Independent Activism in Cuba
Independent Activism in Cuba
August 5, 2012
HAVANA TIMES — "Come wearing something red and kiss someone, because all
forms of love are important." Last June 28, forty-six people who had
received this message via instant messaging or e-mail met in the Havana
bus terminal, near the Plaza of the Revolution, to kiss each other.
The group that had promoted the gathering was the Rainbow Project
(Proyecto Arcoiris) an independent collective aimed at mobilizing the
citizenry to take their demands for the rights to sexual diversity and
the free expression of affection to the streets.
The government of Raul Castro has officially broken with the regime's
homophobic past and is sponsoring policies of non-discrimination;
however, displays of affection between people of the same sex are still
penalized by laws that categorize them as "indecent exhibitionism."
"We held the Kiss-In precisely for those people who have not yet decided
to come out of the closet of what has been authorized and coordinated,
of that supported by the superior authorities that know everything and
define everything. They learned that the street does not belong to the
authorities, to the chimera called "the revolutionaries" that no one
knows in the end how they look or what they believe in," Yasmin Silvia
Portales Machado, founder of the Rainbow Project, explained in her blog.
Although four or five dozen people might seem like a small thing,
organizing an action in demand of change outside of the government and
of the anti-Castro opposition is something unheard of in a country where
political polarization colors every social initiative.
The National Center for Sexual Education (Cenesex), which coordinates
the policies for sexual diversity under the leadership of Mariela
Castro, Raul Castro's daughter, doesn't recognize June 28, a day in
which gay pride events are organized in many cities around the world.
The latter are considered an imperialist and capitalist celebration.
Instead, they have established May as anti-homophobia month and organize
activities to sensitize the population to questions such as civil unions
between people of the same sex or the special health needs of transsexuals.
As a result, on previous June 28's only the LGBT Rights Observatory, a
collective identified with the dissident movement, has gone out on the
street. Definitely, the choice has been official activities in May or
anti-Castro Pride in June.
The Rainbow Project has broken with this logic and with no further ado
has joined the commemoration of the anniversary of the Stonewall
disturbances, in tune with the international LGBT community.
The organizers were very nervous: "Since Tuesday I had a nervous tic in
my right eye," recalled Yasmín – but this time there were no incidents.
They did, however, receive messages from people who feared for their
safety or from those who had heard that the initiative came from an
opposition group, as another of the promoters, Luis Rondón Paz, states
in his blog.
Despite such rumors, the police didn't appear, nor did the participants
receive any pressure. "I suppose that such permissiveness was associated
with the fact that the act of kissing each other could be seen as
something legitimate, innocent, beautiful," Isbel Díaz Torres, another
founder of the collective wrote. He does however underline the
political character of the action in a post where he recalls how he was
fined years ago for kissing his boyfriend on the beach.
Following the reading of a communiqué entitled: "The revolution is the
struggle against all kinds of discrimination", the participants
nervously awaited the signal and kissed each other. Passion was lacking
and the kissing was mainly among women, "but the photo of Isbel with his
boyfriend has been seen around the world, so that we did meet our
objective of achieving visibility for the LGBT movement in Cuba," Luis
The Critical Left
The Rainbow Project is one of the small autonomous collectives that have
emerged in the last decade under the umbrella of Observatorio Crítico
(Critical Observatory) the most notable experience of social activism
outside the perimeter of the Cuban institutions.
This network brings together people who defend anti-capitalism,
socialism, anarchism in a few cases, and Cuban sovereignty from a
position of unstinting criticism of all forms of discrimination,
authoritarianism and repression promoted by or permitted by the Government.
They do this through initiatives such as the Rainbow Project, the
Negritude Brotherhood (which criticizes the institutional and social
racism which persists in Cuban society and seeks to reconstruct the
historical memory of the black community) and the Guardabosques (Forest
Rangers), an environmental project headed by Isbel.
Critical Observatory distributes compendiums of articles over e-mail,
organizes debates on such diverse topics as genetically modified foods,
trans-feminism or the rap-inspired "reggaetón" music and popular culture.
It also holds annual social forums that have become a point of reference
for the critical left in Cuba. They agree with the socialist project,
but not with the marked Stalinism of the regime. They defend basic
liberties, but they set themselves apart from the official dissident
movement with its support for implanting a capitalist system under the
tutelage of the United States.
Faced with those who dedicate themselves to the unconditional defense of
what they call the Revolution, and those on the other side who
concentrate their energy on defeating what they define as a clear
dictatorship, the Cubans associated with Critical Observatory
concentrate on denouncing concrete expressions of inequality and on
debating a model that could reconcile revolutionary principles with
respect for basic freedoms.
They assert that the Revolution must be feminist, anti-rascist, and
anti-homophobic, or it won't be anything. Their proclamation recalls
the M-15 (Spain) movement, to which these activists feel related.
Their anti-capitalist ideology leads them to oppose all US interference,
but also to question Raul Castro's economic model which promotes private
initiative, foreign investment and also mass lay-offs, and to advocate
for collective formulas such as cooperatives.
Their stand on the Pope's visit to Cuba last March was also significant.
While the Castro supporters were rubbing their hands together in glee
over the legitimacy that the visit provided them, and the anti-Castro
factions lamented the scarce attention that his Holiness awarded them,
Yasmín and other members of the Observatory were a discordant note.
They criticized the fact that a lay State like Cuba would waste public
money to welcome the leader of an institution that doesn't recognize
sexual and reproductive rights; they wrote ironically about the
Communist Party's eagerness to host a leader who was belligerently
opposed to Marxism, and condemned the fact that the Afro-Cuban
religions, whose influence is greater than that of Catholicism, have not
received any such governmental recognition.
Months before, they fantasized about showing public indignation over the
Pope's visit, but in the end they limited themselves to expressing their
point of view in the alternative media and in the blogs.
The right of association in Cuba
To grasp the situation in which this autonomous left finds itself, it's
helpful to understand how the right to associate functions in Cuba.
This State that defines itself as revolutionary has historically put up
barriers to the existence of independent social movements.
Raul Castro's declarations of a new openness and the fact that at least
in words he has defended freedom of expression and of the press, is one
of the factors that explains the recent emergence and survival of
autonomous social and cultural initiatives.
However, the pro-Castro groups continue to defend the idea that only the
official mass organizations like the Cuban Women's Federation or the
groups linked to Cenesex can legitimately mobilize the citizenry in
favor of social demands.
Rogelio M. Díaz, blogger and member of Critical Observatory, attributes
this to the official line that the concept of "civil society" is
"bourgeois, subversive and a United States' strategy to penetrate the
Third World," while "the mass organizations incorporate into their
statutes the notion of following the Party leadership."
He cites three factors: the climate of aggression on the part of the US,
the leadership style of Fidel and the politics of the socialist camp.
Given that many supposedly independent associations "are nothing more
than tiny groups promoted by the CIA and other forces of the USA", the
blogger emphasizes that it is absolutely necessary that the United
States renounce their intention to promote a regime change if the
situation is to normalize: "If this by some miracle were to occur
tomorrow, then we would be able to measure the real willingness of the
Cuban government to abandon their strict controls."
Among other things he makes reference to the combination of bureaucratic
snags and lack of political will that makes it practically impossible to
constitute associations. Article 54 of the Constitution recognizes the
rights of assembly, demonstration and association [although Article 62
warns that it is a punishable offense to exercise these freedoms to
jeopardize "the existence and aims of the socialist State"].
However, in fact an aspiring association must be sponsored by a State
entity in order for the Ministry of Justice to authorize its inscription
into the corresponding registry. The sponsoring State organization
"then then becomes its related organ, that which controls it and attends
to its needs," Dmitri Prieto, founder of Critical Observatory, explains.
The registry takes years to arrive (if it arrives at all) so that the
collectives opt for formulas such as creating academic professorships or
projects inscribed within the cultural centers. "As long as there is no
confrontation with the actual system, the authorities do not create any
impediments, but they can meet with a lack of understanding, lack of
resources and very little visibility," he noted.
"Any individual initiatives for association are systematically
demonized, even more so if they are of a political nature. It's very
difficult to question deeply the political and social structures, and it
would also be suicidal," Yasmín laments.
The Critical Observatory arose from the Haydée Santamaria Professorship,
created from within the Asociación Hermanos Saiz, also known as AHS, the
institution of young artists and writers, to investigate transformations
in Cuban society.
In 2010, when their proposals began to be uncomfortable, the AHS
informed them that their members had surpassed the age limit and could
no longer remain tied to the institution. "Therefore, there was no more
need to be politically correct as far as criticizing the institutions,"
Yasmín notes. This reality sparked the Observatory's transformation into
one of the most anti-establishment collectives on the Island.
Nonetheless, becoming a network without institutional backing has its
consequences. The scarce resources of the Critical Observatory, which
barely stretch enough to buy a snack for meetings, come from the
solidarity of European anarchist and anti-capitalist collectives.
There is no headquarters: they hold their debates in a paladar (private
restaurant) managed by some sympathizer, or in a park. They chose the
second option for a colloquium with an activist from Madrid's 15-M
movement, which included the presence of both an agent from State
Security and an "independent" reporter from the official dissident movement.
The Cuban critical left defines itself as revolutionary and its
activists work closely with Cuban institutions or with projects
supported by them. They resist calling themselves "opposition," since
they identify more with a Cuban socialist movement than with the
proposals of the dissidents.
This puts them in an uncertain situation: they don't suffer direct
repression and it could be said that their activity is tolerated, but as
they consolidate they do feel an ever greater labeling.
The latest flurry was an article written by Percy Francisco Alvarado
Godoy a former State Security agent, accusing a group of recognized
Cuban intellectuals of working against the Revolution in projects
directed by the United States as part of the conflict known as the cyber
war against Castroism.
Alvarado Godoy has since apologized for what he calls an unfortunate
error, but those affected have not accepted his apology: "Similar errors
left authors like José Lezama Lima, Virgilio Piñera and other sunk into
ostracism for years; they brought unnecessary pain to many and caused
irreparable damage to Cuban culture and society," alerts the writer
Daniel Díaz Mantilla, one of those defamed.
Relations with the State institutions
Rogelio describes the government's strategy as one of "gathering and
channeling intelligently the tensions in several potential conflicts.
The emblematic case is that of the LGBT movement. Cenesex, affiliated
with the Health Ministry, promotes networks of gays, lesbians and
transsexuals who go out on the streets to proclaim their demands, but do
so under the institution's tutelage.
Odaymara Cuest and Olivia Prendes, the rappers from Krudas Cubensi, now
living in Texas, recall how the lesbian collective Oremi that they
participated in was swallowed up by Cenesex. "One fine day, Mariela
[Castro] arrived with an authoritarian air, to announce that the group
needed to function in a top-down manner.
"She imposed the presence and leadership of some psychologists who
weren't lesbians, who brought us cases with pathologies that they were
attending in their clinics. We couldn't discuss our problems as healthy
lesbians. For that reason we preferred our autonomy," Prendes explains.
It hadn't been her first clash with Mariela Castro. During the nineties
they had tried to form a "queer" collective with friends for the United
States and had planned to attend the May 1st demonstration carrying a
"The objective of the march is to unite us against imperialism and for
socialism, so we said, "Why not carry our own little flag, since we too
are part of this country? Ay yi yi, – they gave us a sound slapping.
They stole our flag, then they began going to the home of each activist.
We asked Mariela Castro if she could give us a paper or something
giving permission to form a small LGBT group.
"She said, 'No, Cuba isn't ready for it.' 'No, this is a macho culture.
Maybe in ten years.' "
And more than ten years later, Cenesex continues trying to monopolize
LGBT activism through their organizations, even though some of their
members favor the existence of autonomous collectives.
"I believe that the formation of a potentially autonomous movement for
sexual rights is necessary, but one that includes heterosexuals who
dissent from the hegemonies and that maintains a horizontal and
participative form of functioning, well distanced from feuds, grudges
and personal vanities. Such existence doesn't imply a negation of the
Cuban socialist principles, but their strengthening and the construction
of a more just and decent society," states Alberto Roque, himself an
activist in the Communist Party and the dynamic force behind "Men for
Participants feel that this group, under the wing of Cenesex, offers a
margin of space to channel criticism of Government policies and to
express themselves freely. Some, like Luis Rondón Paz and Paquito el de
Cuba also maintain their own blogs in which they lash out against
practices like homophobia in the workplace, in sports or in the media.
"I've been risking my neck for awhile. An old lover tells me: "You're
crazy as a loon" and I responded. "Listen, change doesn't fall from the
ceiling. When something is wrong, you have to shout out loud using every
means necessary so that the message reaches its destination as little
adulterated as possible."
That's how Luis explained his stance on maintaining activism both within
and outside of the institutions, in a post venting his frustration at
those who criticize him for participating in autonomous projects such as
the Rainbow Project.
Luis, together with Yasmín, was one of the promoters of the NotiG
(GNews) bulletin, which disseminated e-mail articles on gender identity
as well as lighter pieces. They were informed that the bulletin
couldn't circulate without being registered in the National Registry of
Serial Publications. They accepted the requirement to request the
endorsement of Cenesex, but they are still awaiting a response.
In any case, the Rainbow Project currently represents the most ambitious
initiative. It hopes to offer legal aid in cases of discrimination due
to sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as promoting debate
and a popular commitment against the bias towards a heterosexual norm,
through actions such as the Kiss-In. They are also distributing a
survey among those who are not heterosexuals to collect their demands.
In the case of feminism as well, the official discourse continues to be
that the existence of the Federation of
Cuban Women, make an autonomous feminism unnecessary. Nevertheless,
this mass organization continues to reproduce traditional feminine views
without really promoting a bold confrontation with problems such as
macho violence or police persecution against women who work as prostitutes.
The most powerful autonomous initiative in favor of gender equality was
probably MAGIN, the Association of Women in Communications, which in its
time agglutinated more than one hundred women journalists, artists,
scientists and even politicians.
It didn't last very long: in 1996, three years after its foundation and
without succeeding in becoming legalized they were informed that they
couldn't continue to function, under the argument of fear that the
United States would utilize them.
Over the last year and a half, the debate forum: "Look with Suspicion"
has consolidated itself as a gathering space for Cuban feminists. They
take on topics such as "Cyberfeminism, gender and nation", or
"Literature and feminism", with presenters that include academics such
as Isabel Moya or Norma Vasallo, but also autonomous activists such as
Negra Cubana, Yasmín Portales or Krudas Cubensi.
It's chief promoters are three communicators: Hernández Hormilla,
Lirians Gordillo Piña and Danae C. Diéguez. They have received the
backing of the Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero Group for Reflection and
Solidarity (OAR) a legal non-governmental organization of Christian
inspiration, and of the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists
(UNEAC) whose center they use to hold their debates.
"We could have met in our houses, but we were interested in penetrating
into the space held by institutions and holding a dialogue with that
structure which also has its strengths," Danae explains. Nonetheless
several of those attending fantasize about the idea of creating a
network of autonomous and challenge-minded communicators as Magin had been.
Another project that has been launched autonomously, but with a certain
degree of institutional backing, is Afro-Cubans (Afrocubanas) promoted
by the blogger Sandra Álvarez and the writer Inés María Martiartu, with
the objective of "making visible the contributions of Cuban black women
to the national history and culture," the former explains. It has
produced a book, a blog and several meetings of black women in Sandra's
own house to debate questions of feminism and anti-racism.
The internet, key to autonomy
In Cuba, the majority of the population continues to have no access to
the internet, and even those who do have it must put up with very
precarious connections. In Havana, information mainly circulates via
those handy USB memory sticks. The government sustains that the United
States blockade has kept them from setting up broadband connections, and
that this fact justifies their decision to prioritize certain sectors
for satellite internet access: public institutions, universities,
In 2007, Hugo Chavez announced that they would install a fiber optic
cable from Venezuela to Cuba, but the process has made mysteriously slow
progress, inspiring rumors of corruption. Up until today, the
government has declared that the cable is "absolutely in operative
condition," but those on the internet have yet to note even the
slightest improvement in the connection.
Even blogs considered "officialist", such as Young Cuba (La Joven Cuba)
have criticized the lack of transparency and the resistance to providing
universal access to the internet. The majority of the cyber-activists
use their workplaces to publish in their blogs and on social networks,
consequently running the risk of being discovered and fired.
At any rate, the internet has been one of the elements that have
permitted those from the critical left to make themselves visible,
especially outside of the island. It has at least inspired hope in this
new form of sharing information and having their denunciations heard.
In June, for example the police in Havana detained two members of
Critical Observatory who had spray paint in their backpacks and held
them for twelve hours. "By this time, Critical Observatory had already
made public the denunciation on Facebook, Twitter and the WordPress
collective's blog. Fortunately, the new technologies manage to speed up
a little the process of justice, although they aren't able to transform
the absurd." Isbel wrote in Havana Times.
Havana Times is the digital daily of reference among the critical left:
among its habitual contributors are several staunch members of Critical
Observatory. Its director, Circles Robinson, defines it as an
"independent source for presenting the complex Cuban reality, that
struggles for information pluralism with diverse criteria in a country
where this has been seen with suspicious eyes."
Social Forum 2012
"Navigating in very polarized waters, we hope to contribute to elevating
the debate and finding participative solutions to the country's
problems," he adds. Havana Times publishes in Spanish and English,
offering opinion pieces on such things as the multi-party system,
relations with the Catholic church, or the economic reforms; news items
that inform about questions that the official media silence (the
crumbling of buildings or the mysterious fiber optic cable) and
interviews to introduce new talents in Cuban culture.
Last month, Havana Times was accused in two articles published in
Cubadebate and Rebelión respectively, of being a source "encouraged by
the United States" and of supporting "counter-revolutionaries" such as
the blogger Yoani Sánchez or Antonio Rodiles (Estado de Sats) for having
The fact that Circles was born in the United States makes it easier for
those who accuse him of ties to the US Interests Section in Cuba.
Although, he notes, he could have been born in any other part of the
world, has lived in different countries and worked for 7 years for the
Another interesting space for those who want to escape from the
so-called cyber-war between anti-Castro and official blogs is the
"Bloggers Cuba" community. It arose with the vocation of "breaking the
dichotomy between the experience of life on the island and its scant
reflection in the national and foreign media."
The majority of its members openly defend socialism, but maintain a
critical perspective. The incorporation of feminist and anti-racist
bloggers who favor sexual diversity like Yasmín or Sandra Álvarez,
author of "Negra Cubana tenia que ser" (It had to be a Black Cuban
Woman) has reinforced the critical and committed nature of this
compilation of blogs.
Sandra, Yasmín, Isbel, Luis, Dmitri, Rogelio…the names repeat themselves
when we talk about the critical left, feminist and LGBT activism, or
about blogs and independent media, or about cultural projects linked to
They are barely a handful of people but they continue to gain followers
in their zeal to construct a socialist and sovereign Cuba, true to the
revolutionary principles that guided the struggle against the Batista
dictatorship, and free of repression and authoritarianism.
Amidst a broad explosion of individual initiatives since Raul Castro
broadened the list of occupations that could be practiced autonomously,
people joke about requesting that the Tax Administration to grant
licenses for independent activism.
While the Government continues to place obstacles in the way of the
consolidation of independent social movements, those connected with
Critical Observatory ask that leftist collectives from other countries
abandon their complacency towards the Castro regime and support them as
the movement that can best extract Cuba from the fight between Stalinist
communism and imperialist capitalism – two models in crisis.
(*) June Fernandez edits the online magazine Pikara.