Reinterpreting Cuba

Reinterpreting Cuba.

Common places in the intellectual reception of 11J[1]

Grethel Domenech Hernández [2]

The silencing (not silence) of Cuban society has been taking place for over 60 years. On July 11th, 2021 a deep crack cut through that state of silencing. Cubans screamed, ran and threw themselves on the streets. “We have taken off the cloak of silence,” “freedom,” “fatherland and life,” “down with Díaz-Canel,” “we’re hungry” were words that protestors expressed spontaneously in the over 300[3] demonstrations that took place across the island. The fight for freedom has consisted, partly, in creating the conditions for those who had been silenced to speak up and be heard.[4]Silence is the universal condition of oppression and those who raised their voices on J11 deactivated that silence, which seemed never-ending.

Like the most recent protests that have taken place globally in recent years, what happened on J11 had to do with the ability to mobilize people through social media and digital platforms. Had Yoan de la Cruz not livestreamed the San Antonio de los Baños protest, it is likely that the domino effect had not been as immediate. Access to digital communications has been a driver for action, yet it has also allowed us to build a digital archive of what happened, a true advantage that, for the last couple of decades, was unthinkable in Cuba.

The communicative disconnection that for decades reigned on the island was one of the Cuban regime’s most effective tools in the silencing of its population, but not only in the digital realm. There was a time when even holding a conversation with a foreigner could get Cubans in trouble. This disconnection and overall lack of material evidence of daily expressions of dissent meant that many of the demonstrations of civil resistance were rendered invisible or were poorly analyzed by the international press.

Coverage of protests in Cuba is not that common. The Cuban state has kept a firm hold on the information about what happens on the island. The international accredited press rarely does its job, and when it tries to, it is prevented from doing so by State Security. The state’s tight grip on information, along with censorship and the complicity of countries and international organizations, has meant that the long history of forced disappearances, shootings and dissidence in Cuba is not well known, nor is it properly documented.

J11 happened rather unexpectedly, but that does not mean that it was an isolated event. Since the 1960s, Cuban society has looked for ways to resist the government’s oppression. In 1959, Pedro Luis Boitel founded the Movement for Revolutionary Recuperation (MRR) in opposition to the government. On April 4th, 1980, in the Peruvian Embassy in Havana, thousands of Cubans came together to ask for political asylum. The protests in the Malecón in Havana that took place on August 5th, 1994 brought together hundreds of people who also screamed for freedom. What followed was one of the most tragic migration crises in the country’s history. In the 1990s, Cuban civil society also organized itself into groups and projects that became strong political forces: the Varela Project, the Carta de los Diez (the Letter of the Ten), La Patria es de todos (Fatherland belongs to all) or the Criterio Alternativo (Alternative Criterion) group—founded towards the end of 1980s—are some examples. There are multiple forms of resistance within a given society.

After the peaceful protests of J11 (where people screamed “fatherland or life” and “freedom”) there was a moment of surprise, which was understandable if one considers how disconnected Cuba had been from the world, as well as the sheer magnitude of the demonstrations themselves, only comparable to those that had taken place in the 1930s. Despite how obvious everything was, the images, the videos, the livestreams of hundreds of people on social media that showed the true dimension of J11, the Cuban government and its allies in the international press began a process of denial, something they are experts in. They labelled the protests “counterrevolutionary” and “orchestrated by the CIA,” delegitimizing the voices of the thousands of people that had taken the streets.

The way a good portion of the Latin American and international Left analyzed what had happened has been the subject of much debate. Their blindness, deafness and parsimony over J11 surprised nobody. The articles and statements issued came from the same commonplaces they always have, ignoring, for the most part, the voices of Cubans. This kind of analysis over what had happened is part of a long tradition of treating the Cuban government as a bastion of social justice in the region, ignoring (or choosing to ignore) the real cost that keeping a myth that never fulfilled its own expectations alive has on Cuban society. Those leftist intellectuals who do not take on fair positions often remain in a sort of limbo. Who are those leftists who do not say anything? Are they really part of the Left? Does “that Left” not saying anything mean something? Is it necessary that they something? These are some of the questions I ask myself in trying to imagine a non-binary world in which it makes less and less sense to only talk about two ideological poles in order to understand politics.

Many of the op-Eds that were published at the time analyzed this issue. Among them, it is worth highlighting “The performativity of the neocolonial Left” by Ileana Diéguez[5]; “Asking for pears to grow on elms: demands to a deaf Left” by Hilda Landrove[6]; and “Voluntary Blindness” by Armando Chaguaceda[7] (hence why I am not interested in analyzing the process by which the Latin American Left chooses to ignore the reality about Cuba.) I would only like to add something: the way that kind of Left positions itself, not only shows its desire to safeguard a myth they can look at from a distance, it also responds to a political and ideological history that began to articulate itself back in 1959.

In the Cuban regime’s agenda, the expansion of the Revolution as a project and as an example was always a priority. In order to achieve this, the island became a transnational centre of attraction for the international Left. In 1959, Prensa Latina (a news agency that, to this day, is based out of Havana) was founded by Argentinian journalist Jorge Ricardo Masetti. Between 1966 and 1968, the Tricontinental Conference (which paved the way for the creation of the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAL)) was held in Havana. During the 1960s and 1970s, guerrilla fighters from different latitudes of the continent were trained on the island. Just like that, the Cuban state was able to articulate a whole series of mechanisms, practices and institutions that fed the Latin American Left. The history of those ties (many of which can be considered a form of clientelism) reaches well into the present and it has evolved in a way that allows for leftist media and groups to keep showing their support for the government, despite all the information that is now available about Cuba. The list is long.

Much has been written about the questionable positions of the Left; therefore, I am more interested in sharing some perspectives drawn from intellectual history, as well as in pointing out how the protests were perceived in different academic spaces in order to answer the following question: what are some of the commonplaces that were brought up when analyzing the protests? Rather than listing them, my aim is to shed light on what they tell us about how Cuba is perceived.

Building off of the ideas of Mexican historian Perla Chinchilla, I’m taking ‘commonplaces’ to mean certain givens that we do not generally question and which give an identity to certain persons, animals or events. The characteristics pertaining to these assigned identities are generally observed or described from afar by groups that are foreign to that community, which they see as the “other,” as different, strange, foreign, and it is because of this that they must state these perceived differences to those who they see as their equals.[8] In this case, when foreigners read into J11 from afar, they do so by coming back to these commonplaces, using the tools that are available to them and which allow them to understand the situation. To analyze these reading processes, literary critic Hans Robert Jauss explains that all readers approach a text with a “horizon of expectations,” meaning their own ideas about what they hope to find, which are, in turn, permeated by their own social and cultural contexts, as well as their lived experience.[9]

In terms of perception, J11 was referred to in many different ways. Most outlets used the terms “protests,” “revolts” and “popular demonstrations.” In fact, Proyecto Inventario confirms that “the terms ‘protests’ and ‘demonstration’ reached a record high in searches about Cuba since 2004.”[10] It is important to associate J11 with concepts such as protests, demonstrations and uprisings--the same terms that are used to describe the forms of resistance that we see in other parts of the world--putting Cuba on the same plane as those experiences of resistance and protest of the 21st century. Despite the exceptionality that stems from the very existence of a totalitarian socialist system in Cuba, J11 inserted itself into a global scene of revolts that have paved the way for the new forms in which civil societies break into the public sphere.

The protests in Iraq (2019-2021), Russia (January-April 2021), Belarus (2020-2021) and the demonstrations in Chile (end of 2019) and Colombia (November 2019-February 2020) are very similar to what happened on the island a year ago. All of them, more than having a specific political agenda, are the consequence of social exhaustion. They stand up against authorities spontaneously, they complain, they demand, they disturb yet they don’t necessarily wish to take power; rather, they demand that power be held accountable. These protests are immediate, fleeting in time, but decisive. They do not have the ideological charge that characterized the revolutions of the 20th century. They are not organized by the Left, the Right, the Centre; they are pure contingency, which is ultimately the most efficient way to change the present.

“Uprising,” “demonstration” or “protest” are semantic forms to oppose a regime that capitalized on the concept of revolution and stripped it of its most fair meanings. How we name things is fundamental, for language creates reality. Words are tightly linked to the cultural structures that dominate the world, hence why it is important to pay attention to them. As Wittgenstein would say: “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

And if there is one thing totalitarianism is good at, it is the kidnapping of language. Cuban state media used expressions such as “counterrevolutionaries,” “soft coup” or, more recently, “vandalic coup d’état.” Pro-Cuban government outlets such as Telesur echoed these diatribes immediately and, less than a month after the events, Mexican economist Miguel Ángel Ferrer said that there was “no news or information about protests or demonstrations of social discontent, as determined by a thorough overview of Mexican and international media in the three weeks that followed.”[11] The erasure of the events is one of the silencing mechanisms par excellence of totalitarian systems. Establishing, without a shred of evidence, that there was no proof of the protests in any media outlet is not only false; it is an obvious lie.

Another commonplace in some of the texts that analyze J11 is the recurring need to find the “causes” of the uprising. The blockade, the pandemic, the government’s policies in recent years, the impoverishment of the population are some of the factors that have been explained the most; however, following María Lugones and Ranajit Guha, I would like to show how reactionary the “search” for these “causes” is. I am not trying to omit any valid intention to contextualize Cuban reality prior to J11, not at all. I am a historian and I understand the importance of circumstances and possibilities in allowing for certain processes to unravel. When I say ‘reactionary’ I am referring to the need to search for causes when we’re talking about something that is inherent to a system that is both oppressive and repressive.

In that sense, I would like to think, as Ranajit Guha does when studying the rural uprisings in India, that J11 was not caused by anything but, rather, that it was cultivated. The Indian historian sees the tendency among dominant historiographies (which are largely counterinsurgent) to see the peasant revolts as “caused” by something as reactionary. Unlike those dominant narratives, he sees them as having been cultivated, with hardship and work, from a subaltern position that has been stripped away from them by the hegemonic logic of domination.[12] The questions posed by those who wrote texts about J11 about the “immediate context” or the “context in which the protests took place” pertain to specific situations that are very recent, but they do not take into account the broader context. Rebelling knowing the Cuban government’s capacity to repress cannot be explained solely in terms of external causes, but in terms of resistance and with regards to a reconfiguration within civil consciousness about the concrete possibility of dissenting.

The J11 crop cannot be understood without social media; without dissidents locking themselves up in San Isidro on November 2020; without intellectuals, artists and activists coming together outside of the Ministry of Culture on November 27th, 2020 to demand the liberation of dissidents, their right to free expression, and an end to censorship and harassment; and without the peaceful march in solidarity with Luis Manuel Otero that took place on April 30th, 2021 on Obispo street. These “causes” were not mentioned by many texts because they are part of the history of dissidence against the Cuban government. Thinking only in terms of causes also negates over 60 years of resistance against Cuban totalitarianism.

J11 cannot be simply understood as a mere reaction to short-term causes. As María Lugones would rightfully say: “to think about the logics of resistance only in terms of reaction is to dangerously reduce them, for reaction adds nothing creative to the meanings that are contained in what is being resisted, except some form of ‘no.’ When resistance is reduced to reaction, it is understood from the physical model and, therefore, it is conceived as being contained within that action.”[13] What happened on J11 was a cultivation of cross-resistance to the Cuban government’s oppression.

Some of the compilations that follow this logic, and which were published after J11, are What happened in Cuba: Young Cubans on the island give their opinions on the events of July 11th and 12th 2021 (Ocean Sur); Cuba: July 11th. Dosier[14]; CubaJ11: protests, responses and challenges (Julio Carranza Valdés, Manuel Monereo and Francisco López Segrera, cords, Escuela de Estudios Latinoamericanos y Globales); the Argentinian newspaper Pagina12 and the dossier The Road Ahead: Cuba after July 11 protests (American University, Washington.)

Of all of these, the first one has a distinctly pro-government tone, and most of the texts from the American University dossier (which states that its objective is to “provide an empirically and analytically grounded account of these unprecedented protests”) invoke the ‘short-term cause’ commonplace, focusing on the geopolitical factors behind J11 and ignoring the violent and repressive response of the Cuban state against protestors. The ideological bias is very obvious, evidenced by the lack of dissenting voices that are critical of the reality in Cuba. Rather, there is a strong presence of authors that are part of the Cuban cultural bureaucratic elite, both privileged and in charge of censorship; hence, it is incoherent for a dossier that claims to be reflecting on Cuban civil society resistance to include authors that were part of the oppressive system that was deployed to repress said civil society on J11.

In stark contrast to these sources are the Popular revolt in Cuba: before and after J11 dossier[15], the J11 in Cuba: Totalitarianism’s strategies for the control of narratives[16] report and the Justicia 11J and Cubalex report[17]. These suggestions do not seek to invalidate voices or outlets in order to privilege others; however, in a context in which post-truth is the new norm, it is important to look for contrasts, opinions and alternatives to read into a turbulent present.

I have tried to highlight some analyses and perspectives about J11 that stood out to me. I believe that how this event was perceived in intellectual, academic and journalistic spaces (mostly) outside of Cuba leaves a lot to be desired. Most importantly, it can present a new opportunity to open up new directions in our analyses that allow us to keep understanding Cuban reality. More than understanding it, transforming it. J11 dismantled certain myths around that reality, the most important one being, I believe, the one around the impossibility of protesting in Cuba, which opened up a new path for opportunities and hopes that cannot be erased by any reactionary narrative. It dismantled, after 60 years, the idea that Cuban reality leaves its subjects trapped with no way out of an oppressive system. Therefore, when Cubans realize that they are not trapped in an invincible, oppressive system, and they rediscover their potential, they will be unstoppable.

[1] Text originally published, in Spanish, in [2] Grethel Domenech Hernández (La Habana, 1989). Candidata a Doctora en Historia por la Universidad Iberoamericana de la Ciudad de México. Maestra en Historia (2018) por la misma institución. Investiga temas relacionados con la historia e historia de los intelectuales en Cuba y América Latina durante la segunda mitad del siglo XX. Autora del libro Rehabilitación de la memoria histórica: Lunes de Revolución en el campo intelectual cubano (1959-1961), Editorial Abril, 2017. Artículos suyos se han publicado en revistas y medios de Cuba, México, Colombia y Brasil. [3] Manifestaciones en Cuba, domingo 11 de julio 2021, Registro realizado por Proyecto Inventario, [4] Rebeca Solnit: La madre de todas las preguntas, Capitán Swing, Madrid, 2021, p. 29 [5] [6] [7] [8] In the introduction to the Los mexicanos volume (Fomento Cultural Banamex e Historia Viva: Identidades Culturales), Perla Chinchilla uses the notion of ‘commonplaces’ to reflect on what it means to be Mexican and where those distinctive traits about what Mexicanidad means in the present moment actually from. [9] Cfr: “Segunda Conferencia, La Estética de la Recepción (I) El cambio de paradigma” e “Historia de la literatura como una provocación a la ciencia literaria”. [10] “Lo más buscado desde Cuba en Google luego del #11J”, Proyecto Inventario, julio 21, 2021, [11] [12] María Lugones: Peregrinajes, Teorizar una coalición contra múltiples opresiones, Ediciones del Signo, Buenos Aires, 2021, p. 60 [13] Ibidem, p. 68 [14] [15] [16] [17]

Foto de portada: Un hombre es arrestado en La Habana el 11 de julio. YAMIL LAGE (AFP)

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