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Cuba—A Way Forward

Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez
José Goitia/The New York Times/Redux
The Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, Havana, May 2008

In a 1980 interview, Gabriel García Márquez told The New York Times that he had spent three years writing a book about life in Cuba under Fidel Castro. But, he said, “now I realize that the book is so critical that it could be used against Cuba, so I refuse to publish it.”

In view of the Colombian author’s past concern for the victims of Latin America’s authoritarian regimes, it seems likely that what he called a “very harsh, very frank book” addressed Castro’s systematic repression of dissent: the rigged trials behind closed doors, the abysmal “reeducation” camps, the long prison sentences. Castro’s methods may have seemed relatively tame when compared with the mass slaughter of civilians by US-backed regimes throughout the region, for example in Guatemala. Yet as the cold war ended, these dictatorships gradually gave way to civilian rule, and the Castro government was left standing as the only one in the hemisphere that continued to repress virtually all political dissent. García Márquez’s book remained unpublished.

The fact that Latin America’s most renowned writer would censor himself in this way may actually say more about the plight of Cubans under Castro than anything in his manuscript. For the notion that to criticize Cuba is to abet its more powerful enemies was, for Fidel Castro, the key to achieving what his prisons alone could not—ensuring that his critics on the island remained isolated and largely ignored.

For years, many believed that the last thing keeping the region’s democratic tide from sweeping across Cuba was the unique force of Fidel Castro’s character—the extraordinary combination of charisma and cunning with which he inspired and corralled his supporters, provoked and outmaneuvered his enemies, and projected himself onto the big screen of world politics. Under his leadership, Cuba had made impressive gains in health care, education, and the eradication of extreme poverty. But the promise of the Cuban Revolution had been undercut by years of chronic deprivation, exacerbated by the US embargo, and brought to the brink of collapse by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which had propped up the island’s economy for decades. Democracy would come to Cuba—the thinking went—as soon as Fidel Castro was no longer standing in its way.

Then in June 2006, his health failing, Castro was forced to step down formally after nearly five decades in power. And nothing happened. No popular uprising in the streets, no Party shake-up, no coup. Instead, his younger brother, Raúl, took up power and, though lacking Fidel’s charisma, was able to keep the country running smoothly. Within months, it seemed clear that Cuba’s single-party system could continue without Fidel at the helm.

Some still held out hope that Raúl Castro would begin a process of political reform, a Cuban perestroika. Those looking for signs of an opening pointed to several of Raúl’s early actions, including state-sponsored public forums ostensibly aimed at encouraging criticism of government policies and the signing of the two major international human rights treaties.

But was Raúl Castro allowing genuine criticism of his government? Was the repressive machinery being eased or even dismantled? A year ago Human Rights Watch set out to answer these questions. We knew it wouldn’t be easy. The Cuban government welcomes tourists to the island, but has for years denied access to international rights monitors. Foreign journalists are followed around by undercover agents: their e-mails are monitored and their phones tapped. Those who publish in-depth stories on controversial issues face expulsion.

Our first step was to write to the Cuban government requesting authorization to visit the island. Human Rights Watch does not normally request permission to do its work, but it seemed like a good way to test whether the government’s attitude had changed. The government never responded.

We then got in touch with several local dissidents. Outside of Cuba, people often refer to “the dissidents” as though they are a single, unified political group. They are not. They do not share a single ideology or objective. Rather, the dissident community is made up of a variety of Cubans scattered across the island, some of whom belong to small groups, and others who work alone. A dissident may be someone who writes articles critical of the government, attempts to form an independent labor union, or simply refuses to attend meetings of a local revolutionary committee. What ties these people together is that they engage in activities that the Cuban government considers contrary to its policies, and therefore “counterrevolutionary.”

We obtained reports of alleged government abuses from several unauthorized human rights groups in Cuba, whose leaders have persevered over the years despite tapped phone lines, restricted mobility, frequent police raids, and periods in jail, relying on a few committed volunteers to compile lists of political prisoners and testimony about violations. But tracking down the alleged victims to corroborate these reports often took weeks. E-mail access on the island is virtually nonexistent, and many families outside of Havana do not have phone lines. When we were able to get through by phone, some people were too frightened to speak. Others spoke cryptically to avoid arousing the suspicion of listening ears. Still others spoke freely until their lines went dead, mid-sentence. While we did manage to conduct some full-length interviews, it became increasingly clear that the only way to get the full story would be to visit the island.

It would prove to be the most difficult research mission Human Rights Watch had undertaken in the region in years. Our team entered on tourist visas and traveled the length of the island by car, telling no one in advance that we were coming and never staying in any town for more than one night.1 The fear we had sensed over the phone was even more palpable on the ground. Some people became so uneasy talking about government abuses that we cut short the interviews and moved on. Several alerted us to watching neighbors who monitored suspicious activity for the local Revolutionary Defense Committees. A Baptist minister, when asked about human rights, told us quietly that what we were doing was illegal and asked us to produce identification.
Yet many people welcomed us into their homes, where they spoke frankly of their experiences. Small boxes and folders were brought out from beneath beds and inside kitchen cabinets, with official documents that corroborated their stories. Among much else, we were shown a court ruling from a dissident’s trial, which his wife and children were not allowed to attend; a parole order warning a journalist that he could be returned to prison at any time; a letter denying a critic of the government permission to travel.

Piece by piece, the evidence stacked up. The human rights treaties had not been ratified or carried out. The “open” forums to discuss government policies were governed by strict rules that prohibited any talk of reforming the single-party system. More than one hundred political prisoners locked up under Fidel remained behind bars, and Raúl’s government had used sham trials to lock away scores more. These new prisoners included more than forty dissidents whom Raúl had imprisoned for “dangerousness.” The most Orwellian provision of Cuba’s criminal code, this charge allows authorities to imprison individuals before they have committed a crime, on the suspicion that they might commit one in the future. Their “dangerous” activities included failing to attend pro-government rallies, not belonging to official party organizations, and simply being unemployed.

We published our findings on November 18, 2009.2 It was only then that we received a response from the Cuban government: a public statement, published that day, declaring our report “illegitimate and illegal.”

If the crime of the political prisoners is essentially voicing their opinions, a main function of imprisoning them is to isolate them from their potential audiences. Ramón Velásquez Toranzo taught theater until his political activities cost him his job. In December 2006, he set out on a silent march across the island to call for the release of Cuba’s political prisoners. On the road he was repeatedly threatened and beaten by civilian Rapid Response Brigades, according to his wife and daughter, who accompanied him. He was twice detained and forcibly returned to his home by police. On his third attempt, he was taken to prison and given a three-year sentence for “dangerousness.” Raymundo Perdigón Brito, who had worked as a security guard before he too was fired for “counterrevolutionary” activities, wrote articles critical of the government for foreign websites until, in 2006, he was sentenced to four years in prison for “dangerousness.” Digzan Saavedra Prat, a shoemaker, documented abuse cases for a local human rights group, an activity that cost him his job and caused him to be convicted of “dangerousness” in 2008. His indictment accused him of “being tied to persons of bad moral and social conduct,” “setting a bad example for the new generation,” and “thinking he is handsome.”

Those who continue to speak out while in prison are isolated even further. One man was arrested and sentenced to four years for “dangerousness” after he tried to hand out copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in public in 2006. In 2008, he attempted to commemorate International Human Rights Day (December 10) by reading the Universal Declaration aloud to fellow inmates. But according to his wife, a guard cut him short, ordering him to eat the text—literally. When he refused, he was beaten, thrown into solitary confinement for weeks, and sentenced in a closed-door hearing to six more years in prison for disrespecting authority.

We heard many similar accounts from former prisoners and the relatives of current ones. Those who refused “reeducation” or questioned prison conditions were thrown into solitary confinement cells measuring three by six feet for weeks, even months, on end. Their visits were cut off, phone calls denied, and letters confiscated. Since Cuba has for years refused to grant human rights monitors access to its prisons, it is difficult to get firsthand general accounts of the conditions inside. The most comprehensive—by the sixty-seven-year-old journalist Héctor Maseda Gutierrez, currently serving a twenty-year sentence for his writing—had to be smuggled out of prison virtually page by page. It is titled “Buried Alive.”

While not all dissidents are locked up, nearly all are effectively imprisoned on the island itself. In clear violation of international law, the Cuban government requires its citizens to obtain permission to leave the country, and those marked as “counterrevolutionaries” are generally denied it. The prominent blogger Yoani Sánchez—whose posts comment on the daily indignities of life in Cuba—has three times been refused permission to leave the country, twice to accept international prizes and once, in March 2010, to attend a conference on the Spanish language.

The emergence of a nascent blogosphere has been heralded as a sign that Cuba is opening up, yet the government systematically blocks critical websites and strictly controls access, forcing bloggers to upload their posts using thumb drives and illegal back channels. Because an hour’s use costs roughly one third of Cubans’ monthly wages, and since there are few connections outside of cities, the average Cuban has no access to the Internet. Although Yoani Sánchez was named one of Time magazine’s one hundred most influential people, most Cubans on the island have never even heard of her, let alone read her blog.3

  1. 1

    The research trip was carried out by Nik Steinberg and a Latin American human rights lawyer who preferred to remain anoymous.

  2. 2

    Human Rights Watch, “New Castro, Same Cuba: Political Prisoners in the Post-Fidel Era.”

  3. 3

    Time magazine has also named Sánchez’s blog, Generation Y, one of the twenty-five best in the world; it can be read at www.desdecuba.com/generationy.

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