Cuba: The “suciedad incivil” and the Summit of Panama

Cuban journalist Lázaro de Jesús González Álvarez expresses his sadness and embarrassment over the behavior of Cuban official civil society groups and Cuban officials at the VII Summit of the Americas Civil Society Forum.


Sadness, distress, disenchantment, hopelessness, but above all…sadness. As a Cuban citizen, the violent events staged by Cubans at the VII Summit of the Americas Civil Society Forum in Panama embarrass me. At the event, representatives of the Cuban government and officially sanctioned Cuban organizations attacked not just independent Cuban organizations and individuals participating in the forum, but disrupted meetings of activists from other countries as well.

I regret the export of such incivility to the international public arena.

The Cuban representatives of the VII Summit of the Americas’ Civil Society Forum demonstrated just how uncivil they can be. With what a colleague has called the “suciedad incivil” (dirty incivility) we see violence and insecurity becoming the way the outside world sees Cuba.

I can understand why both parties (pro-government and opponent) refuse to sit down and hold talks. Such an effort would ultimately deliver a dead-end in which dissidents are bound to lose, but it would result in a less barbarian standoff. But degenerating into a brawl, as occurred in Panama City, is humiliating. Silvio Rodríguez comments on his blog: “(…) when faced with people that embrace terrorists who blow up civilian airplanes, or those that are confessed murderers of…Ernesto [Che] Guevara, I can admit to people losing their tempers …”

But if you can’t control your aggressive urges on the world stage, you should just avoid taking part in “civil society forums.” In other words, if you can’t be civil don’t go to a civil society forum.

What makes it worse is that the official Cuban delegation wasn’t even entirely from civil society. It included various National Assembly members and an ex-minister who is now an adviser to the president. Weren’t the pro-governmental civilian organizations that went enough that they had to supplement them with state officials?

At least two of the “debate” tables the Forum had set up on “Governance and Democracy” and another on “Citizen Participation” were boycotted by the Cuban delegates. And as they shouted out insults and slogans (including “Down with the OAS!”), other countries’ delegates were forced to withdraw from their rooms to the basement of the Hotel Panama.

Basic common courtesy dictates that when one accepts a neighbor’s invitation to visit their home, one must respect their house rules. Cuban pro-government representatives knew months ago they would find members of the opposition at the debate tables, which makes me wonder, if they were not willing to debate, why did they go?

Toward friendly animosities

Cuba’s problem is that there is simply no room for opponents. The Cuban government regards every opponent as an enemy, a mercenary, a counter-revolutionary, stateless, and illegitimate. There is evidence that some are indeed nothing but unscrupulous mercenaries, but definitely not everyone is. Many have no way of surviving without overseas financial support. Cuba’s private sector is still rather incipient; practically everything is state-owned.

In my country a group whose ideology is different from the government’s has no power to create a civil or political organization and legally register it. There are a few independent groups, but all of them exist under the shade of mandatory illegitimacy. They can have gatherings in small private settings, but almost always under the watchful eye of state intelligence and under state pressure.

When I was studying at the university, Cuban National Security agents requested that the faculty conduct my thesis defense behind closed doors—just for a harmless study about student political participation in the University of Havana. Fortunately, the faculty didn’t comply.

While saying what you think in Cuba doesn’t often land you in jail, the dissident tag entails countless consequences. As a result, many have come to believe that it’s not worth exposing yourself if you can’t share your thoughts publicly, since the state has monopoly control over the media—something I suffered first hand during 5 years of working as a journalist in three different national newspapers.

Here is how it is: there is no freedom of assembly, expression, press, demonstration, choice. Yet all of these were recognized as freedoms in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 and by the Inter-American Democratic Charter of the OAS.

The existence of certain benefits (health, education and social security) is diminished by serious democratic shortfalls that pro-government advocates, for their part, ignore, minimize or justify by saying that Cuba is a “besieged city.” (By the way: I applaud the rapprochement of the Cuban and North-American Governments, but I would prefer an increase of exchange between the two nations. We would learn so much from each other.)

Pledge of allegiance…to citizenship

I agree with Silvio Rodriguez that it is not easy negotiating with opponents (such as Guillermo Fariñas), who have pictures taken with shady characters accused of terrorism (Luis Posada Carriles) or with those who confess to having ordered the murder of Ché Guevara (Felix Rodríguez Mendigutía). But the independent sector in Cuba is far more diverse than that. And the Cuban government knows it. Why can’t the more democratic among us sit down and negotiate certain rules of sociability that respect differences entail the recognition of the “other” instead?

How can you explain the display of Cuban citizens physically assaulting one another in the same city, where barely a few hours later, Raúl Castro and Barack Obama shook hands amicably and talked of re-establishing bilateral relations—an historic event that was unimaginable a few months ago. Are political differences more soluble than civil differences?

If the same uncivil logic applied to politics then Raúl would have slapped the president of the country that protects Posada and Rodríguez, and Obama would have sucker punched the highest power of a country that sends its police force (sometimes dressed as civilians) to repress opposition groups during their peaceful demonstrations. (I know of the latter because when I was a university student it was not uncommon for professors to cancel lessons and take us on “spontaneous” acts of hatred towards the occasional and scrawny public demonstrations of “mercenaries.”)

At the same time, I can testify to the amazing effects migration can have in changing personal philosophies and the ones produced by daily Internet access even from my secluded island. But most of all, from personal experience, I advocate personal exchange and mutual understanding.

We Cubans should start to make our way towards our own democracy: original but recognizable in terms of values and universal practices such as, inclusion, pluralism, participation, civility, deliberation, and control. The key to all this is tolerance.


Lázaro de Jesús González Álvarez is a Cuban journalist, Havana University degree. Currently doing a Masters in Sociology at the Ibero-American University of Mexico City.

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