In the autumn of 2002 at an event in a Havana theater, the dictator Fidel Castro sent a clear message to independent journalists and regime opponents in an effort to downplay their importance. Referring to dissidents, he said, “We are not going to kill cockroaches with canon-fire.”
A growing fear gradually seeped into even our living rooms. On any given night Fidel Castro, scowling belligerently while running his fingers across the corners of his mouth, would read the names of dozens of human rights activists and independent journalists whom he “accused” of having attended a reception at the home of the ambassador from what was then United States Interests Section in Havana.
They were difficult years. State Security, which had been granted unlimited powers by the regime, persistently harassed dissidents and independent journalists by detaining and maintaining files on them, recording their places of residence, organizing acts of repudiation against them, and seizing money and such simple things as typewriters from them.
In February 1999 the rubber stamp parliament, then presided over by Ricardo Alarcon, approved Law 88, the Cuban National Independence and Economy Act, more commonly known as the Gag Law. In Article 1 it states:
“The purpose of this law is to criminalize and penalize those acts aimed at supporting, facilitating or collaborating with the objectives of the Helms-Burton Act, the blockade and the economic war against our people, which are intended to disrupt internal order, destabilize the country and abolish the Socialist State and the independence of Cuba.”
It stipulates penalties of twenty years or more and even the death penalty for independent journalists. It remains in effect. This legal mishmash was the instrument used to convict seventy-five dissidents to long prison sentences during the fateful Black Spring of 2003.
Castro and State Security thought the Iraq war, which began on March 18, 2003, would serve as the perfect pretext for deflecting international media attention away from Cuba. But they were wrong; it did not work.
The European Union, the United States, democratic governments from various continents, organizations which monitor the observance of human rights and freedom of expression, and prominent intellectuals all raised their voices.
A recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature and supporter of the regime, Portugal’s Jose Saramago, wrote a piece entitled “It Has Come to This” in which he condemned the crackdown and the executions of three young black men who had tried to hijack a passenger ferry in order to flee to the United States.
With the ascent of Raul, handpicked by his brother Fidel after illness forced the elder Castro to resign, the military regime changed strategy.
In the summer of 2010 it released prisoners of conscience arrested during the Black Spring and gradually introduced economic reforms which provided the regime with a needed dose of political oxygen.
This political oxygen allowed Castro II to orchestrate a well-planned international campaign to lift the U.S. economic and trade embargo and overturn the European Union’s Common Position.
The climax was the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States on December 17, 2014 after eighteen months of secret negotiations. Cuba became the subject of news headlines and a photo op for famous foreigners.
Some Cubans believed this was the beginning of an historic period of political reform and democratization. But within a few months the overly optimistic expectations turned to abject cynicism.
The flow of emigrants increased and now there is a retreat from economic reform. The creation of new non-agricultural cooperatives has stalled. In early 2016 local media began a campaign demonizing wholesalers and pushcart vendors, blaming them for the high prices of agricultural products.
But the turning point that led to the return of political dinosaurs, fanatics and conservatives was Barack Obama’s speech at the Gran Teatro de La Habana on Monday, March 20, 2016.
The opening shot that led to the political brakes being slammed on was an outrageous editorial by Fidel Castro in the Communist Party newspaper. He was later joined by ventriloquists and scribes hired to write analyses on demand.
The current period of austerity — brought on by the political, economic and social turmoil in Venezuela — is the reason for the latest round of Cuban belt tightening. Yet another.
Highly reliable government sources indicate that September, October and November will see further rounds of cutbacks which will adversely affect the citizenry.
Faced with this dilemma, the government is looking for ways to limit the damage. Any vestige of free thought outside the official framework is considered, at best, suspect.
An “enemy” could be anyone: private taxi drivers, official journalists who write for foreign or alternative media and, of course, dissidents. It’s all the same.
It has stepped up its harassment of opposition figures upon their returns from trips abroad and the Ladies in White continue to be subject to brutal assaults.
On August 24, the official press began describing a conference on freedom of internet access to be held in Miami on September 12 and 13 as subversive. The conference is sponsored by the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which oversees Radio and Television Martí.
The event seems to be the ideal pretext to dust off the machinery of repression for use against dissidents and independent journalists. It serves as a smokescreen to blur the bleak scenario facing Cuba.
Given the Castro regime’s underhanded tactics, lust for power and unwillingness to play by democratic rules, the international community should take note of its recent domestic and foreign policy directives.
Could a major economic crisis lead to increased repression of dissidents and freelance journalists? Of course. The delicate state of affairs on the island will always be the sandpaper capable of lighting a match at the slightest touch.
The regime is also very worried about the opposition making inroads with the private business sector and the average citizen. If there is anything at which totalitarian systems are effective it is in the art of repression and preventing social conflicts.
It is no accident that they have remained in power for almost six decades.
By Ivan Garcia, 7 September 2016 —
Martí Noticias, August 31, 2016