‘He who loses his honor loses everything.” So states one of the propaganda posters, featuring quotations from Fidel Castro, that are ubiquitous in Cuba. How ironic, then, that Castro’s policies are directly responsible for the daily humiliations suffered by the Cuban people, the supposed beneficiaries of Cuban socialism.
One aspect of this humiliation is the lack of basic human rights, not least the systematic violation of freedom of conscience. The suffocating repression of dissent and pluralism is not immediately visible: A tourist may well enjoy the charming architecture of Old Havana, the cheap rum and cigars, the fabulous weather, the salsa clubs, and the white beaches without encountering any signs of the police state; indeed, European tourists, especially those predisposed by a romantic anti-American admiration for Castro, often come away with positive impressions.
But speak to some of the Island’s dissidents — or earn the trust of ordinary Cubans — and the picture becomes very different. One of the most prominent Cuban dissidents is the blogger Yoani Sánchez, who has used social media to great effect in the cause of dissent. I traveled to Havana to hand Ms. Sánchez the freedom prize my employer, the Center for Political Studies (CEPOS), awarded her last year, since the regime refuses her the right to leave the country and receive the many prizes she has received in places such as Denmark, Spain, and the Netherlands.
The award is a piece of the Berlin Wall framed in metal. Despite its weighing in at 8 kilos, I still managed to get it past Cuban border control and hand it to Ms. Sánchez. She is in many ways an unusual person: a truly independent intellectual. Her bookshelves include not only Mario Vargas Llosa — loathed by many Latin American intellectuals for his opposition to Castro, Chávez, and other caudillos,as well as his defense of capitalism — but also Ayn Rand’s pro-capitalist bible Atlas Shrugged, in both English and Spanish. Because of her increasing international fame, Sánchez has (unlike many other Cuban dissidents) been spared imprisonment and deportation. But she is still closely monitored by the regime, which has people watching her apartment, monitoring her correspondence and mobile phone, and following her around when she ventures outside her flat. She tells me that the Cuban state has successfully managed to silence the vast majority of Cubans through its close but barely visible control of all aspects of Cuban society. More Cubans might defy the official censorship if the consequences were “merely” short-term arrest — a phenomenon that, according to dissidents and human-rights organizations, has increased in the past few years, after the release and deportation of a number of political prisoners.
The repression is not solely legal and official, but also penetrates the social realm. Since almost all Cubans are dependent on the regime for their survival and basic necessities, most are too frightened to speak out, as such dissent can lead to dismissal, loss of benefits, and social isolation. Whole families may be affected by one of their members’ crossing of the blurry red lines of acceptable criticism, and therefore this form of devious social control is very effective. Most criticism of the regime therefore takes place in closed circles, among families or trusted friends, rather than in public.
Another favorite regime tactic against dissidents such as Sánchez is the use of demonization. Sánchez is often portrayed as a CIA-sponsored stooge of imperialism in the national media; because of the regime’s stranglehold on the media — and because Internet access is severely limited and extremely expensive — such narratives are difficult to counter. Accordingly, relatively few Cubans seem to know Sánchez despite her international fame.