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Tertulias: Young Cubans formed a space to think for themselves

Jorge Ignacio Guillén is working with The New Tropic through the the Cuban Journalism Fellowship, an initiative of the International Center for Journalists with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The fellowship seeks to strengthen ties between Cuban independent journalists and their counterparts in the United States. 

Despite the changes that have occurred in Cuba in the last few years, finding a space to think and express yourself freely continues to be difficult, even when when those spaces are not public.

For the last five years, Convivencia, an independent think tank, has been hosting social circles, called tertulia, in Candelaria, about 32 miles from Havana. All you need to join in this informal, predominantly youth driven space — where you can truly experience what is democracy or a life of freedom — is an interesting topic to spark conversation.

These tertulias began because many of us felt a need to express ourselves freely, look for alternative information, share our own projects, learn to think for ourselves, and decide for ourselves. These needs are met in many countries, but in Cuba not only does the government not facilitate them, it sometimes prevents access to them. We wanted to create our own space, free from manipulation and ideologies — a space to stimulate responsibility, creativity, truth and love for Cuba.

We do this through ethics and civics classes, lectures by experts on topics that we choose, art workshops, social activities, volunteering sessions, spaces for debate, alternative literature circles and many other initiatives.

We get together and invite our friends and family. We convene by word of mouth or through text message. When we want to do an activity together, we all pitch in to buy the things we need so that we are not economically dependent on an institution or another person. Sometimes we host in the homes of the participants.

It might seem insignificant that a group of young Cubans decides to meet up at least once a month, unlike most of their peers, to talk about our reality, the challenges we are suffering, the cultural activities we have access to, but most of all, our dreams, aspirations and life projects.

But the testimonies speak for themselves, of how a small initiative like this can transform the lives of those who prefer to leave the circle of immobility and lack of hope to enter the circle of civic participation and friendship. It’s an authentic way to begin changing Cuba, from the bottom up, from the base of society.

That’s what Yasmina Alonso, one of the youth participants, expressed. “The social circle is a noble initiative, because it offers something different. So many young people in Cuba lack hope. There are few recreational options and spaces to share, freely and safely, what they think and accept their differences. [The tertulias] help us to discover new points of view, and see life another way. They help us grow not just as a person, but also in the way we approach society,” she said.

“We always leave charged up. It’s another vision from what the state media offers us, an alternative space that nurtures us with ideas and values that are not seen in the official spaces of this country,” said Yuridanys Lezcano, another young participant.

Only those who have lived in Cuba fully understand the good these small initiatives bring us. In Cuba we are not used to, and some don’t even know how to, engage in dialogue, respectfully disagree, or swim against the current. We’ve simply been taught how to listen to orders. That is precisely the reason for the importance of spaces like the tertulias, which position themselves as an alternative to the paternalism, immobilism, apathy, fear and many other wrongs that affect Cubans.

I conclude with the words of a fellow young participant Flavia Delgado, “Every type of person in Cuba is in need of these spaces, not only to connect with other members of society but also to escape the problems we face at home and the vicious circle in which we are accustomed to being in. These spaces help us further open our minds, meet other people, have conversations, share our lives and also find answers to some of our needs.