Cuban civil society: survival, struggle, defiance and compliance

Guest article by Lennier López, Sociologist, Florida International University and Armando Chaguaceda, Political Scientist, Universidad de Guanajuato

Introduction: an obstructed civil society

In Cuba, the development and growth of civil society remains obstructed by existing law. Since 1997 the Ministry of Justice has blocked the establishment of new civil society organisations (CSOs) with very few exceptions while regulating those that already exist. Moreover, for each existing CSO, the government establishes a “linking organism,” a state entity that monitors its operations to protect “state interests.” At the same time, the traditional mass organisations, which are the basis of Leninist civil society, monopolise the way that entire segments of society are represented. This pattern makes it difficult for new organisations to emerge that could represent social groups such as women, lawyers, peasants, or others in a different way. On topics such as human rights and government accountability, the activity of officially recognised civil society is limited, mainly takes place at the local level and is closely supervised by the state.

The works of the sociologists Marie Laure Geoffrey (2012), Marlene Azor (2016) and Velia Cecilia Bobes (2007 and 2015) are among the most recent and complete analyses of Cuban civil society. The first two authors have developed rigorous studies of emerging social actors that oppose the government, outlining their resistance to the government’s attempts to control and co-opt them. At the same time, Geoffrey and Azor think that these social actors struggle to expand and connect their agendas with the expectations of a population that sometimes seems tired, demobilised and more focused on daily survival. Bobes, on the other hand, has carried out an exhaustive evaluation of Cuban civil society, linking it to the characteristics of the current participatory model, which we think is important to review here.

Bobes identifies a permanent model of militant citizenship in Cuba, loyal to the official project and dependent on the state, which is articulated around social rights and which subordinates and links civil and political rights to the construction of a socialist society. This model of citizenship relies on a homogenous and equalitarian society that today is changing due to an increase in economic inequality, poverty, territorial differentiation, identity diversification and different ways of living. Moreover, migration and massive corruption at all levels have altered over time the type of society on which this model of citizenship is based. While this model remains hegemonic in Cuba, during the last 50 years there has also been a process of discursive assimilation by the official sector - which has implied that the socialist-oriented traditional mass organisations and some non-governmental organisations are recognised as part of civil society in Cuba - and an emergence of social actors that openly present themselves as opponents of the government or alternatives to both officialdom and its traditional dissidents.

‘Official’ civil society

The official discourse in Cuba has presented, since the 1990s, a socialist civil society composed of mass organisations such as the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the Workers’ Central Union of Cuba (CTC) and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). In all cases, these organisations represent the Leninist model of participation, which is vertical and limits tremendously these groups’ autonomy. This model frames and labels entire segments of the population and promotes both morally questionable political agendas - entailing the mobilisation and control of citizens - and positive communitarian activities such as donating blood, collecting materials for recycling and cleaning common areas in neighbourhoods. However, participation in these organisations has decreased. Attendance at activities managed by these organisations has become routinised, and thus people’s motivation has diminished. Nevertheless, this has not inspired action for change due to the lack of a legal framework to allow alternative groups to work without fear of persecution, very effective mechanisms of control and a well-established ‘survival mindset’ which makes civil society groups spend much energy and resources in solely keeping themselves functioning within Cuban society today.

In the CDRs, the broadest form of mass organisation, the leaders, for example, have held their posts for 10 to 20 years; young people do not seek positions of responsibility. This weakens the ability of the CDRs to exercise the kind of social control that previously allowed the authorities to prevent or solve common crimes and to reduce political criticism in public spaces (Salas 1979). CDRs rarely meet these days. The main function of the CDRs was to schedule and execute rounds of night vigilance to defend the “revolutionary process”; these night watches are not implemented today as they were in previous decades (Salas 1979). Even the anniversary of the founding of the organisation, on 28 September, is not celebrated in many neighbourhoods today.

The government uses the CTC as a channel to transmit the official line of action and as an instrument of control to keep workers politically neutralised. However, the function of the CTC as a socialiser of revolutionary values (Rosendahl 1997) no longer exists. Key points worth mentioning from the documents of the CTC 20th Congress, held in 2014, are an emphasis on efficiency and productivity, the distribution of workers’ participation into local assemblies - fragmenting what should be a national movement - and the manipulation of the organisation’s history. There is no autonomous labour movement in Cuba, and thus there is no organisation that genuinely represents the interests of the Cuban working class. The role given to the CTC, however, is almost obligatory in each state-ruled enterprise and institution; employees are forced to affiliate with the mass organisation, which is supposed to represent them at large as a homogenous group with shared interests and problems. Very low wages - of a monthly average of 750 CUP (around US$30) in the state-owned enterprise sector - have come to diminish members’ interest in the functioning of the CTC, and this was reflected in changes that were made regarding the date of the 20th Congress and the directors of the event.

More diverse and autonomous spaces of Cuban civil society

Since the late 1980s, some organisations have emerged that are opposed to the government. Some of them are associations that defend human rights, such as the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, and others arise from proto-political parties with different political orientations, from conservative to left-wing, while another segment of these organisations focuses on generating alternative channels of information that critique the Cuban reality (Dilia 2014).

The opposition was small and socially marginalised for a long period, due in part to government repression and in part to fragmentation among the groups that composed it. After 2001, the Varela Project, led by Oswaldo Paya from the Liberal-Christian Movement, made the opposition movements more visible, inside and outside Cuba. The initiative was strongly repressed and criminalised, and as a result 75 dissidents were incarcerated in 2003 during what was called the ‘Black Spring’. This event had three key consequences: first, it informed many inside Cuba about the movement, since official television had no choice but to cover the events, albeit with its own version of the story. Second, it triggered a negative reaction in Western foreign diplomatic bodies. Third, it led the mothers and wives of the imprisoned - known as the ‘Ladies in White’ - to mobilise and organise themselves to ask for the liberation of their relatives. The courage of these women, who resisted physical and verbal aggression in the streets and on national television, gained them the support of international organisations including the Catholic Church, many CSOs, and groups from Europe, the United States and Latin America. Even in Cuba, despite the aggressive official propaganda, they gained some respect and were supported by emerging bloggers, artists and intellectuals.

In 2010 and 2011 the political prisoners were liberated thanks to the lobbying efforts of the Catholic Church in Cuba. This seemed to mark a new political era of openness and tolerance, but the repression merely changed its form. Since prosecuting political activists is costly for the Cuban government, given the adverse international reaction generated, it prefers instead to threaten, in different ways, those who attempt to exercise any sort of activism to transform their realities. In 2013, while dissident activism increased, with communication campaigns, public demonstrations and meetings in private homes, the repression also rocketed, with concentrated efforts to repudiate the political opposition, arbitrary detentions, house searches and forced evictions carried out by public authorities in the case of eastern Cuba. The Ladies in White and members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), civil rights advocates, were victims of these actions and thus gained the role of being protagonists in international media. Amnesty International, referencing data from the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), a human rights CSO, documented an average of 862 arbitrary detentions each month between January and November 2016. Another CSO, the Cuban Observatory of Human Rights. meanwhile identified more than 4,500 arbitrary detentions during 2017. Further, during the first half of 2018, the CCDHRN denounced 1,576 detentions; to this we may add dozens of activists who have been targeted, persecuted, incarcerated, or temporarily banned from travelling to prevent, in most cases, their attendance at international events where they could have been able to share an alternative and well-structured picture of the Cuban reality.

Artists and scientists have also experienced persecution. The authorities usually justify these arbitrary detentions on the pretext of prosecuting activists for committing a “common crime” rather than on the basis of their activism. Luis Manuel Otero, Tania Bruguera and the biologist Ariel Urquiola, among many others, have recently faced different forms of repression, including incarceration and threats. Mr Urquiola’s is probably the most well-known recent case of rights violations by the Cuban government, having been sentenced to jail in May 2018 for “disrespecting” state officials. However, due to a widespread international reaction and demands for justice on social media after he went on hunger strike to protest his “unfair sentence,” he was granted permission to serve his sentence out of prison.

New social actors, alternative to the establishment, emerged in the 1990s and initially did not have to deal with state control. This may suggest the appearance of an alternative civil society. New CSOs and communitarian movements, religious associations - of Catholic, Protestant, Hebrew, Orthodox and Afro-Cuban belongings - and independent cultural projects all expressed a major diversification of Cuban civil society, with new actors and agendas, even though this did not always translate into more popular empowerment. This was because the development of these new social actors was shaped by their relationships with - and the extent to which they were able to negotiate autonomy from - the state.

In this segment of civil society there are groups that continue to support a socialist model but propose significant, and many times also deep, reforms to the current structure. Hence, they try to work within the present socio-political framework but aim to restructure it. Projects such as Cuba Posible (Possible Cuba) and Red Observatorio Crítico (Critical Observatory Network) are part of this sphere, which is critical of the status quo without seeking to entirely break with it. Within this same spectrum there are also some open spaces in the Catholic Church in the form of centres for secular groups and the public, as well as websites, digital bulletins and magazines that embrace diverse ideas and debates - commonly held among socialist intellectuals, Catholics and social activists - regarding the future of Cuba. This relative freedom of the Catholic Church is connected to its determination to place itself between the government and dissidents, without wanting to decisively move closer to the Cuban political scenario (Farber 2012). This allows the Catholic Church, even though it does not have strong popular support - contrary to what happened in communist Poland, for example - to gain legitimacy and achieve public relevance in today’s and, most likely, tomorrow’s Cuba.

Final reflections and recommendations

Although increasing diversity is present in Cuban civil society, domestic politics continue to be overwhelmingly dominated by the party/state elite that rules the country. Hence, the political participation enabled by new spaces within civil society remains strongly shaped by the official framework. In Cuba, as has been pointed out by Bobes (2016), there is deep social erosion, in terms of citizenship, due to many factors: the obstruction of collective action, a lack of interest in politics, the corrosion of public policies and social rights, and the non-existence of any substantial progress on political rights. Moreover, without autonomous spaces that may articulate challenges to the state, the population is increasingly vulnerable to state power (institutions and bureaucrats, for example) at both the individual and social levels. Within this framework, as long as the relationship between the government and the governed remains unstable and unsecure, the opportunities for people to join in making public demands tend to be infrequent or non-existent (Tilly and Wood 2010: 267). Focusing particularly on Cuba, Tilly and Wood suggest that in one-party regimes the tendency to restrict civil society - including CSOs and social movements - is stronger than under other forms of authoritarianism.

Today, there is not yet a political atmosphere in which the state and civil society can create multidirectional flows of ideas and fertile spaces for dialogue. It seems that the government of the Cuban Communist Party is intensifying, as it has done before, the ideological battle and its determination to control all public spaces - including cyberspace - in order to exert its hegemony over discourse and dispute any narrative that may contradict the official project of the country’s future. We will see whether the still weak organisation and mobilisation capacities of the emerging actors of civil society make it possible, in the short term, to unlock and transform the current political scenario and its impacts on the daily lives of Cubans.

Cuban civil society is weak for two main reasons: the first is the lack of a legal framework that allows freedom of association and expression; the second involves a very shaky environment of collaboration and solidarity among different civil society groups. The only way to approach the first problem is by changing, substantially, the constitution and, subsequently, a great part of the current laws, and this will not likely be the case in the near future. Indeed, the present process of constitutional reform will retain the main articles that restrict any significant progress on political and civil rights.

This situation has forced civil society groups to live under a lot of pressure and constantly watch out for their own survival. However, the only way to approach such a precarious reality is by forming alliances and developing cooperation by exchanging all sort of resources and ideas. We are not referring here to a form of unity that frequently leads to homogenisation, but to a simple way to channel collaboration and support among groups with similar goals. This environment could be constructed by creating networks of people through the organisation of events during which different groups can get to know about each other’s work. Today, social media can be of great help to accomplish that.

Apart from collaboration, we think it is important to build a more fraternal and democratic environment within the broad and diverse spectrum of civil society in Cuba. It would not be enough simply to have a professional relationship with those groups that are closer to our principles and have common strategies and objectives with us; it would also be required to lend a hand to activists and CSOs that might differ from our mission and principles, but which to some extent struggle for survival and face forms of human right violations and abuses of power.

We think therefore that both professional collaboration and solidarity are the keys to strengthening civil society in Cuba.


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