Translator’s note: This interview is from the digital magazine Cubaencuentro, from November 14, 2011. It was conducted by Luis Manuel García Méndez.
We interviewed Alexis Romay, a graduate of The City University of New York’s master’s program in Spanish Language and Literature, author of the novel Salidas de emergencia (Emergency Exits) and the poetry collection Los culpables (The Guilty), and President of the Board of Cuba Archive, whose Truth and Memory project “documents the deaths and disappearances caused by the Cuban Revolution and studies issues of transition related to memory, truth and justice.” Its website adds that “it seeks to support Cubans in achieving their full rights, fostering a culture of respect for life, and honoring the memory of those who have lost their lives.”
Luis Manuel García Méndez: How did Cuba Archive and your project, Truth and Memory, come about and how did you become engaged in them?
Alexis Romay (AR): Cuba Archive is an initiative of the Free Society Project, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., with its principal office in New Jersey. It was founded in 2001 by the late Armando Lago and Maria Werlau, with the purpose of promoting human rights through research and publications. Its main objective was to use the information compiled by Dr. Lago for further research on each victim in order to promote dissemination of the information globally and in an interactive way. Dr. Lago had started this research with the idea of publishing a book about the Cuban Revolution’s cost in lives, seeking to save the dead from a second death, which is forgetting.
The Truth and Memory project documents the cost in human lives for two consecutive dictatorships and records cases of death and disappearance for political or ideological motives beginning with Fulgencio Batista’s coup on March 10, 1952 and covering the regime of Fidel Castro (and now Raul Castro), a dynasty that, like Batista’s, took power with guns and violence.
I’ve been involved in this organization for eight years. I met Maria Werlau shortly after the infamous Black Spring of 2003 in a conference room at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. We had attended a presentation by the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), that was touring the United States selling the revolutionary paradigm to the American academic world, which buys it and pays well.
At the end of the Federation’s presentation we asked some questions from the audience. Mine inquired about the fate of Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello, who in those days was suffering in the regime’s dungeons for the crime of thinking for herself. I wanted to know if the fate of this flesh and blood woman concerned the FMC; if the organization also represented a dissident.
The answer was evasive: they professed to not know what I was talking about, although at that time Cuban television, controlled by the regime, had demonized Roque Cabello, one of the most visible figures of the opposition, over and over.
Then the moderators silenced me, but Maria Werlau stepped up, saying she represented Cuba Archive, and asked about the women killed by the Castro regime, judicially or extrajudicially. The official response was another load of nonsense, but I was struck by the poise, eloquence and serenity of this woman who did not lose her temper at a point where so many dignified Cubans would have resorted to insults and slogans. Maria had the truth in hand and had no need to shout to bring it to light.
At the end of the conference I approached her. We thanked each other for our respective interventions and I immediately asked her to tell me about Cuba Archive.
Starting the next day I began to donate hours of volunteer time to Cuba Archive. My work began on the editorial side: translating and editing communications and press releases, and correcting entries in the voluminous database or on the web page.
During this initial period I had the opportunity to familiarize myself with many cases of victims of the Castro regime and began to put faces on these shocking statistics. It was a very painful process. It’s not the same to speak of the dead in the abstract as it is to read case after case of people with names, families, life plans…
Almost three years later, Maria – whom I have the privilege of counting among my dearest and most admired friends – proposed me as a member of the Board of Directors for the project, which I gladly accepted. In 2009, as established by the bylaws of our organization, Cuba Archive held an election. I accepted the nomination and since then I’ve had the honor of being President of this initiative. When I finish my term, I hope to continue on the Board.
LMGM: What is the role of Maria Werlau, Secretary of the Board and Executive Director, and what weight has been given to the research by Armando Lago, who died in 2008?
AR: As I mentioned, Maria Werlau is the architect of this initiative and knows it like no one else. I continually learn from her. Dr. Lago’s investigations are the basis on which we continue to build this cathedral to historical memory and truth. Maria remains the Executive Director of Cuba Archive and continues on the Board of the Free Society Project as Secretary, having been its President since its founding until my election in 2009.
LMGM: According to the project, to date you have documented around 11,000 cases, but you believe there are many more still to document. Do you have some figure, however tentative, of the number of deaths caused by the Castro regime?
AR: Death for political reasons is a horror. (I always say that one death for political reasons is one death too many.) And the numbers of this Cuban bloodshed for over half a century are horrifying.
Yes, we have figures on the documented deaths or disappearances. I invite readers to visit our database; registration is free. You can search using various criteria for victims: date of death, location, cause, attribution – Castro, Batista, Che Guevara, a political or government faction – gender, etc.
Let me clarify that the numbers are subject to change because the Cuban regime continues in power, continues to claim lives, and is reluctant to cooperate by giving us access to compromising information. The Cuban government has a conflict of interest with regards to this initiative.
To date, 10,029 cases have been documented. For the Batista period, 1,246 cases are attributed to the Batista regime and 387 to the Rebel Army and the anti-Batista resistance. For the revolutionary period, 7,803 are attributed to the Castro regime and 291 to anti-Castro forces. Aside from this, there are deaths caused by police or the military that could not be classified due to lacking information or confusing circumstances. We also have dozens of cases perpetrated by armed forces of other countries such as Bolivia and Angola.
Among the documented cases attributed to the Castro regime to date, 3,669 are executions, 1,276 are extrajudicial killings, 424 are deaths in prison due to lack of care or suicide and 1,049 are deaths or disappearances in attempts to leave the country that are not accounted for among the extrajudicial killings.
Most of the rafters presumed dead do not appear in the Archive due to lacking information. However, Dr. Armando Lago estimated – saying it was a conservative calculation – that some 70,000 deaths had occurred at sea up to 2003.
LMGM: When you classify the cases, you try to specify the “government or faction that causes the death or disappearance,” “the cause” and the “type of victim.” I observe that those who have died trying to flee the island are considered victims of the Castro regime even when there are no political reasons. Some observers might object that you should only include people as victims when they have been the victims of violent actions by border guards, but not when the deaths or disappearances were due to accidents at sea or other causes not directly attributable to the Cuban authorities.
AR: Anticipating this question, in the previous one I made a clarification regarding the rafters. Those listed in our database are classified by known cause of death or disappearance “in exit attempts.” There are 149 documented cases of deaths and 5 of forced disappearances resulting from violent actions by the Cuban Border Guard and other government authorities, as well as those who died in the minefield area around the Guantanamo Naval Base. This minefield is on Cuban territory and therefore their deaths are on the list of victims of the Castro regime.
LMGM: You try to report the deaths “with objectivity, transparency and impartiality,” you cite the sources and the “conflicts of evidence between them.” Given the secrecy surrounding the victims of the Cuban government, to what extent is this possible? To what extent is there, for reasons of availability of information, a certain degree of subjectivity?
The site warns that it “offers no guarantees that any or all of the details of the reported cases on this site are true, accurate, or reliable.” And it admits that, “some data contained on this site could be considered offensive, harmful, inaccurate, or otherwise unsuitable, and in some cases could prove to be misleading due to any of the original sources of information.”
I think that this is inevitable when working with data from witnesses and very diverse sources, not forgetting the secrecy that prevails on these issues. Do you already have a project to refine this “conflicting evidence” or would that only be possible when all sources have been opened and a thorough investigation by a commission of truth and justice is undertaken?
AR: We have an ethical duty to explain the limitations of this work and we must take precautions to act within the law with respect to the use of sensitive information and to classify it systematically for the purposes of the database, which is subject to interpretation as well as errors.
The further examination of conflicting evidence is an ongoing objective of our initiative. We do not need a separate project for that. The database is very rigorous in documenting the sources of information for each case. As we find more primary witness sources, we improve the documentation.
For those cases that have been constructed only with secondary literature, we have found duplicates that contain inconsistencies for example in the date of birth or death, or in the spelling of the name or surname of a victim, or in the place or cause of death. When we evaluate that and determine it is the same person rather than two (or more), we consolidate the cases and show the discrepancies in the file.
One of our goals is that when Cuba undergoes a democratic transition and a state of law is established, Cuba Archive would serve as basis for a truth, memory, and justice commission.
LMGM: A unique aspect of this project, exemplary in terms of its humanist and non-partisan character, is that it “covers events from March 10, 1952 (the date Fulgencio Batista suspended the constitutional democratic government in Cuba). It considers events that have taken place within or outside the Island and that have affected Cubans and non-Cubans alike. All cases are investigated and documented regardless of their attributes or the political or ideological affiliations of the victims.”
That is, the project documents the victims of Batista with the same emphasis as those of the Castro regime, those caused by the Cuban government’s actions and those caused by opposition groups. Is this strictly complied with? Do you not tend to emphasize, as would be expected, the victims of the government versus those of the opposition, and of the Castro regime versus those of Batista?
AR: We comply with this premise rigorously. At the risk of being repetitive: all cases are investigated and documented regardless of the attributes or political, ideological or other affiliations of the victims. When I decided to get involved in this project, this was one of its most attractive characteristics. We don’t tilt the scales toward the victims of the government versus the opposition nor toward those of the Castro regime versus those of Batista’s.
But there is an undeniable fact, although it may seem biased or obvious to mention it: the Batista tyranny lasted seven years; the totalitarianism of the Castro brothers multiplied this number by seven and is still going on. The victims of the opposition to the Castro regime, which is diverse and fragmented, cannot come close to those of the repressive machinery that is the Castro regime.
Circumstances force me to add that for decades the Castro opposition has engaged in civic and peaceful action, yet the regime has not lost an ounce of its belligerence. We mustn’t forget that when the opposition shouts “Long live human rights,” the regime responds with “Socialism or Death!” That is, death as the only alternative to its political system.
There is the case of Laura Pollán, a dignified teacher over sixty years old, who was the founder, and until a few days ago the leader, of the Ladies in White. For now, beyond the innumerable acts of repudiation and the beatings in streets by Castro’s mobs, we have no evidence that her death is an extrajudicial killing. But Pollán’s body was cremated right after she’d died, at three in the morning, as if the regime intended to erase the traces of a crime. This is not the first time this has happened, although we hope it will be the last.
LMGM: According to its web page, Cuba Archive is an initiative of the Free Society Project, Inc., a non-profit organization whose members work mostly without material reward. How is it possible, in these difficult times, to maintain a project of this nature with minimal funding?
AR: It is very difficult to keep the project going with minimal funding. It is very difficult, but not impossible. Cuba Archive has no employees. We depend on hours of work by the members of the Board of Directors, as well as the work of volunteers who offer their services or their time free of charge. We also depend on the generosity of visitors to our database who click the donation button. (Any contribution, however small it may seem, is welcome.)
Finally, we have received in the past two modest grants from Freedom House to work on our database and perform specific projects. We continue to operate through the self-sacrifice and charity of others. If we had more resources we could do much much more and achieve greater dissemination of our research.
LMGM: Cuba Archive makes it clear that it is not a Truth and Justice Commission – like those put into practice by democratic governments after the transition, which have the means to conduct wide-reaching official investigations – but hopes that its work will serve as a foundation for a future process of that nature.
Historical experience has shown that while the future is not built on revenge, it also is not built on amnesia, which only leaves wounds falsely closed, societies choking on their past for decades, and everything that hinders rather than facilitates transition and reconciliation.
Therefore, the project “is based on the belief that it is necessary to know and recognize the systemic injustices – past and present – in order to promote the psychological well-being of both survivors and society as a whole. It is thought that the constructive recovery of the truth helps society to promote reconciliation and justice, which in turn allows it more control in the construction of its future. In turn, it is believed that promoting a culture of respect for life and the rule of law helps to prevent further atrocities from being committed.”
In that sense, it connects with similar initiatives in the South American cone, in South Africa, and in the Spanish Law of Historical Memory. When we speak of “reconciliation” and “justice,” are we not invoking opposing concepts? Does achieving justice not directly conflict with reconciliation? And even in order to achieve justice “the day after,” will that not intensify the desire of those responsible for such abuses to remain in power for fear of being judged, and so raise barriers to a bloodless transition?
South Africa opted for a sort of “moral justice” to promote reconciliation. Spain has opted for decades for a kind of clean slate, a substitute for forgetting, and in the Southern cone they have legislated an endpoint. How do you, in a democratic Cuba of tomorrow, see the reconciliation of “justice” and “reconciliation”?
AR: Effectively, Cuba Archive is not a Truth and Justice Commission, our initiative seeks to provide a basis for a future commission of this kind, when constitutional order is restored in Cuba, and when the full integrity of all its inhabitants has been restored. We would hand over all the material gathered to that committee.
I am not a supporter of a clean slate, nor a supporter of unpunished crime. I don’t think that “reconciliation” and “justice” are mutually exclusive terms. And this is my personal opinion, it does not necessarily reflect the position of Cuba Archive in this respect.
Although I confess that if there is something that has brought together the members of the board of directors of our organization it is a deep respect for life and the belief that victims of our national barbarity must not be swept under the rug to give the appearance of a clean house.
Similarly, I want to clarify that no member of Cuba Archive is calling for the “license to kill” which the Cuban regime has used to terrify our people. We will not be the instigators who will go out in the street screaming “Firing squad!” Fidel Castro did that fifty years ago and the trail of dead is his legacy.
Going back to your question: a Truth and Justice Commission is not our task; in the first place because we do not have the resources or the authority to carry it out. That step is the responsibility of the Cuban people of a democratic Cuba.
When all the actors – victims and perpetrators – can sit down to rebuild the nation, we will have to carefully examine the past, so as not to fall into the temptation to repeat it, and honor the memory of those who fell in this long process that has bled the Island. The Cuban people will be the ones in charge of determining the guidelines of a future reconciliation.
November 14, 2011