Main content

Rethinking Cuban Civil Society

Rethinking Cuban Civil Society

If you are not affiliated with a college or university, and are interested in watching this film, please register as an individual and login to rent this film. Already registered? Login to rent this film. This film is also available on our home streaming platform,

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.

Related Films

The Singular Story of Unlucky Juan

A comprehensive, accessible examination of the particularities of the…

Zone of Silence

Five Cuban intellectuals discuss censorship as a historical, political…

Waiting for Fidel

Inside Fidel Castro's Cuba with a movie-making threesome whose hope is…