The Country of Long Shadows / Yoani Sánchez


There are two men on the corner. One of them wears a headset attached to one ear while the other looks toward the door of the building. All the neighbors know exactly why they are there. A dissident lives on one of the floors and two political police watch who enters and leaves the building, giving the word if the “target” crosses the threshold of the huge concrete block; they have a car nearby to follow him wherever he goes. They don’t try to hide, they want people to see that this person with critical opinions is being monitored, so that his friends and acquaintances will be afraid to approach him, not wanting to fall into the network of control, the web of surveillance.

The Crushing Machine
This is not an isolated case, in Cuba every non-conformist has his own shadow or group of them who pursue him. The so-called “securities” also use sophisticated monitoring techniques, which range from tapping the telephone line and putting microphones in people’s houses, to tracking the person through the location of his mobile phone signal. For some time now, Havana has been filled with cameras on many corners; not only do they monitor ordinary crimes, but also follow the work of opposition groups, independent journalists, and civic and citizen associations with opinions that differ from those of the ruling party.

George Orwell’s futuristic novel has come to life here in a complex technological network supported by a huge number of plain-clothes police. Eyes that scrutinize are everywhere, and the results of these observations are added to individuals’ files, waiting for the day when the surveillance will result in a trial before a court. The devastating effects on the personal and social lives of those who suffer one of these operations are reflected in the terrible names Cubans use to refer to State Security: The Apparatus, Armageddon, The Crushing Machine. For anyone who has ever been their victim, their flamboyant methods can become a recurring nightmare. They are also the reason that others maintain their masks of make-believe, for fear of being entered into their dark archives.

Growing Vigilance
In a country in economic collapse, where cuts of up to 25% of the active labor force have been announced, it is curious that the number of employees in the Ministry of the Interior will not be reduced. On the contrary, the state budget allocated to the military and security sphere has increased every year between 2004 and today. If anything has characterized the leadership of Raul Castro, it is the emphasis on the presence of police, military and security guards everywhere. The latter abound in the cultural centers where there is an event, keeping an eye on the lines whether its to enter a film festival or a hip-hop concert.

Sometimes one almost feels like laughing to see an unarmed and peaceful man, accompanied only by his words and arguments, pursued by several cars, by cops with walkie-talkies, and a technical apparatus that seems more appropriate for action movies than reality. It is rather ridiculous to see these muscular men, trained to fight, waiting for hours in front of the house of a government opponent so they can harass him whenever he takes his dog out to relieve itself or goes to buy a pack of cigarettes. If it weren’t too sad to be funny.

The Privileged Elite
Although they’ve been trained in the methods of the former Soviet KGB, each one of these intimidators thinks himself a bit like Rambo, ready to flaunt his knowledge of karate any time someone turns around, or when a detainee doesn’t want to be forced into a car with private plates without an official arrest order. They specialize in beating people where it won’t show, in dislocating things that later, no doctor, will want to record, and threatening the victim with whatever he fears most. In short, they are specialists in terror and harassment. They enjoy the privileges that come to them as the arms of power: a weekend at the beach, a car imported from China, a higher-than-average salary, a little extra food each month. Crumbs that turn them into faithful members of a repressive machine.

People, however, don’t like them, though they present themselves as heroes, self-appointed defenders of national security. People talk about the disproportionate number of securities who surround each non-conformist. Under their breath, and while looking over their shoulders, many comment ironically, “There’s such a lack of bodies in agriculture, and look at these guys, standing around all day watching people who think differently.” If instead of casting their long shadows over the system’s critics, they decided instead, say, to cast them over some of the country’s empty furrows, perhaps they could plant a few tomatoes or some lettuce, and actually make a difference.

This article originally appeared in El Comercio.