Still a long road ahead for Cuban civil society


Armando Chaguaceda Noriega is a Cuban political scientist and historian who specialises in the study of civil society and the political regimes of Cuba and other ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our Americas) countries. He has extensive experience of participating, both in his native country and in other parts of Latin America, in several organisations and activists’ networks built around a progressive, anti-authoritarian perspective. He is a member of Amnesty International and a professor at the University of Guanajuato in Mexico.

1.  After decades of isolation, Cuba returns to the Organization of American States and has received the visits of Pope Francis and President Barack Obama. Do you think this “opening to the world” will have any short- or medium-term effects in respect of democratic reforms or civil society freedoms?

I don’t think so. Because during President Obama’s visit, the Cuban government has shown through its actions that it is not open to any substantive change. Its leaders have defended the idea of a single party state and characterised the opposition as illegal. In particular, they continue to punish the opposition’s street presence because according to the official discourse, “the street is only for revolutionaries.” All opposition is perceived as counter-revolutionary. The exercise of all rights, but particularly those of association and public assembly, remains limited. And the repressive State apparatus stays intact. In sum, from the government’s perspective, there is no will to effect any substantial change.

2.  Did Cuban human rights groups have any expectation that these momentous recent events would lead to change?

First of all, it has been accepted by most international civil society groups and the Cuban opposition that the embargo/blockade was not helping the Cuban people: it adversely affected people’s lives, it legitimised the government’s discourse that it was being victimised and did not create political pluralism or reduce violations of rights of the opposition. But I don’t think any sensible person could have had any illusion that the United States’ rapprochement policies and President Obama’s actions to begin dismantling the embargo would lead the Cuban government softening its political grip on the country. At the most, those initiatives could give way to new scenarios if more actors, such as other Latin American governments and international organisations, became involved: in other words, if the centre of support for human rights in Cuba were to be “de-Americanised” and made broader, more citizen- and less government-driven. 

3.  When did the current, stagnant situation of lack of freedoms consolidate in Cuba?

The regime was set up in the early 1960s and took a legal form in 1976 through a Soviet-style Constitution that was subsequently reformed in 1992 and 2002. Citizens’ rights and public freedoms are formally recognised in the Constitution, but they are restricted to the defence of the Socialist State. In 2002 a “lock clause” was introduced, establishing that the system cannot be changed. Raúl Castro’s reforms have not altered the single party regime with an illegal opposition and very limited rights. What has changed then? There have indeed been fewer political prisoners lately as a result of release efforts undertaken by the Church, but this mediation has also been questioned because in several cases those released were forced to go into exile. According to the most reliable estimates, there are some 70 political prisoners over a prison population of about 70 000. That is on top of the thousands of short-term detentions that do not result in the filing of criminal charges. These detentions only last a few hours or days, but they typically entail some physical violence, because they are utilised to interrupt street protests and even meetings of the dissident movement that take place inside the homes of opposition members. The use of this tactic ─ short-term detentions linked to repression of the public space and opposition sites ─ has increased in the same measure that social discontent has grown and the opposition has become more active.

4.  The nature of the political regime has not changed then, but there is more activism and mobilisation. What explains this increase in activism, if no window of opportunity has opened within the regime?

There is a lot of discontent. The composition of activism has changed. The first human rights groups were made up of urban intellectuals, mostly white, some of them originally from the Communist Party… people that had been part of the system and had then become disenchanted. Nowadays the opposition is more diverse. There is for example an organisation called Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) that has a national network of several thousands of members and organises weekly street actions along with social work. This shows that there are new subjects making connections with the Revolution’s classic beneficiaries: blacks, poor people, country dwellers to whom social policy nowadays does not reach, or reaches badly. These actors are combining the reclamation for civil and political rights with social work. The situation that gave rise to these organisations is the same one that explains the astonishing increase in the number of rafters and people trespassing America’s borders: people that, as the economist Albert Hirschman would say, are voting with their feet.

5.  Don’t you see in that activism any perspective for political change?

All this is happening despite the State’s will: there isn’t really any liberalisation process led from above. The fact that there are all these people thinking, writing blogs, mobilising, could certainly have a cumulative effect, but there is still a huge apparatus of repression and control. The situation is Kafkaesque: there are thousands of agents in plainclothes in the streets at all times. This is readily apparent in any emblematic spot: when three or four demonstrators stage a protest and record it (because the increase in Internet access, while still very deficient and restricted, has indeed allowed activists to make their work more visible) you can see a group of plainclothes agents coming out at once, because they are permanently stationed in the main sites of La Habana and every provincial capital, and their job is to prevent any public demonstration. In short: there is more discontent and grassroots groups have grown in members but there is still a very long way to go until there is a social movement that can force the government to open up.

6.  In view of the failure of decades-old policies towards Cuba by various countries and other international actors, which do you think the international community’s response should be in the current situation? More precisely, how can international actors ─ including regional networks and human rights movements ─ contribute to the regeneration of civic space in Cuba?

The Cuban opposition has various positions, but it must be emphasised that it is a peaceful opposition. In the past, in the 1960s, there was an opposition that was responsible for terrorist attacks and human rights violations, but that is no longer the case. Today’s opposition is new in both sociological and ideological terms. It was born in the 1980s and its methods are peaceful: some of them even appeal to current constitutional provisions in an attempt to change the regime “from the inside.” The most clearheaded representatives of the opposition recognise their need for a true internationalisation of solidarity, because their activism currently receives two distinct responses. 

On the one hand, organisations such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch very clearly state that human rights are violated in Cuba, that there is no rule of law, not even a bad-quality democracy or a hybrid regime. On the other hand, many Latin American CSOs – typically left-leaning and born in the struggle against authoritarian regimes – have a very ambivalent, if not downright negative, view of their Cuban counterparts. They go along with the Cuban government in saying that members of the opposition are “mercenaries for the Empire” or they simply ignore them. I know Latin American human rights organisations and activists who have progressive views and do valuable work in their own countries but are still reticent to recognise their Cuban peers’ work as legitimate. They don’t even bother to do research, get information, and try to know them: their “solidarity with Cuba” is in fact with the Cuban government, not with the Cuban citizenry. Therefore, these Latin American activists, intellectuals and organisations leave the Cuban opposition devoid of solidarity and support, which forces them to accept help and funding from other sources, such as US and European foundations or government agencies – a support that they might not even need if they had a more autonomous funding source.