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Why a Cuban Dissident Fights On Despite 180 Arrests

By: Antonella Marty - @AntonellaMarty - May 6, 2015, 3:41 pm

EspañolRoberto Guerra is the director of Hablemos Press, an NGO dedicated to advancing free speech. Karina Gálvez is an economist, editorial board member of the magazine Convivencia, and a civics teacher in Cuba. Both are dissident activists, and have endured countless threats from the Castro regime.

To survive in Cuba, dissidents say one must be prepared to do any job in the underground economy.
To survive in Cuba, dissidents say one must be prepared to do any job in the underground economy. (Taringa)

Last week, they visited the Rosario-based Fundación Libertad in Argentina, a think tank devoted to promoting freedom throughout Latin America since 1988.

Roberto Guerra says the Cuban police have arrested him over 180 times. The scars on his body mark the years of repeated beatings at the hands of the authorities, and his family has also been subjected to all manner of abuse.

Despite government repression, Karina and Roberto have managed to create a space within the island where the truth about the Castro brothers’ atrocities can be told.

What is it like to be a dissident in Cuba?

Roberto Guerra (RG): My home serves as the office for the Hablemos Press news agency, and everyday from 7:00 a.m. until very late at night, we receive anywhere between 30 and 50 calls from all over Cuba denouncing human-rights violations. A team of journalists and activists then proceed to check the information and divulge it any way we can.

Karina Gálvez (KG): The day-to-day is grueling. We Cubans are too overwhelmed, and most of us are dissidents. For instance, the main problem for a Cuban when she first wakes up is to figure out what she is going to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Once that is resolved, the day feels less overwhelming. We don’t shop for weekly groceries. In Cuba, we go daily, and buy whatever is available on that day. That daily grind crushes Cubans, and what’s why we struggle so much to stop and think about other issues. It also explains why there are so very few of us committed to changing the reality in Cuba. We spend our lives thinking about how to survive.

How do you get the word out from Hablemos Press?

RG: Many times we have to schedule an appointment with foreign embassies, who let us use their internet connection to upload content to our web site. Otherwise, it’s very hard because we don’t have open and efficient internet access in Cuba.

There are other ways to upload information. You can go through a state firm that illegally sells internet hours, or you can try a hotel, but that will cost at least US$10 and the average monthly salary of a Cuban is just US$25.

Has the Cuban government targeted you? How did it happen?

RG: Since 2003, I have been arrested over 180 times. From 2005 to 2007, I was imprisoned for carrying out independent journalism. In 2010, I spent nine months in jail, and then another six months. I’ve been beaten on several occasions. I’ve been tortured countless ways, locked up in cells for months at a time with temperatures between 35-38° Celsius (100° F).

The last time I was transferred to the Nieves Morejón prison in the Sancti Spíritus province, where they fractured my head for protesting and demanding my rights. They threw me inside cell number 17, a one square-meter room where I had no other choice but to stand.

They gave me no water, not even a spot to use as a bathroom. I spent five days in that cell. The few times they did give me something to drink it was a pot they used to clean the floors. They never treated my wounds, nor did I receive medical care. The worst is that I’m not the only one who has suffered through this. Hundreds of prisoners and activists in Cuba have gone through the same, and many are right now.

What are some of the repressive methods the Castros use?

KG: Many Cubans fear losing their jobs, or having their children taken out of school just because they think differently. So they just stay quiet when the government orders something.

We have been interrogated, subpoenaed, and threatened, but I think the Cuban government sometimes doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t have a clear strategy on how to deal with dissidents. It’s simply a dictatorship that oppresses those who disagree.

Why do you think the world has forgotten about the Cubans?

RG: The world has been shown the propaganda that we are a happy society and that nothing bad ever happens. Our tightly controlled television media show us news about violent events in México or the United States, and tell us we are safe in Cuba.

When foreigners visit the island, travel agencies take them to hundreds of beaches and luxury tourist locations that the government has set up to deceive the world. They don’t see the other Cuba, where children don’t even have a glass of milk for breakfast. Our daily lives are not told.

KG: Thanks to rampant spending on propaganda, the government has created an image [of Cuba] abroad that I like to explain by paraphrasing Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: there’s a small believable lie behind these governments that hide a deeper incredible truth. So the world has bought the small lie of free education, functioning public health, or a government legitimized by supposedly free elections.

The Cuban people have suffered and know the revolution has led us to a useless system. No government can remain in power for 57 years if there are truly free elections.

What’s going on with prices in Cuba? Is it easy to get basic goods?

KG: Products are rationed, and those that are not can maybe be found on the black market, but at prices that are out of reach for most Cubans. There is never a guaranteed stock of products; you have to go out and search. For instance, the cheapest toilet paper costs $1, and for a Cuban who earns $25 per month, that’s a lot.

In Rosario, Gálvez and Guerra reaffirm their commitment to return to Cuba and fight for freedom.
In Rosario, Gálvez and Guerra reaffirm their commitment to return to Cuba and fight for freedom. (Antonella Marty)

If we look at the relationship between salaries and prices, one could think Cubans must be all starving in the street. However, we make ends meet somehow with remittances from abroad, or resorting to the black market, or doing extra jobs on our own. Everyone in Cuba knows the salary is not enough, and that’s why we survive by seeking alternatives. It’s a matter of life and death, so people are capable of doing anything for a couple dollars.

Cuba’s public health system is often praised. What do you think about it?

KG: Medical care in Cuba is seemingly free, but you understand its true nature when you look at Cubans’ salaries, which are worthless. That’s where the “free health care” comes from. In order to have “free” education and health care, we had to sacrifice all of our economic and civil liberties for the revolution. It’s not worth it.

These achievements of the revolution do not work for Cubans, but they do for those foreigners who are able to pay. Cubans don’t have access to regular doctor visits, physicians don’t earn anything, and hospitals don’t have the necessary equipment to treat people.

RG: The quality of health care on the island has decreased a lot. Cubans are mistreated in hospitals; gloves and medicines are almost never available for them. A doctor who writes for us said that he’s had to operate on patients without anesthesia several times. Of course, the hospitals for tourists do have everything, and that’s why they believe the revolution’s propaganda. But that’s not the reality for Cubans. That free education has cost us and our forefathers a lot.

What is your vision for a free Cuba in the future?

KG: I think that a fundamental and gradual transformation will take place in Cuba, and it will be very good for Cubans. The international scenario regarding Venezuela and the United States, the push back from Cuba’s civil society, the unrest, all this indicates that political change will arrive in Cuba soon, and we hope it will be peaceful, civilized change.

I believe we can be a prosperous nation, but only if the government gives back all of the freedom it took away from us.

After your visit to Rosario, you’re heading back to Cuba. What do you expect back home?

RG: I’ve been very afraid of the beatings, but I don’t fear returning to Cuba, because from there I tell the truth about what hundreds of Cubans go through everyday. If I had Fidel Castro in front of me and I could say everything I’ve been saying all these years, I would do it without flinching.

KG: My greatest fear about returning to Cuba is to witness those changes not becoming a reality. I would like to enter Cuba without the usual threats at the airport. I would be very afraid to return and believe, like most Cubans do, that nothing will ever change. We’re not committing any crime and we’re being transparent. I hope the government puts an end to all the threats.

Translated by Daniel Duarte. Edited by Guillermo Jimenez.

Antonella Marty Antonella Marty

Antonella is founder and project coordinator of the Youth Foundation for Liberty in Argentina. She has worked as an intern at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, Cato Institute, The IFEF, and Cedice Libertad. Follow her @AntonellaMarty.