Some 26 ago in November 1994 a paper was presented at the Fifth Catholic Social Week in Havana entitled “Reconstructing civil society, a project for Cuba.” Nobody, or almost no one, was talking about “civil society” inside this isolated isle. The topic was taboo, almost prohibited, and looked upon in a reserved manner by a few scholars, unknown or confusing for the great majority of Cubans.
But many countries in Europe and the Americas were taking stock of the decisive importance of the fabric woven by organizations in the middle between the citizen and the State. The concept had advanced, delineating itself, becoming more precise. Some were saying that civil society was whatever was not military. Others, that it was simply the aggregate of not-for-profit, non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Others included enterprises and political parties out of power, while others excluded the parties. Almost everyone at that time in Cuba was experiencing how, on top of the isolated citizen, defenseless before the law, the full weight of the totalitarian apparatus of the State was falling. In the face of this moral solitude one had to adapt or leave, although there was always a “loyal few” of conscience who remained and did not conform to this way of living. It is the dim light in the midst of darkness: family, groups of friends, churches…
An incipient civil society began to spawn, tenuous threads weaving themselves slowly and fearfully. An embryonic public spirit, such as in the Centro de Formación Cívica y Religiosa (Center for Civic and Religious Training, 1993-2007) its magazine Vitral (1994-2007), and some other Catholic publications and a few other initiatives began to expand “the freedom of the light.” As had been the case in the San Carlos Seminary during the time of Father Varela, as in the days of the apostolic work of José Martí in exile, as with the tobacco workers in Tampa and of the San Carlos Institute in Key West, in the 1990s something was afoot in Cuba. The seeds were now germinating as in that first Human Rights Commission in the 1970s and 1980s. Miniscule as was the seed, so strong was its embryo.
Movements and parties were to follow, as well as the emergence of several efforts at finding concert such as Consenso, Concilio Cubano, Proyecto Varela, Asamblea de la Sociedad Civil and so many others, here and in the Diaspora, the Ladies in White, who provided such a forceful witness that they achieved, with the help of many, the freedom of their husbands, sons and family members.
It was up to those that believed in the strength inherent in the small, the efficiency of seeds, the light from a match, the sovereignty of the soul. The organs of the body of a civil society still in its embryonic stage were being delineated followed by tissue differentiation and the start of vital functions, as each part of the body began to discover it was not for everyone to be a hand, a foot or a brain, that the unity of the human and social bodies lies in the diversity of functions and the plurality of methods and styles.
Little by little we have begun to mature the two lungs to together seek the air of freedom, the two eyes to see and analyze reality, the two ears to pay attention and listen to the hue and cry of our people… and we have come to realize, ever so slowly, in a traumatic and painful way, that being different does not tear us apart, that differentiation of services in the various parts of the same body of civil society is actually an intangible asset. Also that among us all, in polyphonic harmony we can be one in goals, in objectives and in our claims. We can be one in diversity in the long and pluralistic path towards liberty.
Opposition political parties have begun to think of themselves as traveling from following leaders to providing and defending their programs. There is still a way to go, but there is greater awareness. Let us not gaze only at the spots on the sun. Dawn is hard to discern.
Bloggers, tweeters, and Cubans on Facebook were able to open Cuba to transparency and independent information, to citizen journalism, to informal reporters at the scene, with truthfulness, immediacy and multiplicity of points of view. In this sense Cuba is not the same, before and after the authorization first of mobile phones and later of the Internet. This definitively broke the totalitarian control of the means of communication by the State, the hegemony of news provided by some foreign media that for a time provided the service of being the only window open in a closed country, but which gradually became bound and gagged in exchange for allowing it to be accredited in the country but that today has become, only in a few cases, a sort of amplification of breaking news and analysis so that today, we believe there to be twenty independent media outlets.
Women and their various movements, the racial integration effort, LBGTI groups, freelance workers, labor unions and trade groups, ecological and animal defense groups, taxi drivers and other independent transportation workers who have effectively overcome the public transportation crisis, the efforts in informal, complementary, and alternative education by religious congregations, parishes and others such as private tutors, intellectuals, writers, and above all artists have begun to sketch the face, heart, soul and action of Fuenteovejuna (fictional town under a tyrant).
The daily twitter of Twitter, the post on Facebook, the chats on WhatsApp and Signal and in many other digital platforms on the worldwide web are today the eyes, the ears, the information, the investigation, and the analysis of a Cuba in the midst of a growing miracle of transparency.
One proof that these are no longer isolated efforts by worthy sharpshooters who opened the way through great sacrifice and resiliency in the face of mounting repression staying in the island or connected from the Diaspora, are two recent statements by twenty some independent media who have come together in the essential, the urgent, the important, setting aside editorial profiles, methodologies, supports and styles.
The achievements of this joint work and connected work which needs no in-person meetings, is growing and becoming more effectual and visible ever since the NO campaign during the Constitutional referendum, the LBBTI march, and the jailing of Ferrer, Quiñones and Alcántara.
The liberation of artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, the young Cuban civil society activist and most recently the release of José Daniel Ferrer and other UNPACU leaders, has been perhaps the most convincing and visible confirmation of the power of civil society. Let us not stop but let us enjoy these successes which validate the affirmation that civil society is the new name for democracy, of a quality democracy, of efficient governance, or the exercise of citizen sovereignty.
Let us celebrate these achievements staying alert and involved, let us not forget the rest of the political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, let us not forget the increasing material and spiritual needs of our people… but, above all, let us learn the moral of the story: “Without solidarity there is no liberty” as was stated in Poland by Pope John Paul II. Cuba also has the “power of those without power” as Václav Havel would say. This is the protagonist role of civil society which is no longer incipient in Cuba, as it is growing and connected. Social networks work together with international pressure and peaceful means of discrepancy to fight for freedom.
We have begun here and now a new stage among the many previous ones. It looked to be impossible but two years ago, yet it is not so now. It is another miracle of the love for Cuba. It is another stage in the maturity of the civil society, another effort for unity in diversity, another step up in the hard climb towards a republic for all and for the good of all, pluralistic and cordial, inclusive and loving.