The first version of this text was published in 2000 as I noticed there was so little knowledge about the democracy movement in Cuba among democracy promoters that I met. The idea was to present the movement and what kind of methods it uses in order to make it possible for those interested to contribute.
The text was updated a couple of times and this last version was published in 2006. If you find it interesting, completely outdated, or just would like to contribute, please add a comment below.
There is also a Spanish translation of one of the first versions, done in 2002 by Alexis Gainza Solenzal. You can find it here, but please have in mind that a lot of things have happened in Cuba since it was published
A Short Manual For Working With Organisations In The Democracy Movement In Cuba, ver 3.1
Since the early nineties the democracy movement inside Cuba has grown steadily and fast. The movement has developed into a civil society that is ideologically, strategically and organizationally pluralistic. The democratization has already begun. If the movement gets strong enough it will un-dermine the power base of the Cuban government – the fear and the lack of hope – and build a new civic base for a democratic state. The purpose of this manual is to share some of the experiences SILC has made when co-operating with organizations in the Cuban democracy movement the last decade.
The first organizations to survive for a longer time outside the prisons, and achieving concrete results, were the human rights organizations. Since the mid-eighties their main motive has been to keep track of the human rights violations in order to protect activists in political parties, indepen-dent news agencies, trade unions and other organizations working for democracy. During the nine-ties, the return of Cubans who had witnessed the political changes in Europe, the delegitimizing of the Cuban state among the citizens during the ”special period”, the influx of information thanks to the tourist boom, and the new strategies of the activists in the democracy movement, both on and outside of the island, lead to an increase in the number and size of organizations working for de-mocracy. They also spread all over the country.
At the same time the Catholic Church started providing social spaces where Cubans could con-template and discuss issues that were not dealt with within the revolutionary institutions. The visit of the Pope in 1998 gave the churches a strong boost of support and hundreds of thousands chan-ted Libertad! Libertad! together with him at the mass on the Plaza de la Revolución. Although there are many progressive chapters, the churches do not want to function as platforms for political acti-vism or take stand openly for democratization. But some of them contribute massively to civic education about human rights and liberties.
During the first years of the 21st century the enthusiasm and activism within the movement was very strong. The bigger political parties and trade unions had hundreds of members and local bran-ches in most provinces. Reporters Sans Frontières counted to more than a hundred independent journalists, and there were almost a hundred independent libraries. In May 2002, the Varela project presented 11020 signatures from Cuban citizens demanding a referendum on democratic reforms.
The support for the democracy movement around the world was also increasing. Jimmy Carter visited Cuba in May 2002 and talked about the Varela project in state television. Later that year Oswaldo Payá received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament. A Swedish example was the minister for development cooperation at the time, who openly said it was as important to support the democracy movement in Cuba as it had been to support ANC in South Africa during the 1980s.
The set back came the spring of 2003 when the Cuban government sentenced 75 of the most well known democracy activists to in total 1 456 years in prison. All of them were recognized as priso-ners of conscience by Amnesty international.
The European Union reacted strongly and immediately cancelled the negotiations of the Cotonou-treaty, and imposed the so called June measures, which among others included the invitation of representatives of the democracy movement to the celebration of national holidays at the member countries’ embassies. The Cuban government immediately froze the already very strain relations with the Union embassies
During 2004 the government let a dozen of the prisoners out to serve the rest of their sentences at home. This was enough for the Council of Ministers to abolish the June measures in January 2005, and simply call for a review of the situation for human rights on the island every year. Since then another dozen of activists have been sentenced to prison. The amount of actos de repudio, gathe-rings of huge mobs of aggressive people outside the activists’ houses, and the violence against them is increasing. The human rights of the population in general is also deteriorating as hundreds of young people have been sent to prison for the alleged crime of dangerousness.
The effect of the increased repression on the democracy movement was initially strong; many of the organizations disappeared as their leaders were imprisoned or the activists too scared to conti-nue. The government also succeeded in presenting some of the leaders as spies of the security ser-vices which increased the paranoia in the movement as well as in the rest of society. But the last years the movement has recovered a lot of its strength. The network of families of the prisoners is getting stronger, various new organizations have been formed, the old ones are recovering, there is a new generation of independent journalists writing for different sites on the Internet, and many of the activists from before the arrests of 2003 are back on track. The arrests also created a broader knowledge about the democracy movement around the world and about the nature of the Cuban government.
Four missions for international support
1, Contribute to the legitimacy of the democrats
One of the most important lessons from the transition processes in east and central Europe is that if the democrats do not have enough popular support before the transition starts, they will not come to power. And if the new government is not lead by democrats, the democratic reforms will not be put in place. The successful democratization processes in Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic countries were all lead by former activists, while democracy never became a reality, or came a lot later, in Russia, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine which did not have strong democracy movements.
The motive of SILCs work in Cuba is therefore not to contribute in any way to the overturn of the government, but to contribute to the organizations who are preparing the society for democratiza-tion. The better prepared the citizens are, the closer democracy will be.
The vast majority of the organizations in Cuba working for democracy strive at a negotiated transi-tion to democracy with a similar type of government participation as in Poland or Czechoslovakia in 1989. Practically no one believes that the transition will begin within the government structures, and nobody wants to take power with violence. But in order to achieve a peaceful democratization, the actors within the movement need to be recognized by the Cuban population, the Cuban go-vernment, and the international community. They need legitimacy as representatives and support to become it. But the international support this far has been very limited. Based on his own experience from the times before 1989, Vaclav Havel writes about this in a correspondence with Oswaldo Payá:
”I would like to draw your attention to an observation of mine: Whatever your merits, however brave and respectable as dissidents you may be, even though you may have spent years in prison or written clever books – in spite of all that, pragmatic politicians in the democratic world may sus-pect that you are mere grumblers, inveterate complainers, slightly crazy and constantly carping. Such a suspicion might lead to the following opinion: We may support them symbolically, but from the point of view of realistic politics there is no need to rely on them; they are not the right partners for us. And yet the opposite is true. It is important to convince politicians in democratic countries about this, which I have been trying to do for many years.” (Journal of Democracy, 2004)
Evidently most European governments still do not listen to one of those that actually know the challenges of democratization. So this is where the independent international support has its first mission. By openly recognizing organizations in the democracy movement as partners and initiating cooperation projects, international actors will give legitimacy and credibility to those brave enough to work for change. This moral support strengthens them when working to convince the citizens of the need for democratization, and creates the contacts that will be necessary when the transition starts. Ultimately it will even make them more legitimate in the eyes of the government.
There are many simple activities that may provide legitimacy and recognition; regular phone calls, visits to meetings of the organizations, invitations to Europe (important actions even if they turn out impossible to realize), reference to their opinions in articles or political resolutions, publication abroad of their articles etc. One way of getting information about existing organizations in Cuba is through the websites at the end of this text.
Another important task is to work for the integration of Cuban organizations in international net-works as the Socialist or Liberal internationals and similar structures. Cooperation between profes-sional organizations and their counterparts in Cuba, will also contribute to the advancement of the professional development of the Cuban members. Teachers, physicians and other professionals working for democracy often suffer from the loss of contact with their professions and fear they will never get to work again as they lose the skills.
Many international organizations have tried to find partners in Cuba that will confirm their own opinion on international policy towards the island. This has been used by the government to pre-sent the Cuban partners as mere satellites of international interests, avoiding their arguments, igno-ring their existence and only answering aggressively to the international criticism. But this should not be accepted. Instead of challenging the Cuban government ourselves, we should let the word to our Cuban counterparts and give them the possibility to answer. By doing so, we enhance their legitimacy internationally and locally and oblige the government to listen to them. International actors can not democratize Cuba; we can only support the efforts from inside.
This recognition will also contribute to the safety of the individual activists. The more likely the arrest of an activist will be known and reacted against abroad, the safer he or she will feel.
It is also important that the cooperation contributes to a consciousness in Europe about the situa-tion in Cuba. A lot of myths need to be scrutinized; most urgently that there is no opposition. By de-Americanizing the Cuban issue, and not focusing on the economic embargo, European actors can point out the most important aspects of it the lack of individual freedom and liberal democra-cy and that there is a political alternative. »The relevant conflict is not the one across the Florida Strait, but the one between the Cuban government and the Cubans«, as the saying goes in the de-mocracy movement.
2, Support the victims
When the cooperation with a Cuban partner is established the need for material support will be evident. The second mission is therefore to contribute to the victims of the repression. In addition to the prisoners of conscience there are hundreds of other political prisoners on the island. Practi-cally all organizations have members in prison.
The reason for the support to the prisoners – except the dramatic poverty and vulnerability of their families – is to reduce the fear among the other activists. The fear of being sent to prison is doubled if nobody will know, and tripled if one’s family might end up with no income. By assuring support to the prisoners of conscience and other victims the fear gets a little bit more manageable.
Another important reason for creating a system of support to the victims of the repression, is that it becomes a good way for people at home to contribute to the work. By involving politicians, opini-on builders, friends and families in helping the prisoners the support will of course increase, but we will also contribute to a greater consciuousness about the situation and support for change.
3, Break the information monopoly
The self imposed isolation of Cuba have made it very difficult for the citizens to get news on what is happening in the country, how the economy and society is developing and using this information to analyze the political situation. There are no legal independent media, the access to Internet is very restricted and it is impossible to gather more than a couple of dozens of people at meetings. The general stagnation of the cultural life keeps the people in ignorance. And as it is practically impossible for the activists to travel outside Cuba and learn from other democratization processes, the sources of inspiration to their work are very few. Knowledge is power, and that is what needs to be spread.
The third mission for the international partners is to contribute to the breaking of the information monopoly. At the moment most communication with citizens has to be done from person to per-son. But as many people are suspicious and reluctant to get mixed up with the dissidents, the pro-cess of convincing people to take part in the democracy movement is slow.
As there are no official newspapers or other media who will report about the opinions and work of the organizations in the democracy movement, the activists need to build the support for democra-tization themselves. Their information tools are very scarce though, why this is probably the area where international support is most efficient. The demand for computers, printers, fax machines, flash memories, mobile phones, copy machines, DVD players etc is and will be big. But the de-mand for content is also huge, and some times even more difficult to do something about. Dozens of websites publish news from activists inside the island every day, but these are practically impos-sible to access from Cuba.
The information produced by the independent journalists is key to the creating of political conscio-usness and debate. Their main task is to gather information about »normal« problems at local hos-pitals and schools the lack of medicine and instruments or the shortage of teachers at the start of the semester; the kind of problems that journalists would write about in every country with a free press, but which are neglected by Cuban newspapers.
From abroad it is important to contribute with information about human rights, political ideologies, civil society and other important aspects of democratization of course. But international best sel-lers, children books, fashion and gossip magazines should not be underestimated, as they are used to attract people to the independent libraries for example. The most important materials though, are those books and magazines about Cuba published by Cubans abroad for their country men and sisters on the island.
Normally there are no problems to take printed materials through the customs. It is difficult to distribute bigger quantities of materials that way, and it might get confiscated on a bad day, but there are very few others. Nevertheless, a public network of tourists who are willing to take books and magazines with them can distribute quite a lot. It is also a good way to make citizens at home contribute. And by sending tourists to the houses of the democracy activists you make sure what is the most important memory they will talk about when they get home.
Another way of informing the Cuban public about activities and opinions is through the US go-vernment owned Radio Martí; a Miami based radio station transmitting over Cuba. Radio Martí has a wide news reporting and makes interviews with the activists in Cuba by phone, and arranges de-bates with Cubans in Miami. In Havana, it is very difficult to listen to Radio Martí as government transmitters interfere. There are also some other short wave radio stations available.
4, Demand strategic plans for democratization
Another of the important experiences of the transition processes in former communist Europe is that they are very fast in the beginning and that mistakes can have consequences for years to come. And as democratization is not the only possible outcome of the undermining of a totalitarian go-vernment, the movement needs good strategies for democratization on a nation wide level as well as on a practical organizational level.
A fourth mission is therefore to contribute to the democracy movement in getting prepared for the period after the transition from totalitarianism has begun. There is a lot of research on the positive and negative experiences in Europe, as well as in Latin America, and much of it is adapted to Cuba readers. The reforms of the economy, the new civil laws, electoral systems, media laws and so on are being drafted and discussed widely in the movement. Although it is probably impossible to make the organizations agree in advance, the debates and the proposals are important as well as the input from other countries experiences.
The preparation process is a huge project which needs to be implemented in the whole country, and include lots of people. But the lack of experience in strategic planning, project management, book keeping and international cooperation in general in the democracy movement, reduces the impact of the work. It will also make it difficult to get access to international cooperation funds. At the moment it is of course forbidden for the organizations in Cuba to receive money from abroad, and international partners are prohibited to contribute with economical means. Any cooperation that includes financial support should be very well analyzed in advance. But nevertheless, they day will come when it gets possible, and until then project management and strategic planning are very useful tools even without any funds, and would improve the work of all organizations working for democracy inside Cuba.
There are many handbooks and training programs on how to plan democracy promoting projects, and how to find support for them. It would make a significant contribution to the work for democ-racy in Cuba if this knowledge was made available on the island, and if the international organiza-tions actually demanded clearly defined problem analysis, project goals, action plans, and indicators in the cooperation projects with their Cuban partners.
Working methods and activities in the democracy movement
The activists for democracy are not living underground. When questioned by the security police they generally tell what they think and why. As the security services overhear the telephones and have informers, there is no point in lying. The fewer secrets an organization has, the less can be unveiled in the interrogations and the less can be destroyed through infiltration. Revealing secrets at an interrogation is very demoralizing, whereas telling the truth and discussing politics with the inter-rogators will strengthen the morale of the activists. There are many norms in the movement that might be difficult to grasp for a foreigner, but an important one is not to talk about what other activists are doing or thinking, and only speaking about one self. Another strategy when interroga-ted is of course to tell very bold lies making the interrogators feel stupid. The motive is to disarm the police and the authorities by not playing their game.
Many activists will open doors and windows, speak loudly and without visible fear, and introduce their visitors to neighbors and friends. The democracy movement is not an underground culture where people are pale, speak in codes or are afraid of saying what they think. The organizations even send their reports and statements to the authorities to let them know, and many of them have applied to become recognized as registered organizations. After the arrests in 2003 some of the Internet sites wanted to stop publish the names of their journalists on the island, but many of them protested loudly and demanded to be published with their names as before.
The increase in repression has made it tougher for many of the activists to maintain the openness though. Therefore it is extra important that the embassies in the island and the international organi-zations working with the democrats do not pull the movement even further underground. Many foreign diplomats are a lot more afraid than the activists, and are actually the ones demanding mee-tings to be made in secret etcetera. But this is the wrong way, the change of society can never be done from underground; democracy will not come through a conspiracy. The real results will only be achieved in the open.
The activities in the democracy movement are generally based on events in individual homes. That is where political organizations have seminars and discussions about different proposals, where journalists gather to share computers and transfer their articles abroad by phone or fax, where hu-man rights organizations run archives and write and transfer information about human rights abu-ses, and where somebody’s personal bookshelf, added to by donations and open to the public whe-never possible, is declared an independent library. There is no possibility for any organization in the democracy movement to rent an office, open a bank account, hiring an auditor or use the facilities of the official institutions.
Some organizations try to make public events, like reading the declaration of human rights in a park or small rallies. Almost always the police prevent such events from taking place.
Ways to co-operate
International organizations tend to fall in the regime’s most efficient trap when trying to establish co-operation with Cuban partners. They turn paranoid and refrain from acting as openly as they can. But there are normally no problems in knocking doors, making phone calls or send faxes. In-ternet access is very scarce, but quiet some activists can regularly send and receive e-mail. The acti-vists are long known to the police and they will not say anything they should not say. If the visitors speak in the same way, they minimize the risk for problems. When calling from abroad it is a good idea not to tell your whole name and when you arrive in Havana for example.
Many European GSM-phones will work on Cuba, which makes it possible to leave a phone to your partners, but continue paying the bills at home. Phone calls are very expensive still, but sms is a powerful tool and makes it possible for them to contact you directly, which is not possible with the normal telephones.
International visitors will not put anybody’s security at risk by visiting democracy activists or by talking politics openly with them. If there is too much hush-hush, finding a new partner might be a good idea. Many activists wish to show the neighborhood and the security police (if possible) that they have international guests. That will give them both legitimacy and some safety. This does not mean that they do not feel constant fear. One of the most important skills of a democracy activist is to know how to control the fear.
The repression is even worse in the provinces than in Havana. The metropolitan culture as such, as well as the presence of international correspondents, embassies and tourists makes the capital more difficult to control politically than the provinces. This is a strong argument for increasing the efforts to regionalize contacts and support. The democracy movement is firmly established in most of the provinces but they have very few international contacts.
The most important limitation in co-operation with organizations in the democracy movement concerns the scale of the project. The policy of the government seems to be »nothing big in pub-lic«. This means that as long as events take place in normal homes and do not gather more than a dozen people the risk of intervention by the police is quite small. Therefore there is no reason to send delegations larger than three people. Transport also presents a problem for big groups.
It is always important to invite democracy activists to Europe and give them the possibility to in-form about their work and ideas. Even though the efforts are not likely to pay back very often as the government practically never allows any activists to travel abroad, it shows the seriousness of the co-operation and gives legitimacy to the partner organization. Legalizing the invitation letter in Cuba, obtaining passport and exit permit costs approximately US$ 400 and take a long time.
The knowledge of English is generally quite limited in Cuba. It is a great advantage if the organizers of the co-operation speak Spanish. Although translators can be found within the democracy mo-vement, projects cannot rely on them.
How to stay safe
It is difficult to know how much the security services actually know about foreigners visiting de-mocracy activists. It does not matter though; you should always act as if they knew everything. Do not care about it, but – on the other hand – do not give them a reason to interfere. The same counts for informers and infiltrators. You can be sure that practically every organization is infiltrated in some way or another, and many events observed. But do not care too much about that either, you can not prevent it! Instead make sure you do not have anything to hide. The fact is that either you accept that the security services know what you are doing, or you will not succeed in doing anything at all.
The most important piece of advice that can be given to people traveling to Cuba with a delicate purpose is therefore to do everything by the book. Do not hide what you are doing. Do not act like a spy. Do not stay at unregistered bed & breakfasts. Do not eat at unregistered restaurants. Do not take unofficial taxis. Do not organize any activities in public and do not make any statements. Make it difficult for the authorities to find a reason, but act as if you had all the human rights in the world to do exactly what you are doing.
Another important advice is to have a wide contact surface. If somebody of your partners ends up in prison or turns out to be an informer, it is important to have many others to continue working with. Otherwise you make it easy for the government to ruin the work you have done. It is better to have ten good and stable partners out of which two might be informers, than channeling all the efforts through one very reliable partner. Your motive should not be to take power, or helping anyone else taking power, but contributing to the people working to democratize the Cuban socie-ty.
If the security services wish to interfere they will. The general advice democracy activists give to foreigners if they end up being interrogated is to stay calm and talk. The interrogators will try to convince you that the activists are counterrevolutionaries and CIA agents. Their motive is to demo-ralize, make you apologize and regret your visit to the island in order to prevent you from coming again or sending somebody else. But there is no reason to be stubborn, saying nothing. The inter-rogators are professional in making people talk, and they will.
So what to do? Use your die hard dedication to human rights! Tell them why you care about it, how it works in a democracy and why it is important in Cuba too. Also tell them what you are doing there, and what activists you have been meeting. If you get arrested they will probably know any-how. Answer the questions about your opinions, and ask them back what is wrong with meeting people, why it is prohibited, and if the Cuban government has anything to hide. By showing that you are open you will disarm them. Their motive is not your information, but to make you reveal it. After a while they will have no more questions and they will be demoralized. If you apologize they win. And most important; do not end up lying. The police will find out, and you will feel like an idiot.
The interrogators might be violent to Cubans but have not been it to foreigners in a long time, what I know. In general the security services try to maintain the façade of being a civilized and law abiding police force. The legitimacy that is created by low profile, but official and long-term co-operation with organizations in the democracy movement, is much more efficient than a tough speech at an unofficial press conference in Havana, or playing a spy and putting somebody’s securi-ty at risk.
SILC has been actively involved in supporting the democracy movement in Cuba since 1996. Most activities have been organized in close cooperation with a group of Cubans living in Sweden. The most important result of this is the support to the publishing of Cuba Nuestra and Misceláneas de Cuba, two magazines about Cuba published in Sweden and distributed through all possible chan-nels to Cuba and to others interested. The motive is to foster a peaceful transition to democracy by contributing to the break up of the state monopoly on information.
In the late 1990s SILC organized an exchange project with Swedish and Cuban journalists. The motive was to create a continuous interchange of knowledge about the conditions for journalism in both countries. The counterparts in Cuba were a couple of independent news agencies. Together they held seminars on topics such as »press freedom«, »press ethics« and »press legislation«, but also on practical work at Swedish and Cuban newspapers.
In 2001 SILC and the Liberal Youth of Sweden, initiated a campaign with the motive of collecting money and books for the independent libraries in Cuba. The distribution of books started in 2002 through tourists and other people traveling to Cuba. This far we have distributed more than a thou-sand books to various independent libraries in the island.
SILC is also functioning as an intermediary contact between the two liberal parties in Cuba (Partido Solidaridad Democrática and Partido Liberal de Cuba), and liberal parties in Sweden and abroad. Many delegations of prominent Swedish, Italian, Slovak, Macedonian, Serbian and Belarus politici-ans have visited their ideological sisters in Cuba to discuss how the European policy towards the island should develop. In November 2005 the two liberal parties of Cuba became full members of the Liberal International.
During the Cuba Spring of 2003, many of SILC’s partners and friends in Cuba were arrested and sentences too many years in prison. In order keep them alive in public we created a fund for moral, political and economic support to them and their families. The fund was created together with the Christian Democratic International Center and the Cuban-Swedish journalist Alexis Gainza Solen-zal. The fund contributes economically to all the families of the prisoners of conscience recognized by Amnesty International in the provinces of Matanzas and Villa Clara, as well as to some of our partners in Havana that were imprisoned. The names and addresses of the families are published at http://www.kubafangar.se
In general we believe it is important to give priority to low scale events and projects in order to make long turn cooperation possible. We have done no press conferences, statements or condem-nations in Cuba. Anything like that would make future cooperation difficult. The aim is to give legitimacy to the Cuban partners and support to their work. We try to be firm in our positions but flexible and pragmatic in our methods.
One of SILC’s main motives has been to give the democracy activists a platform in the Swedish debate on Cuba. We have published half a dozen books on Cuba, among others by the independent journalists Oscar Espinoza Chepe and Raúl Rivero, and many journalists in Cuba have also found their way to Swedish newspapers through SILC’s network of publishers.
Sources of news and information
http://www.cubanuestra.nu publishes plenty of articles in both Swedish and Spanish about the historical and cultural debate on Cuba.
http://www.miscelaneasdecuba.net is the site of the Misceláneas de Cuba magazine. It has a wide selection of articles and documents about the democracy movement, as well as on the Swedish and Europe-an policy towards the island.
http://www.kubafangar.se has the latest information on the fifteen prisoners of conscience that we sup-port.
http://www.cubanet.org publishes approximately ten articles from independent journalists every day. Some of them are translated into English. Cubanet also run articles on Cuba from the big English and Spanish language newspapers. There is also a selection of information about the independent civil society in Cuba.
http://www.nuevaprensa.com publishes radio interviews and articles with Cuban journalists and democra-cy activists every day.
http://www.cubaencuentro.com is the site of the Encuentro magazine. It publishes various articles from Cuba everyday, among others by the different Cuban social democratic activists.