HAVANA — Joseph Stalin's famous response to Pope Pius XII's criticism of the Soviet regime was to brush aside the pontiff, asking: "How many divisions does he have?"

Totalitarian terror is safe indeed inside its borders, a machine designed to control society without armies. Stalin could claim victory when novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn was thrown out of communist Russia, and yet faced posthumous defeat when the Soviet state rehabilitated its critic, the scientist Andrei Sakharov. Arms play no role in totalitarian terror's anonymous routines and quiet paperwork. That is something sectors of Latin America's political left cannot understand, not seeing in Cuba that the bloody antics of dictatorships live on.

Totalitarianism is clear on one thing: To govern, it must demolish the disruptive field of symbolism. That is why Stalin won't disappear. He has migrated to Cuba, instead, to face down the Movimiento San Isidro, a dissident artists' collective.

Paradoxically, the Castro brothers were evolving toward an authoritarian model wherein civil liberties were starting to be a less costly and dramatic bone of contention, provided the state's hegemony was not challenged. Independent music, art and poetry festivals were suppressed as they could become public venues and gathering spaces for an active mass of psychedelic youngsters. But small-format spaces managed to find a way of living alongside the regime of the Castro brothers in its terminal phase.

But their successor government, whose belated attempt to lift the Communist party into the leading role, has recovered Stalin. So, while the Castros must face history's judgement, the government of President Miguel Díaz-Canel is up against a combined crisis of legitimacy and leadership. And in that situation, culture becomes a central challenge.

The San Isidro Movement is at the root of the government's dual-legitimacy problem: as the single party wielding all power, and as the country's ideological home.

It is poetic justice.

With a decree to contain the cultural movement at the start of its administration, its authors were reacting to a robustly emerging reality on the margins: that of all those expelled from the institutions and pushed out of society. The San Isidro movement sums that up. Its symbolic power unites a sidelined social body and street anger, with the creative mind of free artists who cannot be confronted aesthetically, conceptually or imaginatively.

The party's repressive response merely highlights and accelerates culture's movement from inside to outside the state. This libertarian movement and its wealth of multiple manifestations, like its social hymn, Patria y Vida, is changing the paradigm that serves as reference to Cuban society.

Emerging as it did from street-level cultural resistance, the San Isidro movement pitted itself against the state in the two areas where original Stalinism had triumphed: the destruction of the bodies of victims and the disappearance of their art. With its dismal communication strategy, the Cuban state has legitimated the latter — and to safeguard its weakened image, launched an operation to rehabilitate the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara. In the street.

It's poetic justice. In its new, impoverished version, Stalinism is defeated in San Isidro. Culture can be transgressive, corrosive and liberating when it hits you by surprise.

*Cuesta is a Cuban writer and dissident.

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