The Ordeal of Cuban Dissidents / Ivan Garcia

After a life of poverty, disease, and repression, Lisset Naranjo Girón, opposition figure and a Lady in White, died in Havana on April 10, 2021 at the age of 36. As the photographer and activist Claudio Fuentes wrote on his Facebook, from where this photo was taken, “the lack of protection of dissidents and political prisoners in Cuba is not only the responsibility of Castroism.”

Ivan García, Desde La Habana, May 2022 — For the act of writing this article, the regime – were they to deem it pertinent to do so – could prosecute me and slap me with up to twenty years in prison, according to the current Law 88 which was approved in February, 1999. For collecting payment for my contributions to Diario Las Américas, the new Penal Code says that I could be sentenced to ten years in prison.

If I were to leave the following comment on social networks – “Simply because they are enemies of the United States, their enemy the Cuban regime supports a comic-opera dictatorship in Nicaragua and is an ally of a nation like Russia that violates the rights of homosexuals, and of an autocratic asylum like North Korea” – the punishment could vary. Depending on the judge, I could be sentenced under Law 35 to pay a fine of three thousand pesos, or if Law 370 were applied I could be subject to three years of criminal sanctions.

The colleagues who produce the digital newspaper 14ymedio in Havana could also be sanctioned for “affecting world peace” or some other legal nonsense used for cracking down on free expression in Cuba – in addition to being charged under any current law that exists to muzzle independent journalism.

I do not consider myself a hero. But ever since I began writing in December 1995 for the independent press agency Cuba Press, directed by the formidable poet and journalist Raúl Rivero who died on November 6, 2021 in Miami, I have accepted the consequences of my way of thinking.

If there is something that those who oppose Castroism have never lacked it is laws and sentencing rules to forewarn us of long prison terms and even the death penalty.

Therefore, the new Penal Code, wherein the regulations against dissidence are expanded upon, is more of the same. Another roundabout message from the regime to warn us that we live on the razor’s edge, that we have few options to defend ourselves. If they open a case against us, not even the best lawyer in the world can keep us out of jail; the sanctions against opponents are pre-established by the State.

Years ago, I decided to be transparent. My opinion that Cuba will – sooner rather than later – begin the path towards democracy is one that I have always written and to which I have signed my full name in the digital and print media, where I have published for more than 25 years.

I am an uncomfortable journalist. I have no commitments to any opposition group or political current. My commitment is to journalism. I recognize that the newly approved Penal Code intimidates some sectors of the opposition and free journalism. And faced with the prospect of future criminal sanctions, members of those sectors often decide to leave the country.

When a dissident appears on State Security’s radar, the harassment that ensues is inhuman. The hostility of the political police affects the individual’s family, friends and neighbors. Almost all activists and reporters who have left the country have been arrested multiple times, faced imprisonment, and been harassed in countless ways.

Independent journalist Camila Acosta has been evicted at least eight times from the rental house where she lived because of pressure from State Security on the owners. Luz Escobar has been held under house arrest by State Security in her own home.

The repression in Cuba is constant. For this reason, opponents and journalists – particularly the youngest ones – have left their homeland or are packing their bags.

Currently, the internal opposition and ungagged journalism are at a low ebb. When you chat with any dissidents, they tell you about their plans to emigrate.

As the political refugee program of the United States Embassy in Havana has not been operating for several years, activists plot their itinerary like any other irregular immigrant, to try to reach the southern border of the United States and, once there, request asylum or cross illegally.

I remember the case of Ramón Arboláez, from Villa Clara, a cancer patient, who in 2016 fled Cuba with his wife and two children, harassed by the political police. Thanks to the involvement of Maite Luna, a reporter in Miami, and follow-up by Diario Las Américas, Arboláez was granted a humanitarian visa after being stranded in Mexico for two months.

Oppositionist José Daniel Ferrer, the artists Luis Manuel Otero and Maykel Osorbo, and independent journalist Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca have been in prison for months without being tried. The regime has proposed exchanging imprisonment for exile for all four. They have not accepted it. Activist Anamely Ramos is a victim of political exile in the 21st century.

The dissidents on the Island have it increasingly difficult. Like the vast majority of Cubans, they are suffering from the economic crisis, rising inflation, and widespread shortages. They have to queue for hours to buy a package of chicken or a bag of detergent. The health status of several opposition veterans is fragile.

Juan González Febles, an independent journalist who turned 72 on May 21, suffers from senile dementia and urinary incontinence. “He and his wife Ana Torricella, also an independent journalist, are going hungry,” a mutual friend tells me. Febles and Luis Cino founded the online newspaper Primavera Digital [“Digital Spring”] in November 2007; in June 2012 they also began publishing a printed edition that boasted a weekly circulation.

In Cuba, dissidents and independent journalists do not enjoy job protections, nor the right to take sick leave, vacations, or retirement. One example is that of my mother, Tania Quintero Antúnez, born in Havana in 1942, and since November 2003 living in Switzerland as a political refugee. In August 1959, at just 17 years old, she started working. On April 4, 1996, a 37-year career working for State-run institutions was cast aside when at age 54 she was expelled from the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (where she worked as a reporter for the Cuban Television Information System) for having signed on as an independent journalist with Cuba Press. They did not pay her a penny of the pension to which she was entitled by national and international law.

Some die destitute. Vladimiro Roca – a prominent dissident who in 1997, together with Martha Beatriz Roque, René Gómez Manzano and Félix Bonne Carcassés (he died in 2017 of a heart attack, blind and forgotten), authored the 1997 paper, The Homeland Belongs to All* – sold his residence in Nuevo Vedado and moved into a small and stuffy apartment. The money from the sale supports him in his old age.

Luis Cino, 62 years old, a brilliant columnist, lives on the edge. He cares for a sick aunt and supports her family with a salary of around 15,000 pesos a month, but due to rising inflation, barely has enough to buy food. “If I, who earn almost four times the average salary in Cuba, am having a hard time, imagine those who earn less or whose pensions are lower. I have friends and neighbors who go to bed hungry.”

Neither the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), nor Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have budgets to send stipends or subsidies to journalists living in dictatorial regimes. Instead, the latter must leave their countries because their lives are in danger or because advanced age or health problems have prevented them from writing.

A few years ago, there was a program in the United States, run by Cuban exiles, that every two or three months sent packages of food, personal hygiene products, and medicines to the most-needy dissidents in Cuba. For unknown reasons it was abolished, it no longer exists.

Due to economic hardships and constant threats of imprisonment, oppositionists in their 60s and 70s are emigrating. “It is preferable to be in a care home in Miami than to live without knowing what you are going to eat every day in Cuba, and with State Security harassing you 24 hours a day,” confesses an activist from Santiago de Cuba (who, because he lives far from Havana, is not known). Many compatriots in the diaspora, out of their own pockets, help dissidents on the Island. But something more than altruism is needed.

Iván García

*Translator’s Note: Archived copy of the Spanish original here: La Patria Es De Todos.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison