The Experiment of Hope / Francis Sanchez

Dagoberto Valdés, director of the periodical ‘Convivencia’. (BARACUTEYCUBANO.BLOGSPOT.COM)

On the 15th of February 2008, with the uploading to the internet of Issue 1 (January-February), the magazine Convivencia was born in Pinar del Río.  Since then, six years have passed of uninterrupted bimonthly publication.  The new publication invited one to live on a horizon at once broad and intimate, democratic, heavy with possibilities and without the scourge of restrictive determinations.  “A dawn for the citizenry and civil society in Cuba”, the title of the first edition’s editorial, would become the motto of the magazine.

The beginning of the new alternative project within Casa Cuba, passing between the homogeneity and impersonality of the official press, brought a signal of hope or possible restoration of diversity from the westernmost of the Cuban provinces, after the retirement had taken place in 2006 of the bishop José Siro González Bacallao to a farm in Mantua.

Confusions and disappointments have taken place, at times imperceptibly, but knowing the difference between one and the other helps us to understand and to hope.  Let us see.  It is known how, during the nineties, a weave of publications belonging to the Catholic Church was assembled in Cuba — although sociocultural in ecumenical spirit — that allowed intellectual communities in many provinces to have a means of expression for the first time.  I met Dagoberto Valdés in that setting: we founded the Catholic Press Union of Cuba (UCLAP-Cuba) in November 1996, in the church La Merced of Camagüey.

The new magazine movement was thriving (Vitral in Pinar del Río, Palabra Nueva in Havana, Amanecer in Villa Clara, Enfoque in Camagüey, Cocuyo in Holguín, Iglesia en Marcha in Santiago de Cuba, etc.) and independent of state control, which, as it must be supposed, would influence the State to respond by assembling a national system of editing houses and territorial magazines.

The unique impact of Vitral, its operation, its alternative editions, compelled the Government to strengthen the world of Pinareño culture in proportions that would have otherwise been unthinkable.  Great sums were thus expended on projects such as, for example, the beautiful Ediciones Cauce and the Hermanos Loynaz Centre, elements that taken together would subsequently pay for themselves by achieving such a rich diversity there that this province would stand out in the civic, cultural, and editorial spectrum of the country.

The magazine Vitral, the Church, Dagoberto Valdés, and Pinar del Río were key points of reference in a phase of optimism that was marked by the first visit of a Pope to Cuba. Days of illumination were lived then — before, during, and after the brief crossing of Wojytla, the Pilgrim Pope.  “Have no fear,” he said in mass in the José Martí Civic Plaza on the 25th of January of 1998, and at some moment everyone or most of the people present there were springing up — we were springing up — calling out “Liberty, liberty.”  Either we no longer had fear, or we did not want to have, indeed, any more fear.  Two days before, John Paul II had held the Encounter with the World of Culture, in the Great Hall of the University of Havana.  continue reading

Among the few photographs that came out of those I took at that meeting, I save one in which I appear standing next to Dagoberto Valdés on a wing of the second floor.  He was attending as a representative of Vitral, while I found myself in that hall as a young writer who was creating, along with others, a similar magazine: Imago, founded in 1996 and belonging to the diocese of Ciego de Ávila.

The opportunity of that encounter with the world of culture and John Paul II has been moreover the only day of my life in which I have seen Fidel Castro in the flesh, dressed strangely in a collar and tie there below in the first row, likewise to hear the religious leader, and, certainly, he seemed to me then very pinched, perhaps as an effect of the contrast with the image I had formed in my mind.  I think I took some pictures from afar with my modest camera, but they did not come out.

Why stir up such memories to refer to the fifth anniversary of the magazine Convivencia?  I have come back to the mentioned photo, and to another in which I am raising up a little Cuban flag in a very packed square, and with an enormous Heart of Jesus covering the façade of the National Library.  Without a doubt, a new phase of the old and complicated experiment that time and again has seemed easy was being tested or beginning, although in the long run it shows signs of error: the experiment of hope.  The hope of liberty.

Cuba must open itself to Cuba

Up to what point hasn’t the search for a spiritual and collective liberty been a controlled trial, condemned to failure?  Who motivates our reactions and rations out our actions?  Who distributes the social reach of intimate or true result?

Apparently a return of Cuba to the universal accord of democracy is tried once and again, and what is sad is that we who live out this trial from below and within, repeating it it, putting into every expression all of the energy and urgent need of our mortal nature, at times simply cannot get nor give answers.

The international repercussion of the first visit of a Pope to the island brought back to us, with great underscores, the petition that Cuba open itself to the world and that the world open itself to Cuba.  It was urged at the coexistence between hemispheres without the great polarities of the Cold War.  Without a doubt, that invitation impressed well, but although such a call-up and the wake of open expectations aimed to create a point of rotation in the tradition of rigidities, they continued giving preeminence to the problem of the role of a nation constructed for an international political conflict.

An emblematic scheme has continuously been inflated which has been incapacitating, agonizing for we who live it from within and beneath in Cuba, scheme or favorite script of those who enjoy power, and some who covet it, where this tale would supposedly have only two actors obliged to share one same scene: Cuba and the world.  An enormous tale of love-hate.  A libretto not for liberty, but rather to depersonalize.

That assumption, used as a straitjacket, has served to pretend justifying a stop to civic liberties and rights on the island.  It has been brandished to silence or make invisible all the rest of us subjects who fill what they wish to present to us merely as a great international “scenario”, historic laboratory table, when it is no more than the area and the time of life, like the life of every human being: inexorable, unrepeatable.  Lives, or unique novels where everyone is either protagonist of himself, or has been no one.

In light of the suspicion that we suffer artificial experiments, ill-constructed scenarios, we human beings have a metaphysical dilemma which remodels our civil condition: to open up to ourselves, to be, to live as we consciously are, then it will only be possible to build other reliable ontological and social figures, to open up among ourselves, to coexist.  Cuba must open itself to Cuba.

Not for fun have despotisms based themselves historically in a false gigantism that claims to annul faith in free will and the mortal, real, imperfect but infinitely worthy nature of the human being: from the untouchable castes, representatives of the afterlife, kings that were considered the direct descendants of gods, up to leaders and political groups that in modern history have declared themselves “the vanguard of society” or claim to head up scientifically superior social classes.

Another invitation of John Paul II’s extended in that giant plaza had more effect in my heart, where for the first and only time –also surely the last one– I found myself among the multitude when he invited us to be “protagonists of our personal and national history.”  Words taken as though by an annotator under a shell in an old theatre, at the bottom of our hearts that were wounded, half forgotten, thrown into the trash, to put them in our ears when the sky seemed clearer.

This last quote of John Paul II’s appears crowning the first editorial of the magazine Convivencia, where one can also read a programmatic maxim that became perhaps the necessary echo rising up from the earth, inevitable, personal: “We believe in the strength of the small.”

A renovation of the interior of Cuba

Somehow, despite the poor quality of the roads inside the country, and all of the broken bridges, I always get the magazine Convivencia.  I believe in this inner weave, cell to cell.  It is the same ethical motivation — for me in the final instance an active choice will always have a metaphysical reason — for which I also endeavour to make Árbol Invertido, “inland literary review”, without more interest but also with less illusion than this– the word which opens and closes the editorial “Tierradentrismo” from the first issue of the 2nd period of Árbol Invertido, corresponding to January-April of 2013: to be.

Convivencia is.  A word with a very deep power of announcement.  It does not enter the game of artificial paradises to substitute one old utopia for another, supposedly new or better, in that poor tradition of idealisms with which spiritually insufferable, baseless policies have sought to adorn themselves.  It sounds like the future and is full of reality.  Soft yet hardy.  Open.  Abundant.  It changes.  It flows.  It grows upon itself.  It branches out.  It shelters.  It explores.  It deluges and demands.  It arrives and it leaves.  Coexistence as a challenge, a possibility, arises from the condensation of life experiences.

Convivencia looks like itself.  Imperfect.  It imagines, it reflects the image, the metaphor of Casa Cuba that it has made its own from the identifier that appears on each title page.  If a person can accept themselves, or better put, should do it, as a plural being, box of echoes, impulses, defects, good and bad memories, the alternative of a civil society that bases itself on the creative relation of different peoples seems no less concrete.

From its structure, as a “socio-cultural magazine”, comes a model of inclusive edition.  Through its pages run the popular outcry or murmur, the calculus, the song of the artist, the prayer of the believer and the intellectual discourse, among an infinity of themes dear to natural people.  The Casa of the magazine Convivencia is not held up by the nails of so many dogmas, but rather moving upon the crests of the waves, in a spiritual impulse, when it is defined as “from Christian inspiration.” And I believe that here, in its entrance to tremblingly small things in the middle of the night, in its contribution to the light of spirituality, can be felt its most transcendent consequences.

We are not in need of another restoration, we who within a same residence felt that time and space were running out.  Let them take them from us.  Because definitively, a lasting “spiritual response” from anyone who feels oppressed may be based on the great ignorance of the institutions of hatred, not recognizing their perceived authority: do not do it with fear, but neither with more hatred.

One of the gratifying testimonies that I have found in Convivencia was that of doctor Hilda Molina.  I did not know her until I read this account of her life, it being revealing that a scientist like her — founder of the Cuban and Latin American schools of Neurological Restoration and the International Center for Neurological Restoration –, after living close-up the dogmas of practiced atheism and even suffering uncountable problems when she decided to express herself differently, would arrive at the following affectionate, perhaps idealistic? conclusion:
“Nevertheless, any reconstruction of material sort will prove useless, if we do not prioritize from this precise moment onward the spiritual reconstruction of our afflicted country, the rescue of its confiscated souls; and the resurrection of its faith, and its hopes.”

Convivencia is and resembles a too-ideal house, so real that it has only been possible for some as a miracle and for others, of course, as a great sin.  It is occupied and under construction.  It opens and connects communicating veins.  It is filling a stronger void: the hope in the necessary restoration of the “inside” of Cuba, in the soul.

Every time that a new issue of Convivencia arrives before my eyes from the other side of the walls of Havana and all the unexpected, I aspire to relive, to star in a free reading of the infinitely small time and space that is mine to live in, to embrace.  An edifying read, personal, making contact with other experiences no less authentic.  Can one ask for more?

Francis Sánchez, Ciego de Ávila

Diario de Cuba, 15 February 2014

Translated by russell conner

Taken Out of the Closet, But No One Asks Forgiveness / Reinaldo Cosano

By Reinaldo Cosano. Havana, Cuba

Posted in the blog of Wendy Iriepa and Ignacio Estrada

The veil covering violent homophobic repression is slowly being drawn back, but the gulity aren’t asking for public pardon.

It is hard to specify just how the virus of homophobic repression was incubated, sharp-eyed with the machismo of the days of guerrilla groups in the Sierra Maestra, whose magnitude never had precedent in Cuba, converted into official policy aggravated by principal governing figures, that spiritually mutilated or ended many lives.

Raúl Martínez González (Ciego de Ávila, 1927 – Havana, 1995), internationally renowned famous Cuban painter, designer, sign painter and photographer, homosexual, puts forth in his Memoirs:

“It was 1965.  The attacks and reprisals against homosexuals began.  The UMAP was created, supposedly a rehabilitation center.  Its creation was justified according to already old ideologies, but totally believing in the “New Man.”  This was before the Congress of Culture in 1971 that ratified the official [repressive] policy given the fact of the existence of homosexuals in the country […]  I believed naively that this new rehabilitation camp wouldn’t affect me, because of my personal characteristics, the values that I had as a painter and professor at ENA [National School of Art] and the Department of Architecture of the University of Havana.

“I quickly discovered that the methods employed to recruit candidates and take them as far as Camagüey, where the camps were located, were totally reprehensible, an abuse into which the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution fell, charged with providing names and pointing out all those who they thought had – in their way – an improper sexual conduct, or who simply lived a life apart from the rest of the neighbors.

“Many must have cooperated out of belief that the Revolution acted with good intentions.  Others, with bad intentions, took the opportunity to “toss out [denounce] everyone who was bothersome and caused problems.” (1)

Massive repression against real or imagined dissidents of the Revolution, whose punishments grew worse from 1965 when the raids intensified against intellectual artists, the religious, the disaffected, homosexuals, the underclass and “big babies” — an expression of hate towards generally Catholic youths, children of people of confiscated wealth — interned in work camps cutting sugarcane by hand in Camagüey province, which recalls the Nazi pogroms against Jews, prisoners of war, the politically disaffected, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals, condemned to concentration camps with the maxim at the entrance “Work sets you free,” concealing veneer of genocide.

Coincidentally the Military Production Aid Units (UMAP) emerge in Cuba appealing to work as a means of sexual and political reeducation.  Official strategy of obligatory imprisonment, forced work, isolation of dozens of thousands of Cubans in subhuman conditions.  An epoch of terror for men between 16 and 50 years of age, the age of military conscription.  Bodily self-harm and suicide among the recruits were frequent escape routes from the UMAP.

Alicia Alonso, Prima Ballerina Assoluta, director of the National Ballet of Cuba, protegée of leader Fidel Castro, asked her protector on more than a few occasions to rescue homosexual members of the Ballet from the fate of the UMAP when they were caught in police raids.

The witch hunt showed no mercy to the Intelligentsia — not just homosexuals — for dissenting from the Castro orthodoxy: intellectuals, writers, artists, journalists. Of course, also plain citizens.  Repression that calls to mind the concentration camps and murders of the Maoist Khmer Rouge.

The then-seminarian Catholics Jaime Ortega Alamino, current Cardinal of Cuba, and Troadio Hernández, later priest, for example, were forced guests of the UMAP — the same as other parishioners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelical Band of Gideon and other Christian denominations — on the inhospitable solitary plains of Camagüey, isolated from the rest of the planet.  One means of punishing and dismembering religion on the premises of the declared Marxist atheism of the Revolution.

The poet José Mario Rodríguez, accused of being “dissolute and liberaloid” (sic), and other writers of the pro-government El Puente Publisher went to stay at the UMAP.  While many writers and artists were besieged, imprisoned, although not precisely in the UMAP camps.  Among them, the poet Herberto Padilla, Lorenzo Fuentes, Reinaldo Arenas, Manuel Ballagas, Roberto Luque Escalona, Fernando Velázquez, Víctor Sierpa, Nancy Estrada, Lina de Feria, María Elena Cruz Varela, Manuel Díaz Martínez, Raúl Rivero, Bernardo Marqués, Manuel Granados and Reinaldo Bragado.

Nevertheless, the repressive waterwheel against the intelligentsia doesn’t stop.  It has never stopped in half a century of “revolution”.

In recent days, the multiple award-winning writer Ángel Santiesteban (2) was sentenced to five years in prison for the supposed crime of housebreaking and offense causing injury, a common crime whipped up as a screen to punish a writer or journalist whose criticisms, even within the revolutionary framework, annoy the regime.

Meme Solís, composer, singer and director of his musical ensemble, was condemned by homophobic rulers to ostracism on the island for being homosexual in his moment of greatest artistic glory, his personal and recorded appearances completely cut from radio, TV, and cabarets because his sexual deviation displeased the ruling class.  He had to wait out eighteen years of censure and human suffering beyond his control until they would grant him the kindness of a permit to leave the country.

Now the Havana regime, intending to take him out of the closet, to make amends, to pardon his defect, invited him lately to visit his country to take part in a luxury gala titled after of one of his greatest hit musicals, Another Dawn, years after his exile and and another fifteen years of imprisonment in the closet, his music banned, making him nearly unknown to the latest generations of Cubans.  An invitation expressing no public nor private apology for condemnation to ostracism,  being shut in the closet, frustrated.

But that most outstanding musician did not fall into the trap of the insulting ransom and declared, in the Nuevo Herald of Miami, that “it is one thing for my music to be played there and another for me to go.  I do not wish to offend anyone but I don’t think that this is the time to go.  The reasons are obvious.  I have been through too much there to want to return.”

The painter Raúl Martínez goes on to say: “Many friends — homosexuals or not — were sent to the camps.  As were well-known figures of the Nueva Trova, budding writers, dramatists.  A wave of fear was loosed among us to learn that the police, especially in the [busy ice cream shop] Coppelia, were making raids or taking prisoner anyone who stood out for their clothing or [feminine] gestures.  I was afraid to be mistaken.  I remember the fear with which I drank coffee at the bus stop, looking from side to side, ready to flee if anything happened.  When I had to stand right there, after leaving the Radiocentro [theater] or the Habana Libre [hotel], I prayed that the bus would come as soon as possible.” (1)

Once Mariela Castro Espín, director of the National Center of Sexual Orientation (CENESEX), daughter of the current ruler, was questioned about the responsibility of her uncle Fidel Castro for the existence of the UMAP.  She astutely stated (or at least so they have her believe) that Fidel Castro — always well informed — had no responsibility at all because at that time he was too occupied with other matters of government.

Raúl Martínez, just like so many other distinguished homosexual people of letters and the arts: the poet and storyteller Lezama Lima (Havana, 1910-1976); Virgilio Piñera (Cárdenas, 1912 – Havana, 1979), storyteller, poet and dramatist; Antón Arrufat (Santiago de Cuba, 1935), writer, dramatist, they were as oysters shut in their shells, persecuted, rounded up, marginalized only for not singing praises to the regime, for not bowing their heads, for staying in Cuba, for not accepting emigration, condemned to live poorly, hidden in the closet from which now, dead or alive, one by one, in turns, the dictatorship goes craftily taking them out, promptly rehabilitated with rounded dates of birth or death.

A suspect fence-mending for political convenience in an attempt to change the repressive image of the regime, to tidy it up with a few strokes of the pen.  Paradoxically “resuscitated” by the same regime which punished them, but without offering a public or private apology to them, their families and friends for so many crimes against honorable people.  Hereditary crimes against the Nation.


(1) Martínez González, Raúl. Confesiones (de) Raúl Martínez, Yo Publio. P.394. Instituto Cubano del Libro, Editorial Letras Cubanas, Artecubano Ediciones, Palacio del Segundo Cabo, O’ Reilly, 4, esquina a Empedrado, La Habana Vieja, Cuba.

(2) Ángel Santiesteban. Autor of the blog The Children Nobody Wanted. Prizes: Sueño de un día de verano (Dream of a summer’s day), UNEAC Prize, 1995; Los hijos que nadie quiso (The children nobody wanted), Alejo Carpentier Prize, 2001; Dichosos los que lloran (Happy are those who mourn), Casa de las Américas Prize, 2006.

Translated by Russell Conner

8 July 2013

Independent March in Front of the Capitol Demands Gay Marriage / Lilianne Ruiz

Independent LGBT activists marched before the Capitol this weekend — photo by  Lilianne Ruiz

HAVANA, Cuba, July 2nd 2013, Lilianne Ruiz / — In concurrence with Gay Pride Day, celebrated worldwide every 28th of June, a dozen activists marched past the Capitol last Saturday, led by Leannes Imbert Acosta, director of the LGBT community’s Rights Observatory. Afterwards, they continued the march towards the Paseo del Prado, carrying the rainbow flag.

At this event, the protesters wore slogans supporting marriage between persons of the same sex.  Imbert Acosta had this to say:

“This year the march brings up the topic of marriage between persons of the same sex.  We are announcing the beginning of a campaign to collect at least ten thousand signatures, in order to later present a legal initiative before the National Assembly of Popular Power to grant the right to enter into matrimony to same-sex couples.”

The LGBT Observatory of Cuba since 2011 has called for the march around Gay Pride Day, not only for people in the LGBT community, but also for any citizen who identifies with the cause of ending discrimination on basis of sexual orientation.  Regarding this and other rights, Imbert Acosta stated:

“What we are asking for is not the right to be gays or lesbians… We demand that, being gays and lesbians, the State and society recognize the totality of our rights. One does not lose one’s religious dimension, nor political, nor legal personality by expressing a homosexual orientation. Sexuality is one human dimension, just as are all the others.  Historically we have been discriminated against for cultural, religious, and political reasons.  Nonetheless, a homosexual person must also have the right to share in culture, religion, and politics, as well as enter into matrimony, in the same way and for the same reasons as would a heterosexual couple.”

Asked about the role of the CENESEX official (National Center of Sexual Education) in this sense, Acosta comments:

“Mariela Castro, daughter of the Cuban president, serves more as a government spokesperson to the LGBT community than as a representative of the LGBT community to the government.  It is a means of maintaining control.  Hence many times the title of political group stigmatizes us because we are not in agreement with the Center that she directs.  Nevertheless, we have tried to build bridges for dialogue and they are the ones who have refused, alleging that we visit diplomatic offices, to which we respond that Mrs. Castro also does the same.  We have talked with transsexuals who are affiliated with the center and they tell us that they recognize that CENESEX does not authentically represent the interests of the LGBT community, but they allege that they need their operation (surgical sex change).

“On the other hand, Mrs. Castro does call on the march for World Day Against Homophobia to dance the conga with slogans in support of socialism, which as we all know is the political system which her family heads.  So, she is making a political campaign with the interests of the community.”

Mariela Castro is currently deputy of the National Assembly of Popular Power.  She has expressed on multiple occasions that CENESEX already put forth a draft bill before the National Assembly, “But,” comments Imbert Acosta, “in every case, it only contemplates civil recognition, not marriage as such.  And that is another of the matters that we wish to clarify today.  At the least, we, the non-officially allied LGBT activists of the island and many members of the community, want marriage, not just a civil union law which would leave us where we are situated, in a situation of disadvantage in matters of rights compared to heterosexuals.”

Although it is true that the authorities have not intervened directly against the protesters, it is known that they have made warnings to possible participants to keep them from marching.

A police warning can discourage many in a country with iron control by the State.

By Lilianne Ruiz

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Translated by Russell Conner

6 July 2013

Your Beer Here! / Rosa Maria Rodriguez Torrado

It seems like a silent cry, a clandestine invitation to beer drinking amid signs of drunkenness, not of admiration. The thirsty passer-by—child or adult—cannot easily sample a soft drink or a little bottle of mineral water in Havana when he wants, since in many public businesses that sell cold drinks in convertible currency, they tend to pack their refrigeration equipment mainly with beer. They hardly leaves room for anything else to drink, and it tells everyone that the alcoholic beverages are the only ones they care to refrigerate. The employees on every crew put a few waters and sodas in the coolers to “cover their backs” or keep up appearances.

It is often that, upon going to one of these businesses a little after the beginning of one or another shift, you’ll get responses like, “They’re hot” or “There aren’t any,” and you must move on. The so-called “Quickies” are the places where I most observe this problem. They remind me of those bars that were around in the capital a few decades ago that they called pilots because, just like them, the tables are often full of happy people with a significant number of empty bottles or cans of the amber liquid atop them. Likewise, in other places not suited for drinking, like some shops, kiosks and other businesses, there is again the same lack of refrigeration which endangers customers.

I ask myself why and I conclude that it appears that they get their rewards in the form of the frothy drink. The bonus is that for years the state expropriated these people and denied them a decent wage. Around here everyone “struggles” to make a decent salary that can provide enough money so that they can have a half-way decent lifestyle and can satisfy their basic needs and those of their families. The state has forced most citizens to resort to daily acts of illegality in order to be able to survive. In their long and disastrous exercise of power we have been the victims of their arbitrary decisions, which have turned virtually all of us into a prison population.

I do not fall into the trap set by officials when they uncover these kinds of things—the rustic private stills installed in homes or inadequate, dirty, illegal locations. I don’t believe it. The clandestine breweries are in state factories and use government vehicles to transport the merchandise. They are controlled by the military’s own men, who divide the output between the exploitative, multi-millionaire State and the impoverished workers.

A self-adjusted salary from which many benefit and no one sees, because the alcoholics of corruption look the other way, so as not to harm this balanced and equitable Robin Hood business, with beer belly and Party card. So as we walk around we must go along to quench our thirst and the tropical heat with some hot soft drink, while others “fill their plates and pockets” with the cold beer “fruits of their sins.”

In our country the most massive drunken binge historically has been that of the strong-man rule. The leader and his group are entrenched, at the cost of appropriating the country, they led us to this crisis of values and the socioeconomic and political ruin that oppresses us. Reasons abound for us to worry about Cuba, because when it appears to be falling, because mutated by inefficiency and immorality it wobbles, which doesn’t mean it’s drunk, but rather rotten.

Translated by Boston College Cuban-American Student Association
First paragraph by russell conner, New Orleans, LA

October 22 2012

The Cuban Regime’s Destructive Acts Against the Dissidence Have Come to Seem Normal to the World / Ivan Garcia

Monday, September 17th marked the first week of a hunger strike carried out by the well-known economist and opposition figure Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, 67 years old, “to demand the freedom of political prisoner Jorge Vázquez Chaviano and an attempt to force the government of Raúl Castro to comply with mediocre current legislation”, she tells me.

The veteran dissident was in a delicate state of health. “She has suffered various blood sugar problems and on Friday the 13th she suffered a respiratory blockage”, said Idania Yanes Contreras, president of the Central Opposition Coalition and spokeswoman of the group of 6 dissidents on hunger strike in Martha Beatriz’s small apartment.

It has been a chain reaction. There were 30 opposition figures found going without food in various provinces of the nation. For decades, hunger strikes have formed part of the dissent’s battle strategy against the olive green regimen. It has had its cost in human lives.

Since 1966, when the political prisoner Roberto López Chávez died in the Modelo Prison on Isla de Pinos, various opposition figures have died as a consequence of hunger strikes. Among the most talked-about is that of student leader Pedro Luis Boitel, who died the 25th of May of 1972 in the Havana prison Castillo del Príncipe, after 53 days without eating food. Orlando Zapata Tamayo, one of the accused of the Black Spring, lost his life due to a hunger strike. His death, the 24th of February of 2010, was what triggered the government to negotiate the release and exile of almost a hundred political prisoners with the Catholic church and the Spanish government.

On repeated occasions, the government has declared that it will not yield to the petitions of the dissidents. Many opposition figures, like Martha Beatriz, feel impotent. “It is one of the few paths that we have to show our indignation. The world already sees as somewhat normal the destructive acts of the Cuban regime against dissent. It has all become routine”, she emphasizes, and makes a brief recount of the events. “In these two years, the arbitrary detentions, the acts of repudiation, the harassment and physical aggressions have gone up considerably. We demand respect”, she says in a very low voice.

She is laid out on a single bed illuminated by various candles. “Electric light bothers me. I get nausea and very cold feet. I drink water every now and then and chew little slivers of ice. That gives me relief”, she clarifies. I want to take a picture of her. She says no: “Iván, I wouldn’t let anyone else but you, but I don’t want pictures taken of me in this state.” Martha is very vain and has always liked to get herself ready.

At her bedside rests a worn leather Bible. The hardened dissident has been jailed on two occasions. In 1997 she served three years along with Vladimiro Roca Antúnez, Félix Bonne Carcassé and René Gómez Manzano for issuing the document The Fatherland Belongs to Everyone. Six years later, in March of 2003, she was the only woman who served jail time among the group of 75 opposition figures arrested. She was freed in 2005 on conditional parole due to her deteriorated health. In this hunger strike, Martha is accompanied by five members of the Cuban Community Communicators’ Network.

They are Yadira Rodríguez, Yasmany Nicles, Rosa María Naranjo, Fermín Zamora and Ibis Rodríguez. Yadira and Yasmany, a married couple, began the strike seeking a response on the authorities’ part about their house fire on the 21st of April of 2012 in the Vista Hermosa neighborhood of San Miguel del Padrón. According to Yasmany, the Interior Ministry’s experts arrived at the conclusion that the fire had been set. The couple accuses the Special Services of the act.

In Roque Cabello’s small apartment, in the Santos Suárez district, there is a constant bustle. Some neighbors ask about the strikers’ state of health. Two opposition members sleep on a sheet laid out on the floor. A young striker stays stretched out on the sofa. Idania Yanez takes the continuous telephone calls.

Nobody in the room seems to pay attention to the television, which plays a Discovery Channel documentary. One week after beginning the hunger strike, the dissidents are not there to watch television. Their bodies already begin to weaken. Fitful sleep or the reading of a book turn out to be the best pastimes. In the hallway of the building, right before the front door of Martha Beatriz’s apartment, a large painting of Fidel Castro appears to observe it all.

“It is one of the ironies of State Security. They hung the portrait years ago, saying that the hallway is a common area of the property”, states Idania. The dissidents maintain that in the adjoining apartment an intelligence command post is running. “At all hours they try to bother us. Music too loud. Castro speeches, in short, anything at all to irritate us”, Yasmany says.

This collective hunger strike, undertaken by 30 peaceful opposition members, does not guarantee that the regime will hear their claims. And the worst is that it could have fatal consequences for their lives. They know it. And they face up to it.

Text and photo: Iván García

Note: A few hours after this work was written, State Security freed the political prisoner Jorge Vázquez Chaviano and the opposition members agreed to put an end to their hunger strike. Meanwhile, at Zoé Valdés’s blog and other websites, the open letter that Tania Quintero directed from exile in Switzerland to her friend, the renowned dissident Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, was making its rounds.

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Translated by: russell conner

September 26 2012