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Demonstrations in Cuba: What Happened in 2019, and What 2020 Will Bring

The first year of Internet coverage on cell phones triggered protest, on the Web and on the streets. What lies ahead?

Independent LGBTI march in Havana, in May 2019. 
Independent LGBTI march in Havana, in May 2019.  GETTY

On December 6, 2018 Cuba's state communications monopoly, ETECSA, allowed mobile phone users to connect to the Internet. Until then the Government had sought to prevent a "Trojan horse" that threatened to nourish and promote a sector of independent civil society that had been alternately attacked and snubbed by the State.

If the Government had not allowed Internet access on cell phones, Cubans may not have quickly organised via social media to get food, clothing and other goods to those affected by the EF4 category tornado that hit the Cuban capital in January of last year.

And the call for a march against animal abuse in Havana, in April, would probably not have mustered as many people or received the media attention that it did.

And LGBTI activists would surely not have marched in the Cuban capital, from its Parque Central to El Malecón, questioning the authority of the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX) and the Government itself.

2019 will also be remembered as the year in which a group of Havana gamers demanded, on social media and on the street, the right to an informative and informal Internet network. Today Street Network (SNet) was absorbed by the Government, but its threats of protest kept the Ministry of Communications (MINCOM) in check for several weeks.

Perhaps the MINCOM and ETECSA have been the state agencies most criticized on social media this year for maintaining high Internet connection prices, incompatible with the minimum wage in Cuba, which does not exceed $40. Every Saturday for several months citizens promoted the #BajenLosPreciosDeInternet (#LowerInternetPrices) hashtag, to implore the telecom monopoly for lower rates.   

From the networks to the streets

In April it seemed that Cuban singer  Dianelys Alfonso, "La Diosa" and her accusation of physical and sexual abuse by musician José Luis Cortés was going to unleash a #MeToo movement on the island. Although the singer's charges did not set in motion the domino effect feminist activists had hoped for, or bring to light new cases evidencing the systematic sexual abuse to which Cuban women are subjected, they did generate a more restrained movement attuned to the island: #YoSíTeCreo (#IBelieveYou).

Perhaps the culmination of the movement against violence against women was the delivery of a Request for a Comprehensive Law against Gender Violence to Parliament. At the end of December, however, when the digital magazine El Toque had access to the Cuban legislative schedule until 2028, the 40 artists, activists and journalists who sent their petition to the Assembly were able to see that the Government had refused to pass a specific law against violence against women.

While, on the one hand, civil society advanced unchecked, ignoring warnings from State Security, on the other hand many demands were typically lukewarm, as the regime has managed to temper the struggle of Cuban activism: in December a group of women in Havana who recorded the feminist anthem "A rapist in your path", chose a supervised venue –the courtyard of the University of the Arts– and had to wait for a man's approval to do so.

Undoubtedly, no civil society group was as strident over the past year as animal protection activists. The march held in El Vedado in April –the first with the Government's permission in more than half a century– may have inspired many of the activists of various causes who later took to the streets to demand rights for their communities.

However, the march against animal abuse –which avoided confrontation with the authorities at all costs– was followed several months later by a protest in front of one of Havana's canine centers. The animals' advocates spread the hashtag #AbajoZoonazis (#NoMoreZoonazis) on social media, and brandished signs reading "No More Zoonosis" in streets, not dispersing until health authorities handed over the 13 dogs that had been captured during the raids prior to the visit by the King and Queen of Spain.

After subsequent meetings between animal activists with representatives of Zoonoses –supervised by State Security– the Government finally announced that it is preparing legislation to address "animal welfare."

However, it does not seem that Cuba's animal rights activists have the patience to wait further for legislation that has been overdue for decades. On December 25 activists called for another "silent protest" to demand justice after an act of "extreme cruelty" ending with a dog's death in the Havana neighborhood of La Jata.

Meanwhile, in 2019 the regime's abusive conduct against Cuban journalists, activists and dissidents, those historically most affected by repression, was more visible.

The independent Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba noted in December that the "notable" decrease in arrests on the island "is not due to the fact that the authorities have become more benign, but rather to the increasing effectiveness of citizens' complaints, due to their access to digital technologies."

2020: What Lies Ahead

Accurate forecasts of Cuba's destiny are often difficult, if not impossible. Will civil society's protests –or threats of them– continue in 2020? What other groups will try to take to the street? What other demands will be made?

We can already anticipate that animal protection groups will not relent, and that the women organised in support of multiple feminist initiatives will not tolerate Parliament's refusal to pass legislation addressing violence against women.
In May CENESEX is bound to hold its official meeting, whose cancellation in 2019, along with the National Assembly's contortions to postpone the approval of equal marriage, triggered the independent LGBTI march.

Or is the institution headed by Mariela Castro Espín going to be removed from the public space, to avoid confrontations with the emerging evangelical churches, opposed to equal marriage and "gender ideology"?

Right now those answers are not so important. What matters is what those civil society groups taking on the Government will do, what they will not, what their demands will be, what streets they will take, what marches they will propose, and what hashtags they will make viral on social media. What we do know is that 2020 is not going to bring the respite that the Havana regime sorely needs.

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Profile picture for user Ricardo E. Trelles

- - El hecho básico es que los medios de comunicación son gran ayuda, pero LO QUE DECIDE ES LA CALIDAD DEL MENSAJE. Nuestro mensaje y sus propuestas de acción han sido pobres.
- - Si no se articula y fundamenta bien que tenemos que *y podemos* parar que Cuba se nos siga hundiendo y sacarla adelante bien, Y CÓMO HACERLO CON EFECTIVIDAD, nunca ocurrirán los cambios sociales que necesitamos y la gente seguirá sufriendo y muriendo tratando de "resolver" escapando de Cuba.
- - Es que ni se habla, con la Web ni sin la Web, de lo anterior.
- - Es que NI TENEMOS NI TRABAJAMOS PARA TENER EN LA WEB LOS MEDIOS ADECUADOS PERFECTAMENTE POSIBLES PARA *DISCUTIR, INTERCAMBIAR IDEAS SERIAS Y EFECTIVAS*, sobre los asuntos anteriores. (Bueno, yo sí trabajo, con tremendo esfuerzo, para que los tengamos, pero soy discapacitado y no puedo llegar lejos en eso.)