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Gay rights activists carry a rainbow flag during the 11th annual March against Homophobia and Transphobia in Havana, Cuba, May 12, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini - RC1CEDDEEF00
Order from Chaos

Letter from Havana: The sudden civil society awakening

As the Castro brothers fade into history, green shoots of civil society are visibly emerging in Cuba. Make no mistake: The Cuban Communist Party retains its authoritarian hegemony. Nevertheless, and largely unnoticed in the U.S. media, various interest groups are flexing their youthful muscles—and with some remarkable albeit very partial policy successes.

These unanticipated stirrings of civil society present a serious challenge to the cautious new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who assumed office this April. In recent weeks, three significant interest groups have pushed back against newly restrictive government regulations issued in the usual way: by government fiat, with few if any opportunities for public input. The new regulations aim to reduce profit margins of independent entrepreneurs, driving some out of business altogether, and to impose new censorship rules on cultural expression.

In response to these threats, the emerging private sector—some 600,000 employers and workers, over 10 percent of the workforce by official count—pressed the authorities to retract proposed limitations on individual capital accumulation. To everyone’s great surprise, the authorities suddenly offered significant concessions. Entrepreneurs will be able to own more than one business, the government agreed, and restaurant and bar owners will no longer face occupancy ceilings of 50 customers each.

Nevertheless, other restrictive anti-business clauses remain on the books. Apprehensive entrepreneurs are waiting to see whether government bureaucrats and inspectors apply their new discretionary powers with a light or heavy hand.

For their part, Cuba’s large army of cultural workers, in music, film, theater, and the visual arts, vigorously pushed back against draft regulations requiring prior approval of public performances and threatening censorship of “unpatriotic” content. At the last minute, again the government stepped back, agreeing to consult with representatives of the arts community prior to implementation.

In yet another challenge to government authority, Havana taxi owners and drivers staged an informal strike against a complex set of new rules. The government is seeking to impose burdensome reporting of all revenues and expenditures, higher effective taxes, more rigorous safety requirements for certain vehicles, and on some routes a lower ceiling on taxi fares. In protest and despair, many taxi drivers have turned in their licenses. Moreover, public buses are running less frequently, apparently due to scarcities of gasoline and spare parts. The result: a daily transportation headache for Havana’s work force.

The government has promised to import more buses. Meanwhile, the authorities seem incapable of foreseeing the practical outcomes on daily life of bureaucratic innovations. Intent upon raising tax revenues and imposing order over Havana’s unruly transportation grid, the authorities failed to anticipate the market-driven reactions of the regulated taxi owners and drivers.

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In all three cases—the disgruntled business owners, the alarmed artistic community, and the frustrated taxi drivers—the civil protests took similar forms. Brave citizens signed carefully crafted letters, respectful but firm, addressed to ministers and President Díaz-Canel. (Some signatories reported subsequent government harassment, including menacing phone calls.) Spreading social media (on-island and offshore) buzzed with sharp criticisms of government policies. In a few notable cases, intrepid protesters gathered in public spaces, provoking brief police arrests. One prominent state TV program, “Mesa Redonda” (Roundtable), gave voice to some of the popular complaints, politely challenging official guests.

To access social media, most Cubans have had to locate scattered Wi-Fi hotspots. But this month the government has enabled 3G technology throughout the island. This belated entrance into the world of modern telephony may be another game changer. Cuban citizens who sport cell phones will now be empowered to upload immediately content to Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter.

These struggles over economic and cultural freedoms between the authorities and civil society come in the midst of a major re-write of the nation’s constitution. The Communist Party submitted a draft document for public comment in innumerable meetings convened throughout the island. Initial skepticism has given way to anticipation that the authorities may prove responsive to citizen suggestions and significantly amend the final draft, even as one-party rule and socialist planning will persist. A popular referendum on the new constitution is scheduled for late February.

Overall, the heated conversations over constitutional reform and the government’s responsiveness to civil society voices, however belated and partial, have raised hopes: Maybe post-Castro Cuba will gradually evolve toward a more responsive governance. Emboldened by cracks in government stonewalling, Cubans may seek to widen the space for civil society expression.

At the same time, while many welcome the young administration’s relative responsiveness to independent voices, some party stalwarts and ordinary Cubans accustomed to authoritarian rulers see only weakness and improvisation. Backsliding is certainly a feasible scenario. Already some anti-government skeptics see only one half-step forward, two steps backward.

Nevertheless, some Cubans harbor this aspiration: That President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who so far has championed continuity over change, will eventually gain the authority and confidence to tackle the other elephant in the room—the long-stagnant economy. For only comprehensive economic reforms could lift the economy from its deepening recession, the root cause of the government’s anxieties and the popular discontent.

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