The surprise and the maneuver: creative mobilization and authoritarian reaction in Cuba

                     He who despairs over an event is a coward, but he holds hope for the human condition is a fool.

Albert Camus

Last week events have produced a richness of passionate opinions, but there is a scarcity of situated analyses. Judgments fluctuate. Some, euphorically, seem to ignore the real country. Others cling to immobility. This is how we Cubans are, people of extremes.

Several readings try to evaluate the advances and burdens behind the greatest autonomous public mobilization demanding rights that has taken place in six decades of state socialism. The first where government officials and actors not recognized by the state -including activists and independent journalists- met to dialogue in an official space, after an improvised process of assembly and delegated democracy, where hundreds of citizens dismantled the controlled conversation induced by the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Culture (MINCULT). Politics should not be reduced to a symbol, but there is always something of that. And the factors mentioned above are all, symbolically and politically, relevant.

But behind the symbol there is strength.

One must understand what it means, under an autocratic order and a fragmented society, to mobilize against the former and in favor of the latter. To hold the asymmetrical pulse between conservative inertia and emerging change. To try to turn the imbalance between official propaganda and communicational guerrillas. If this is not done, there is a risk of passing from epic to disenchantment.

For those who have been accompanying, from the academy, similar events and its protagonists in Barquisimeto and Matagalpa, Isfahan and Yekaterinburg for some years now, this thing is just as agonizing. But a little less deterministic. And in “that place”, for a few hours, everything was more fragile, uncertain and new than in other latitudes. But it was real. After the miracle of the action (Arendt dixit), everything remains to be done.

Now, what’s next? Leaving aside the allusions to “betrayal”, of which there is no empirical evidence among the participants, the dilemma is to talk or not to talk to a power that shows signs of not wanting to do it. At least under minimally symmetrical and binding conditions. There is also a discussion about whether talking precludes attempting other actions.

Dialogue can be evaluated as a means, with limited objectives and possibilities given the asymmetry of forces, information and anticipation between the parties. Also as a process -with organizational and communicational dimensions- of accumulation of resources, leadership and experiences. It is convenient to approach it from the realism of perspectives such as those of the sociologist María Antonia Cabrera and the historian Enrique del Risco.

In similar processes in authoritarian environments -for example, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Belarus, setting aside the differences between the cases– one always has to face the dilemma of when to leave the table if the repression continues, the supposed agreements are not fulfilled and the punitive action itself begins to divide the opposition in “doves” and “hawks”. This is not an easy topic for analysis, let alone action. What little can be known considering past experiences is that no dialogue is possible without pressure.

Dialogue and pressure -other demonstrations, legal actions, pronouncements, etc.- can be articulated -ideally- or go on their own. But we have gained, I insist, enough empirical evidence: there is no dialogue without pressure. And there are dialogues that, if maintained over time without a minimum of conditions, harm those who participate.

In any case, for these practical reasons, and because there are also profound human reasons, which are here political, the only thing that is clear is that the San Isidro Movement cannot be abandoned. Because the San Isidro Movement has triggered this phenomenon, which the powers that be will try to tame. Their artistic and civic demands -including the demand to set Denis Solís free- are fundamental and must not be abandoned.

These positions, included in the document of negotiation with the MINCULT, are not radical proposals that call for the end of the government. They are basic, minimal conditions that give meaning to everything else. Without that, without even minimal actions to sustain those demands, everything else loses a great deal of meaning. Even though, just the fact that it has happened is something unprecedented and potentially positive.

As I write this, news appears of a meeting of the President with members of UNEAC. The news is part of a larger agenda. Media bombardment, public force deployments, “leaked” messages about mobilizations of “angry crowds”, interrogations and specific releases from prison. Everything leads to one objective: to demobilize, to fragment, to recover the initiative.

Because the strength of the protest depends on a subtle -but real- articulation between the artivist “vanguard” and the “mass” of artists, intellectuals and sympathizers. Both groups and their ethos, as they converged in that wonderful document that was agreed on by consensus that afternoon, depend on each other. One without the other loses programmatic consistency and social strength.

Now the government will try to build a favorable agenda, defended by loyalists, to reach a scenario of decaffeinated dialogue. To reduce it to another debate similar to the one they had about the “Quinquenio Gris”, with closed forums and a loyal majority. Abstract and full of pretense debates, just like the one that, on these very days, discussed normatively about democracy and participation, ignoring the human and political drama that was taking place a few kilometers away.

I have no doubt that some of the intellectuals who, at the last minute, supported the demands before the MINCULT are now playing a role as “realists” in what is happening now. “Moderates” who previously made invisible or disqualified, openly or subtly, the San Isidro Movement and the broader claims of rights for all. I invite readers to review the official media, some alternative media and social networks: there is the evidence of the enlightened scam. The same that became untenable when people occupied 2 street, in front of number 258, in Vedado.

The challenge is to maintain the minimal agenda set out there, which attracted the support of those who gathered in front of the Ministry. That document can perfectly converge with the proposal signed by hundreds of Catholics and Cuban citizens on these very days. A concrete and achievable agenda, without stridencies or concealments. An agenda that, without calling for a regime change, combines union and civic demands. An agenda that does not beg for caste privileges because it demands civil rights.

Because it is not that the powers that be, out of generosity, will grant you the right to have a controlled catharsis from time to time. It is about eliminating the causes that permanently generate grievances. To the artists and beyond. So that the surprise of the civic mobilization, plural and peaceful, is not distorted by the ploy of the government and its loyalists.

Therein lies the crucial difference between the Court and the Republic.

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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