Following the repression of the July 11 protests in Cuba, the debate on the limits of public freedoms on the island has intensified. Given that the Government reacted against the social outbreak as if it were, essentially, an action designed and encouraged from the United States, various actors within the island, which in recent years have lobbied for the expansion of association rights , expression and assembly, they wonder if the new Constitution of 2019 facilitates the opening or not.
The new Constitution introduced some rhetorical flexibilities in the articles dedicated to civil rights that suggested a delay. In the years prior to the promulgation of the constitutional text, important academic, intellectual and civil society sectors of the island placed on the table the objective of building a true “socialist state of law”. The explicit allusions to “human rights” and “democratic rights” in the Basic Law reinforced that expectation.
The Archipiélago civic collective, coordinated by the young playwright Yunior García Aguilera, proposed an exercise that puts the practice of rights in Cuba to the test. After calling for a march against violence, repression and for the release of the detainees on July 11 and 12, the group requested permission from the local authorities in several cities to march peacefully on November 15.
The Government’s response was that, although Article 56 recognizes the “rights of assembly, demonstration and association”, it also establishes that the “purposes” of these freedoms must be “lawful and peaceful” and be exercised “with respect for public order” and “Abiding by the provisions of the law.” By signing the premise that the march would be peaceful and requesting authorization from local institutions, the organizers met almost all constitutional requirements.
Almost all, except one, that of the “legality” of the ends. According to the Government, the march is illegal because, although its declared demand is the end of the repression, its “manifest intention” is committed to “changing the political system” in Cuba. What elements does the Government offer to demonstrate this “manifest intention”? None. All the official argumentation revolves around unfounded hypotheses and accusations without proof about the external financing of some organizers and the media support received from sectors of the opposition and exile.
The absence of regulatory laws on freedom of association and expression in Cuba facilitates this arbitrary and discretionary interpretation of the Constitution from power. But the constitutional text itself also favors the annulment, in practice, of any advance towards the rule of law. By enshrining the single Communist Party as the “superior leading force of society” and decreeing that socialism is “irrevocable”, the Basic Law allows interpretations that place official ideology above the laws.
The response to the request for permission for the peaceful march on November 15 reiterates a rationale that we have seen applied to the last episodes of public protest in Cuba: the San Isidro Movement strike, the sit-ins in front of the Ministry of Culture and the social outbreak of July 11. This rationality is reduced to the fact that every act of interpellation to power is assumed as hostility to the system and, therefore, as complicity with the enemy, that is, “United States” or “imperialism”, abstract entities that generally mean the US government, Miami exile and internal opposition.
The Minister of Culture Alpidio Alonso says it clearly, in an interview with Luis Hernández Navarro and Mónica Mateos-Vega, for the Mexican newspaper The Day, when he refers to artists who, like Tania Bruguera —or Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara or Hamlet Lavastida— “have sold themselves body and soul to the policy of hatred against Cuba and the Revolution”, or when he assures that “established opponents in the United States they are trying to present political actions with artistic clothing ”. Affirmations so absolutist and imprecise that they would allow to encompass all civic or political art or all rebellious popular music, which are produced in Cuba, as anti-national phenomena or hostile to the sovereignty of the island.
Instead of taking advantage of these expressions of disagreement to call for unity and reconciliation, the Cuban government has decided to intensify the criminalization of protests and the stigmatization of their leaders. Choosing that route is not irrational: it responds to a strategy of total transfer of internal dissent to the conflict with the United States. A strategy that ensures, at the same time, politically purge youth civic activism and pressure the Government of Joe Biden to relax the sanctions against the island.
The government’s logic exposes very well the distortion of the constitutional order in Cuba. The body of internal legislation and its penal codification are ultimately subordinated to a bilateral conflict, which is real, in its asymmetry and in its costs, but which is functional to the disadvantaged party to shield itself against any resistance, for civic reasons. , peaceful or constitutional.
From test to test, this pressure is on the limits of public liberties in Cuba. The next one will be on November 15, but it won’t be the last. Only two things could prevent the pressure from spilling over: for the government to relax its controls or for the United States to abandon its policy of traditional hostility. One as unlikely as the other because they work as a complement and mutual justification.
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