Act of Repudiation
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    Cuba—A Way Forward

    Cuba—A Way Forward
    by Nik Steinberg, Daniel Wilkinson

    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 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 García Márquez’s book remained unpublished.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 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

    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

    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
    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 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

    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 . 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

    The Cuban government also seeks to isolate dissidents from their
    communities. They are fired from their jobs and blacklisted from
    employment. They are subjected to public “acts of repudiation,” in which
    mobs surround their homes, chant insults, throw stones, and sometimes
    assault them in plain view of their neighbors. Friends and family
    members are warned to keep their distance, lest they too be branded
    counterrevolutionaries and punished. Under the “dangerousness”
    provision, even spending time with someone who is considered “dangerous”
    is punishable, a kind of “dangerousness” by association.

    “People who come to my house are immediately called by state security
    and reprimanded,” Eduardo Pacheco Ortíz, a human rights defender and
    former political , told us. “Then these people—for fear of
    losing their jobs, for fear that [the authorities] will take it out on
    someone in their family—simply stop talking to me.”

    After Ramón Velásquez Toranzo was sentenced to four years for his silent
    march across the island, his son René, who had not marched with his
    father or considered himself “political,” was fired from his longtime
    job without explanation, then repeatedly denied work on the grounds that
    he was not “trustworthy.” Members of the local Revolutionary Defense
    Committee regularly harassed and threatened him in public. Police warned
    his friends that they would get in trouble if they kept hanging around
    him, until he had few friends left. His girlfriend was forbidden by her
    parents from seeing him. “Some days I wake up and I think: I have
    nothing. I am nobody. I have no dreams left for my future,” René told us.

    Some outside observers contend that the existence of around two hundred
    political prisoners has little impact on the lives of the 11 million
    other Cubans. But as the blogger Reinaldo Escobar recently wrote, “Why
    then does an index finger cross the lips, eyes widen, or a look of
    horror appear on the faces of my friends when at their houses I commit
    the indiscretion of making a political comment within earshot of the
    neighbors?”4 The political prisoners may be small in number, but they
    are a chilling reminder to all Cubans of what has been a basic fact of
    life for half a century: to criticize the Castros is to condemn oneself
    to years of enforced solitude.

    In addition to declaring our report illegal, the Cuban government also
    claimed it was part of a broader effort to “trample” Cuba’s “right to
    free self-determination and sovereign equality.” This charge, while no
    more credible than the first, warrants serious attention, for it is
    reflected in the concerns of García Márquez and many others outside of
    Cuba who have for years been reluctant to criticize the Castros.

    Invoking national sovereignty may be the most common tactic used by
    governments around the globe—and across the political spectrum—to
    counter criticism of their abusive practices. It is the international
    equivalent of the “states’ rights” claim that segregationists in the US
    South used for years to defend their racist laws and policies. The aim
    is to shift the focus of public concern from the rights of abuse victims
    to the rights (real and imagined) of the states that abuse them.

    What sets the Castro government apart from most others that employ this
    tactic is the fact that Cuba has indeed, for five decades, faced an
    explicit threat to its national sovereignty—coming from the United
    States, a superpower ninety miles off its shores. In the 1960s, the
    threat took the form of covert military action, including the failed Bay
    of Pigs invasion and multiple botched assassination attempts. It
    continues in the form of the economic embargo established by President
    Eisenhower in 1960, later expanded by President Kennedy, and eventually
    locked in place by the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act.
    Also known as “Helms-Burton,” the law prohibits the president from
    lifting trade restrictions until Cuba has legalized political activity
    and made a commitment to free and fair elections. It also prohibits
    lifting the embargo as long as Fidel and Raúl Castro remain in office.
    In other words, it requires that Cubans be free to choose their leaders,
    but bars them from choosing the Castros. It is thus a program to promote
    not only democracy but also regime change.

    It is hard to think of a US policy with a longer track record of
    failure. The embargo has caused much hardship to the Cuban people but
    done nothing to loosen the Castros’ hold on power. Instead it has
    provided the Cuban government an excuse for the country’s problems.
    Billboards line the roads outside Havana with slogans like “Eight hours
    of the blockade is equivalent to the materials required to repair 40
    infant care centers.” The excuse is effective because it is at least
    partly true.

    The US policy has also served the Castros as a pretext for repressing
    legitimate efforts to reform Cuba from within. The most notorious
    example of the past decade came in response to the Project, a
    grassroots campaign designed to take advantage of a constitutional
    provision that allows a national referendum on any reform proposal that
    receives 10,000 signatures. The organizers spent years holding meetings
    and gathering signatures, enduring repeated harassment by authorities,
    attacks, and arrests. In May 2002, they delivered more than 11,000
    signatures to the National Assembly.

    The response was crushing. Rather than put the referendum to a vote (as
    required by law), the Castro government countered with its own
    referendum, which proposed amending the constitution to declare the
    socialist system “irrevocable.” This referendum passed, according to the
    government, with 99 percent of the public’s support. Not long afterward,
    the government began its most aggressive crackdown in years, arresting
    seventy-five “counterrevolutionaries,” including many Varela Project
    leaders, and sentencing them to an average of nineteen years in prison.

    In a news conference immediately following the crackdown, Cuba’s foreign
    minister claimed that the Varela Project had been “part of a strategy of
    subversion against Cuba that has been conceived, financed, and directed
    from abroad with the active participation of the US Interests Section in
    Havana.” The United States had indeed been supporting civil society
    groups in Cuba for decades. In 2002, the year prior to the crackdown,
    the State Department devoted $5 million to “democracy promotion” in
    Cuba, channeling it through the US Interests Section in Havana and
    nongovernmental groups based mostly in Miami. For instance, several
    Cuban journalists received salaries from US-funded Internet publications
    critical of the Castro government.

    Nonetheless, many of the seventy-five were convicted without any
    evidence of support—direct or indirect—from the US government. And in
    those cases where the Cuban government did show they received US
    support, it provided no credible evidence that the recipients were
    engaged in activities that would be considered illegal in a democratic

    According to Cuban court documents, the support took the form of
    supplying, through the US Interests Section in Havana, equipment like
    fax machines (“used systematically in sending information to
    counterrevolutionary cells located in Miami”), books (“all with a
    pronounced subversive content”), and medicine (“with the explicit
    purpose of winning over addicts to their cause”). In other cases, the
    prisoners had been paid by the US for filing articles or radio reports
    for foreign outlets, or visiting the US Interests Section, where they
    had “access via the Internet to the websites of enemy publications…[and]
    counterrevolutionary dailies like the Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald,
    Agence France-Press, Reuters, and the American television channel CNN.”

    Many governments require civil society groups to register funding they
    receive from foreign states. But for Cubans there is a catch: to
    register funding from the US government is to admit to a crime
    punishable with a prison sentence of up to twenty years—even when the
    funding merely supports activities like human rights monitoring, labor
    organizing, and establishing independent libraries. In fact, these
    activities are illegal in Cuba even when pursued without US support. The
    criminal code explicitly outlaws “actions designed to support,
    facilitate, or collaborate with the objectives of the ‘Helms-Burton Law.'”

    Since promoting democratic rule is a central objective of Helms-Burton,
    any action taken toward that end can therefore be considered a crime. In
    this way, just as criticism of the Castros is equated with abetting
    their enemies, promoting democracy is equated with US-sponsored regime

    But if the pretext for the crackdown was bogus, it nonetheless served a
    crucial function: to recast the government’s repression of its citizens
    as the story of a small nation defending itself against a powerful
    aggressor. It was the same tactic that Fidel Castro had been employing
    to brilliant effect for decades. By casting himself as a Latin American
    David besieged by a US Goliath, he usurped the role of victim from his
    prisoners. The sleight of hand worked because, for many outside of Cuba,
    the indignation provoked by the US embargo left little room for the
    revulsion they would otherwise feel for Fidel Castro’s abuses.

    Raúl Castro has adopted this same tactic, so that when outsiders hear of
    Cuba’s political prisoners, many think first of what the US has done to
    Cuba, not what Cuba has done to its own people. While the prisons,
    travel restrictions, and information controls make it difficult for
    Cuban dissidents to get their stories out to the world, the Castros’
    portrayal of Cuba as a victim makes audiences abroad less willing to
    hear these stories. The effect is to seal Cuba’s prisoners off from
    international sympathy and reinforce their prolonged solitude.

    Once a year, for nearly two decades, the UN General Assembly has voted
    overwhelmingly to condemn the US embargo. In 2009, the resolution passed
    187–3, with only Israel and Palau siding with the United States. While
    this condemnation is deserved, there is no such UN vote to condemn
    Cuba’s repressive policies, or comparable outrage about its victims.

    This discrepancy is particularly pronounced in Latin America, where the
    long history of heavy-handed interventions and outright coups has left
    an abiding aversion to US bullying. Even leaders whom one might expect
    to be sensitive to the prisoners’ plight choose to remain silent.
    President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil was himself imprisoned by
    a military dictatorship, and former President Michelle Bachelet of
    is the daughter of a political prisoner (and herself a torture victim).
    Yet in recent years, both have made state visits to Cuba in which they
    embraced the Castros and refused to meet with relatives of political

    Meanwhile, an increasing number of leaders have praised the Castro
    government as a standard-bearer for the region. President Evo Morales of
    Bolivia says that Cuba “teaches the entire world how to live with
    dignity and sovereignty, in its permanent fight against the North
    American empire.” President Rafael Correa of Ecuador speaks of the
    “Latin American pride” he feels when witnessing Cuba’s ongoing
    revolution, which “secured the reestablishment of human rights for all
    Cuban men and women.” Perhaps the most fervent supporter is President
    Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, whose government has taken over the role, once
    filled by the Soviet Union, of keeping the Cuban economy afloat by
    providing millions of barrels of subsidized petroleum. Chávez calls
    Cuba’s revolution “the mother” of all Latin American liberation
    movements, and Fidel Castro “the father of the motherland.”

    Over the past decade, a growing number of voices in the United
    States—including editorial boards, research organizations, and advocacy
    groups—have called for an end to the embargo. But they are far from
    winning the policy debate in Washington. Anti-Castro hard-liners within
    the Cuban-American community continue to wield disproportionate
    influence, even if their dominance has waned in recent years.

    The opponents of the embargo have failed to be persuasive. Many have
    sought to play down the scope of repression in Cuba out of a
    concern—similar to García Márquez’s—that criticism of the Cuban
    government will only strengthen the hand of the anti-Castro hard-liners.
    But by making this strategic choice, they have undermined their
    credibility among the very people they need to persuade: those who are
    justifiably concerned about Cuba’s political prisoners. Moreover, they
    are unable to offer a politically workable solution to members of
    Congress, who will never vote to end the embargo if this will have no
    effect on the regime’s abuses.

    The embargo must go. But it is naive to think that a government that has
    systematically repressed virtually all forms of political dissent for
    decades will cease to do so simply because the embargo has been lifted.
    Nor is it realistic, given the effectiveness of the Castros’ repressive
    machinery, to believe that the pressure needed for progress on human
    rights can come solely from within Cuba. The embargo needs to be
    replaced with a policy that will bring genuinely effective pressure on
    the Castro government to improve human rights.

    For this to happen, the United States must make the first move.
    President Obama should approach allies in Europe and Latin America with
    an offer to lift the US embargo if the other countries agree to join a
    coalition to press Cuba to meet a single, concrete demand: the release
    of all political prisoners.

    Some governments are sure to rebuff the offer, especially in Latin
    America. But for many others, the prospect of ending the embargo will
    remove what has long been the main obstacle to openly condemning the
    Cuban government’s abuses. And concentrating this multilateral effort
    exclusively on the issue of political prisoners will make it far more
    difficult for leaders who say they respect human rights to remain silent.

    The new coalition would give the Cuban government a choice: free its
    political prisoners or face sanctions. Unlike the current US embargo,
    these sanctions should directly target the Cuban leaders—by denying them
    travel visas or freezing their overseas assets, for example—without
    harming the Cuban population as a whole. Ideally this ultimatum alone
    would suffice to prompt the government to release its prisoners. But
    even if it did not, the new approach toward Cuba—multilateral, targeted,
    and focused on human rights rather than regime change—would
    fundamentally transform the international dynamic that has long helped
    the Castros stifle dissent. The Cuban government’s efforts to isolate
    its critics at home would lead to its own isolation from the
    international community.

    In the absence of such a shift, Cubans seeking reform will continue to
    face daunting odds. Any hope of drawing attention to their cause will
    require desperate measures, such as the hunger strike recently carried
    out by Orlando Tamayo, a dissident who had been in prison since
    the 2003 crackdown. For eighty-five days, Zapata Tamayo’s protest went
    largely unnoticed. It was only when he finally starved to death in
    February—becoming the first Cuban hunger striker to perish in almost
    forty years—that the world reacted. The European Parliament passed a
    resolution condemning his death as “avoidable and cruel” and calling for
    the release of all political prisoners. The Mexican and Chilean
    legislatures approved similar declarations.

    The Cuban government responded in familiar fashion: it blamed the US.
    The state news organ claimed that Zapata Tamayo had been “thrust into
    death” by the “powerful machinery of the empire.” When several other
    dissidents began hunger strikes in the following days—including
    Guillermo Fariñas, a journalist who at this writing is reportedly near
    death—Cuban authorities dismissed them as “mercenaries” of the US.
    Decrying what he called a “huge smear campaign against Cuba,” Raúl
    Castro told the Cuban Congress, “We will never yield to blackmail from
    any country.”

    Raúl Castro seems confident that he can defuse this latest challenge
    with the same sleight of hand his brother used so effectively in the
    past. And indeed, the flurry of condemnation following Zapata Tamayo’s
    death appears to have already faded. But more than just a tactical move,
    Raúl’s response reflects a vision for Cuba’s future that does not bode
    well for those desiring change. It is the vision he set forth on the
    fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution in 2009, addressing the
    nation from the same public square where Fidel had first proclaimed victory:

    Today, the Revolution is stronger than ever…. Does it mean the
    danger has diminished? No, let’s not entertain any illusions. As we
    commemorate this half-century of victories, it is time to reflect on the
    future, on the next fifty years, when we shall continue to struggle

    A story of struggle always needs an adversary, just as a claim to
    victimhood needs an aggressor. After playing this role for fifty years,
    the United States is now in a unique position to bring about change in
    Cuba: when it stops acting like Goliath, the Castro government will stop
    looking like David. Only then will Cuba’s dissidents be able to rally
    the international support they need to end their long years of solitude.

    —April 28, 2010″

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