Cuba: Nothing against the Revolution
Cuba is opening up to public criticism — but not from the Ladies in White.
By Nick Miroff
Published: April 30, 2010 19:09 ET
HAVANA, Cuba — In June 1961, Fidel Castro summoned Cuba's leading
writers and intellectuals to a meeting at Havana's Bibleoteca Nacional.
There, he issued a warning that would regulate speech on the island for
the next 50 years.
"Within the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution, nothing,"
the 34-year-old Castro famously said.
In other words, public criticism of Castro's socialist system would be
allowed — but only if its intent was to support the government, not
The meaning of Castro's dictum has shifted over the years, pliable to
the politics of the moment and to those with the authority to interpret
what falls "within" revolutionary boundaries. Today, with Cuba
struggling economically and facing increased human rights criticism from
abroad, the words once again appear to guide the Cuban government's
policy toward the island's small dissident groups.
Under Raul Castro's leadership, Cuba has become more open to public
criticism, albeit within certain limits. Castro has repeatedly urged
Cubans to voice their frustrations and offer constructive solutions to
the country's pressing problems. The island's state-run media now
publish essays and letters to the editor with surprisingly frank
critiques of Cuba's notorious bureaucracy, or corruption and waste in
the state-run economy.
Prominent artists and scholars have been publicly urging reforms, and
last week, the iconoclastic hip-hop group Los Aldeanos was allowed to
give a rare concert at an official venue, despite lyrics loaded with
harsh criticisms of the Castros and their socialist system.
But public criticism can only go so far on this island. Cuba is digging
in and clamping down even as it opens up.
The death of prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo in February after a lengthy
hunger strike brought a wave of condemnation against the Castro
government, especially in Europe, and Cuban officials have reacted
defensively, railing against the European Union and "a global media
campaign" to slander the Revolution.
After a series of daily protest marches in March by the Ladies in White,
the Cuban government has pushed back forcefully. The group, formed by
the wives and mothers of jailed government opponents, has been staging
silent marches since 2003 along Havana's Quinta Avenida after Sunday
Mass. But for the past three weeks, their path has been blocked by
government agents who order them to halt.
When the ladies refuse, the government sends crowds of pro-Castro
demonstrators to harass the women with a frightening-but-controlled
intimidation tactic known as an "act of repudiation."
"Down with the worms!" shouted dozens of pro-government demonstrators
last Sunday as they surrounded six members of the Ladies in White soon
after the women attempted to march. The crowd ripped up their flowers,
pushed the women into a nearby park and berated them at earsplitting
decibels with obscenities, insults and patriotic slogans.
The six women absorbed the taunting stoically, staring straight ahead
and holding up their fingers in an L shape for "Libertad" (Freedom).
"Mercenaries! Traitors!" the crowd screamed in the women's faces. "Leave!"
Plainclothes government agents with earpieces and aviator sunglasses
stood by, intervening whenever things got too physical. Throngs of
police closed off the street, a major thoroughfare, and a handful of
passing Cubans stopped to watch, though they neither joined in nor
"We have problems in Cuba, but we also have a government that provides
us with social security," said Aracely Keeling, a pro-Castro supporter
who also denounced the "media campaign" against the island. "These women
are here because they're paid by the United States," Keeling shouted.
She was referring to documents released by the Cuban government in 2008
showing that the Ladies in White have received support and financial
help from U.S. officials and anti-Castro militants in Florida. While
some members of the group have acknowledged receiving the assistance,
they say they've got no other way to support themselves in a country
where the average wage is $20 a month and almost all legal employment is
controlled by the government.
Their harassment last Sunday continued the entire day, as the crowd
refused to allow the women to walk away and the women declined offers
from government security agents to escort them onto a bus.
"It was seven and a half hours of insults," said Laura Pollan, one of
the group's leaders, the following day. "That was physical and
The women have vowed to continue attempting to march, though their
numbers have dwindled with each passing week as the harassment escalates.
Their Sunday procession was the only tolerated public protest against
the Cuban government on the island, but with their daily marches last
month, the women seem to have crossed a line. The government hasn't
explained why it's now blocking them, but each weekend brings a new
batch of photos and videos that draw attention to Cuba's human rights
Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Cuba's highest-ranking Catholic official, called
the acts of repudiation "shameful" in a recent interview published in
Palabra Nueva, the magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Havana.
"This type of verbal, even physical, intolerance should not remain in
our nation's history as a characteristic feature of Cubans," he said.
But Ortega also denounced U.S. and Spanish "media violence" against the
Cuban government after Zapata Tamayo's fatal hunger strike, saying the
coverage had worsened tensions on the island.
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