on the political prisoners and their families. It is a humanitarian, transideological cause, capable of arousing the broadest and most valuable solidarities to build—as has happened elsewhere—a movement of victims and supporters around the most basic demand for justice. If when Archipelago burst in some people feared that it was going to take away visibility from the situation of the prisoners, the very dynamics of the events have only reinforced the centrality of the human drama increased after 7-11.

The work of initiatives such as Justice7-11 or the Cuban Conference of Women Religious (CONCUR), just to mention two organizations present in Cuba and sharing the fate of the victims, is an example in this direction.

* This text was originally published in El Toque

Eloy Viera Cañive Cienfuegos (1987). Law Degree (2011). Since 2017, he has promoted the Fundación Colectivo Más Voces. He has collaborated with several Cuban independent media, mainly El Toque where he coordinates the project El Toque Jurídico (elTOQUE Jurídico). Armando Chaguaceda. Cuban political scientist and historian graduated from the University of Havana (Cuba) and the University of Veracruz (Mexico). Researcher specialized in government and political analysis, and country-expert of the V-Dem project. He studies the processes of democratization and self-cratization in Latin America and Russia.


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