The Triumph and Defeat of the Cuban Dissidence

Photo taken in the Combinado del Este prison, in Havana, during a visit made in 2013 by the national and international press on the Island. (EFE/Archivo)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ariel Hidalgo, 14 January 2019 — The dissidence, as an organized civic movement, wasn’t born in Cuba until 1983. At the beginning of October of that year, I found myself in Combinado del Este prison, serving eight years for a manuscript critical of the political system, when I met a new prisoner: Ricardo Bofill had been active in the Youth of the Popular Socialist Party and had already been in prison in 1967 for the charge of “Microfaction” (expressing differences with the Party line). For several weeks, we exchanged impressions and ideas.

At that time I was worried about the subhuman situation of a friend in solitary confinement in the walled off cells and Bofill said he had connections with foreign press agencies to send them a complaint. He even offered to help me write it, but he maintained that we had to sign it with our own names so that it would have credibility, something that was until then inconceivable in political imprisonment. continue reading

We wrote it, on the back he wrote his name and underneath I put my own. To my surprise, at the end Bofill added: “Cuban Pro Human Rights Committee.” Then, next to his name he wrote “president” and next to mine, “vicepresident.” I didn’t attach any importance to that.

I didn’t make a note of the day as a memorable date. For me it was only about helping a friend, but when the information reached abroad, the headline wasn’t his case, but the creation, for the first time in Cuba, of a committee of human rights.

Right away, Bofill sent messages to Gustavo Arcos Bergnes, who had participated with Fidel and Raul Castro in the attack of the Moncada Barracks and who was isolated in a separate cell, and to Elizardo Sánchez, social democratic activist, who was in Boniato prison in Santiago de Cuba. Both responded positively. Three more prisoners in Combinado joined up.

The Committee was already created, but repression didn’t take long. Some were put in isolation, among them Bofill, who was then admitted to a room in the prison hospital. He remained there for a long period of time until they took him out for an unknown destination. We didn’t know if they had taken him to another prison, to his home in Cuba, or abroad, which is why in a meeting of the Committee members, I was elected, on a provisional basis, acting president.

Then began the development of a strategic plan. Prison became an immense laboratory, a model for what could later be the dissident movement throughout the country.

We helped to group together many political prisoners according to their activities: an association of writers and artists, another of religious figures from different churches, and the Liga Cívica Martiana [Martí Civic League].

The writers’ group created their own magazine, El Disidente, which we used to write by hand and came to number more than 60 pages, so perfect that it seemed printed. Various copies circulated around the prison, and some were even covertly taken out and circulated through the streets, others were sent abroad and some extracts were published in El Nuevo Herald in Miami.

Sometimes, State Security raided our cells and we had to start again, so we had to hide each page we produced really well. All the groups ended up working in such a united way in the interest of the prisoners that, one way or another, each and every one did some type of job, so that the authorities had to rely on us for any change in the criminal division.

That was how, more or less, we wanted it to be on a societal level. A support committee should have been founded from every social sector in defense of its interests: for journalists, for teachers, religious figures, artists, self-employed people, and so on.

When all these committees were strengthened with the support of their respective branches, they should have joined together in a federation of social self-defense to peacefully confront, in the name of all of civil society, the totalitarian power. We calculated that, carrying out this plan like we intended it, it would not take 10 or 15 years for the great changes that we desired to be made. And we were in 1985.

Our complaints led to an international scandal and the Government found itself obligated to allow the inspection of prisons by representatives of different international bodies.

In 1988 I accepted an offer of freedom on the condition that I left the country, a form of unofficial exile. On the afternoon of August 4, a little more than a month before a UN commission would enter Combinado del Esta, they took me out of my cell and I was brought to José Martí International Airport.

The Cuban Government was condemned at the United Nations. The movement spread all over the country and has been the only one in the opposition, in six decades, that has managed to remain without being destroyed despite threats, harassment, persecution, arrests, and long sentences.

This meant a great victory. The answer is that new dictatorships, whether they are communist or of the so-called socialism of the 21st century, prepare to confront their adversaries on a level of violence, but when faced with nonviolence, they are disoriented.

However, the movement failed in the most important thing: obtaining the support of different social sectors. What went wrong?

The main reason was a shift of discourse in many groups. Abroad, until the middle of the 90s, a great majority of exiles viewed the dissidence as a governmental trick to fabricate an easily manipulated opposition. Among the few who believed was the activist and actress Teté Machado. Together we founded the first center of support for dissidents, the Buró de Información de Derechos Humanos [Information Bureau for Human Rights] (Infoburo).

For several years Teté was the voice of the entire dissident movement at the most important conclaves all over the world. But when some dissidents overshadowed the leadership in exile, powerful political organizations offered material and media support to several of their leaders in exchange for support for their own demands, like supporting the embargo and opposing travel and remittances.

Those who accepted, by adopting a rhetoric totally contrary to the interests of the population, lost contact with her and were moved to social marginalization. Other groups, although they did not adopt that rhetoric, did not fully assume their social commitment.

So we arrived at a dead end: neither the Government was capable of exterminating the dissidence, nor was the dissidence capable of defeating the Government. Only those groups — very few — loyal to the original commitment, received large support and became the most numerous.

With these reflections I would like to invite others to make a critical analysis.

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

The True Path is Not to Weaken the Oppressor but to Strengthen the Oppressed

The ‘boteros’ (self-employed taxi drivers) drove empty during their ’strike’ on the 23rd street in Havana and did not stop for passengers, as a sign of protest. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ariel Hidalgo, Miami, 21 December 2018 — The tug-of-war between a government leadership accustomed to impose its will like an absolute monarch and the sectors of the citizenship that are beginning to energetically claim their rights through peaceful resistance as actors of an emerging civil society, has come to the fore in recent months, especially in December of 2018, a year that, when it concludes, will mark sixty years of the same group in power. These days of protest show conclusions and lessons that we can not fail to point out:

1. The offensive of government restrictions such as the paquetazo* and Decree 349, is a clear indication of the concern of the Party-State leadership, and in particular of the hard-line sector, over the development of civil society in recent times: independent galleries, alternative theaters, private recording studios, blogs, the unbridled growth of the self-employed market, in particular the paladares (private restaurants), the private transporters and an infinity of micro-businesses with a wide variety of services. continue reading

This is something reminiscent of the growth of the Third State on the eve of the French Revolution in the face of the excessive obstacles of the feudal monarchy. In this case, it is a living and creative force, both economically and culturally, against a political-military superstructure that slows down its development.

2. The power has made a serious mistake in imposing such unpopular measures less than three months from the date chosen to carry out the popular consultation on its proposed constitutional reform, probably because of its confidence that it can continue to benefit from the consent of the population.

Either because of indolence or fear, or, in the later instance, because they feel they can manipulate the results of the referendum to their benefit without unfavorable consequences, as has been done on previous occasions, or because they underestimate the response capacity of civil society, including the protests of well-known personalities which, until now, have distinguished themselves by their support for that leadership.

The result has been a malaise that the opposition could exploit in favor of the campaign to vote NO on the constitutional reform.

3. The granting of access to the Internet through cell phones on the same day, December 6, when the restrictions announced against artists and self-employed workers came into force, shows that their main objective was to divert the attention of the population to better weather the storm of protests. The internet access had been delayed by the fear of unleashing the “untamed wild colt” of the internet on the population with their computers and cell phones.

The new telecommunications technology undermines all centralized structures, mainly totalitarian models, as it breaks the monopoly of government information, dissemination and propaganda, enables rapid communication between citizens in different locations, and facilitates the recording of the outrages of the authorities and a rapid international dissemination through mass communication networks.

The oppressors, especially those who hide behind Marxist ideology, know very well how the changes of social regimes take place, a theory embodied by Marx himself in “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” where he wrote “the productive forces” (read: technology) “when reaching a certain stage of development (…) are in contradiction with the relations of existing production” (read: the economic-political structures of the oppressors) which generates a deep crisis of the system, “and thus opens an era of social revolution,” that is, a time of profound changes.

4. The fact that after the start of the protests the regime reacted by reversing some of the announced restrictions means that citizens (that is, those nominally without power) do exercise power when they become aware of their rights and express, publicly, their willingness to change.

5. The opposition must take note of the magnitude of the protests in general that far surpassed the most numerous of its political demonstrations and adjust, accordingly, its steps and its demands. Instead of urging the population to join them, they must unite themselves with that population in their demands and support them as much as possible, focusing on their immediate needs.

To the extent that they give their support to these spontaneous initiatives, they will achieve the sympathies and support of the people, they will gain prestige, and even, in this way, they will be able to call on them when they need to reach more far-reaching goals.

*Translator’s note: A package of restrictions tightening the conditions of self-employment.


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

60 Years of Permanent War

Fidel Castro entering Havana on January 8, 1959

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ariel Hidalgo, Miami, 1 January 2019 — A group of men — not a generation, but the so-called “historical leadership” along with their hand-picked successors — is celebrating 60 years in power this week,  without ever giving the Cuban people the right to choose another option.

They celebrate it without any modesty, when they should rather be ashamed. In their own official ’History’ program they insulted a president of the 1930s because he tried to extend his term for three or four more years, a president who industrialized the country, embellished the cities with beautiful buildings and roads, and who, when he left, he left behind — in what had been a country in foreign hands with sugar factories worked by semi-slaves — a modern and prosperous country that excited the admiration of all the foreigners who visited it, and that in many respects was at the head of all Latin America. continue reading

That president had been democratically elected, while those who today celebrate six decades of uninterrupted power came to it by violence, executing, without guarantees of due process, hundreds of soldiers, and perpetrating a vile betrayal of the ideals of many of their own comrades who had given their blood to restore the Constitution abolished after the 1952 military coup, in addition to celebrating the free elections that that coup had prevented. The caudillo himself had slammed the door on all those martyrs when he asked, during a public rally: “Elections, what for?”

This group has done the opposite of what that president from the 1930s did. It has turned its people into one of the poorest of the continent, as if we had just emerged from a devastating war, with ruins everywhere, including those of most of the sugar mills, after having been the first country in the world in that industry. Today the Cuban people must stand in long lines for a piece of bread and crowd the streets struggling to access any vehicle that moves, because public transport has almost disappeared.

The money obtained from the high prices of sugar in the 1970s and that paid by the inflated prices paid by the Soviet Union — tens of millions, hundreds, thousands of millions — were squandered in wars on other continents to the satisfaction of that leader’s narcissism, while his people suffered precariousness of all kinds.

Was it all the fault of the enemy of the North and its blockade? What kind of blockade is this that, despite itself, Cuba has maintained trade relations with almost every country in the world, and today, even with the farmers of the United States itself? The US embargo only served as an alibi to justify all the disasters provoked by the whims of an omnipotent ruler.

What war is that? What enemy confronts this people? Because he spent his life in an indefinite state of siege, in perpetual suspension of constitutional guarantees, and in a call to ’action stations’, one after the other, waiting for a foreign invasion that supposedly would arrive to ravage the country and seize our homeland. He warned that, if it happened, that enemy would only collect “the dust of our soil drowned in blood.”

Did that invasion ever happen? For almost the whole world it never came to pass. But I say yes, this invasion has been ongoing since the first of these 720 months, and still, to this day, continues to devastate the country.

Because the enemy of this nation is that group in power. The real blockade against this people is imposed by that group with all its bureaucratic obstacles, its prohibitions, its censorship, its persecutions and expropriations of hundreds of thousands of independent workers, and even the semi-slave exploitation of tens of thousands of employees and professionals from whom it takes more than 80% of their salaries.

Everything has been done in the name of “the Revolution.” During these 60 years there has been constant talk of “defending the Revolution,” the Revolution is alive, the Revolution first of all, “within the Revolution, everything, outside the Revolution, nothing,” and so on.

According to the most in vogue definition of that word — “violent change in the political institutions of a nation” — that revolution occurred in Cuba in the first nine years.

That is to say, more than 50 years ago it was over, despite the fact that it is still spoken of in the present, something that no longer exists — or never existed if we consider that it was the result of a betrayal — a ghost that presents itself everywhere like an embalmed corpse that is intended to be believed to still alive, as when Juana La Loca dragged the remains of her beloved Felipe el Hermoso throughout the kingdom of Spain.

It’s time to lay bare the lie once and for all. Here there is nothing revolutionary and much less an elite in power, only a group of reactionaries in a dictatorial cupula trying to perpetuate an unsustainable model that even the caudillo himself, shortly before dying, recognized was unviable: “This model doesn’t even work for Cubans,” he said.

The real war that has ravaged this nation is the one that this group has maintained against its own people for six decades with its insane decrees. And if it continues in power, the aforementioned warning will probably come true and our country will have nothing left but that: the dust of our soil drowned in blood.


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

The Regenerative Power of NO!

“This project has not been prepared by a Constituent Assembly composed of delegates elected through an electoral process with all the guarantees.” Source: Granma, Cuba’s major newspaper, owned Communist Party.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ariel Hidalgo, Miami, 1 December 2018 — A patriarchal group that has governed Cuba for 60 years is presenting a project for a revised constitution to become the law of the country. But this cosntitutional project has not been prepared by a Constituent Assembly, one composed of delegates chosen through an electoral process with all the guarantees of free and fair elections, as is supposed to be done in a truly democratic country. Rather it was prepared by a team of hand-picked editors.

The word ‘party’ comes from ‘part’, so it is clear that this project represents only a part of the population and not all the currents of thought among the citizenship, so it cannot really be considered the fruit of the popular will. This revised Constitution would reaffirm the violation of elementary rights of human beings, rights such as free association, free expression and the free activity of citizens to seek their own prosperity. The response of citizens before this consultation should be: No! continue reading

Our great problem as a nation is that we have spent our existence saying ‘Yes’ or, at least, shutting up when we should have said ‘No’. When a group of soldiers perpetrated a coup to overthrow a democratically elected president and abolish the Constitution, we did not throw ourselves into the streets to shout with one voice: “No!” And that was the beginning of our current misfortunes.

Then a group of supposed redeemers arrived and, in gratitude for our presumed liberation, we blindly obeyed everything they imposed on us. Why have free elections? Why reinstate the violated Constitution if those chosen by providence were there to guide us on a path of freedom and prosperity? If you idolize a caudillo and elevate him to an altar, that false god will rule your destiny with an iron fist.

This group that at other times has also persecuted and repressed citizens for their sexual orientation, for their religious practices and even for their artistic preferences, and who later had to tolerate even the veneration of a saint, the gay pride celebrations, and even erect a statue to John Lennon, has not ceased to be the same, but has had to yield to the swell of the people practicing civil disobedience in silence.

Now is the time to impose the right to think differently and to respect the different options and preferences of the population in spheres such as the economy, the social and the political, and for all us us to united in a single force to say ‘No’ to this constitution that they want to impose on us.

There are those who still believe that the correct attitude is to abstain, to refuse to go to the polls in response to the electoral consultations staged by the powers-that-be, that everything is a farce, that they will manipulate the counting of the votes and that the ‘consultation’ on the revised constitution will be legitimized by the attendance at the polls of those without power.

But this option to abstain has been chosen many times and has been repeated before the deaf ears of citizens for whom it is not easy to abstain in a country where one’s absence at the polling stations marks you as disaffected and where the pro-government organizations pressure you to participate, while it is less noticed to go and vote ‘No’ in the privacy of the polling place.

And today, in this world, abstention is nothing new in any country, but rather the most frequent response of a humanity tired of corruption and the lies of politicians. It is not seen as rejection but as laziness, a laziness that in a certain way also means acceptance, because those who call the elections win. That is why we must urge citizens to go to the polls and to vote ‘No’.

That Power will to manipulate the results is known, but with an overwhelming vote in favor of ‘No’ the truth would filter out through all corners and crevices, and run through different and unsuspected trajectories, like the flood of a river. And if the majority is reached, a vigorous minority will suffice to be impressive in a world where fear has always reigned, and where unanimity is demanded. And it will send a clear message to those who still collaborate with the regime, whether through fear, opportunism, or ignorance, among which there are officials, soldiers, and Party militants.

Let them know that the winds are already blowing in the opposite direction, announcing the proximity of a renewing storm. And if the fearful begin to lose their fear, and the opportunists to rethink their unconditional support, and the ignorant to question what until then they accepted blindly, that will be the beginning of the end of that world built on the basis of the lie.

Because no one governs without the consent of the governed, that is, of the people or a part of that people, and if this part finally decides to live in the truth, that world crumbles like night shadows before the luminous rays of dawn.

The campaign for ‘No’, could also bear an invaluable fruit: the confluence of the renewing forces that fight for change. The real fronts and coalitions are not made around a table, but in joint work and struggle. And there is no time more than now that requires the bringing together of all the opposition ranks in a single force capable of peacefully defeating ‘Yes’.

Because this campaign could not win any isolated group against a regime that has a monopoly over all the mass media. But in the face of a united front for ‘No’, it would be able to achieve victory. Our differences, our different projects and perspectives, a reflection of the polychromatic richness that we represent, far from distancing us, unites us like a rainbow in the defense of freedom of thought in the face of those who want to impose, by force, a sterile unanimity.

A consensual, measured call is needed, one that convincingly exposes the reasons for voting ‘No’, the fruit of the representative ranks of all currents of thought that, consequently, can be presented, alien to all partisanship and ideology, in the name of — and as the voice of — a whole civil society that until today has remained silent, gagged by censorship.

It could, with the cooperation of all, be published on all the networks, blogs and circulated hand-to-hand in neighborhoods, workplaces, universities, in theaters and seminars and other cultural activities, and thus expose Power’s manipulation of the results.

Such a joint document would not require its editors to gather at any meeting place, it would not take more travel than browsing through cyberspace, or more room to host delegates than a virtual site.

There is no need to fear campaigning for ‘No’, because it is a legitimate right to inform citizens about the other side of the coin of what the leadership wants to impose through coercion and fear. Because in a real popular consultation in which it is legal to vote for one of the two options, and Power has all the means to advocate for one of them, it must also be lawful to defend the opposite option.

Let us all be united in a single force capable of peacefully defeating the governmental proposal. Everyone vote ‘No’!


Editor’s note: Ariel Hidaldo is a writer and historian.

The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.