HAVANA TIMES – After three months on the air, La Colada podcast sees this year out with the last episode of its first season. The podcast’s hosts, writer and journalist Jorge de Armas and political analyst Enrique Guzman Karell, went over some of the events that marked a turbulent 2021 in Cuba.
Over the course of approximately an hour, they discussed the protests on July 11th, November 15th, the difference between the San Isidro Movement and Archipielago, the figure of Miguel Diaz-Canel as the representative of a decaying system and Cuban women in the struggle for freedom and democracy on the island.
July 11th: Cries for freedom and the order for combat
July 11th is a date that will go down in Cuban history because of its dimensions. The flame that was lit with a mass protest in San Antonio de los Baños on the outskirts of Havana, and quickly spread like wildfire in dozens of other towns and cities across the country. Thousands of Cubans took to the streets to protest, a kind of domino effect on a people desperate for freedom and fed up of living in crisis.
What the Government had tried to prevent for 62 years, broke out that Sunday. Cubans of all ages demanded their rights loud and clear, and they displayed their explicit rejection of the Cuban government, whose repressive response reached its climax with President Miguel Diaz-Canel’s order for combat, calling upon the Cuban people to stand up to protestors.
“The order for combat has been given, revolutionaries take to the streets,” said Diaz Canel on national TV that day. “This is a fascist phrase, a phrase which encourages a genocide among Cubans to some extent, a civil war,” Jorge de Armas said.
“This order given by somebody with a clearly fascist character like Fidel Castro could have resulted far worse,” he warned.
According to the writer and journalist, Diaz-Canel symbolizes the Cuban government’s lack of a comprehensive approach to politics. Guzman Karell adds that this is also the expression of a system in decline that has already reached breaking point.
“It remains a sad fact that we have such a bleak, unenlightened figure at the head of a country in crisis on all fronts, nothing good can come of this,” he explains.
Moderators of La Colada recalled how Diaz-Canel later said he didn’t regret pitting the Cuban people against one another and how he lied when he said that there weren’t any disappeared or tortured persons after July 11th. Likewise when he said there aren’t any political prisoners in Cuba and that “people who aren’t with the Revolution are free to protest freely,” when NGOs have reported over 1300 arrests linked to the protest.
Five months after the protests, over 700 Cubans are still behind bars, including minors. Dozens of protestors have been subjected to summary hearings, charged with crimes such as public disorder, attempt, incitement and contempt.
San Isidro and Archipielago
The San Isidro Movement (MSI) was born in late 2018 as a direct response to the Government’s Decree-Law 349, a threat to freedom of artistic creation and speech in Cuba. It takes its name from the poor and marginalized Havana neighborhood where it is based, and gathers a group of artists and activists who advocate for civil rights and democracy on the island.
MSI started making lots of noise all over Cuba in November 2020, when a group of artists, activists and journalists entrenched themselves at their headquarters to demand the release of one of its members, anti-establishment rapper Denis Solis, who had been given a prison sentence during a summary hearing, and without a legal defense.
Many Cubans both in Cuba and abroad supported the hunger strike, and the Government launched a repulsive slander campaign in the media and stepped-up intimidation. Then its security agents dressed up as doctors to forcefully remove those who were part of the sit-in and arrested them. This led over 300 artists of all ages to gather outside the Ministry of Culture, on November 27th 2020, to demand an explanation and for them to respect rights of speech and freedom of artistic creation in Cuba.
MSI’s main leader, artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, has been in police custody since July 11th. He has become one of the most emblematic faces of Cuba today and is one of the main threats to the Government, because of his close ties to marginalized groups over the years, and his power to mobilize people.
“The great threat San Isidro poses is the same as what the Cuban people pose. The November 27th protest wasn’t so much a threat. I believe the San Isidro Movement represents the majority of what Cuba is today, maybe not what it was 70 years ago, but Cuba today resembles San Isidro more than anything else,” De Armas weighs in.
In 2021, a citizen-led platform appeared in Cuba, driven by playwright Yunior Garcia Aguilera, one of the leaders of the November 27th protest. The project was called Archipielago and its main call was for a civic protest for change on November 15th to demand the release of political prisoners, among other things. The initiative was thwarted in the end by the Government and Garcia Aguilera went into exile in Spain soon after, which led to a break in the platform, and many of its members left the project.
Guzman Karell talked about those who define citizen-led platform Archipielago as a Leftist party, an idea that he doesn’t share “precisely because this symbology refers to a more classist, more university-educated, more white, more organized Cuba, which is far-removed from the Cuba we saw on July 11th in Cuban towns and neighborhoods.”
One of the things that upsets De Armas the most in regard to the dismantling process of Archipielago, isn’t the deception many of its members had – which he points out is valid – but rather the deception of those who believed and followed the project.
“There is a duty in hope and a tragedy in disenchantment, and this is what totalitarianism has always played with, the Cuban government with its people,” he explains.
He pointed out that the positive thing that came from 15N was the wave of solidarity it unleashed. Cuban artists coming forward, such as Leo Brouwer, Jose Maria Vitier, Chucho Valdes, and celebrities on the international public scene such as Ruben Blades and Mario Vargas Llosa.
“Patria y Vida” phenomenon
In February 2021, Cuban artists Yotuel Romero, Alexander Delgado, Randy Malcom, Descemer Bueno, Maykel Osorbo and El Funk released the song “Patria y Vida”, which became an anthem for freedom in Cuba and the soundtrack for protests of Cubans around the world.
More than a song, “Patria y Vida” (Homeland and Life) became a social phenomenon and served as an impetus to amplify the Cuban people’s cries for freedom on different platforms.
The symbolic value that it has taken on also depends a lot on the social context it represents. De Armas points out that the most important thing about this is that a song like “Patria y Vida” has become a symbol of social needs.
The song won the Best Urban Song and Song of the Year categories at the Latin Grammy Awards that was recently held in Las Vegas. During the gala, Cuban artists performed an acoustic version of “Patria y Vida” and dedicated it to political prisoners, especially to Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara – who appears in the music video – and to Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo, one of its composers, who has been in a Cuban prison, since May.
“This has a special merit in my eyes, and the fact that the Grammy Awards ceremony and how controversial it could have been and what it sparked on social media, was all as important as the Latin World seeing Ruben Blades, Residente, and Mario Vargas Llosa talk about Cuba. I believe that “Patria y Vida” did in fact, to some extent, put the issue of Cuba on the table within this space of pop culture,” De Armas pointed out.
“The Patria y Vida phenomenon managed to unify Cuba’s cultural space, with both residents and its diaspora community,” he adds; an opinion that Guzman shares because “if a people embrace an artistic representation, this is the greatest achievement.”
The political analyst highlighted the fact that “Patria y Vida” as a song and phenomenon, also represents the Cuban people. Out of everything that has happened in recent years in Cuba, the San Isidro Movement is closely linked to what happened on July 11th, as well as Patria y Vida.
“This might seem trivial, but it’s no coincidence. It’s extremely significant that all of these young people are black. They are responding to a particular history and tradition,” he says.
Cuban women in the anti-establishment struggle
One of the most important issues that this last episode of La Colada paid special attention to was the role of Cuban women in the fight for change in Cuba. The struggle that the Ladies in White have been playing a role in for years, or with growing women’s representation in independent journalism and different platforms.
The podcast’s hosts made a special mention to Cuban activists Saily Gonzalez, Daniela Rojo, Camila Lobon, Anamely Ramos, Omara Ruiz Urquiola, Thais Mailen Franco, Katherine Bisquet and Tania Bruguera, whose names, complaints and work for freedom has marked this year.
“If somebody has been at the forefront of this front against the government that oppresses society, for over 20 years, that’s Cuban women. With all clarity, with all strength. They were there before the Ladies in White, but especially with the Ladies in White. For they were able to firmly embrace a discourse, but the idea they proposed was also peace,” stressed Guzman Karell.
In early December, the independent magazine El El Estornudo published a feature article with five complaints of sexual abuse against folk singer Fernando Becquer. The article sparked a heated debate on social media and encouraged over twenty victims of the musician to come forward and tell similar stories.
As a result of the discussions that recent sex abuse allegations against Becquer have sparked, two key issues in Cuba society have returned to the table, in addition to the legal vulnerability of women on the island, which date back to Cuba being founded as an independent State: race and gender.
“Until we as a society understand this and all of the responsibility this implies, this country will never be free, even when we shake ourselves free of totalitarianism, if we don’t face these issues head-on, we will never be free and we will never live in a free and prosperous society,” Guzman says.
Regarding harassment, sex abuse and violence against women, De Armas pointed out that the problem is that there is no representation within the Cuban State to protect Cuban women from this harassment, abuse and rape. “It isn’t culture, it’s a lack of social interest.”
Despite growing numbers of cases of gender-based violence across the country, and in a country with a high percentage of female lawmakers and professionals, the legislative agenda passed up until 2028, still lacks a comprehensive law against gender-based violence.
“Power in Cuba continues to be disgustingly macho, and white,” Enrique Guzman points out. “It’s clear that this is a systemic problem because after you’ve managed to overcome a great deal of conflict, you go to the police to file a complaint, and they don’t listen to you, they don’t keep you in mind, they mock you, it’s terrible.”
“I believe that change in Cuba has to be female, otherwise change won’t come,” De Armas stressed.