Between Strikes and Demands: From Obedience to Rebelliousness / Miriam Celaya

Massive protest in Havana, September 13th, 2017 (Photo Liu Santiesteban / Facebook)

Cubanet, Miriam Celaya, West Palm Beach, 9 December 2018 — Judging by the winds that are blowing through Cuba, those people who say that nothing changes on the Island should begin to reconsider such opinions. It is a fact that some changes have begun, and not precisely those from the seat of Power – which are the kind that skeptics expect – but the most important and authentic: those that occur from the autonomous sectors of society.

The outbreak of citizen rebelliousness started several weeks ago by independent artists with their campaign against Decree 349 that seeks to restrict the freedom of creation and dissemination of the various artistic manifestations. The private transportation workers strike has been added this December 7th, protesting grievances and against the smothering regulations that the government has imposed arbitrarily.

Despite the threats, the harassment and the detentions suffered by several of its main organizers, or perhaps strengthened by it, the strike has begun with British punctuality, and the capital is feeling it. On Friday morning, to spite the “reinforcement” buses which – according to unconfirmed information – were destined to mitigate the effects of “El Trancón” (The Huge Traffic Jam, the nickname given to the strike), the bus stops continued to be mobbed, while numerous “almendrones”* (i.e. taxis, Havana style) circulated empty, not making any stops along Havana’s main arteries.

Both in the case of artists and in the case of private carriers, the common denominator is the unprecedented nature of the challenge to a government that until now did not admit questions, and much less organized actions, against the designs of its power. Another shared feature is the spontaneous and open nature of their demands and strategies of resistance against the gigantic official institutions.

This time it is not about a small group of conspirators gathered within four walls while the repressive pack blocks accesses and exits. Nor are we facing a response to opposition calls or subversive programs plotted by political strategists from all sides. No. Both the announcements of the masterminds of the peaceful rebellions and their actions have been open public manifestations. Nor does there seem to be a competitive attitude among the strikers or protestors, but an evident coordinated and shared responsibility towards the common goal. Nothing could cause greater confusion and concern to the ruling elite.

Another peculiar fact is the setting in which the events are taking place: months after the retirement of Raúl Castro from his position as President and the assumption of the successor appointed by him, Miguel Díaz-Canel, the first president without generational or family ties with the so-called Historical Generation – therefore, without the legacy of “natural legitimacy” of the participants in the Revolution of ‘59 – in the midst of an insurmountable internal economic crisis, with the pressure of an asphyxiating external debt and of a growing social discontent.

Complicating the panorama, the suspension of the United States’ wet foot/dry foot policy, which allowed for permanent stay in the US of Cubans who managed to step foot in that country in an irregular manner if they were not intercepted at sea, and which functioned as an escape valve to the system, is having a harmful double effect on the regime. On the one hand, it has spewed the migratory tide from Cuba to other destinations in the region, causing conflicts at the borders of several countries of the area, and focusing on the reality of the supposed Cuban socialist paradise, while on the other hand, it is increasing the social pressure in Cuba.

And as if that were not enough, it coincides with the arrival of Internet service to Cubans’ cellular phones. That is, any incident or event can be reported in real time by any witness and disclosed to the world instantly. It is already known that “the wild colt of the Internet” is indomitable.

For the first time in 60 years, many Cubans are perceiving that emigration has ceased to be the most expeditious option to flee from perpetual poverty, and they finally seem to understand that if they want to change the state of affairs in Cuba, the change must be done by their own hand and within the national territory.

The peculiarity of a society marked by extreme politicization is reflected in that, although the artists’ movement against Decree 349 is not clearly political, essentially, it turns out to be because it establishes a vertical rejection of the government’s cultural policy. The same happens with “El Trancón“, which started this Friday, December 7th, with the private transportation workers’ strike, which does not identify itself as a political protest, but essentially it is challenging the omnipotence of a dictatorship that has governed the country by controlling even the smallest details for too long.

When days ago that same power was forced to retract the new arbitrary provisions that were going to be imposed on the “small business owners” – a reversal which, in its basketful of euphemisms is not called that, but rather a “rearrangement” of the allowed activities – the myth of the invincibility of the power was crushed, and showed that this new force, the private sector, which is more productive and efficient than the parasitic State, has been called to play a fundamental role in the changes that must take place in Cuba.

It most probably will not be a quick or easy process. In some ways, there may even be setbacks. The next step should be for these sectors to be grouped into independent trade unions or associations to strengthen themselves and increase their organization and reach.

However, the truth is that the government, and especially the President (not elected by those who demand rights today) is trapped in the absurdity of a system that he did not create, but agreed to represent. There is no way to get out of this test: if the government yields to pressure, it will be the signal to unleash a flood of demands that will begin to emerge from all corners of Cuba, of the millions of Cubans who have waited decades to voice grievances and the young generations that demand spaces for participation. A gesture of governmental capitulation would stir up a feeling as subversive as it is dangerous, which is hope, and that would precipitate the changes.

On the other hand, to quell the demands with greater repression, as has always been the case, would only serve to multiply the discontent, the rebelliousness and the audacity of the demands, provoking a spiral of violence where the government itself would end up losing the game.

It’s too early to predict an outcome, but a positive balance has already been won for the rebels of these journeys. Beyond the results of the demonstrations of the artists and the transportation workers’ strike, for the first time in six decades Cubans will have demonstrated their capacity and willingness to stand up to the power. Finally, the scab of fear has given way. Let’s see if, after all, it will turn out to be true that the Castro regime will not survive the Castros.

*Translator’s note: Almendrones is the name given to the classic American cars still circulating in Cuba, commonly in use as taxis. The word is a reference to their “almond” shape.

Translated by Norma Whiting