Saturday, November 15, 2014

Could something like the democratic uprising in Hong Kong happen in Havana?

"Nonviolent action is just what it says: action which is nonviolent, not inaction. This technique consists, not simply of words, but of active protest, noncooperation, and intervention. Overwhelmingly, it is a group or mass action." - Gene Sharp
Hong Kong and Havana
The British seized Havana in 1762 after laying siege to the Spanish colonial city and occupied it from August 1762 to July 1763.  During the eleven month occupation trade and commerce exploded and Cubans became aware of the benefits of trading with Britain and its American colonies. In 1763 Havana was returned to the Spanish in exchange for Florida and would continue under Spanish colonial rule until 1898 followed by American occupation and independence in 1902.

In the case of Hong Kong the British took the island as a result of the First Opium War in 1842 and held on to it as a colony until 1997 turning it over to Communist China. However in the treaty agreement for the handover the Peoples Republic of China made a number of commitments that called for one country, two systems and agreed “to respect Hong Kong’s freedoms of speech, religion, speech, association, an independent judiciary and that Hong Kong would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy” in all matters except defense and foreign affairs. “ China assume[d] sovereignty over Hong Kong on July 1, 1997. What was a “barren island” in 1841 is now a thriving financial metropolis whose citizens in 2012 had a gross domestic product per capita of $37,000, four times that of China.”

Despite the vast historical, geographic and cultural differences the question arises in the midst of the  ongoing nonviolent Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong entering their 50th day: Could something like it happen in Havana?

To answer this question, a number of considerations need to be taken into account before arriving at an answer. First, what is taking place in Hong Kong? There is a freedom movement in place that preexists the British handover to Communist China. 

The democracy movement in Hong Kong was born in reaction to the June 4, 1989 massacre in Tiananmen and calls on Britain to grant Hong Kong democracy prior to the 1997 handover. Britain responds with its Governor carrying out democratic reforms. Every year on the anniversary of the massacre huge candlelight demonstrations are organized in remembrance of the victims.

This movement in Hong Kong has been able to demonstrate on repeated occasions the ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands people to protest against specific actions by the government to curtail their freedoms.

In July 2003 half a million people spilled onto Hong Kong's streets to protest against proposed anti-subversion laws. The government shelved the proposed legislation and they have not been re-introduced since, even though they are required under the Basic Law.

In April 2004 China controversially rules out the possibility of universal suffrage in Hong Kong in 2007 and 2008, further slowing the pace of political reform. China also rules that its approval must be sought for any changes to Hong Kong's election laws, giving Beijing the right to veto any moves towards more democracy.

In December 2007 Beijing says it will allow the people of Hong Kong to directly elect their own leader in 2017 and their legislators by 2020.

On July 29, 2012 close to 100,000 Hong Kongers march to protest the mainland’s attempted introduction of a curriculum which praises the Communist Party and compares it positively with America’s democratic system, which it chides for its gridlock and partisan debate. The curriculum is withdrawn.

In January 2013 Occupy Central with Love and Peace campaign is initiated by law professor Benny Tai. 

On June 10, 2014 Communist China releases its first ever “white paper” for China, which asserted “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, and demands that any chief executive elected in 2014 must “love” China—a subjective criteria Beijing will decide.

In June 2014 nearly 800,000 people cast votes in an unofficial referendum calling for open nomination of candidates for the 2017 election, part of campaign branded illegal by the Hong Kong government and senior Chinese officials.

In July 2014 hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters march through Hong Kong, calling for a genuinely democratic vote in 2017. Police arrest over 500 protesters who stage an overnight sit-in in the main business district.

In August 2014 tens of thousands of pro-Beijing supporters stage a massive counter-protest against the Occupy Central civil disobedience campaign.

At the same time repression rises against democrats and in August 2014 anti-corruption officers raid home of Jimmy Lai, a media magnate and outspoken critic of Beijing who has supported pro-democracy activists through his publications and with donations. 

On August 31, 2014 the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress rules out a fully democratic election for Hong Kong leader in 2017, by imposing tight rules on nominations of candidates who want to run in the poll that effectively places the nomination of candidates in the hands of the Beijing communist regime. It is this decision that sparks the protests that become known as the Umbrella Movement.

What began as a student boycott in September 22, 2014 and sit-in in front of Government headquarters grew into mass demonstrations due to the arrests of the student leaders and the use of tear gas and violence against nonviolent demonstrators. Human Rights in China has a detailed chronology up until the present day of what has taken place in the demonstrations.

One lesson from the Umbrella Movement and the democracy movement in China as a whole is that the ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people into the streets is a demonstration of power but in and of itself is not sufficient to change things, but when combined with specific demands can achieve specific ends.

Meanwhile, the nonviolent Cuban pro-democracy movement was forged in a baptism by fire in the 1970s inside of Cuba's prisons initially as a human rights movement. The first nonviolent dissident movement in Cuba was the Cuban Committee for Human Rights. During the 1980s the movement emerged from the prisons and was primarily based in Havana but during the course of the 1990s spread across the country. Its greatest initial success was to document and expose the systematic violation of human rights in Cuba that led to the dictatorship's condemnation at the United Nations Human Rights Commission for over a decade. In the 2000s the opposition achieved another important milestone with the Varela Project, an initiative of the Christian Liberation Movement, that obtained more that 25,000 signatures demanding profound reforms to bring Cuba into line with international human rights standards. Crackdowns and political killings targeting democratic opposition leaders followed but the movement has proven resilient. Nevertheless, the democracy movement in Cuba, until now,  has been unable to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people in Cuba. However, they do have a national reach and are able to coordinate small protests.

Havana and Hong Kong have completely different histories but do have one thing in common both are cities composed of human beings. Being humans they have certain needs, among them freedom and dignity. The demonstrations in Hong Kong were not an accident and the organizers have a strategic and long term vision with specific and concrete demands. 

The romantic ideal of taking to the barricades in a reenactment of Les Miserables may provide great images for the international media but forgets, at great hazard, that those 19th century uprisings in France were a dismal failure. It is also a dramatic example that blocking streets does not necessarily translate into political change.

The answer to the question "Can something like we are seeing today in Hong Kong also take place in Havana?" is yes but the follow up question should be and "What concrete concessions would such a movement be able to obtain from the current regime in power there?" 

In the meantime there are two things that you, the reader, can do: 1) Demonstrate your solidarity with the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong signing this petition and 2) Demonstrate your solidarity with the democracy movement in Cuba signing this petition.

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