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Independent Activism in Cuba

Independent Activism in Cuba

August 5, 2012

June Fernandez*

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

exults.

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

rainbow flag.

"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

Diversity".

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,

hotels, etc.

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

interviewed them.

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

Cuban government.

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

the institutions.

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.

http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=75825

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