When the Cuban government released a number of dissidents earlier this year, human rights groups applauded the decision. But critics also took the occasion to paint Cuba once again as a society where a single word of criticism gets you shipped off to a dungeon, from which you will never return, reduced to being a statistic in an Amnesty International report.
This belief may contain a kernel of truth. But in many ways it provides a cartoon version of Cuba, one that misses altogether the texture and reality of Cuban life, particularly its politics and its culture of dissent. And there is a culture of dissent.
Cuba is a complicated country, whose struggles and tensions do not fit neatly into black and white categories. Well-known dissidents may receive awards and recognition abroad, but the “official dissidents” known to the United States and other countries are often quite marginal inside Cuba. It’s true that the Cuban government does not have much tolerance for certain kinds of expression, particularly from those who have ties to U.S. diplomats. In the eyes of the Cuban state, that is simply collaboration with a foreign power seeking to undermine Cuba’s sovereignty, and it is vehemently repressed. That’s what is most visible to the international community. But it does not tell us much about how dissent and criticism actually work in Cuba—not around the margins, but in the daily life of Cuba’s political culture.
We hear that people are desperately poor, eager to leave, terrified to speak ill of the state, and generally brainwashed. But the real Cuba is more complex than this. If you had a beer or shared a cafecito with Cubans, you’d find that they watch TV shows on Miami stations, and they get email spam from the most right-wing groups of Cuban-Americans in Miami. You’d learn that, far from trembling in fear at the thought of criticizing an all-powerful state, complaining about shortages, long lines, and inefficient Cuban bureaucrats in fact surpasses baseball as the national pastime.
A Shifting Balance
The relation of the Cuban state to culture, religion, and political expression is complicated. There is not a single univocal view within the state, but rather a shifting balance among conservative sectors that want to control expression and others that want greater openness. Although the 1970s were terribly repressive, the late 1980s saw a move toward greater openness in a broad array of areas. There were moves, for example, to remove political limitations on university curricula, to provide more space for churches and religious believers, and to end discrimination against gays and lesbians. Most of those changes have stuck.
There is also a great deal of variation depending on the different venues. The state-run newspapers read like alumni magazines. Highly controlled, they praise Cuba’s national achievements and castigate U.S. foreign policy.
On the other hand, no one expects the state media to be provocative or diverse, any more than we would expect the State Department to issue a press release that doesn’t serve the administration’s agenda. “If you only look at official media,” said a colleague, “you’re out of the game.” Films, art galleries, academic journals, music CDs, religious publications, and a rapidly expanding Cuban Internet provide an array of other venues. Rafael Hernandez is the director of Temas, a leading social science journal. “I challenge anyone to name a subject that can’t be discussed in Cuban periodicals,” Hernandez says. Temas has published issues on many of the most controversial and sensitive topics in Cuba—including emigration, racism, delinquency, human rights, drug use, religion, the fall of Communism in the eastern bloc, and gender and sexuality.
Food Fights and Email Wars
Consider a widely circulated video made last year by high school art students. The students were furious over the poor quality of their food. They took over the school, organizing a demonstration in protest. The worst of the food was a kind of awful-looking mush, which served as the basis for performance art: one student stripped down to his swimsuit, coating himself with the goo, while the others cheered and filmed the event. The students were angry and openly contemptuous of education officials. But there was no fear of retribution. The video was widely circulated, no one went to jail, and no one was persecuted.
A scandal a few years ago caused an even greater outcry. A series of television programs sought to rehabilitate the image of a number of long-despised figures from Cuba’s repressive “gray years” in the 1970s—Luis Pavón, Jorge Serguera, and Armando Quesada—all cultural officials who had persecuted artists, writers, and homosexuals. There was a remarkable outpouring of indignation.
Within days an “email war” exploded, with hundreds of emails circulating throughout Cuba’s intellectual community and web postings far outside the country’s borders. The head of the Union of Artists and Writers issued a strong statement of protest, prompting the minister of culture to meet with some 400 angry intellectuals at the Casa de las Americas, one of Cuba’s leading cultural institutions. Cuban intellectuals not only demanded an apology from the Cuban government for painting Pavón in a rosy light—they also demanded a thorough accounting and acknowledgement of the terrible harm done in the purges of that period. Remarkably, no one went to jail or lost their jobs. Not only was there was no retribution against the participants, but equally significant, no one feared any. Far from it—the Ministry of Culture responded by publishing a collection of essays on the “gray years” by several leading intellectuals.
Outside of the official state media, Cuban film enjoys perhaps the most extensive audience. And with its blunt, candid treatments of life in Cuban society, it also levies the harshest criticisms against the Cuban state. The Cuban film industry, which is primarily funded by the Cuban government, is one of the most respected in Latin America, and the country’s annual film festival each December is internationally recognized. “Almost every movie made here,” said a friend, “whether comedy or drama, is critical.”
Consider Strawberry and Chocolate, a 1994 film depicting a complex friendship between a gay artist who feels forced to emigrate out of Cuba and an idealistic young man under pressure from a rigid orthodox Communist. Challenges to dogmatic communism, as well as emigration and sexual orientation, are all sensitive issues in Cuba. Yet the film was received enthusiastically, establishing an opening for public dialogue as well as policy changes on the part of the state. 2003’s Suite Habana weaves together the stories of 10 people going about their lives with sad irony—a ballet dancer who struggles to repair his family’s crumbling home before going off to dance “Swan Lake”; a state employee who sits in the pouring rain guarding a statue of John Lennon; a physician who works on the side as a clown. There is a weariness about each of them as they struggle through the continual hardship of daily life in Cuba; the only person in the film who is actually happy is a mentally retarded boy. Far from being suppressed, both films won awards at the Cuban film festival as well as abroad.
Guantanamera, produced in 1995 by Cuba’s leading filmmaker, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, tells the story of a man trying to transport the body of an old woman across the country for burial, only to encounter a string of ridiculous impediments, ranging from the Cuban bureaucracy to gas shortages. When the film first came out, Fidel criticized it as “counterrevolutionary,” although he hadn’t seen the film. What happened next would seem astonishing to most Americans. Not only was the film not suppressed, but at a meeting of UNEAC, the union of artists and writers, Fidel was challenged to justify his criticisms. He admitted they were based on second-hand reports, acknowledged his mistake, and apologized to UNEAC as well as to the director’s widow.
Even state suppression itself is a topic for open criticism and ridicule, much the way that government wiretapping in the United States is lampooned in political cartoons. In 2004, Cuban filmmaker Eduardo del Llano produced a hilarious short comedy about the state security apparatus, Monte Rouge.
One day two security agents show up at the protagonist’s door. "We’re here to install the microphones," they say.
He’s baffled. "I’m not a disc jockey," he says, "why would I need microphones?"
They reply: "Well, only recently when you were complaining about government surveillance, you said you wished we would just bug people’s homes openly instead of sneaking around behind their backs. So here we are. Now, what room are you usually in when you’re criticizing the state?"
They can’t put the microphones in the living room, where he usually entertains friends (and complains most vocally), because the sound won’t get picked up properly. "How about the bedroom?" they ask. "Could you start criticizing the state there instead of the living room?"
The man is angry. "So if I’m annoyed at the news, I have to go into the bedroom to complain?"
The state agent is equally angry: "We only have two microphones for your apartment. You should be grateful. We have families of 10 who only have one microphone."
The Contours of Dissent and Repression
Even when the state has intervened to restrict cultural expression, it involves a more complicated dialogue than we might expect. Alicia in Wonderland, a 1991 film that ridiculed the implausibly optimistic propaganda of the Cuban state, was only shown for a few days before state hardliners denounced it as counterrevolutionary and shut it down. But UNEAC reacted strongly. Alfredo Guevara, the head of the national film institute, published all the reviews of the film. “I am a dissident,” he wrote, harshly criticizing the state’s decision to shut down the film’s screenings. But to be critical in this way, he said, was not counterrevolutionary or anti-state; rather, he argued, dissent is precisely part of what it means to be an artist and a revolutionary.
It is a distinction that sounds odd to our ears. We understand “dissent” to be exercised in Cuba by “the dissidents” about whom we hear so much. But this does a great disservice to the diversity of views held by the Cuban artists, writers, and others who criticize the conditions of life in Cuba, or even the state and its policies. Alfredo Prieto, a leading social scientist, commented that, “in the United States, people assume that in socialism everyone has to think the same. But we have a saying here: ‘Cubans don’t agree among themselves on anything, even how to take a picture.’”
If there is one thing that has been consistently off-limits in Cuban political culture, it is direct criticism of Fidel Castro, and—until the transition to Raúl Castro’s presidency—the suggestion that Fidel should step down. But some critics have found opportunities even for this. The artist Pedro Pablo Oliva, for example, did a series of paintings that depicted Fidel in ways that were irreverent and unflattering. In one painting, Castro’s clothing is transparent, and underneath them is nothing but a skeleton. In another, Castro is depicted as asleep or possibly dead, while the activity of the world goes on around him. Oliva’s work was not suppressed, and he was not persecuted by the state. To the contrary, he received a national award for his art, and his work (including the series on Fidel Castro) was exhibited at Cuba’s national art gallery.
Church and State
Like political expression, religion in Cuba has had a more complicated relation to the state than we would expect. Until 1992, Cuba was officially an atheist state, and the Communist Party excluded religious believers. Although party membership is not a requirement for holding office in Cuba, the party is the venue for many forms of political participation, and to be excluded from membership can be a considerable detriment.
Nevertheless, there have long been politically active religious believers who have openly sought to change state policies, without being punished or deemed “counterrevolutionary.” Raúl Gómez Treto, a Catholic who publicly criticized the state policy on religion in the 1980s, was an official in the Ministry of Justice and a leader in the move to facilitate greater dialogue between the state and Cuban churches. Raúl Suárez, a Baptist pastor and the director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center in Havana, was likewise one of the most vocal critics in the 1980s of the state’s official commitment to atheism.
In fact, since the early 1990s, religious life has seen a revival in Cuba. Constitutional changes in 1992 made the country a secular, rather than atheist, state in 1992, opening party membership and other political opportunities to the faithful. Suarez is now a member of the National Assembly, where he vocally criticizes state policies like capital punishment on religious grounds. He is joined in the National Assembly by Sergio Arce, a leading Presbyterian theologian, as well as Oden Marichal, leader of the Episcopal Church in Cuba.
Furthermore, almost every Catholic diocese in Cuba publishes a magazine sponsored by the bishops. Some focus just on religious topics, while others are much broader, including news and commentary on issues ranging from sports and movies to the economy, culture, and state policies. Distributed in Catholic churches throughout the country, these publications are frequently critical of the state. Openly flaunting Cuban law, the bishops have repeatedly refused to register Church publications with the state. Nonetheless, according to the cardinal’s office, there has not been any form of punishment or retribution against the Church or anyone involved in the publications, even those that are quite vitriolic in their attacks on the state.
The small Jewish community in Cuba has also thrived, and grown, since the changes of the early 1990s. American Jewish foundations, such as the American Joint Distribution Committee and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, began pouring funds into building renovations and other projects in the early 1990s, without objection from the Cuban government. The sanctuary in the Reform synagogue in Havana was completely refurbished to hold more people, and Jewish Cubans have now begun to identify themselves more actively as Jews and to participate in services and synagogue events. There are Jews who are Party members, including the president of the Orthodox synagogue. “In 1990,” said a board member of the synagogue, “everyone in the synagogue was elderly, and the congregation was dying. The Jewish community is now alive and active.”
On issues concerning sexuality and sexual orientation, there has also been a marked shift toward openness. In the 1970s, the period viewed by Cubans as the most repressive time since the revolution took place in 1959, homosexuality was seen as a perversion, and for several months in 1968 homosexuals were sent to camps to undergo “reorientation.” From 1968 to 1975, gays and lesbians were subject to discrimination and were denied positions in government or cultural institutions.
But in 1991 Cuban law was changed to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the result has been greater respect and tolerance for gays and lesbians. Gay life is no longer underground. At nights on the Malecon, where many Cubans relax and socialize in the evenings, there is an area where hundreds of gays gather each evening. There are transvestite shows at some state-run theatres, part of a long Cuban tradition. Doctors and teachers are now openly gay, as well as others in highly visible positions of responsibility. Mariela Castro Espin, the daughter of Raúl Castro, directs an influential national center for research and education on sexuality, Cenesex. She is a leading advocate for the rights of gays, transvestites, and transsexuals, urging changes in the Cuban constitution to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and advocating for the recognition of gay marriages. Cenesex also documents police mistreatment of gays and conducts workshops to train police officers to respect the rights of the LGBT community. Even the telenovelas, the Cuban soap operas, have changed. One, “El Balcon de los Helechos,” features a lesbian couple. In another, "La otra cara de la luna,” two of the central characters are bisexual men.
The Cuban state’s view toward dissent and change is neither absolute nor monolithic. It is much more a matter of plate tectonics. In some domains there is considerable room for criticism of state policies, while in others the space for challenging the state expands or contracts according to currents within the regime.
But however vocal the criticisms of state policies are within Cuba, however much pressure there is on the Cuban state to reform policies or provide greater openness, the space for dissent and change is very much shaped by the posture of the United States. Although the United States may cast itself as a champion for greater human rights, the Cuban state views it through a different lens, since the United States views and treats Cuba as its enemy.
Given a lengthy history of U.S. efforts to undermine the Cuban regime, this impression is hardly far-fetched. The current U.S. economic embargo was established by a U.S. statute literally called the “Trading with the Enemy Act,” which remains in effect to this day. The Bush administration even issued detailed reports describing how the United States would establish itself within Cuba once regime change has taken place. Cubans are acutely aware that the United States wants to see the termination of the Castro regime. Cubans are equally aware of the lengths to which the United States went to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and they have watched Iraq implode in the aftermath.
The Obama administration has been less confrontational, easing up on some of the travel restrictions and granting more visas to Cuban artists and musicians. The Catholic Church in Cuba was able to persuade the government to release dozens of political prisoners this year, in part because the less aggressive stance of the U.S. government allows for greater political space within Cuba. There is less defensiveness on the part of the state, and more space for Cubans to challenge it. If the U.S. government wants to see greater political freedom in Cuba, lifting the embargo and the travel ban will advance that goal. But demanding regime change simply will not.
- Originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus
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