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Rethinking Cuban Civil Society: Something Deeper than the Truth

A film by María Isabel Alfonso

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A young man in a baseball cap with “MIAMI” emblazoned on the front sits on a curb, looking at his phone. Beside him, an older man looks over his shoulder at the screen. Other Cubans sit on the curb or on the steps behind it, staring at their phones and tablets. In Cuba, a scene like this would have once been unthinkable. But since 2015, the government has loosened the rules on Internet access, allowing citizens to go online with their devices (for a fee) at designated WiFi 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.

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? How can access to the benefits of economic reforms allowing private business be extended to marginalized populations? 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. 

“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
 
“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

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

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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