Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo
In a neighborhood of Old Havana, whose name I do not care to remember, a blogger lived for some time. After years of exclusion, defamation and violent, arbitrary arrests, he escaped from the Island of Utopia to the citadel of capitalism on March 5, 2013.
It was me, one of the founders of Cuban digital dissidence. A text-based (more than an action-based) movement, we were freelance journalists who hoped to democratize the ancien revolution, that living fossil from the Cold War.
I wrote in the December 2009 special In These Times issue, “Inside Cuba, Voices from the Island”: Though their work generates controversies and awards worldwide, Cuban bloggers are largely unknown here. With Internet access in Cuba restricted to the very few, the nation’s bloggers function as a kind of guerrilla underground. They work as independent agents whose existence heralds a civic re-activation that will modulate the Revolution’s Realpolitik—or is that Raúlpolitik?
In just the past two years, when least expected, that 2009 assessment has become obsolete: Cubans are now allowed to pay in hard currency for slow (and closely monitored) internet access. But that access was enough for younger generations to speak up, challenging the guardians of the old orthodoxy, aware that the world is now their witness in real time.
An action-based (more than a text-based) collective then began to organize in a neighborhood of Old Havana, the name of which I do want to recall: San Isidro. Despite the attacks of the official press (owned by the Communist Party) and the recent accusations that they are “mercenaries” of Donald Trump promoting a sort of “soft coup,” the group Movimiento San Isidro (MSI) has expanded its cultural influence to beyond just the eight members listed on its website to promote freedom of expression in Cuba, among other things.
Of course, these activists will not topple Castro’s military model. No American citizen, regardless of their personal views on U.S.-Cuba policy, should imagine that MSI intellectuals will do (with a couple of mobile phone recharges from abroad) what Pentagon hawks couldn’t (with billions of dollars).
But in 2020, in response to the Cuban government’s authoritarian approach to Covid-19, many Cubans joined MSI’s provocative campaigns. The campaigns were aimed at the heart of Cuba’s drama, which is not the affairs of its northern neighbor but the frustration with a fundamentally conservative single-party regime.
Susan Sontag once dismissed Communism as “Fascism with a human face.” In 2009, like a Don Quixote who dreamed the Plaza de la Revolución was his windmill, I wrote: The State has not yet passed specific laws against a phenomenon as new as blogging, although the habit of accusing critical voices of being “capitalism’s useful idiots” or “mercenaries of enemy propaganda” can serve as a brake on free expression. … There are also legal warnings issued for “peligrosidad predelictiva,” or “dangerous inclination toward criminality” that has been used to arrest and harass, but not yet convict.
Today, the Cuban regime’s laws are being manipulated to charge the members of MSI with crimes. On November 11, the rapper Denis Solís was summarily sentenced to eight months in a maximum-security prison for “contempt.” Solís first ran afoul of the state after publishing his 2018 protest song “Sociedad Condenada” (“Condemned Society”) online. This time Solís called a policeman who had entered his house without a warrant a “chicken in uniform,” an encounter he captured on his phone and posted on social media, for which he was incarcerated.
The government’s treatment of Solís helped spur hundreds of peaceful protesters to gather outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana on Nov. 27, 2020, all day long until midnight. The campaign, calling itself 27N, came together to demand respect for independent cultural spaces, as well as to stop all censorship and coercion against Cuban citizens. A delegation of demonstrators was reluctantly received by Vice Minister Fernando Rojas, and promises were made in exchange for clearing the crowd.
The next day, however, that verbal agreement was broken on national television by Rojas himself, who ridiculed MSI and threatened to prosecute its members. The leaders of the Cuban Revolution never respond to the pressure of public opinion. Instead, they demonize dialogue as a sign of weakness. Consequently, the harassment has intensified—including the illegal confinement of MSI members in their homes, who are now detained if they attempt to step outside.
I am proud knowing that what bloggers tried 10 years ago has been taken up by MSI. But I also fear that the new generations might be forced to “commit exile,” as I was. Small “d” democrats have a moral duty to engage. Otherwise, efforts like MSI and 27N―whose desires defy despotism and whose poetry challenges power―will collapse under the repression of the Western Hemisphere’s most undemocratic government.