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 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 García Márquez's book remained unpublished.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
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 w
hom 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
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
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 prisoner, 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
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 Varela 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
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 Chile
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
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 Zapata 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
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"