Cuban security personnel detain a member of the Ladies in White dissident group
Cuban security personnel detain a member of the Ladies in White dissident group during a protest on International Human Rights Day, Havana, Cuba, December 10, 2015.
Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters


Last March, on the very day that U.S. forces entered Iraq, Fidel Castro launched a major crackdown on peaceful Cuban political dissidents. The Iraqi operation was a surprisingly swift one -- and so was Castro's. Within three weeks, the statue of the Cuban leader's old friend Saddam Hussein had been toppled in central Baghdad; meanwhile, Castro had summarily tried and imprisoned 75 Cubans. Their sentences -- for supposed crimes against the country's security -- averaged 20 years. A few days later, as if in an afterthought, three men who had hijacked the Havana Bay ferry in an attempt to escape the island were also tried. This group was even more unlucky: they were executed by firing squad, despite the fact that there had been no violence during their botched crime.

Cuba-watchers have no doubt that Castro's crackdown was timed to take advantage of the world's preoccupation with events in the Middle East. There is less agreement, however, over why it occurred in the first place. Like everything else relating to Cuba, the mass arrests provoked a flurry of speculation and wide-ranging interpretations among American observers.

Some pundits suggested that Castro made his move to prevent an improvement in relations with the United States -- an improvement he may have thought imminent, given the growing bipartisan opposition in the U.S. Congress to the 40-year-old embargo on Cuba. Certainly Castro has deliberately acted to spoil rapprochement in the past. For example, seven years ago, a dissident umbrella organization called Concilio Cubano was abruptly rounded up, and the Cuban air force shot down two planes belonging to the exile group Brothers to the Rescue -- all just a few days before Congress was expected to reject the Helms-Burton Act, which aimed to tighten sanctions on Cuba. Castro's shootings and jailings helped ensure the opposite result: the act passed. Other observers, meanwhile, proffered a different explanation for Castro's recent crackdown, pointing out that the comandante, mindful of the preemptive strike on Iraq, must have decided that a U.S. attack against Cuba was imminent. Dissidents, as allies of the enemy, therefore had to be neutralized.

Just as the interpretations of Castro's motivation have ranged across the spectrum, so have the reactions of U.S. officials. Some policymakers, arguing that the embargo clearly no longer works, have called to have it lifted; others have demanded that it should be tightened, by banning financial remittances from emigres in the United States, for example. In Cuba itself, some residents have suggested that their president believes he can swap a few of the jailed dissidents for the five Cuban spies currently serving long sentences in the United States. Another interpretation making the rounds in Havana is that the crackdown was meant to feed Cuba's never-ending war rhetoric, which the regime hopes will distract the population from the dire economic situation. Cuba's financial woes have been caused mostly by mismanagement (and were recently aggravated by two hurricanes), but the problems are real. The all-important sugar industry is near collapse, with this year's raw sugar production expected to be 80 percent lower than in 1989 (when the Soviet Union ended its subsidies). Last year, almost half of Cuba's 156 sugar mills were shut down, leaving some 100,000 workers jobless. Tourism, the other main source of hard currency, has slumped as a result of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Cuba's disastrous economic situation has grown so dire, in fact, that merely acquiring enough food to eat has become a full-time preoccupation. The creeping dollarization of consumer goods has made survival on a salary paid in local currency mathematically impossible; American dollars were made legal in 1993 and today are simply indispensable. As for the regime's traditional counterargument -- that health and education are still free and excellent -- it no longer carries much weight. Hospitals are decrepit, basic medicines are unavailable (except in foreigners-only pharmacies), schools indoctrinate instead of teaching, and, as Cubans say, "One is not always either sick or learning." In Havana, using public transportation is a time-consuming ordeal, public phones work sporadically, and water and power fail on a daily basis. Outside the capital, the situation is even worse. Of course tourists, whisked around the country in air-conditioned buses on mojito-salsa-cigar holidays, remain immune from (and oblivious to) the privations.


Perhaps the most telling interpretation of the crackdown is Castro's own: that it was the action of a David (namely Cuba) confronting the Goliath to the north. An "information note" published by the regime as the roundup began made this notion clear: "A few dozen persons directly linked to the conspiratorial activities led by James Cason [head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana] have been arrested by the relevant authorities and will be brought to trial." Castro used similar language at the end of the trials, in a speech that he opened with the ominous declaration, "It all started with the arrival in Cuba of Mr. Cason." According to Castro, the 75 dissidents had been acting on Washington's orders.

That Castro should be obsessed with the United States is not altogether surprising, given the two countries' shared history. At age 76, moreover, Cuba's president has now been in office for 44 years -- longer than any other head of state except for Queen Elizabeth -- and George W. Bush is the tenth occupant of the White House to confront him. And the recent trials show that Castro's anxiety about American subversion has not diminished over the years. As recently as March 1999, he had enacted a new special law (Law Number 88) punishing the encouragement of U.S. policy, particularly the embargo. "The revolution will apply with the necessary rigor ... the laws created to defend it from new and old tactics and strategies against Cuba," warned the above-mentioned "information note." Indeed, Law 88, which was used to condemn many of the 75 defendants, could be called the Anti-Helms-Burton Act, since it is aimed specifically at those "who support or help to enforce" that legislation. It is now illegal in Cuba to say, write, or do anything that Washington could use against Havana. No wonder that Cuban dissidents refer to it as the Gag Law.

The Helms-Burton Act not only tightened the embargo against Cuba but also pledged money to support a "democratic transition" there. Accordingly, in the years since the act's passage, the U.S. Agency for International Development has provided $22.5 million to promote such a "transition" and to prepare for a Cuba without Castro. Cuba's president has been infuriated both by the act's language and by the behavior of local American diplomats. Vicki Huddleston, Cason's predecessor at the U.S. Interests Section (and now ambassador to Mali), set a defiant tone last year when she started distributing free transistor radios to Cubans. Castro was not amused, and state television denounced the radios' recipients as counterrevolutionaries. Cason, a career diplomat, arrived in Havana in the fall of 2002 and adopted an even more defiant attitude. In February, he visited the home of a dissident and declared to the foreign reporters he had invited to cover the event that Castro was "afraid of free speech" and "of human rights." Both charges were true, but Castro fumed at what he called the "grosería de guapetón con inmunidad diplomática" -- rude behavior by a bully with diplomatic immunity.

The overt support provided by the U.S. mission in Havana to Cuba's opposition proved too much for Castro to bear. Mere support might have been tolerable, but not such open defiance. And to be fair, the American behavior was somewhat conspicuous. In other totalitarian states, from Burma to Zimbabwe, American and other diplomats provide similar assistance to local dissidents, but they do it much more covertly -- so discreetly, in fact, that the programs rarely reach the public eye.

Although U.S. diplomats could have acted in a less ostentatious way, the dissidents themselves had very little choice. It is not easy to prepare for a peaceful transition of government in a country with no fax machines or vcrs for sale and no photocopying facilities, and where a three-minute phone call abroad costs the equivalent of the average monthly salary. Satellite dishes are banned, and listening to foreign radio broadcasts is deemed "subversive." Thus it is hardly surprising that when the U.S. Interests Section opened a sort of Internet cafe for Cuban dissidents last year, the attraction proved irresistible. Many flocked to the site, in a former embassy building on the sea front, to surf the Web -- a forbidden fruit in a country where Internet access cards were previously sold only to tourists (and are now entirely unavailable). Castro, again not amused, was unable to shut down the Internet cafe without closing the entire U.S. Interests Section. So he locked up its users instead. They now enjoy prison visits from family members every three months, instead of Web access every Thursday.

Castro has applied a similar method to undermine the effect of visits by foreign personalities who hoped to use their presence to support local civil society. Private visitors -- Czech officials on nondiplomatic passports, a Swedish politician, and an Argentine journalist -- have been detained and deported, more or less quietly. Official visitors, however, such as Jimmy Carter; Mexico's last foreign minister, Jorge Castañeda; or the heads of state who came for the 1999 Latin American summit, could not be punished themselves, so Castro went after the Cubans that they had met with instead. For example, on March 8, eight visiting members of the U.S. House of Representatives met in a Havana hotel with five local dissidents, two of them accompanied by their wives. Four of the activists were subsequently locked up on sentences ranging from 18 to 26 years, after waiters from the hotel testified against them at their trials.

Prior to the arrests, the Castro regime had for several years been lenient on dissent, luring opponents into a false sense of safety. Activists were led to believe that they had carved out a new space for their work and boasted to visitors that they could now act in the open; after all, there was nothing illegal about what they were doing. Little did they know that their island would soon become the backdrop for Moscow-style show trials resulting in a cumulative sentence of 1,450 years for the 75 defendants.


The recent crackdown has left Cuba's most courageous civil-society activists in jail for decades (three others arrested in the same roundup are still awaiting trial). Of the half-dozen or so known dissidents left free, most are either burned out after years of struggle or have only recently been released from jail themselves and are thus unwilling to push their luck. Several have made statements that have been publicized abroad or have given interviews to foreign media, but few will go further than that.

Those behind bars come from all races and walks of life: Catholics and Freemasons, intellectuals and peasants. Some are only in their twenties; others are in their sixties. Less than half of the prisoners lived in Havana -- proof that their cause represents not an elite occupation but a broader movement, albeit one now decapitated.

Some of the dissidents were nabbed for following the classic curriculum of nonviolent resistance in communist countries: human rights education and monitoring or the organization of illegal trade unions and political parties. A lay Catholic group had revived an old idea: petition signing. Other activists had embarked on more novel ventures, such as the establishment of independent libraries. Begun five years ago as a single bookshelf in the home of a brave couple in the eastern town of Las Tunas (the two have since fled into exile as a result of unbearable government harassment), this movement now represents approximately 80 book collections around the country.

From the regime's perspective, the most threatening dissidents were probably the independent journalists: both professional reporters and those who merely wrote about subjects that interested them. This latter category included economists, engineers, peasants, physicians, teachers, and trade-union activists. What is known as "Cuban independent journalism" began back in the 1980s, when Miami-based radio stations started conducting telephone interviews with free-minded people living on the island. Then, in the mid-1990s, once direct-dial calling had been established between the United States and Cuba, a few dozen journalists formed themselves into eight "press agencies."

Over the last ten years, many of these journalists have emigrated, and they now aid their colleagues from abroad. The work of those who remain in Cuba is published on Web sites such as CubaNet and Nueva Prensa Cubana, which are operated by Cubans in Miami, or Encuentro, run from Madrid.

Because these Internet sites are blocked in Cuba, most of their readers are members of the Cuban diaspora or are Spanish-speaking Cuba experts. Nonetheless, the publications sometimes manage to find their way to their intended audience. The two Miami-based Web sites produce simple paper editions of their reports that, by ways best left unpublicized, are sent to the island. Many texts are also read or discussed on Miami-based radio stations that broadcast to Cuba.

Just before the crackdown, roughly a hundred Cubans were practicing such independent journalism. Some wrote columns and editorials, but most produced brief, 300-400 word factual reports. They exposed human rights violations (a blind lawyer jailed for civil disobedience being harassed by cellmates or censors restricting rap musicians), publicized the work of activists (hunger strikers demanding the release of political prisoners or dissidents planning an election boycott), and reported on the disastrous crisis in the economy (such as the short supply of milk or the restriction of TV sets to cronies of the regime). Today, less than two dozen remain at large and at work. As that figure suggests, simply reporting the news is a risky business in Cuba. Raúl Rivero, the country's best-known contemporary poet and independent journalist, defiantly wrote in 1999 after the "Gag Law" was passed:

No one, no law will make me believe that I have become a gangster or a criminal because I report the arrest of a dissident, or list the prices of basic food products in Cuba, or write that it is a disaster that more than 20,000 Cubans every year go into exile in the United States and hundreds of others try to go anywhere they can.

In April, however, the government decided that Rivero was just such a gangster. The poet, aged 57, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Once head of the Moscow bureau for Prensa Latina, Cuba's official press agency, Rivero later served as secretary of the Union of Cuban Writers. In 1991, he and nine other intellectuals signed a protest letter to Castro (Rivero is the only signatory who remains in Cuba today). The letter served as the poet's Rubicon; government officials who wanted to switch sides and become dissidents themselves started coming to him, since he was well known and liked from his days inside the regime. In 1995, he founded CubaPress, an independent press agency -- most recently located in two rented rooms of an apartment above a restaurant in Havana's Chinatown. And a few months before he was arrested, Rivero launched a samizdat publication called De Cuba with another writer, Ricardo González (same sentence, different prison). Two hundred copies of the first issue were distributed, although many were subsequently "recalled" by government thugs ransacking dissidents' apartments. The second issue was seized before it reached anyone. And in the homes of Rivero and González, state security agents discovered the tools of their alleged crimes: a radio, a tape recorder, a typewriter, a laptop computer, a video camera adapter, audio and vhs tapes, and a digital battery charger.

At his trial, the prosecution declared that Rivero had set up "a counterrevolutionary group" and "followed orders from the United States government." His indictment was based more on adjectives than on reference to law, however: he was charged with "carrying out subversive activities," "writing subversive articles," "launching a subversive magazine," working for a subversive French agency (Reporters Sans Frontiéres), and sitting "on a jury that promoted a book with subversive ideas."

Rivero is a playful man, so he must have smiled when he read the description of him in the indictment: "he frequents the company of antisocials with whom he exchanges mutual negative influences, he has rude opinions about the revolutionary process, he ignores official warnings, he is provocative, and he disrespects the norms of social coexistence." A Russian speaker and a connoisseur of Soviet literature, Rivero admires the poetry of gulag inmate Joseph Brodsky and is an avid reader of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who famously described waiting for 17 months outside the Leningrad prison where her son was being held. Now Rivero himself has become a poet sent to the gulag for the crime of writing the truth.


At Rivero's trial, the prosecution presented two secret agents to testify against him. One, code-named "Miguel," had been president of Cuba's Independent Journalists' Cooperative. The other, the 82-year-old "Octavio," claimed he had been an agent for 40 years and spent the last 10 posing as a journalist -- a claim that, if true, would make him the dean both of Cuba's journalists and its spies.

Of course, since almost all of Cuba's independent journalists published under their real names, there was little for the government's agents to "uncover," and they were limited to recording the amounts of money ($15 to $20) that Web sites paid to writers for their stories. Still, the spies (a dozen in total) managed to do substantial damage. Some provoked splits in the groups they penetrated, whereas others artificially multiplied the number of so-called independent organizations, thereby diluting the impact of the genuine ones and helping to discredit civil society. For example, "Agent Tania" headed a group she created called the Human Rights Party -- a splinter of a genuine group with the same name (the original group had to add "affiliated with the Andrei Sakharov Foundation" to its name in order to differentiate itself). Incidentally, the head of the real Human Rights Party, Rene Montes de Oca, has been imprisoned since 2000, and the man who replaced him, Emilio Leyva Perez, has been held without trial since February 2002. As one of the few independent journalists still at large commented recently, "there are times in the life of a nation when the only place a decent man can find himself is in prison." Today seems to be one of those times.

The crackdown was particularly damaging to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which lost two researchers who had monitored political prisoners in the country before being locked up themselves. One of these new inmates is Marcelo López Bañobre, a former tugboat captain who joined the commission in outrage after the military sank a fleeing tugboat in 1994, drowning 37 people. He was later particularly active in opposing the death penalty. López's indictment (he was sentenced to 15 years) reads like a nomination for a human rights award: "while doing the monitoring [of the violations] he approached families of [prisoners] suggesting to them that they contact international organizations." His last act as a free man was to compile and distribute, on behalf of the commission, a list of the 75 people then detained -- before becoming number 76 the next day.

The other captive researcher from the Cuban Commission for Human Rights is Marcelo Cano Rodríguez, a doctor who was given an 18-year sentence for "proselytizing activities in the health sector" -- that is, distributing medicine to political prisoners and their families. Cano had founded the Cuban Association of Physicians, which is probably how he provoked Castro's ire, since health care was meant to be one of the government's showcases, and Cano, by proving that the system was broken, had spoiled the picture.

During the crackdown, four other physicians were thrown behind bars, and several independent clinics were ransacked by state security agents. Ninety pounds of medicines were confiscated in one clinic alone, including antibiotics, pain killers, and vitamins, along with medical equipment such as a metered dose inhaler, an oxygen delivery system, and a glucometer. As with the human rights movement, the government tried to discredit genuine medical groups; a physician and agent code-named "Ernesto" founded a front group called the Independent Cuban Association of Physicians to do just that.

Yet another group targeted in the recent repression was the Christian Liberation Movement, headed by Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas (who himself remains free and whom, somewhat remarkably, Castro allowed to travel abroad to collect the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize last year). Although the indictment of three of the group's top members did not mention it, Payá and his movement had spearheaded the Varela Project, a petition drive that gathered over 11,000 signatures in one year. The Cuban constitution gives people the right to present legislative initiatives if at least 10,000 voters sign up, and this massive accomplishment was finally managed by an umbrella dissident group called Todos Unidos (which lost four of the six members of its governing body to the recent crackdown). In May 2002, the petition -- demanding freedom of association, freedom of expression, amnesty for political prisoners, free enterprise, and free elections -- was presented to the National Assembly.

At first, Castro ignored it, and perhaps he would have continued to had it not been for Jimmy Carter, who happened to be in Havana at the time. Carter had the audacity to mention the Varela Project in a speech carried live by Cuban radio and television, thereby forcing it into the public eye. Embarrassed, Castro arranged to have "the nation speak" in response, and a month later, nearly 99 percent of Cuba's registered voters (at least according to the official press) signed a petition declaring the Cuban socialist system "untouchable." Not signing, of course, was never an option.

Only a dozen of the 75 jailed dissidents formally belonged to Payá's organization, but many others had helped out in his petition drive and are now paying the price for it. They include the trade-union activist Pedro Pablo Álvarez (25-year sentence), his 62-year-old colleague Carmelo Díaz Fernández (18 years), and Roberto de Miranda, the president of the independent association of teachers, who got 20 years and suffered a heart attack in prison.


The Varela Project startled Castro and his regime, showing them that their once-obedient subjects were shedding their fears. Now the effect of the crackdown on its organizers and other dissidents depends on whether Payá or anyone else manages to capitalize on the outrage created by the repression. If the project's 11,000 courageous signatories were somehow mobilized, the crackdown could become the catalyst for a movement comparable to Charter 77 in the former Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, so far there have been no signs that popular discontent is being effectively channeled, and Cubans may conclude that petition-signing is not worth the risk.

Meanwhile, having thrown the cream of his country's civil society behind bars, Castro has ensured that his departure -- whether caused by biology or ideology -- will be chaotic, since Cuba will be unprepared for it. In fact, the transition may look more like the bloody end of Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989 than like the carefully planned soft exit of Poland's general Wojciech Jaruzelski, who is now writing his memoirs in retirement.

The crackdown has also hurt Castro internationally. His celebrity admirers may not have wavered, but outside Hollywood the condemnations have bridged even the transatlantic rift: suddenly the French Communist Party sounded like the U.S. House of Representatives, which, in a vote of 414 to 0, called for the dissidents' immediate release. In an unprecedented move, Amnesty International declared all 75 new detainees "prisoners of conscience." The British, Canadian, French, Italian, and Spanish governments also all quickly expressed their outrage, a significant step because tourists from these countries bring much-needed hard currency into Cuba.

Castro, then, seems to have overplayed his hand. Despite the focus on Iraq, his actions sparked international anger that quickly hit Cuba where it hurts the most -- in its economy. The governments that leapt to condemn his repression include some of his closest trading partners. Opponents of the embargo in the United States suddenly fell silent; embargo exemptions were not renewed; a U.S. agricultural fair in Havana was canceled; and the European Union, after announcing that Cuba would not qualify for extra European aid, hardened its "common position" still further.

Judging by the reaction of the official press, Havana was most wounded by several high-profile defections from the international pro-Cuba camp. These included the Portuguese writer and Nobel Prize-winner Jose Saramago and the Uruguayan political writer Eduardo Galeano. Their unprecedented criticism prompted Castro to have the Cuban artistic community sign a message "To Friends Far Away," denouncing the supposed "campaign preparing the terrain for a military aggression of the United States against Cuba." Among the signatories were the ballet grande dame Alicia Alonso; the composer Chucho Valdes; the singer Omara Portuondo, of the Buena Vista Social Club; and Eusebio Leal, the chief renovator of Old Havana.

Cuban civil society may have been shaken by the onslaught, but it has not disappeared. Independent journalists continue to file stories about their jailed colleagues and about the dire reality in the country. While Raúl Rivero writes poetry from his solitary prison cell, his impressive collection of articles circulates on cds and audio cassettes. His colleague Manuel Vázquez Portal has managed to smuggle his own diary out of Boniato Prison in Santiago de Cuba, where he is serving an 18-year sentence. The efforts of Marcelo López Bañobre, who publicized the cases of inmates on death row, have become internationally recognized. Following the Argentine example, wives of prisoners now stage silent marches every week demanding the release of their companions, and families of the imprisoned say they have received immense support from friends, neighbors, and even strangers.

In the face of the recent crackdown, however, it may prove difficult for the opposition to recapture its prior assertiveness and defiance. Ordinary Cubans may not be prepared to go into the streets to demand their freedom. For the last 44 years, Cubans' first instinct when unhappy with their country has been simply to leave, legally or on makeshift rafts. The successive waves of emigration have created a huge Cuban diaspora, totaling one-tenth of the island's 11 million population, and have skimmed the country of the kind of people who, in other communist states, have acted as the agents of reform; rather than changing their country, many Cubans have changed countries instead, voting with their feet. Castro understands this fact: that on his island of many shortages, there is no shortage of people willing to leave. He plays the migration card very wisely, using it as a security valve for discontent and to blackmail Washington, which fears a wave of boat people.

It is hard to blame the Cubans who dream about leaving this communist relic. But even daring to dream can be dangerous. In the 1980s, Boniato Prison was home for two years to an inmate who was once foolish enough to recount to his buddies in the city park his dream from the previous night -- of escaping Cuba. The man was jailed for this indiscretion and became known as El Soñador de Boniato, "the Dreamer of Boniato." Now Boniato has become the temporary residence of six of Cuba's 75 most courageous citizens, many of whom once dreamed they could change their country from within. Whether or not they will succeed remains uncertain. But Cuba needs more such dreamers.

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  • Theresa Bond is the pseudonym for a respected political analyst specializing in closed societies.
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