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 momement’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.