Tuesday, June 14, 2011

From a Cuban youth movement, to journalism, to jail

I joined the political civilist youth movement in 1991. Curiously, what I remember most from that period is how my apprehensions led me to disguise myself with a hat and glasses when traveling from my town of Artemisa to Havana to meet with other activists. These feelings of fear, defenselessness, and even blame, are common to those who live in Cuba, stifled by oppression and numbed by endless totalitarian propaganda.

Three years later, in 1994, I joined the independent press when I covered for Radio Martí the Artemisa arrest of opposition members, among them the local hero of days past, Domingo René García Collazo, ex-commander of the Rebel Army, whose rank was given to him in 1959 by the then-venerable leader, Fidel Castro.

This first report was followed by others and, around 1995, a group of us activists founded the freedom desk of the Cuban Independent Press Bureau, under my direction. Afterward, we created other desks that promoted media, human rights, and union activities in the region. The state security presence in our lives swelled to the point that in the early hours of February 24, 1996, state security-equipped paramilitary groups visited my house along with those of other journalists, human rights groups, and unions to intimidate us using terrorist language.

From this date forward, the majority of the city's activists worked together to coordinate press activities with those of the trade unionism and human rights movements. In this context, I took on the task of creating the country's first school for the teaching of these rights. Educating myself from literature provided by the Spanish Embassy and the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, I created a manual on which the curriculum was based and founded the Felix Varela Program for Human Rights Education. I gave classes until I was arrested in 2003 and I published (in 1999 and 2001) various reports on the subject in the magazine, Vitral de la Iglesia Catolica of Pinar del Rio.

State Security responded to the expansion of my civilist activities, particularly those related to education and the press, with more arbitrary detentions, searches, confiscations, warnings, threats, and, eventually, imprisonments. To suffocate freedom of information and of the press becomes a question of life or death for dictatorships. Accordingly, the regime used Orwelian artifices to falsify the past and distort the present, which is a crucial to the manipulation of information and the creation of propaganda. For this reason, Cuba is the only country in the Western hemisphere where foreign newspapers are not available and also why Fidel Castro has called journalists "a unit of the Revolution." That is how the despot states it. He knows that repression alone is not enough to conquer the people; instead he must rely on apologetic, incessant, crazy-making, and chauvinist propaganda that acts as a spiritual sleeping pill and is worth more than his army of police officers.

But the creative force of the freedom instinct and the idea of democracy are contagious and won't be contained. This force always overcomes obstacles in its way and, for more than 20 years, Castro has not been alone on the Cuban political stage. A contingent of men and women decided to stand up to him in the realm of the word, the mind, and the spirit, in support of a State of Rights for Cuba. And in spite of the enormous disadvantages and repression, we arrived with much more than before as of March 2003, when, faced with the push of the powerful discourse on human rights, the Varela Project [which advocated for democratic reforms], the force of the trade unionism, and the fearlessness of the independent press, Castro was angry, got worked up, and committed a serious mistake: the Cuban Black Spring and its extrajudicial summary trials, without warrants or defense, that yielded savage sentences of up to 28 years imprisonment.

And his mistake was so massive that from it, armed with nothing but gladiolas, our magnificent Ladies in White emerged. Castro was then forced to face our wives, who, backed by a formidable international solidarity campaign, dealt the tyrant his most costly and deathly political defeat: he bowed, for the first time, to mounting pressure from the people themselves, from the internal opposition, not from the exterior; and although we had to go into exile, he had to release us. This fact constitutes a unique case in a half a century of communism in Cuba, and becomes the supreme example that can fertilize the social and spiritual womb of our nation.

Faced with the liberating fertility of this paradigm and the social and economic failure of the regime, Castro, looking to reduce internal pressure, found himself forced to "concede" to the people some of the economic rights that for more than 50 years he violated.

In the first days of our imprisonment we were held in State Security general barracks. There, in cells intended for four prisoners, it was so narrow and overcrowded that there was a mere half a square meter per person. These intensely claustrophobic and oppressive quarters, in which the lights were permanently turned on, constituted a psychic torment that was applied to the 36 days prior to being interrogated before the judge.

Under these tortuous conditions and deprived of pencil, paper, and a lawyer, it was impossible for me to prepare my defense before the tribunal, where the very principles of independence and judge impartiality are lacking anyway.

That is where I more fully understood the terms "defenselessness" and "abuse of power" in that both were employed to sentence me to an unjust and brutal 26 years in jail. And paradoxically, on page eight of my sentence, I'm described as a "person of good and respectful relations with the rest of the citizens in the social order and lacking criminal antecedents," an obligatory and cynical acknowledgement that contradicts the brutal sanction which included the torturous "extra" year spent in a minute, damp, windowless punishment cell filled with rats and other creatures, and given horrible nourishment, imposed on someone who was only fulfilling civic duties and exercising his inalienable rights.

I don't know what made me deserving of so much hatred. And I'm unable to express here what I felt in those cells, those tombs. I can, however, and want to unmask those who abuse power, lie, and offend my dignity by accusing me of being a conspirator and mercenary.

After a torturous period in the punishment cells, they integrated me with the general criminal population and together we shared in the risks, the injustice, and the miserable physical conditions of the Cuban prison system.

Despite all this, I should acknowledge that existing within these repressive forces is a growing number of men and women that silently support us and reject the policies of the regime. They, too, can contribute to democratic transformations and the national reconciliation of our people.

And today in exile, when I recall my seven and a half years in prison, writing you with the new perspective of a future in freedom feels like a chimera. From this future, my main objective is to stay faithful to Christian values, to my honor and to my own law: to fight always as the only dignified attitude before life. My objectives, also very beloved are:

  • To work for a free press outlet where I can continue on my path as a civilist in support of democratic ideas in Cuba and elsewhere.
  • To complete the book of essays I began in prison.

Finally, I'd like to pay my respects to the martyr Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who discovered how to die as an act of rebellion against oppression, and to the heroism of Guillermo Fariñas: protagonists, along with the Ladies in White, of the unpublished and forceful victory over Castro.

By Alfredo Felipe Fuentes

(Translated by Karen Phillips)

This entry is part of an ongoing series of first-person stories by Cuban journalists who were imprisoned in a massive roundup of dissidents that has become known as the Black Spring of 2003. All of the reporters and editors were convicted in one-day trials, accused of acting against the "integrity and sovereignty of the state" or of collaborating with foreign media for the purpose of "destabilizing the country."

Source: CPJ

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