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Rethinking Cuban Civil Society: Something Deeper than the Truth

A film by María Isabel Alfonso, Ph.D.

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A young man in a ballcap emblazoned with “Miami” sits on a curb in Havana, looking at his phone. Beside him, an older man peers over his shoulder. Other Cubans fill the sidewalk and steps behind it, staring at their devices. In Cuba, where Internet access was dramatically restricted for years, a scene like this would have once been unthinkable. But since 2015, the government has loosened the rules, allowing citizens to go online (for a fee) at designated Wi-Fi hotspots.

The spread of online access—and people taking advantage of it for activities like blogging about politics and culture—is one of the signs of a renewed interest in bolstering Cuban civil society. But Cuba faces unique challenges in bolstering citizen engagement.

Take the 2015 Summit of the Americas—which featured a meeting between leaders Raul Castro and Barack Obama. As we see in the film, the summit hosted not only Cuban government officials and agencies, but also critics of the regime, leading to protests that these were illegitimate anti-government provocateurs in the pay of pro-American Cuban exiles. Are they genuine critics? Or “mercenaries” opposing the regime for financial gain? And should the distinction matter?

Near the start of RETHINKING CUBAN CIVIL SOCIETY, the film offers a definition of its central theme. “Civil society: The aggregate of non-governmental organizations and individuals that manifest the will and interests of citizens.” Then, on the screen, the word “non-governmental” is crossed out. It is a striking visual illustration of Cuba’s unique situation—one in which the public sector dominates much of society, playing an ambiguous role in civil society institutions.

Since the mid-1990s, Cuba has seen a rise in independent media, and a resurgence of movements fighting against racism, for economic justice and LGBTQI rights, and for greater democracy and citizen participation. In RETHINKING CUBAN CIVIL SOCIETY, Cuban academics, journalists and bloggers, and writers and musicians grapple with what it means to encourage healthy public participation and dissent in the context of Cuba: a country under embargo in which foreign-funded dissidents seek to overthrow the government, and at the same time a country in which the Communist Party has placed itself above the state.

In city parks and apartments, on stairwells, in classrooms, and in magazine offices, the people featured in RETHINKING CUBAN CIVIL SOCIETY grapple with these questions. Can more competitive elections and greater democracy exist in a one-party state? How can LGBTQI activists successfully influence government policy? Why are economic reforms shutting out marginalized populations, and what can be done about it? Can the government help encourage a healthy, independent media eco-system? And how much of the stifling of civil society can be blamed on the embargo and how much is simply home-grown?

Thoughtful and engaging, the film is conveniently divided into chapters on class and activism, media, Internet and the blogosphere, political opposition, and Cuban civil society across international borders. RETHINKING CUBAN CIVIL SOCIETY explores a critical issue in Cuba’s ongoing evolution, raising questions about the role of independent organizations and what it will take for them to flourish under the current regime.

“Cuba is an easy country to get wrong. It is a testament to María Isabel Alfonso's abilities as an interviewer and a thinker that she identified so many of the most important commentators in the debates in Cuban civil society, and won their trust to be interviewed on camera on this topic. Those who teach Cuban studies will definitely find the documentary useful, but so too will the general public, particularly in the U.S., because it sheds light on a conversation in Cuba which receives insufficient attention in the media.” —Karen Dubinsky, Queens University

“The much-needed new documentary RETHINKING CUBAN CIVIL SOCIETY directed by María Isabel Alfonso refuses to yield to the kind of pleasure that critique of one of the so-called last bastions of communism can provide spectators by placing them in a superior and pure position.”  —Jacqueline Loss, University of Connecticut
“With clarity and conviction, Cuban men and women engage in a conversation on the need to open up a space for the public expression of ideological, political, sexual, racial, and religious differences in a new Cuba. Alfonso has accomplished in a little over 30 minutes what many Cuba travelers are wont to miss.” —Iraida H. Lopez, Ramapo College

“RETHINKING CUBAN CIVIL SOCIETY succeeds in illuminating the moment of awakening Cuba is currently experiencing. The film focuses on an often ignored but vibrant, diverse, and dynamic segment of Cuban civil society that self-defines as both socialist and critical of many government policies while maintaining distance from the so-called opposition. It sheds light on a group of intellectuals and civic leaders that are playing an important role in the shaping of Cuba’s future.” —Luis Carlos Battista, Stephen M. Rivers Memorial Fellow, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Official Selection, Conference on Cuban and Cuban-American Studies
Official Selection, Latin American Studies Association LASA Film Festival
Official Selection, Forum on Russia and Latin America in a Global World
Official Selection, EXODOCS Documentary Studies Conference

37 minutes / Color
Spanish / English subtitles
Release: 2019
Copyright: 2018

For individual consumers (home video)

This DVD is sold for private, home use only.

For colleges, universities, government agencies, hospitals and corporations

This DVD is sold with a license for institutional use and Public Performance rights.

Subject areas:
Cuba, Labor Studies, Economics, Political Science, Latin America, Economic Sociology

Related Links:
The Cuba Media Project

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