"Don’t Throw the Sofa out the Window" Discussing Protests in Cuba

Viewpoint: Refusing to accept the complexity and plural nature of protests in Cuba means giving away half the playing field to the most reactionary opposition. 

August 10, 2021

The Monte de las Banderas (Wall of Flags) monument in Havana, Cuba. ( Indi and Rani Soemardjan, Flickr)

This article was originally published in Spanish in OnCuba News.

Translation by Alejandro Velasco.

Something is Shifting in Cuba

Since protests began on July 11 rivers of ink have spilled commenting on the island’s social and political reality, thus becoming an unexpected protagonist in the 21st century.

The Republic of Cuba, according to the 2019 Constitution’s recent nomenclature, has been a symbol of exceptionalism from its founding to the present: a small, insular country of some 12 million people; which staged a popular, epic, and improbable revolution in 1959; which has for over 60 years stoically survived an economic, commercial, and financial U.S.-imposed embargo; and which, against all odds, can boast development levels higher than many other third world countries.

Cuba’s current one-party political system was born of a completely unprecedented revolution in a world that is no longer ours, the Cold War. Regardless of what one may think of the Cuban model, whether one is an ardent defender of the political system or whether one wishes with all might to enforce a tabula rasa, all agree on the significance of protests not seen on the island since 1994 (the “Maleconazo”). Our sister nation is thus living at a true crossroads.

At times, one must begin by showing one’s cards: it is difficult as leftists to write about Cuba from Spain. A strange and messy tacit compromise relegates discussions about Cuban society to the private sphere, removed from the risk of being wrong and singled out, far from the judgement of others. It is an unwritten rule for leftists who view Cuba as if on a faraway display case, where it can be venerated or vilified but, at no time, debated with calm and nuance.

Which brings us to our first point: we denounce the attitude of supposed commitment that means one almost need ask permission to talk about Cuba. In the end, that unwritten pact acts as a subterfuge arrived at via paths as varied as sincere humility, stubborn orthodoxy, or mere apathy, and of which we have ourselves long partaken. Its primary consequence? Preventing the left in Spain from openly and honestly debating Cuba.

The problem, however, is that we must talk about Cuba. Our comrades on the island deserve more than silence. We must end what Emilio Santiago, in a fantastic article, calls the “crossing of contradictory loyalties” which has paralyzed those of us who feel committed to the socialist cause. When Cuban leftists express interest in knowing the reaction and opinions of our Lefts and find slogans or ambiguity, should it surprise us they no longer seek us out? That it is the Right and far Right which end up monopolizing the spaces of protest and social critique?

We want to continue laying our cards on the table. We are Spanish youths who have not yet had the opportunity to set foot on the island, but who feel part of a moral and political legacy similar to that which gave rise to the 1959 revolution—that is, democratic republicanism and socialism.

We also consider that Cuba is a real country and not just a revolutionary fetish, with people of flesh and blood, with legitimate grievances, hopes, and ambitions facing economic difficulties and confronting a real lack of public liberties and basic rights. We wish specially to address our Cuban brothers and sisters who remain uncertain about the protests, who allow themselves to doubt, who seek dialogue and solutions beyond current lack of freedoms or “humanitarian” interventions espoused from parts of Miami.

Those who allow themselves the luxury of doubt likely look either favorably upon or with critical indignation at their compatriots who took to the Cuban embassy in Madrid on July 12 during a rally aiming to amplify protests on the island. What is clear is that that was the opening shot in the foggy maze that characterizes Spanish politics.

The right did not miss the chance to instrumentalize these rallies and turn them into a weapon hurled against the coalition government of the Partido Socialista Operario Español (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos. Both the regional spokesperson of Ciudadanos, Edmundo Bal, and the vice-mayor of Madrid, Begoña Villacís, took part in the demonstration. So did Rocío Monasterio, spokesperson for the far right Vox party in the Madrid Assembly.

The Partido Popular, alpha male of the Spanish right, introduced motions in popular assemblies and autonomous parliaments demanding that repression against protests on the island be condemned, and lit up the Cibeles fountain, across from the Madrid City Hall, as well as the headquarters of the Plaza del Sol autonomous government, with the colors of the Cuban flag.

This cynical and opportunistic concern for human rights by three parties—which, to cite only the most recent example, backed the coup d’état in Bolivia, and who have raised not a single word of alarm against widely reported human rights violations in Chile or Colombia—reached a climax on July 25 in a sparsely attended Madrid rally led by Cuban artist Yotuel, anti-Chavista politician Leopoldo López, and the main leader of Spain’s right wing, Pablo Casado. The cast could scarcely be more telling.

We are not naïve—thus want no one else to be—regarding the reactionary nature of some who oppose Cuba’s political system: amid cries of “liberty,” this sector dreams of the days of Batista’s dictatorship and wants now to win back what it lost then.

But the fact is that protests in Cuba do not dance to the rhythm of a single melody, or better stated, they are (re)producing their own melodies instead of dancing to others’. The meaning of these demonstrations is not prescribed, but rather constitutes one of the battlegrounds in the current political struggle, as already took place with the Gilletes Jaunes protests in France, where the Left was able to win over a movement that initially included racist demands and far right agents. Refusing to accept the complexity and plural nature of protests in Cuba means giving away half the playing field to the most reactionary opposition (which in turn calls to mind the cases of Nagy and Lukàcs in 1956).

The Plurality of Protests and the Guardians of Unity

Our aim is not to examine the causes of the protests—compelling analyses may be found here, here, and here. Instead, we wish to stand with all those who struggle to lay bare, beyond simplistic polarization, the issue’s complexity. Cuban jurist Mylai Burgos recently critiqued the “fallacy of half-truths,” according to which the protests could be explained by stressing external factors (the embargo or a “soft coup”) or internal ones (mismanagement of the pandemic or the absence of liberties).

Some leftist analysts have contributed to the debate by rigidly defending Cuba’s political system, as though the smallest whiff of self-criticism might tear open a breach through which imperialism would march forth. They argue that Latin America’s current reactionary political cycle cast an inauspicious light upon the protests’ origins. They note that the protests invoke legitimate quality-of-life demands (blackouts, inflation, shortages, devaluation) and therefore lack direction, thus (unwittingly) serving political elites intent on instrumentalizing them, especially in the United States.

This reductionist and economistic view of human beings is unsustainable and condemns us morally when it comes time to propose any project of political and social transformation in Spain, in Cuba, in China, or elsewhere. It remains surprising to hear socialist comrades defending such views, when it was Marxist social history that reserved its best works to dismantle them.

Such views by which barrios and inland communities demonstrate and, unknowingly, play into the hands of the enemy, is hardly compatible with holding aloft the Cuban people’s high educational levels. And, in the end, one must ask to what kind of uncritical society the guardians of essentialism aspire. Are we to forget the lessons of “actually existing socialism” in the 20th century? When did we take for granted that the Party is the exclusive representative of the Revolution?

The “soft coup” label has become the slogan of those willing to sacrifice truth at the altar of orthodoxy instead of recognizing that there may be legitimate social protests seeking to democratize Cuba’s political system. Suffice it to say: it is not that “soft coups” do not exist; they no doubt do and, in recent years, have grown more powerful, taking advantage of moments of when political systems are tenuous. But as Julio César Guanche points out, “pretending that the ‘soft coup’ narrative can explain every social grievance or its abuse by the enemy means dismissing the authenticity of any national demand. In Cuba there is also a Cuban agenda, there are Cuban problems, [and] Cuban activisms.” What Cuba’s Lefts least need is a romanticized notion of the Revolution which allows no fissures and where everyone loyally and quietly obeys.

Clearly put: there were socialists among the protests, some among them were detained, others held up placards that read “Yes to socialism, no to repression.” To those of us who feel committed to the cause of socialism and democracy, the “accumulated deficits” that Ailynn Torres recently enumerated pain us: “a labor rights deficit for those who work in the private sector, the systematic hollowing out of unions, obstacles to the creation and expansion of alternative forms of property (like cooperatives), practical elimination of the possibility to form civil society spaces due to an out-of-date and severely limiting law of associations, pent-up demands relating to civil and political rights of expression, assembly, and dissent with scant guarantees, [and] the criminalization of diverse citizen voices.” Why then should it surprise us that some among Cuba’s people clamors for democracy?

Fellow Travelers and Siren Calls

Spanish leftists seem to prefer avoiding this muddle, fearful of affecting commercial ties, or fearful of defending the indefensible on television programs that offer little room for nuance. The problem is that by their silence, only the Spanish right seems to hear those protesting. And it is here where we believe our Cuban brothers and sisters should not let themselves be swept away by the siren calls of anyone who claims to hold aloft the grandiose banners of liberty.

The most exemplary case is Vox, which counts among its members Rocío Monasterio, daughter of the Cuban owner of the Central del Azúcar del Golfo, expropriated by the 1959 Revolution and exiled to the United States, and who claims to detect communists due to her “Cuban gene.” Vox is a reactionary force that bills itself as the sole defender of Spanish unity with enough gall and conviction to defend it from its varied enemies.

Allies of the Partido Popular (PP) and the Ciudadanos Party, wherever they can muster support, are motivated by an aggressive and homogenizing Spanish nationalism that idealizes the old imperial past and makes excuses for Franco’s dictatorship. They aim to represent a masculine resentment that reacts against political, social, cultural, and economic changes spurred by feminism and cross cutting the globe.

Unlike others among Europe’s far right, which are better equipped to reach popular sectors and defend protectionist policies, Vox is suffused with neoliberal dogmas and is therefore incapable of offering any solutions to the crisis of Spain’s welfare state. Elsewhere, we called it a type of folksy (cañí) neo-conservatism that, without apparent nostalgia for franquismo, tries to pollute the PP and influence its agenda, thus setting conditions for right wing governments. Who could purport to defend Cuban liberty with Vox at its side? “Tactical alliances” may have an undesirable boomerang effect (suffice it to recall the feminism of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon when they allied with the government of Ronald Reagan).

Hope Does Not Arrive Alone

In the 1980s, in the heat of the Cold War, the great historian and militant pacifist E.P. Thompson used to say that the road to democratic socialism would be easier if it began in actually existing socialism, because democratizing staid bureaucratic structures would be less arduous than facing the great concentrations of power and privilege of capitalist countries.

The collapse of the soviet bloc in 1990 prevented Thompson’s hopes from seeing the light of day, but his argument about the distance separating us from the complicated union between democracy and socialism may have something to offer us in the present. The survival of the Cuban Revolution will likely depend, we believe, precisely on its capacity to open itself to the demands of an everyday more articulated and critical civil society. The ball is in the government’s court. 

As Silvio Rodriguez noted in 2010: “That our wings have turned to iron is not solely the work of the United States and the embargo but also, our own.” The revival of Cuban nationalism is good news and may grow to become the government’s best ally to confront U.S. interventionism. By contrast, authorities’ intransigence, condemning any protest as “counter-revolutionary,” opens the door for the most legitimate grievances to find shelter in the only berth that welcomes them, and this will always be the most brazen anti-communism aiming to turn Cuba once again into the backyard of the United States.

Not coincidentally, Fidel Castro himself, in one of his last speeches at the Universidad de la Habana, spoke the following revealing words: “This Revolution may destroy itself. They (the enemy) cannot. We can, and it would be our fault.”

Cuba remains a socialist country in a capitalist world. No longer counting on the support of the Soviet Union or of “socialism of the 21st Century,” the fate of the Revolution rests on a fragile thread. But today, more than ever, we believe we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater, or the sofa out the window. The best criticism of the current government comes from its own origins: sovereignty, self-government, and social justice.

The future of the “good life” in Cuba is in the hands of Cubans. We wish you the best.

Rodrigo Amírola studied philosophy at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and has worked for publications like Cuartopoder and CTXT.

Julio Martínez-Cava is an Associate Professor at the Universidad de Barcelona and member of the editorial board for Sin Permiso magazine.

Editors’ Note: This piece forms part of NACLA’s continuing coverage and analysis of recent protests in Cuba, their evolving aftermath, and the wide-ranging responses they have elicited from left circles in the Americas and beyond. To read other pieces in the series, click on the additional titles below.

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