Yania Suárez Calleyro is a Cuban journalist and Solitude fellow in the field of cultural journalism. Here, she writes about her everyday encounters with Cuban policies towards free speech and Cuba’s alleged »opening to democracy.«
Countries, from a distance, tend to cast false shadows. In the case of Cuba, the most notorious one is the tropical paradise that fails to capture the silent, real purgatory we are suffering. Recently an idea has been circulating that there are changes underway on the island, that under government leadership it is opening up to democracy – this is the latest shadow.
Certainly, our circumstances have changed. In the last ten years, for example, an ailing Fidel Castro has retreated from power – having relied on the iron fist of the Soviet era to govern the country; and there has been the rise of the Internet all over the world, and hence its arrival on our island, precarious though that has been. Besides, given the danger that Venezuela might stop sending us oil, the government is now desperately seeking foreign capital to prevent the major crisis that threatens to bring it down.
These occurrences have favoured the exercise of our free speech, especially in cyberspace. So those of us who wish to express opposing views and do something to improve the country, are not now obliged to go into exile, but have found a way to stay, existing above all on the World-Wide Web.
»But can we actually speak of ›change‹ or of opening to ›democracy‹?«
The virtual Cuba of the last ten years has grown, for example with the phenomenon of rebellious bloggers, spearheaded by the famous »generation Y«; there has also been a great improvement in the quality of independent press agencies (like »HablemosPress«) and free journalism. The first independent, home-grown daily newspaper (14ymedio) has been running for two years, among other little signs of mending in civil society. These are indisputable facts that give us hope. But can we actually speak of »change« or of »opening to democracy«?
My experience as an independent writer within Cuba suggests we cannot. Today the government is projecting an image of transformation so as to radiate peace and friendship to Europe and the United States and thereby obtain foreign investment, following the lifting of EU sanctions and ultimately the lifting of the US embargo. But it is at most a change in strategy so things can continue as they are.
»Today the government is projecting an image of transformation so as to radiate peace and friendship to Europe and the United States and thereby obtain foreign investment, following the lifting of EU sanctions and ultimately the lifting of the US embargo«
They no longer, for example, condemn journalists and opposition figures to 20 years in prison (as they did in 2003), but they do apply other tactics based on isolation and surveillance. These include jamming the Internet – which we Cubans can only access in public places at a price of approximately two dollars an hour, or constant harassment of dissidents by the secret police, provisional detention – which, according to the testimony of the victims, is sometimes accompanied by beatings – along with other intelligence techniques.
That is our life. At the moment their prime concern is to stop the opposition from going out in the streets and interacting with the people. I have myself been arrested three times for taking photos of peaceful actions by the opposition, and on another occasion for walking with a demonstration. But I am no great example. The real activists fare less well, like the members of Damas en Blanco (Ladies in White) and UNPACU (the Patriotic Union of Cuba), for whom violent detention is a weekly routine.
»At the moment their prime concern is to stop the opposition from going out in the streets and interacting with the people.«
As I write these lines, 17 UNPACU activists are on hunger strike, protesting against the ill treatment, theft and humiliation they have suffered at the hands of the political police. Right now, Guillermo Fariñas, who won the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2010, is refusing to eat and drink, although his health is already very fragile because of previous hunger strikes. If he carries on, he will probably die.
They play no part in the picture the world has of Cuba, but they are all the more real behind the beach photographs. It is with these courageous people in mind that we cherish our hopes for true change.
(This article appeared in Stuttgarter Zeitung, with the title »Arrest unter Palmen«, Donnerstag, 11 August, 2016)