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Public Demonstrations: Crime or Right?

Until the causes that triggered the protests in Cuba are faced with the determination and depth required, demonstrations will continue.

La Habana
Police officers squaring off with protesters at the 11-J protests in Havana.
Police officers squaring off with protesters at the 11-J protests in Havana. Diario de Cuba

Public demonstrations - a social phenomenon never seen in Cuba in the last six decades - broke out across the country, simultaneously, with a wave of massive protests on 11 July.

The concept of public demonstration entails each person's right, individually or in groups, to express themselves in public spaces. Its underpinnings are the freedoms of expression, association and assembly. It includes the organization of the demonstration and the summoning of people to it. It is a civic right that allows citizens to exercise their political power and influence those in power.

As an act of a civic and democratic nature, public demonstrations include the right to organize, convene and freely publicize protests. They do not qualify as crimes against the State, nor do they constitute illegal activity, an act of public disorder, or incitement to rebellion, unless in the country where they occur —as is the case in Cuba— fundamental rights and freedoms are prohibited or restricted.

Generally, public demonstrations express dissatisfaction, disagreement, or indignation with abuses of power, an absence of rights, or a lack of attention to an accumulation of problems. They constitute an instrument after other avenues of participation to find solutions have been exhausted.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) —of which Cuba is a signatory, and participated in its drafting—states that "every individual has the right to freedom of opinion and expression ... peaceful assembly and association".
In addition to the Universal Declaration, the freedom to protest is an integral element in our constitutional history.

Article 25 of the 1901 Constitution endorsed freedom of expression "by word or in writing, by means of the press or by any other procedure," and its Article 28 included the rights of assembly and association "for all lawful purposes." These two articles constitute the foundation of the freedom of public demonstration.

The Constitution of 1940 established Cubans' right to "assemble peacefully and without arms and to march and associate for all the lawful purposes of life, in accordance with the corresponding legal norms, with no limitation other than what is essential to ensure public order." Article 37 described as "lawful the formation and existence of political organizations opposed to the system of the democratic representative government of the Republic." Article 38 declared punishable "any act by which the citizens are prohibited from participating in the political life of the nation, or this participation is limited." And Article 40 legitimized "resistance adequate to protect previously guaranteed individual rights."

Article 52 of the 1976 Constitution recognized "freedom of speech and the press in accordance with the aims of socialist society." It clarified that "the press, radio, television, cinema and other mass media are owned by the state or society and may not, in any case, be private." Article 53 stated: "the rights of assembly, demonstration and association are exercised by manual workers, intellectuals, agricultural workers, women, students and other sectors of the workforce, for which they have the necessary means. Social and mass organizations have ample resources and opportunities to engage in such activities." According to Article 62,  "none of the citizens' freedoms that are recognized may be exercised against what is established in the Constitution and the law, or the existence and objectives of the socialist State, or a decision of the Cuban people to implement socialism and communism.

The 2019 Constitution, in Article 54, "recognizes, respects and guarantees people's freedom of thought, conscience and expression." Article 55 endorses the "freedom of the press", but clarifies that "this right is exercised in accordance with the law and the purposes of society. " It underscores that the fundamental means of social communication, in all their manifestations and formats, are socialist in nature, belonging to all the people, or to political, social and mass organizations (that is, the State). Article 56 states that "the rights of assembly, demonstration and association, for lawful and peaceful purposes, are recognized by the State as long as they are exercised in accordance with the law and the purposes of socialist society." According to Article 62,  "none of the freedoms that are recognized for citizens may be exercised contrary to what is established in the Constitution, the law, the existence and objectives of the socialist State, or the decision of the Cuban people to implement socialism and communism."

As these are freedoms constitutionally restricted in texts after 1959, Cubans are prevented from exercising them fully as active subjects acting to solve their country's problems.

The definitive proof of the absence of freedom in Cuba is found in Article 4 of the 2019 Constitution: "the defense of the socialist homeland is the greatest honor and supreme duty of every Cuban ... The socialist system endorsed by this Constitution is irrevocable. Citizens have the right to fight against, by all means possible, including armed struggle, anybody who attempts to overthrow the political, social or economic regime established by this Constitution."

This article not only condemns the born and unborn to live under a system that they have not freely chosen, but also imposes on them a duty to defend it. This was, without citing it, the message that the president and first secretary of the Communist Party (PCC) transmitted on July 11 when, instead of undertaking the changes that Cuban society demanded, he issued the order for a segment of the Cuban people to combat the "revolutionaries," comprised of another segment of the Cuban people. In other words, he called for a civil war between Cubans.

The public demonstrations of 11-J were not riots or acts of vandalism, but rather massive protests in the absence of fundamental freedoms, which explains the strong repression, arrests, summary trials and those imprisoned for exercising a universal right that in Cuba is not respected.

Until the causes that gave rise to the demonstrations are confronted with the resolve and depth that they call for, the demonstrations —which are not a crime, but rather a right— will recur. The people's emergence on the political scene is the start of an irreversible process. The best and only solution is for the Party-State-Government, instead of insisting on external causes and agents, to proceed to release all those detained and undertake thorough reform to restore freedom to Cubans.

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