Dimas Castellanos, 10 April 2015 — If by “civil society” we mean a group of autonomous associations, public spaces, rights, and liberties by which citizens exchange opinions, make decisions and participate in political, economic and social matters that interest them–with no more authorization than what emanates from the laws of the land–then we need to agree that this institution existed in Cuba since colonial times, developed during the Republic, disappeared after 1959, and is now in a process of resurgence.
Starting in the first half of the 19th century, illustrious figures such as Father Félix Varela, who called the constitutional studies program at the San Carlos seminary a “curriculum of liberty and the rights of man” and strove to provide an education in virtues; José Antonio Saco, who from the Revista Bimestre Cubana (Cuban Bimonthly Magazine) generated debates that fostered civic consciousness; Domingo Delmonte who, when this medium and other spaces were closed down, found in conversational gatherings a way of continuing the debates without official authorization; and José de la Luz y Caballero, who devoted himself to civic education as a premise of social change, with their labors forged the field for citizen participation.
Upon this ground, in 1878–when Spain, in compliance with Pact of Zanjón, granted Cuba freedom of the press, assembly and association–there sprouted Cuban civil society: political parties, newspapers, labor unions, societies of blacks, fraternal organizations, and other diverse groups.
With the birth of the Republic in 1902, civil society, having spread throughout the country, took part in the struggles of labor unions, peasants, and students, and in the intelligentsia’s debates conducted via the print press, radio, and television, about the problems afflicting the nation.
The importance of civil society was highlighted by Fidel Castro during his trial for the assault on the Moncada Barracks in 1953, when–referring to the limitations suffered by civil society with Fulgencio Batista’s coup d’etat in 1952–he said, “There once was a Republic. It had its Constitution, its laws, its liberties; a President, Congress and Courts; everyone could assemble, associate, speak and write with full liberty. The government did not satisfy the people, but the people could change the government, and there were only a few days left to do so. There was public opinion that was respected and heeded, and all problems of common interest were freely discussed. There were political parties, educational hours on radio, debate programs on television, public acts, and the people could sense enthusiasm.”
Having become a source of law, the 1959 Revolution–instead of fully reestablishing the Constitution of 1940–substituted it (without public consultation) with the Fundamental Law of the Cuban State*, and thus began a fatal process for Cuban society: the concentration of power, the elimination of private property, and the dismantling of civil society.
The organizations that fought against the Batista government were merged into the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations, which in 1963 became the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution, and later, in October, 1965, the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).
The diverse youth movement disappeared to give way, first, to the Young Rebels Association and, later, the Communist Youth Union. Women’s organizations of all types became the Federation of Cuban Woman. The associations of university students became the University Students Federation, and the pre-university-level ones became the Union of Secondary-School Students.
The labor movement was taken over, while the principle of university autonomy, endorsed in Article 53 of the Constitution of 1940, disappeared under the University Reform of 1962.
Organizations of employers met the same fate. The Landowners Association of Cuba, the Association of Settlers of Cuba, the Tobacco Harvesters, and the National Peasants Association, were substituted by the National Settlers Association, which was later renamed the National Association of Small Farmers.
The print, radio and television media, the enormous network of cinemas, the publishing domain, and cultural institutions were limited to the boundary set by the regime, with the intervention of the Chief of the Revolution during the 1961 Cultural Congress, when he asked, “What are the rights of the Revolutionary and non-Revolutionary writers and artists?” and he answered himself thus, “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, no right.” And there would be no exception to the law for artists and writers. This is a general principle for all citizens.
The organizations that made up civil society before its dismantling were not subordinate to the State nor to the administration in power at a given time. They were autonomous, a necessary condition without which they would have been unable to carry out the role they played in the Republic.
The subordination took practical shape with the adoption of the Constitution of 1976. Article 5 stipulates that the Communist Party is the supreme driving force of the society and the State.
Accordingly, Article 53  recognizes freedom of speech and of the press insofar as these conform to the aims of the socialist society, and Article 62 provides that none of the liberties accorded to the citizens can be exercised against what is established in the Constitution and the nation’s laws, nor against the existence and aims of the Socialist State.
The resurgence of a civil society movement emerges from the stagnation and regression in the economy; from the generalization of corruption caused by the inadequacy of wages; from the growing exodus of Cubans and the aging of the population due to the diaspora, and the reluctance of Cuban women to bear children in those conditions; to the point of bringing the country to a dilemma: either change, or erupt in violence.
It demonstrates that the structural crisis in which Cuba is immersed has its root cause in the absence of fundamental liberties, in the decimation of autonomous civil society, and the non-participation of the citizen.
Even so, during the process normalizing relations with the United States — and on the eve of Cuba’s participation for the first time in the Summit of the Americas, which will take place in Panama [April 2015] — the Cuban Government, instead of recognizing the role parallel to the State’s that corresponds to an autonomous civil society, insists on proving the obsolete, absurd and unprovable: that any association that does not respond to the objectives of the Communist Party is an external creation and its members are paid operatives of the Enemy.
During the Third Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), in Costa Rica, on 28 January 2015, Cuban President Raúl Castro asserted that the US counterpart should not try to relate to Cuban society as though there is no sovereign government in Cuba. A retrograde statement intended to continue denying the existence of civil society sectors that are not under Government control.
And during the Ninth Extraordinary Summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which took place on 17 March in Venezuela, Castro reiterated that “Cuban civil society will be the voice of the voiceless, and will unmask the mercenaries who will present themselves as being the civil society, as well as their sponsors.”
In accordance with the conduct, the Party and the State have in recent days mobilized hundreds of official associations in the “Forum for Civil Society of the Seventh Summit of the Americas,” and in the forum, “Youth and the Americas We Desire,” among other events, to defend an indefensible past, without understanding nor accepting that, even in these official associations, as was evidenced in the above-mentioned events, voices were heard declaring that it was necessary to create an atmosphere conducive to debate, and create sites where the views of civil society can be confronted, so as to derive a collective interpretation of the country’s issues.
Normalizing relations with the US will not be enough to pull the country out of crisis if it is not accompanied by the reestablishment of fundamental liberties. There should be no doubt that these relations will contribute to citizen empowerment and to the reestablishment of autonomous civil society and of citizenship.
 Article 53 reads, “The University of Havana is autonomous and is governed according to its Statutes, and to the Law to which they should conform.”
From Diario de Cuba
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison
*Translator’s Note: Also referred to as “The Fundamental Law of the Cuban Revolution”
The Information Society (IS) is an effect of a process of convergence among technological advances, the democratization of information, and communications, which erupted in the 1980s with such force that it caused the United Nations to call a world summit on information, which took place in the Swiss city of Geneva in 2003. At this summit, a Declaration of Principles and a Plan of Action were adopted, whose principal beneficiaries are individual persons who have the training for intelligent and creative use of modern technologies, without which social and cultural progress would be impossible.
Among the demands of the new information technologies, arising from their transformative character, is the need for immediacy when introducing them. One peculiarity that distinguished Cuba since the colonial period: the steam engine, patented in 1769, was introduced into Cuban sugar production almost immediately. The railroad, inaugurated in 1825, linked together the towns of Havana and Bejucal in 1837. The telegraph, which sent the first long-distance message in 1844, initiated its first line in Cuba nine years later. The telephone, which premiered its first service in 1877, came to Cuba in 1881. The electric light bulb, which in 1879 was enjoyed in only a few important cities in the world, by 1889 was being utilized in Havana, Cárdenas and Puerto Príncipe, and in theaters such as Payret and Tacón. The motion picture, patented in 1895, was exhibited in Havana in 1897. Radio, which commenced in 1920, was launched in 1922 in Cuba. Television, almost parallel with the United States, began broadcasting from the first Cuban station in 1950. While the Internet began officially in Cuba in 1996, more than 10 years after it was in use in other latitudes.
This past February, the First Vice President of the Council of State, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, at the closing of the first National Computerization and Cybersecurity Workshop, set forth some issues regarding the Information Society that call for discussion, debate and consensus.
1. Internet access implies at the same time challenges and opportunities, and constitutes an action necessary for the development of society under current conditions.
If the Information Society is distinguished by the generalized and efficient use of modern technologies in the era of globalization, when information has transformed the raw material of all activity and of each person, nobody could deny that, besides being necessary, it contains challenges and opportunities that must be faced. Regarding this thesis there cannot be disagreement.
2. Its access strategy should become a fundamental weapon of the Revolutionaries to achieve social participation in constructing the project for society that we want, starting from an integral design of the country. And I add that the usage strategy of this tool must be lead by the Party and should involve all institutions, and society, to achieve the fullest use of its potentialities in service of national development.
If we start from the premise that it is a necessity for all, then Internet access strategy cannot become a fundamental weapon of the Revolutionaries, but rather of all, because the Revolutionaries are only one part. And the project for society that we want (if that “we want” includes everyone) has to be agreed-upon by all.
Therefore that inclusive stragegy should not and and cannot be led by a party, which, as its meaning indicates, represents a “part,” whereas development is incumbent on all, not only on the Revolutionaries and the members of a party. This statement contradicts another part of the speech in which Díaz-Canel said that “we need to distinguish ourselves by a computerization with all, and for the good of all.”
3. Regulations and rules that govern access to the Internet and its use, should be coherent with current legislation, and align with the general principles of the Constitution and other laws, and adjust to the changing needs of social development.
Rather, besides being led by the Party and being a fundamental weapon of revolutionaries, Internet use should be coherent with the general principles of the Consitution and other laws. Here, the contradiction is so flagrant that it becomes inadmissible.
A phenomenon as modern and changing as the Information Society cannot be subordinate to a Constitution that urgently calls for profound reform, unless the purpose be that computerization should face the same fate as other projects in the country that remain stagnant.
The argument should be the opposite: the changes implied by an information society obligate us to reform a constitution that for a long time now has not met the needs of development, above all with regard to citizens’ rights and liberties, which constitute an unavoidable need of the Information Society, and which in the current Constitution are subordinate to one ideology and one party.
The preceding material demonstrates that the Information Society inescapably implies the respect for and complete defense of human rights, the recognition of their universaility, indivisibility and interrelation, and democratic access to the infrastructure and services of information technologies.
Díaz-Canel’s speech was uttered two decades after the official start of the Internet. It also came after President Barack Obama stated that Cuba has one of the lowest rates of Internet access in the world, that the cost of telecommunications in Cuba is exorbitatantly high, and that the services offered are extremely limited.
Among measures intended to empower the Cuban people, President Obama listed the need to increase Cuba’s access to communications and its capacity to freely communicate, and so would authorize the commercial export of equipment to improve the capacity of Cubans to communicate, including the sale of communication devices and articles to establish and update related systems.
The delay in introducing these measures has been accompanied by restrictions that seek to ensure that information obtained online corresponds with the Revolutionary ethic, and will not endanger national security.
In 1996, Decree 2091 was issued, whose articles state that the basis of Internet access policies will prioritize the connectivity of legal persons and those institutions of greatest relevance to the life and development of the country; that to guarantee fulfillment of the principles laid down in the Decree, access to networked information services of global scope would be selective; and that direct access from the Republic of Cuba to global computer networks would have to be authorized by the Interministerial Commission created by the Decree. 
Later, in 2003, Resolution 1802 resolved: Charge the Telecommunications Company of Cuba to employ all technical means necessary to detect and impede access to Internet navigation services via telephone lines that operate in national, non-convertible currency, starting as of 1 January 2004. 
The creation of the Information Society is incompatible with the priority of the Revolutionaries, with subordination to ideologies, and with a Constitution that endorses these restrictions. The contradiction is there: either the demands of modernity are assumed, or we run the risk of continuing to widen the information gap in the country and of Cubans in relation to the rest of the world.
The full use of the possibilities offered by the new information technolgies to foment online access that is free and autonomous, rich and diversified, plural and thematic, interactive and personalized, is a necessity. Especially in the era in which the diffference among levels of development is measured in terms of Internet connectivity. Simply put, computerization the old-fashioned way must be uprooted.
1. Decree 209 of the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers on Access from the Republic of Cuba to Global Computer Networks; 14 June, 1996.
2. Resolution 180/2003, dated 31 December, 2003, of the Ministry of Computer Science and Communications.
Originally published in Diario de Cuba
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison
27 March 2015