‘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.
Apart from the representatives of the local “Committee for the Defense of the Revolution” — essentially a form of neighborhood watch set up in all residential areas to spy on the activities of citizens — I did not encounter any visible signs of surveillance of Sánchez. But her fears are not a symptom of paranoia. That became clear when I visited another dissident, Oswaldo José Payá Sardiñas, the founder and leader of the Christian Liberation Movement. Payá was awarded the 2002 Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament for his advocacy of peaceful resistance to the regime based on values of democracy and freedom of conscience. In the 1990s, Payá and others sought to rely on the Cuban constitution, which guarantees the rights of citizens to propose legislation providing 10,000 citizens sign a petition. Payá successfully managed to obtain the necessary signatures, but his initiative was ignored, and in 2003 many members of his movement were imprisoned during the so-called Black Spring. Possibly because of his high profile, Payá, like Yoani Sánchez, has been spared imprisonment, but not the keen attention of the regime: He showed us a hidden microphone found in his telephone some years ago. He also found bugs in his bedroom and living room. Some 20 meters from Payá’s house is parked a shining new car with the green license plates of the Ministry of Interior, which is responsible for state security. Payá views the Cuban regime as a “fundamentalist” one not differing much from other fundamentalist totalitarian dictatorships, whether religious or secular. He echoes Yoani Sánchez’s description of the repression of Cuban society; he and his family have suffered numerous instances of intimidation and humiliations at the hands of government officials and their sympathizers.
The repression suffered by the Cuban people has yet another dimension: The lack of economic freedom and opportunity makes it difficult for ordinary Cubans to get by on the rations and meager salaries paid out by the regime, so many of them are forced to hustle just to make ends meet. This is a tragedy in a country that — though seriously marred by consecutive corrupt and repressive regimes — once was among the richest in the region. In fact, the fertile but mostly uncultivated land, the majestic but often dilapidated buildings, the lack of stores with quality goods other than rum and cigars (and the ubiquitous Che Guevara T-shirts for the historically illiterate), and the general absence of commerce and industry are a testament to the utter failure of Castro’s revolution.
Not only does this result in widespread corruption — as recently acknowledged by Raúl Castro himself — but also in more degrading practices that gnaw away at the moral fabric of Cuban society. According to Oswaldo Payá, these problems are systemic and inherent in the ideological nature of the Cuban regime: Cuban socialism is not just a perverse ideology, it also perverts its victims — forcing them to act against their conscience in order to survive. The best example of this is evident at nighttime, when elderly European men walk around the streets of Havana with young, beautiful Cuban women (sometimes girls). While some of these relationships are based on genuine mutual affection, the vast majority of the girls cozying up to foreigners are jineteras (an informal type of prostitute). Many jineteras are normal girls who go to school or work but need the extra income to supplement the rapidly decreasing rations handed out by the regime.
In Europe, these girls would be dating guys their own age, based on their own preferences, but in Havana “dating” is dictated by the size of the wallet, not looks or personality. I experience this first hand at the Malecón, Havana’s famous coastal esplanade. Since I look like a Cuban — and thus an unlikely source of income — I was spared the attention of the many girls cruising this strip. But the blond Danish photographer accompanying me was constantly besieged by girls and by young men essentially operating as pimps. One local girl — aged 20 — we meet is luckier than most, having been adopted by a European settled in Havana and thus living comfortably compared with most other Cubans. She tells us that most of her classmates have sold sex for cash to foreigners and that the local pimps are often relatives or even the boyfriends of the girls they are trying to sell to tourists. So much for the acclaimed honor of the Cuban revolution, and the governments’ pious lectures to the international community about “social rights.”
Only left-wing American Hollywood actors and authoritarian regimes at the U.N. Human Rights Council could be so blind to these indignities as to characterize Cuba as a success story. The sad truth is that one man’s egoistic pride has resulted in the humiliation of an entire people.
— Jacob Mchangama is the director of legal affairs at the Danish think tank CEPOS.