Choices for Cuban Dissenters: Stigma, Prison or Exile


A sanitized image shows Cuba as a county where social justice triumphed, despite its unyielding opposition to the imperialism of the United States. For over half a century the government has continued to feed the illusion of a people united around an idea, working hard to achieve utopia, under the wise guidance of their leaders. Political propaganda, aimed at tourists and others, distorts our reality and paints those who oppose the revolutionary cause as mercenaries in the service of foreign masters. One wonders how millions of people of this planet could have been led to believe that unanimity triumphed, naturally and voluntarily, on the largest island in the Caribbean. What could make them believe that any country could be ideologically monochromatic, with a single party representing, and supported by, every single one of its inhabitants.

In 1959, when the insurrections against the dictator Fulgencio Batista triumphed, the bearded ones came to power and immediately labeled their enemies "the thugs and torturers of the tyranny." Throughout the sixties, as a consequence of the revolutionary laws that ultimately resulted in the confiscation of all productive and profitable private property, that initial enemies list had to be widened to include "landowners and exploiters of the poor," along with "those who want to return to the shameful capitalist past," and others of a similar class background. By the time the eighties rolled around, the anti-establishment box was enlarged once again to add "those who are not willing to sacrifice for a bright future," along with "the scum." In the same vein, language had to be found to define the product of the crucible where not only is the socialist society forged, but also a New Man, who would have the duty of building this society and, one day, the pleasure of enjoying it.

These labelers of opinion saw no difference between those who opposed the early promise of social transformation, and the believers who ended up frustrated when it didn't come to pass. Every promise had a deadline, especially if it was political, and when the deadlines -- and extensions -- proclaimed in the speeches ran out without any sign of progress, so did people's patience, creating problems for these eternal classifiers of citizens. Thus, for several decades there have been those in Cuba who argue that things must be done in another way, who have come to the conclusion that an entire nation was dragged down the path of an impossible task; a great number of these people would like to introduce reforms and some would like to change everything. 

Meanwhile, however, there is the insatiable sack with its gaping mouth into which is thrown anyone who dares to confront the only possible "truth" monopolized by the powers-that-be. It doesn't matter if you are a social democrat or a liberal, a Christian democrat or an environmentalist, or simply a maverick independent, if you disagree with the dictates of the only party permitted -- the communists -- you are considered an opponent, a mercenary, a traitor; in short: a paid agent of imperialism.

 Unfortunately, the use of these epithets is not limited to the flood of speeches or the editorials of the official press; they eventually show up in police handbooks and judicial acts. Thus, there are at least two hundred Cuban prisoners of conscience serving prison sentences for acts defined as common crimes, acts that would not be considered criminal in a country with a different political system, one more tolerant and more plural.

One such prisoner was Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a black man, a humble bricklayer, born into the Revolution. In March 2003, he took to the streets to protest because his friends and colleagues had been arrested on the days that marked the beginning of the war in Iraq -- when the world's attention was diverted -- and summarily tried and imprisoned in what came to be called Cuba's Black Spring. No one suspected that seven years later Zapata Tamayo's death would garner the world's attention and that his name would appear in major media around the world. He died after a long hunger strike, demanding to be treated as a human being; his death stirred public opinion and even provoked a declaration, condemning it, from the European Parliament.

Stubbornly, many continue to look at Cuba and see a rosy little picture of social justice, as they try to justify the intolerance that accompanies it by touting its achievements -- now sadly deteriorated -- in the areas of health and education. They are those who don't understand that the models used to draw a triumphant portrait of the Cuban system become very different when one steps down from the podium. Neither a hospital patient nor a student is synonymous with the citizens of a republic. When a flesh and blood man or woman -- with their own dreams and personal aspirations -- finds themselves outside "the benefit zone of the Revolution," they discover that there is no personal space, no privacy, within which they can raise a family, earn a salary commensurate with their work, nor attain and kind of lawful and decent prosperity. When they reflect on the roads open to them to change their own situation, there are only two: emigration or crime.

If they meditate on how to change the situation of the country, they are overcome by panic on discovering the threatening finger of the omnipresent state pointing at them, insultingly, dismissively and with the revolutionary intolerance which admits neither criticism nor suggestions. From there, they are thrown into the sack of the dissidents, where all that awaits them is stigma, prison, or exile.

Yoani's blog, Generation Y, can be read here in English translation.