Of Strikes and Causes: Reflections on a Conflict / Miriam Celaya

Coco (Guillermo Fariñas) with a group of collaborators and friends during the Prince Claus Prize Ceremony for Yoani Sanchez

Recently a fellow Cuban living abroad and I exchanged views on the advisability of hunger strikes as a way to confront the dictatorship. The subject, of course, was motivated by the strike initiated by Jorge Luis Artiles (Bebo) last May 9, in the city of Santa Clara, and that was assumed on Friday, June 3, by Guillermo (Coco) Fariñas, when Bebo ended his faced with the danger of grave consequences to his health, too impaired to withstand a prolonged abstinence from food and water; that is, before the logical imperatives arising from the action he had voluntarily chosen. My colleague, who has a great admiration and affection for Coco, is, however–like myself–against hunger strikes. His position is that we must fight dictators with our lives. I fully agree with him.

Fariñas’ current strike, beyond the question of his demands which I do not question and also consider to be mine, puts back on the table an issue that goes beyond the particular aspects of the event: the appropriateness or otherwise of the method in each case. At the risk of upsetting the most sensitive, I think that as dissidents living immersed in totalitarian regimes, we must be more rational than passionate when the time comes to face off against the government, even if it implies–as our friend Orlando Luis would say–adding a dash of cynicism to our analysis. We have to consider first and foremost the real possibility of achieving a significant advance as a result of actions undertaken, such that they truly merit the sacrifice. With all due respect, health and life are too high a price.

That is why–although in hunger strikes there is, without a doubt, a huge portion of altruism, and an incredible individual willpower, as shown in the one Coco held between February 24 and July 8, 2010, and that influenced the release of dozens of political prisoners and of conscience–using the method as a standard device can be counterproductive and ineffective. The fact is, if every demand we have against the government, however just it might be, requires an opponent’s ultimate sacrifice, in a very short time we ourselves will have achieved the extinction of the dissent, to the delight of dictators.

The sacrifice involved in a hunger strike is well-known and the will required by the striker to overcome the demands of his own body, used as a weapon in the service of his cause, independent of whether or not the demands that motivate him are met, contains a dose of triumph, considering that even the death of the striker would constitute an accusation against the system. Eventually, however, this death would not be a guarantee that the government would accede to the striker’s demands. At the same time, in the difficult circumstances of Cuba today, much more than moral successes is needed. An opposition leader on the Island is much more useful alive than dead.

Nor should we neglect other collateral considerations, such as the circumstances within which events unfold. Many factors of external pressure and the existence of internal forces pushed us towards a favorable solution to the prisoner crisis and a successful end to Fariñas’ strike last year. Some of these internal factors were more significant, taking place simultaneously on the national and international stage: Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s death in prison which sparked the beginning of Fariñas’ strike; the worsening of the general crisis within Cuba, exacerbated by the scandal of the death of more than two dozen patients at the Havana Psychiatric Hospital; the force and visibility reached by the Ladies in White movement and the solidarity established among many civil society groups in favor of that movement and its cause also influenced the outcome.

For their part, foreign media covered the events taking place on the Island, expanding the possibility for the pressures of international public opinion to force the government to seek a solution. At the same time, the government was anxious to offer the world a gesture of good will–we recall the lobbying of Mr. Moratinos to try to lift the European Union’s Common Position–such that the General considered it opportune to demonstrate benevolence to those he had always classified as traitors and mercenaries. This, there was an understanding in which all parties could find an advantage, a requirement to achieve a pact.

The current scenario, however, is quite different from that; not because the acute sociopolitical and economic crisis in Cuban has passed, but because the international picture is extremely complex and events are unfolding that are coming to mark globally defined milestones. Some of these events are the wave of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa which are drawing a new political scenario in the region; the crisis in Libya with the reluctance of Qaddafi to relinquish power, the presence of rebel forces and the NATO air strikes; and the demonstrations in European countries–such as Spain and Greece–demanding new political and economic strategies to overcome their respective crises, are some of the most relevant events.

In this environment, the demand for justice for the death of a Cuban dissident, and the demand to the dictatorship to cease to beat those who demonstrate peacefully in our streets, are as close to chimeric as possible. Particularly since both demands reach very high levels, requiring a retraction from the government in the first case (retracting what they published in an official press release saying that Juan Wilfredo Soto had never been beaten); and with regards to the second, capitulation would mean taking the risk that the streets would be filled with dissident demonstrations, in contradiction to the call, at the close of the Sixth Communist Party Congress, by the General-cum-President to defend the streets “as spaces for Revolutionaries.”

A public commitment of this nature on the part of the government would implicitly recognize that in Cuba–paradigm of respect for human rights according to official preaching–violently represses those who think differently. And I state that if the government were to retract or back down, I would be the first to celebrate the miracle.

It also happens that, unintentionally, a hunger striker puts additional pressure on his fellow travelers, who inadvertently fall into the ethical dilemma of siding with him, even if they don’t support the strike, they must support the demands while deprecating the methods to achieve them. The strike also imposes a moral commitment that banishes to another level every aspect that is not related to the demands of the striker, which may affect programs and activities of other groups, perhaps no less important.

That is, in spite of being an individual action in defense of collective interests, it commits spaces and social networks and forces priorities. I am certain there will be no shortage of critics who will take the opportunity to attack me for what they will call a lack of support for Fariñas. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is precisely because I support him and share his demands, because I esteem and respect him, that I have a heartfelt desire that he would abandon the practice of hunger strikers: those of us who do not accept these methods are also those who want to live and be here to support the Cuba we dream of; we need Cubans of his honesty and courage for these times and the times to come.

To date, everything indicates that the government will not cede spaces to democracy, therefore, it is urgent to find new solutions to conquer them, beyond those involving the voluntary martyrdom of Cuban democrats. I return to the phrase of my colleague, who also suffered political imprisonment in terrible and lonely times in the ’60s, to propose that we oppose the dictatorship with LIFE. To awake to life every day and to prepare ourselves for an individual and collective future, is in itself a triumph over the regime, because life is the first condition for hope.

Translated by Norma Whiting

June 10 2011