We are Alive! In Praise of the Rebellion on its First Anniversary

I was talking with a friend in Cuba a few days after the July 11, 2021 protests, the emotion of the events still in the air. We were trying to find the words to describe the feeling we experienced at that moment; words that would allow us to wrap ourselves around them, but that would also elude us. “It was like finally feeling alive,” he said suddenly, “Feeling that we are alive! We thought we were dead and no, we’re alive.”

That was the phrase. It may sound a bit exaggerated because it implies, what, that we were dead before? And the answer is yes, a little. Or at least it seemed so. The internal framework of totalitarianism is a debilitating mechanism that generates a kind of paralysis and apathy, a conformity to a “life in lies”. This apathy, this absence of horizon —reinforced again and again by official propaganda emphasizing that there is no better world than the one being offered and that, even when said world becomes unbearable, any other will necessarily be worse— has systematically produced very bleak images. For while oppression is bleak, its apparent acceptance is bleaker still, not to mention acceptance in the form of enthusiastic adherence, as in acts of repudiation.

During the special period at the beginning of the nineties —which we will have to rename “the first special period”, considering the situation now is very similar to that one if not worse—, a pun on the title of the famous movie The Silence of the Lambs best defined the Cuban version of the intrinsic apathy pervading life in a totalitarian regime. We lived, many said, in The Silence of the Rams. It is a cruel “joke”, which should be rather interpreted as a sign of self-awareness than as an accurate description of reality or a way of rubbing salt on a wound, basically because targeting a problem is always a step toward solving it.

Addressing totalitarianism, which gives totalitarian oppression its hallmark, Václav Havel explained the nihilization of life occurring in these regimes as an effect of the totalizing pretension of ideology, which, purporting to explain reality and the direction of history, establishes a bureaucratic regime with no further aim than to translate such a pretension into everyday life. The system of ideological reproduction is, therefore, profoundly conservative and requires the elimination of difference, histories that do not readily conform to the History projected by the ideology, and all dissenting gestures. The uniformity thus produced buries any attempt at rebellion.

Several artists and intellectuals were repressed and arrested at the gates of the ICRT. Havana, July 11, 2021. Photo: Facebook.

“In destroying plurality this system inevitably destroys all forms of autonomy, particularity, unpredictability, independence, multiplicity, and variation. […] Its fruit is uniformity and the creation of a herd mentality. […] Standardized life creates standardized citizens […] It begets undifferentiated people with undifferentiated histories. It is a mass producer of banality. Anyone who resists much […] is inevitably headed to a place where he will no longer be a blotch on the surface of social life: to jail”.[1]

This textbook explanation seems difficult to fit in with the Cuban context at present either because the regime has not succeeded in completely imposing its constituent dystopia, or because it succeeded for a while, but it has finally begun to unravel, which ultimately accounts for our being dead before. But it doesn’t explain why we are dead no more, why it is evident that now, “we are alive”. The first explanation of “being alive”, of this tempestuous, miraculous awakening —reading the miraculous as a sudden appearance of what until then was impossible— is that life cannot be reduced to totalitarian gray forever. What informs life is multiplicity, iteration, and difference, which always find a way to slip out even when constrained by walls; sometimes as minimal shoots that appear between the cracks; always, because there is no foundation deep enough to support the totalitarian wall forever. That is why the totalitarian night, although it may seem so, is never eternal.

Zooming in on the Cuban context, the explanation lies in the multiple structural cracks that have accumulated for years and can eventually bring about the cracking of the Cuban totalitarian wall. The stabilization of independent journalism, the rise of activism and its multiple demands, and access to the Internet and social networks —a space that always manages to escape any attempt at absolute control— represent three main cracks.[2] Of course, another comes from the worsening of poverty in a regime of absolute control, as well as reaching exhaustion in the face of a situation turned so dire and horrible that the final safeguard of propaganda —the induced belief that any alternative to the current situation will necessarily be worse— collapses when one hits rock bottom. There is nothing worse beyond that; also, the motivating effect of having reached a situation with nothing or almost nothing to lose cannot be discarded either.

But “being alive” is not only not being dead. Social anesthesia, that numb and somatized comfort that is not even comfortable, but seems inevitable and insurmountable, is not enough to reach the state my friend was referring to when he said that 7/11 was proof that we were alive. The ‘life’ implicit in that phrase has to do with what a popular demonstration —especially in a context where public demonstrations other than in support of the government are either completely forbidden or falsely recognized by law but forbidden in practice— conveys: rebelliousness and the desire to transcend a lifestyle that is considered unbearable. Both —rebellion and the desire for transcendence— are not very different; one does not exist without the other. All rebellion carries within the germ of other possibilities; it denies the reality against which it rebels and denies the conditions that make such a reality possible. Refusing to accept a given situation, rebellion opens the way for others. Desire then shapes this open road which does not have, at first, a definite form. It should not have one, not at the cost of depriving the rebellious gesture of its potency.

A protester is led away by police during protests last July 11 in Cuba.

When the July 11 demonstrators shouted in the streets “Freedom, freedom!” they were not presenting a political program, at least not one as understood in formal policymaking, a program with goals and steps to follow. But the demand for freedom is always, above all, an act of rebellion in the face of oppression, and insofar as it is rebellion, ushers in possible paths. In this case too, even if many ‘brainiacs’ who love authoritarianism and its pretensions of order refuse to accept it, choosing instead to strengthen the criminalizing rhetoric that uses its particular lexicon to translate demonstrations as riots, degrading them in the process.

The cry for “Freedom, freedom!” chanted out loud —amid expletives to the embodiment of the causes of oppression and destruction of its material symbols— also implies a longing. What form is this longing going to take? Rebelliousness is also necessary to resist the constraint imposed by power when it appropriates any terms to pour into them the meaning it finds most convenient to control what escapes its orbit, reducing all meaning to the narrow lexicon of confrontation, thus trying to bring the herd (what power can only perceive as a herd) back into its fold. It is also vital to prevent this freedom from being defined by those who want to stop rebellion at all cost, to refuse to allow them to take over the content of that yearning freedom engenders. Even to envision a horizon, and inhabit it, we need rebellion. The cry for freedom will have a thousand readings and interpretations, and will probably become a negotiation full of frictions, monopolizations, distortions, and reinventions; there will be a thousand forks in the road ahead to achieve concrete actions and palpable contents of a newly found freedom that is starting to be slowly conquered right there in the streets, amid the heated outcry that springs from getting tired of everything. But the first content of that freedom is already outlined.

Life without rebellion and longing is not life. Without them, to live is actually to survive. Therefore, what is already the greatest act of rebellion in the history of Cuban totalitarianism is a reaffirmation of life. A life impossible to be contained that can no longer be hidden and will take to the streets again. Recognizing that being alive of rebellion and longing was the infinite gift that J-11 gave us.

Cubans protest in Havana on July 11.

The plural implied in the “we are alive” is, of course, not homogeneous. It belongs first of all to those who put their bodies on the line that day and have endured harsh repression, all the more shameless for its being proportional to the immense building of its concealment. Cubadebate can even declare that “here in Cuba nobody is persecuted for their political ideas”, and offer as an example of political freedom the clustering of artists in front of the Ministry of Culture on November 27, 2020, demanding “the right to have rights”, while over a thousand people remain in jail, a large part of them after receiving sentences that would be shameful for those who serve the network that has made them possible —if shame were a variable to be considered in the repressive deployment and its narrative correlate. It is a “we” that also belong to those who have built the history of rebellion and anti-totalitarian yearnings from the start, to the countless victims of totalitarianism; to those who did not live to witness 7/11, and also to those who lived it from a distance, with their hearts hanging by a thread while chanting: “Alive, we are alive”. It belongs, too, to those who have been there before and to those who have joined later in the continuous team effort that all awakenings require: the denunciations, the material support, the demands made at international organizations, the daily and overwhelming task of following each case to build the archive of horror engrossed today by the lists of political prisoners, which Justicia11J has built with an exemplary systematicity and dedication. It belongs to so many friends from other lands who have lived every blow and every learning as their own or suffered their portion as well. A ‘we,’ in sum, still incomplete and blurry, that can be recognized in its various layers but resists being homogenized. Better this way. We’ve had enough grays and silences.



[1] Václav Havel: “Stories and Totalitarianism,” Index of Censorship, no. 17, vol. 3, 1988, p. 18

[2] Hilda Landrove and Yanet Rosabal: “11J en Cuba. Estrategias del poder totalitario para el control de la narrativa (I)” [“11J in Cuba. Strategies of totalitarian power to control the narrative (I)”], GaPAC Government and Political Analysis, July 2022.

Hilda del Carmen Landrove Torres. Cuban researcher and cultural promoter. She has been involved for years in social and cultural entrepreneurship and more recently in academic research in anthropology. She is currently a PhD candidate in Mesoamerican Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.


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