CubaBrief: International Nonviolence Day and Cuba

Today, October 2nd, is the International Day of Nonviolence that marks the 154th anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi’s birth. The 1999 documentary series “A Force More Powerfulexplores the power of nonviolent resistance around the world over a sixty year time span. The first chapter embedded below begins in India with Gandhi’s movement for independence from British rule.. This CubaBrief seeks to demonstrate how this is related to the ongoing freedom struggle in Cuba.

There is a false duality in the argument about bringing change to Cuba: either you prefer a violent bloody war that precipitates swift political change or you favor a slow and incremental transition launched by the dictatorship. It is a false dichotomy because, since 1976, Cubans on the island have opted for a third option: nonviolent resistance from the bottom up through civil disobedience movements using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a shared reference point.

The decision to embrace the UDHR is not a haphazard decision but one rooted deep in Cuba’s democratic history. It was Cuban diplomats in the 1940s who led the successful effort to draft and ratify this document at the United Nations.

This is a long and painful struggle, and that should not be overlooked, nor should the fact that these courageous individuals refuse to be passive in the face of injustice, but instead actively confront it.

Juan Enrique Pérez Sánchez, father of four and former phone technician, was arrested and badly beaten on July 12, 2021 after participating in the 11J protests in Nueva Paz, Mayabeque. He carried a poster that read “Down with the dictatorship” on one side, and “The hunger was so much that we ate the fear.”  Juan Enrique was sentenced to eight years in prison on December 15, 2021. He suffers from asthma and a herniated disc. Reports emerged over social media that he sowed his mouth shut with a wire, in protest of his unjust imprisonment.

The decision to nonviolently resist these evils was not an easy or quick one for Cubans.

Cuba’s democratic opposition learned through much suffering that violence, even when successful in defeating the immediate adversary, did not automatically translate to democratic change. The 1953 Moncada Barracks Assault, and the promises of the Castros did not result in a democratic renaissance, but a more terrible, violent, and totalitarian dictatorship that ended a corrupt authoritarian dictatorship in power for less than seven years, replacing it with one that for nine times longer, and counting, continues to repress and murder Cubans after 64 years.

For decades, grassroots groups in Cuba have struggled for liberty, organizing Cubans to defend their human rights and freedoms. The nationwide protests on July 11th across Cuba were historic, but they did not arise out of nowhere.

The decision to adopt this strategy is not unique to Cuba, but rather part of a global trend of rising nonviolent resistance to injustice. Nor are the efforts of tyrants to lure their enemies to embrace violence unique to the Castro regime.

University academics and nonviolent theoreticians Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth in their 2008 study “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict” compared the outcomes of 323 nonviolent and violent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006. 

The two authors found that major nonviolent campaigns achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with just under half that at 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns.

Even the 26% figure needs to be looked at within the Cuban context. The above-cited Stephan, Chenoweth study also suggests “that nonviolent campaigns are more likely than violent campaigns to succeed in the face of brutal repression.” 

The events surrounding the Cuban opposition initiative, the Varela Project, highlighted in the National Democratic Institute 2002 documentary “Dissident: Oswaldo Payá and the Varela Project” that is available to view below demonstrates the power of nonviolence to challenge even the most entrenched dictatorship.

Notes from the Cuban Exile Quarter, October 1, 2023

International Day of Non-Violence 2023: Join Cubans’ non-violent movement for restoring democracy and human rights to Cuba  

“Use truth as your anvil, nonviolence as your hammer, and anything that does not stand the test when it is brought to the anvil of truth and hammered with nonviolence, reject it.” – Mohandas Gandhi

“Era tanto el hambre que nos comimos el miedo.” – “The hunger was so much that we ate the fear.”

Juan Enrique Pérez Sánchez, father of four and former phone technician, was arrested and badly beaten on July 12, 2021 after participating in the 11J protests in Nueva Paz, Mayabeque. He carried a poster that read “Down with the dictatorship” on one side, and “The hunger was so much that we ate the fear.”  Juan Enrique was sentenced to eight years in prison on December 15, 2021. He suffers from asthma and a herniated disc. Reports emerged over social media that Juan Enrique sowed his mouth shut with a wire, as a sign of protest.

Today in Cuba there are thousands of Cubans, like Juan Enrique, jailed for their nonviolent demand for an end to the Castro dictatorship expressed most widely during the July 2021 protests. Over a thousand have been identified that were jailed or disappeared. It is known that some have resorted to going on hunger strike to protest their unjust imprisonment. This is part of the movement’s repertoire of nonviolent tactics to resist the dictatorship in Cuba.

The men and women in Cuba who have led protests across the island have maintained their non-violent posture, continue to call for civic resistance as the method to challenge the dictatorship, and are asking for active nonviolent solidarity from people of goodwill living abroad. 

On July 27, 2021 the Christian Liberation Movement tweeted: “For solidarity with the freedom of Cubans. Eleven specific actions to isolate the regime.”  This Cuban based movement, with its national coordinator, a former Amnesty prisoner of conscience living in Cuba, said that although statements criticizing the dictatorship are welcome that now is also the time for actions to isolate the Castro regime internationally, and sanction both on the dictatorship collectively, and individual bad actors in the regime are needed. These efforts to raise the cost of repression too are part of strategic nonviolence, and requires international solidarity. Please share and support this campaign with others.

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Considering that the Cuban opposition in the island over the past 47 years decided to resist the Castro dictatorship using nonviolent means, that the democratic resistance today as evidenced by the start of the July 11, 2021 uprising did so non-violently, and that concrete calls for help from the island are asking for nonviolent solidarity both inside and outside of Cuba now is the time to step up with the support requested, and not resort to the siren call of embracing the dictatorship providing it with more resources and legitimacy that has failed in the past against this regime.

Today, October 2nd is the international day of nonviolence and the 154th birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi. On this day let us remember our nonviolent icons in Cuba and share their message with the world, and continue to carry out concrete actions to restore democracy, the rule of law, and isolation and accountability for those engaged in human rights violations.

“The first victory we can claim is that our hearts are free of hatred. Hence we say to those who persecute us and who try to dominate us: ‘You are my brother. I do not hate you, but you are not going to dominate me by fear. I do not wish to impose my truth, nor do I wish you to impose yours on me. We are going to seek the truth together’.” – Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas

“If we must give our own lives in pursuit of the freedom of our Cuba, so be it.” – Laura Pollán

[ Full Article ]

Miami Herald, July 27, 2023

In the 1950s, Cubans soon learned the Moncada attack was nothing to celebrate | Opinion

By John Suarez

Raul Castro and Miguel Diaz-Canel in the rubber stamp National Assembly

On July 26, at 5:00 a.m., Raúl Castro, age 92, Ramiro Valdés, 91, and Guillermo García Frías, 95, presided over the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the assault on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba. It was a violent act that led to the formation of the July 26th Movement and helped establish a dictatorship with Fidel Castro as its leader.

By contrast, 75 years ago, a delegation representing the Cuban Republic helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations. That republic provided an eight-hour work day; the right to strike; and university autonomy. The island enjoyed a large number of newspapers and radio stations with diverse political and ideological viewpoints. This year, Cuba is observing the Declaration’s 75th anniversary with a new draconian penal code and more beatings and arrests of dissidents.

After Fulgencio Batista’s coup ended Cuban democracy on March 10, 1952, Cubans fell for Fidel Castro, a charismatic young lawyer who promised to return constitutional order. Following the July 26 Moncada attack in 1953, the July 26th Movement’s urban terrorism killed Cubans throughout the rest of the decade. Raúl Castro plotted numerous aircraft hijackings. On Nov. 1, 1958, one such skyjacking killed 17 civilians when the plane crashed.

The United States slapped an arms embargo on the Batista dictatorship in March 1958, thanks to Castro’s July 26th Movement’s lobbying, and in December 1958, the U.S. ambassador in Havana pressed Batista to leave.

On Jan. 1, 1959, Fidel Castro rose to power and was quickly recognized by the United States. Raúl Castro remains there today.

What happened to the Cubans who, in good faith, used violence to effect democratic change?

Mario Chanes de Armas, for example, who survived the Moncada attack, served prison time with Fidel and, like Castro, received amnesty, went to Mexico to train and returned to Cuba on the Granma yacht to unseat Batista. Chanes could have taken any position in the new regime, but he chose to return to his brewery work. After watching Castro betray their movement, Chanes spoke out against communist influence. In 1961, Chanes was prosecuted as a counterrevolutionary and imprisoned for 30 years. He died of Alzheimer’s in 2007 in Miami, after being released in 1991 and going into exile in 1993.

He was not the only one to follow this trajectory; others took up arms again.

The men and women who battled Batista’s dictatorship, many of them in Castro’s July 26th Movement, hoped for the restoration of Cuba’s 1940 Constitution and its republic. This is what Fidel promised in his “History will Absolve Me” speech at his trial for the Moncada assault. They got a totalitarian dictatorship, instead. They then fought Castro for six years in a civil war with substantially higher casualties on both sides than during the struggle against Batista. About 400 Soviet advisers assisted Castro in crushing the resistance. The opposition ended up in exile, imprisoned or executed.

It was within the prison cells that Cuba’s human-rights movement was forged.

This movement understood the potential of nonviolent resistance, demonstrated by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The resistance practiced it in Castro’s prisons and saw it as a means of mobilizing Cubans. It became a national civic movement to challenge Castro’s monopoly, educate citizens, rebuild democratic culture, reclaim human rights, refuse to accept injustice and oppose repression. Members reveal the dictatorship’s own contradictions by insisting that it adhere to the democratic provisions in its own constitution.

The communist dictatorship refused to follow Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, believing that glasnost and perestroika would bring an end to its rule. They understood that nonviolent leaders would provide an alternative to their regime and had them murdered.

One high-profile case was the July 22, 2012 assassination of pro-democracy leaders Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero. Payá and his Christian Liberation Movement amassed over 30,000 signatures for the Varela Project petition calling for human rights reforms, organizing tens of thousands of Cubans and attracting international attention. Payá was a Sakharov Laureate, twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Fidel Castro became sick in 2006 and handed down power to his younger brother. The elder Castro died on Nov. 25, 2016. Raúl Castro and his son Alejandro continue to rule Cuba today through their hand-picked president Miguel Diaz-Canel.

Cuba’s prisons remain full of political prisoners — and the freedom struggle continues.

John Suarez is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.

Miami Herald, November 30, 2021

Nonviolent resistance has a history of success in combating repression in Cuba | Opinion

By Regis Iglesias Ramírez and John Suarez

Bertha Soler addressing fellow Damas de Blanco in Havana after a regular Sunday demonstration

Grassroots movements in Cuba have fought for liberty for decades, mobilizing Cubans to defend human rights and freedom. The July 11 nationwide protests marked a historic moment, but they did not arise from nowhere.

In November 2020, hundreds of artists mobilized outside of the Ministry of Culture in a 15-day effort to free political prisoner Denis Solís González. They demanded both his release and greater artistic freedoms.

The San Isidro Movement (MSI), an artists collective formed in 2018 to nonviolently defend artistic freedom, challenged regime officials to free their unjustly jailed compatriot. Solís González was charged with contempt for protesting an illegal search of his home by a policeman, whom he had called a coward.

Rather than accede to MSI’s demands, officials repeatedly and violently escalated repression over 15 days, but they were met with nonviolent responses that inspired hundreds of artists and intellectuals to gather outside the Ministry of Culture, bringing officials to the negotiating table for dialogue.

The San Isidro Movement’s exercise in nonviolent power led to the formation of a new movement, 27N, and increased civic resistance. The pattern continued through 2021, reaching millions of Cubans across the island with the movement’s art and music — in particular the song, “Patria y Vida.” The rapper Maykel Castillo Perez (Osorbo), co-author of the song and also a member of MSI, is currently in prison and severely ill.

This is not the first time nonviolent tactics have been carried out successfully in Cuba. The Cuban Committee for Human Rights, founded in 1976, systematically documented human-rights violations, information smuggled out of Cuba to international human rights organizations, which led to the installation of a special rapporteur focused on Cuba’s human-rights situation and the Castro regime’s condemnation over a 15-year period beginning in 1991. Havana’s record was carefully scrutinized, and it was held accountable annually until 2006.

The Christian Liberation Movement (MCL), founded in 1988 to work for Cuba’s democratization, is best known for the Varela Project, a petition signed by 11,020 Cubans in May 2002 calling on the regime to guarantee international human-rights norms in law. Fidel Castro changed his constitution to prevent it from being amended that same year.

The regime responded with violence, not so much because of the number of signatures presented to the National Assembly, but because more than 120 Citizens’ Committees had been created throughout the country in the process and imprisoned most of their leaders. Despite this repression, MCL turned in an additional 14,384 signatures in October 2003.

Castro expected the March 2003 crackdown, dubbed the “Black Cuban Spring,” to be the end of the opposition. Instead, it sparked the emergence of a new movement, the Ladies in White, led by the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the men jailed. For eight years, these women lobbied, protested and marched for their loved ones’ freedom. They were successful, and the last of the men were released from prison in 2011, a nonviolent victory over the dictatorship. The Ladies in White continue to the present day, demanding human rights be respected in Cuba.

The price of nonviolent defiance has been high: long prison terms, exile, deportations and extrajudicial killings. Tempted by the understanding that Cubans are exerting power through nonviolent action, some voices have emerged advocating a turn to violence in the belief that it would expedite a democratic transition.

Strategic studies have demonstrated that the more brutal the regime, the less effective and successful violent movements are. Counterintuitively, nonviolent movements have been more successful in overthrowing brutal dictators and transitioning to lasting democracies.

The Castro dictatorship, with decades of experience in terrorism, torture and genocide around the world, is an expert in war, as demonstrated in the 1960s when it efficiently and ruthlessly crushed a violent opposition in Cuba with the aid of Soviet advisors to consolidate power.

Nonviolent resistance is better able to mobilize citizens to demand change and obtain global solidarity and sanctions, creating the political, diplomatic and economic isolation of the regime and punishing the individuals and entities that violate Cubans’ rights.

Regis Iglesias Ramírez is spokesperson for the Movimiento Cristiano Liberación.

John Suarez is executive director of Centro por una Cuba Libre.