The Cuban state’s resistance in allowing identity groups outside of its philosophical and historical claim of collective and unanimous representation became clear again in its reaction to the LGBTI+ marches on May 11. The Cuban government’s fundamental and founding principle is expressed in its official political entities: single party, state-sponsored organizations with mass membership, etc. Anything outside those channels is not only not permitted, it is feared.
Representation of traditional minorities have been absorbed and controlled from above as part of the ideals of emancipation and redistribution brought by the Cuban revolution. Under official state ideology, there should not be a feminist movement beyond the state-run Federation of Cuban Women, or an LGBTI+ activist movement outside the official National Center for Sexual Education—which is directed by Mariela Castro, who has clarified that the issues the center promotes in the public sphere form “part of the projects of social justice proposed by the Cuban Revolution.”
The surrender of Cuban society to this form of government and view of governing reinforces the state’s belief that it is the only organ with the capacity to identify and embody group and minority claims based on its own concept of social justice. In this view, any stumbling block or awkward position should be seen as an attack against “el Bien Común,” or the common good.
Put simply: the Cuban state fears the autonomy of its own citizens.
On Saturday, May 11, around 300 members of the LGBTI+ community, including activists and allies, carried Cuban and rainbow flags as they marched from Parque Central crossing through Paseo del Prado. It was the first mass independent demonstration in Cuba in recent decades. The march was interrupted at the Malecón, where protestors were met by policemen and plainclothes agents, who argued that the activity had not been authorized.
The efforts of that day—which is already being referred to as 11M in Cuba—have been misinterpreted in an effort to alert the public of a “counterrevolution.” Officially sanctioned digital sites, traditional media and government television programs have gone on the attack reducing the number of protestors, tying them to foreign conspiracies, stigmatizing the movement’s leaders, misrepresenting their motivations, criminalizing their actions, and delegitimizing their right to public representation and demonstration. Consequently, those who have parroted the government’s position—not only officials or state-friendly intellectuals, but also ordinary citizens—have engaged on the state’s assault on the independent will of the protestors, and by implication all citizens.
The first article of the recently approved constitution identifies the Cuban State as a “socialist state in law and social justice, democratic, independent and sovereign, organized with all and for the good of all as a unitary and indivisible republic, founded on work, dignity, the humanism and ethics of its citizens for the enjoyment of freedom, equity, equality, solidarity, well-being and individual and collective prosperity.” However, the distance between the socialist rhetoric of the constitutional text, which stipulates de jure rights, and the administration, which creates de facto rights, is further widened by the impossibility of legally discussing the state in terms of both public policies and civic rights.
Although Chapter I, Article 13 of the constitution explains that the state’s essential purposes include “…the guarantee of equality in the enjoyment and exercise of rights, and compliance with the duties enshrined in the constitution,” the same section includes “strengthening the ideology and ethics inherent in our socialist society.” This means that, although the state de jure must recognize and promote organizations that represent diverse and specific interests of different sub-sets of the population, this right must not hinder what is understood as the construction, consolidation and defense of a socialist society. De facto, the resources that an uncomfortable Cuban subject possesses will not be equal to those of a Cuban with an active, militant, integrated citizenship.
It is here that the vertical, hierarchical and monopolistic logic of the tropical Leviathan, unaccustomed to challenges to its hegemony, is on full display.
Why independent activism isn’t in the Cuban government’s worldview
On December 30, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel made it known that the island had its fair share of “[people] wrongly born in Cuba,” joining the Cuban state-media’s trend of referring to a group of the population considered to behave in a politically incorrect fashion as “ex-cubanos.” Although it seems harmless to erase one’s citizenship from a podium, when this comes from the de facto power and reinforces a governing philosophy that through its laws has promoted a narrow, partisan concept of the relationship between the government and the governed, it takes a particularly sinister turn. In Cuba, failure to stay within the government’s conception of “citizenship” is met with condemnation or worse: loss of the fundamental right to citizenship.
By its nature, (or at least under states that do not try to monopolize popular representation and demands) activism is political. It becomes so when it identifies and acts to reinforce or change public policies. In fact, the right to organize and protest is among the central political rights of citizens. Protest mobilizations question power ‘from below.’ These movements raise local policies, promote suffrage and legal reforms, and even influence the tone of the press and the nature of private and state relations. With the internet, these movements can establish global alliances and encourage a greater discussion about the logic and typologies of existing political models. This can only be achieved if the state allows an opening of the public space so that it can become an arena for the discussion and construction of social claims, rather than the top-down, state-defined categories and hierarchies it currently allows; thus challenging the state’s definition of what it means to be a non-Cuban.
The construction of an active citizenship is central to the political right to vote, the freedom of association, assembly and protest, the citizenship’s right to informative transparency, impartial representation, and freedom of expression, press, privacy and property. These, among other rights, cannot be overshadowed or subordinated to the basic delivery of social guarantees achieved in the 1960s, though that has become the norm in Cuba. The implicit violence in this dichotomy resides first in the condition of introducing the right to education, social security, work and health as a unilateral achievement of the movement and, therefore, as an indispensable basis for the social substrate of the revolution.
This is the basis of the government’s logic when it calls “ex-Cubanos” those who work against common historical destiny and in favor of personal motivations. The “hiving” or closing off of these debates through the official, parochial mechanisms of consultation and is a denial of fundamental individual rights. But it also crimps the possibilities for future change. The government’s philosophy for organizing society sustains the dominant patterns of a fragmented, sterile, numb, and uninformed citizenry. A citizenry of this sort cannot achieve national reconciliation and promote the organizations and habits of the heart that nurture the civil life of the country, where everyone can define and express themselves freely and celebrate their identity—and by doing so, remove social stigmas. It is a civil life where public space is a place of argumentation and debate and not of Manichean and intolerant formulas. That’s precisely why the Cuban government fears independent advocacy, as it showed on 11M.
Armando Chaguaceda is a political scientist, historian and professor at the University of Guanajuato and studies the relationship between civil society, political institutions and democratization (and de-democratization) in Latin America and Russia
Claudia González Marrero—PhD in Cultural Studies, Graduate Center for the Study of Culture (GCSC), Gießen, Germany—studies the relationship between civic processes and cultural policies in totalitarian regimes