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Who can legally associate in Cuba?

While Silvio Rodríguez presents his Ariguanabo Foundation, with Díaz-Canel's support, other civil society projects have been struggling for legalization for years.

La Habana

Betti and a group of her friends have been volunteers at the Cuban Initiative Cuban Initiative for the Defense of Animals (CeDA), a project based in communities of Havana.

CeDA's aim, explains Betti, is "to reduce the populations of stray dogs and cats, and to educate the public, especially children and young people, in non-violence towards animals."

Young members of the group, who, like Betti, are studying for university degrees, believe that these initiatives must be taken to another level: joint work with the authorities to include laws in the Penal Code that punish animal abusers.

"We realized that there are no legally recognized foundations through which we can dialogue with and pressure the State for these purposes. Neither did we know that there was a Law and a Registry of Associations, or the entity to go through to constitute them," she said.

In early September, upon learning that Silvio Rodríguez was able to register the Ariguanabo Foundation, these young people asked themselves whether it would be possible exercise their right to form civil associations through their own initiatives too.

The Ariguanabo Foundation (FUNDAR), which apparently enjoys direct support from Miguel Díaz-Canel, aims to, among other things, reduce the severe contamination of the Ariguanabo River - located in San Antonio de los Baños, the singer's native town - and coordinate cultural and other projectsto improve the environment.

"El Guardabosques (The Rangers) has harbored noble purposes like these for more than a decade, standing as an alternative for environmental action and communication, bringing together more than 20 activists and performing work that deserves to be recognized," says writer Lucía Corrales.

El Guardabosques’ leadership declined to make statements for this report. On their blog they state that they are a civil society organization that seeks to "promote actions in favor of environmental protection."

The project does not have a legal registration, due to the restrictions in the country on those organizations that want to protect their independence and take critical stances towards certain domestic policies.

"But there are also other projects, such as the Iniciative Planta, Aniplant Caibarién and the “ecofinca” (ecofarm) of Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, which operate throughout the country denouncing predators of the nation's environment, and the mistreatment of animals, but they are not allowed to be legalized as civil organizations. On the contrary, they suffer government harassment," Corrales added.

Although the current Constitution recognizes rights to assembly, expression, and association, it confines their exercise to those "mass and social organizations" recognized by the Government, and obtaining this recognition is difficult for citizens who want to organize outside of those entities.

Who can be associated outside the margins of the State, and who can be a partner with it?

"We should take as an example the newly-created Ariguanabo Foundation," says Niovis Calderón, a young veterinarian who wants to promote a sanitation and restoration organization for green areas in Havana, especially forested parks.

"It is not a question of questioning the legitimacy of its constitution or the objectives of FUNDAR, but we cannot help but wonder who can associate outside the State, and who can partner with it. Is the promptness of its creation due to the fact that its backer is Silvio Rodríguez?" Calderón asks.

Her husband Aristides Betancourt, also a vet, inquired with officials at the Ministry of Justice (MINJUS), who explained that among the requirements to create a new organisation is that it not have the same goals and objectives of other existing, legalized and recorded entities in the Registry of Associations.

"So, will FUNDAR be of a national nature? Will it address all the environmental problems and acts of animal abuse that occur throughout Cuba? I find that to be an implausible justification by the MINJUS," says Betancourt.

Independent jurist Julio Alfredo Ferrer Tamayo opined that the right to free association set out in Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be respected, as a principle.

Although the Law of Associations – 54/1985 of the MINJUS – should be adapted to the current context of the country, the problem is not in the regulations, says Ferrer Tamayo.

"If the Ministry of Justice applies the current Law of Associations, despite all its limitations and all its restrictions, there is the possibility of forming associations of all kinds. It is the Government, based on the political criterion of whether a certain association is detrimental to the State, or does not behoove it, that limits the right of civil society to establish associations that, in reality, meet the requirements of Law 54."

An example to explain how the government regulates free association for civil society is the case of the Cuban Legal Association, explains Ferrer Tamayo.

"The request for constitution that this organisation filed complied with all the requirements set down in Law 54. Its legalization was denied based on grounds that had nothing to do with said Law, but rather with purely political criteria not included in it. This was an illegal act committed by the state authorities, which violated a group of lawyers' right to free association."

Alina Gomez, who, together with Niovis and Arístides, will once again file a request to constitute their environmental entity, following the approval of FUNDAR, believes that "the sources of revenue that autonomous associations would have are the Cuban Government's main concern."

"Preventing the empowerment of civil society through donations that could generate capital or assets that do not depend on State subsidies is the real justification for denying Cubans' right to free association. The current environmental situation in Cuba calls for several foundations of this type per province," Gómez concluded.

The Law of Associations allows an organisation with altruistic or social benefit purposes to obtain income sources such as donations, which include national entities, individuals or legal persons, individuals residing abroad, and legal institutions or persons established abroad.

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