How do I nurture those gifts, teach the next generation to value them? How can I stay connected with our Cuban cousins now that the viejas aren’t around to make calls, remember birthdays? How do I keep Spanish flowing?Read More...
February 2, 2022
Bridges to Cuba just posted my new essay on “acts of repudiation,” the organized public shaming brigades that are sent to the homes of dissidents to shout insults, hurl eggs, and sometimes deliver beatings. The essay explores how my own family was marked by the “acto” that we experienced when we were trying to get out of Cuba and my efforts to turn that ugly legacy into something constructive.
Bridges was created by two Cuban American author-heroes of mine, Ruth Behar and Richard Blanco. It was an honor to work with them on this project. It’s a far better essay because of their insights and guidance.
You can read it here: https://bridgestocuba.com/2022/02/a-way-forward/
The stories we tell ourselves about Cuba—and the regime’s propaganda skills—are blinding many people to the appalling systemic injustice just 90 miles off the Florida coast.
I hope you’ll read this post about the historic protests and share it if you find it worthwhile. I’d love to know your thoughts on anything here and look forward to hearing from you.
Thanks for thinking about this with me,
December 10, 2021
Most Americans heard something about the country-wide uprising that took place on July 11th, an unprecedented event in post-revolutionary Cuba. Today, approximately 800 known political prisoners are still being held in prisons that Human Rights Watch has described as “horrendous.” Some are already serving sentences of 20+ years after summary trials. Activists and independent journalists (an illegal profession in Cuba) are still under house arrest, arbitrarily detained, their families threatened and harassed. They are defamed on a regular basis across state-controlled media, accused of being mercenaries, traitors, criminals.
None of this—other than the protests themselves—is new. The Cuban government has a long history of repressing and criminalizing political dissent. It’s considered one of the most repressive countries by human rights and independent journalism watch groups. Since the 1959 revolution, it’s been a single-party socialist-communist state and, except for the last two years, ruled by the Castro family. Somehow, there is still debate about whether Cuba is a dictatorship.
If there was any doubt about the regime’s tolerance for dissent, Article 4 of the 2019 Constitution cleared things up. The socialist system, it states, is “irrevocable,” and citizens have the duty to defend it, with armed combat if necessary, against threats. The document is a marvel of the kiss-and-slap. Almost every right that’s conferred is nullified if exercised in opposition to the government—creating what journalist Yoani Sanchez has described as “political apartheid.”
And yet that Sunday in July, tens of thousands of Cubans simultaneously rose up in overwhelmingly peaceful protests in almost every province in the country. They shouted libertad, down with dictatorship, and some really nasty references to President Miguel Diaz Canel’s body parts.
I’d been following the growing pro-democracy movement since the fall of 2020 and expected something major during the scorching summer months. But, like most Cuba-watchers, I was shocked by the magnitude and geographic spread of the protests.
Although the regime shut down internet access during the uprising, some protestors managed to post videos and comments of the violence against them. Armed shock troops and both uniformed and plainclothes police used tear gas, weapons, and bully sticks freely. An outraged President Díaz-Canel went on national TV the afternoon of the July 11th and called on revolutionaries and communists to take to the streets and defend the revolution. “The call to battle has been given,” he said, effectively calling for civil war.
The violence intensified. Videos showed police shooting into streets, inside protestors’ homes, people being beaten, dragged by the hair, bloodied. One video, taken behind the thin curtain of a 2nd story window, shows beefy plainclothes agents pouring out of busses, most of them carrying four-foot wooden stakes.
I wondered what orderly repression factory had created those uniformly cut and shaped stakes. And I had to admire, in a bleak way, the regime’s skill at hiding abuses. These plainclothes agents could beat anyone without implicating the state, which could claim that the citizens themselves were defending the revolution.
Activists reported widespread abuses against them, including being stripped naked in prison, beaten, and forced to shout revolutionary slogans. Rights groups documented and condemned Cuba’s brutality against political prisoners, calling on the country to respect the international norms, like the UN’s Nelson MandelaRules, approved unanimously by the General Assembly in 2015.
But like the Castros and their appointees before him, President Diaz-Canel continues to respond to these accusations with shameless denials. “We have no political prisoners,” he told the audience at a Havana event on December 7th.
Prisoners Defenders, a respected Madrid-based human rights group, has evidence to refute his claims. The NGO has been documenting the regime’s political prisoner abuse over the years. The activists are held alongside common criminals, in filthy cells, their families often uninformed of their where-abouts for weeks on end or the charges they face. After summary trials without evidence, defense attorneys or family allowed in court, many of these prisoners from the July uprising have begun serving sentences of a dozen or more years for “disobedience,” “contempt,” “resistance,” and “instigation of delinquency.” Their families must find a way, despite the severe shortages of food and consumer goods, to supply their loved ones with everything from toothpaste to toilet paper.
The government, which has a reputation for inaccurately reporting statistics, claimed that Diubis Laurencio Tejada, 36, was the only person killed during the protests. But at a November 20th rally in Boston, I met Damila, who carried a poster with her cousin’s picture on it and the word “Justice” across the top. She took the mic reluctantly and tearfully shared the young man’s story. Christian Barrera Díaz was arrested during the July 11th uprising. His family searched desperately for him and were reassured when officials told them he was being held in a jail in Cardenas. But later, officials told them he’d been found in the sea, drowned, and that they’d already buried him. I don’t believe that Tejada was the only one who perished on July 11th.
For some people, Cuba remains, even today, a model socialist society that has essentially eradicated racism, poverty, and provides its people free housing, health care and education from nursery school to post graduate studies. Its economic difficulties, in this version of the story, are due almost entirely to the brutal and cruel U.S. economic embargo, imposed by the Kennedy Administration in 1961 after Castro-led revolution appropriated all foreign owned property without compensating owners, many of whom were American. Cubans are united, this story says, in their support of the principles of the 1959 revolution. The protests are the result of the Cuban Mafia in South Florida, the CIA, and the U.S. government’s paid mercenaries on the island.
Many who believe this story have given Cuba a hall-pass on its human rights abuses for the last 62 years. They don’t seem to mind that Cuba is the only country in our hemisphere that prohibits human rights monitoring—and denies it has any political prisoners at all. They are silent about the regime’s racist treatment of Afro Cuban activists, who tend to be imprisoned while white Cuban activists are typically kept under house arrest or forcibly exiled. They accept as a necessary evil Cuba’s brutal treatment of protestors but would denounce even the weakest of those tactics in the U.S.
The stories we tell ourselves can blind us to the truth. And it’s easy to look the other way at problems we think don’t affect us directly, especially as we head into a third year of a global pandemic crisis and wide-spread political turmoil.
But on this UN Human Rights Day, the flagrant violations of the most basic human rights in my homeland deserves attention, and action.
I hope you’ll agree. Here are a few for you to consider.
Thanks for caring about the Cuban struggle for freedom.
Actions to Take
- Contact your representatives the House and the Senate.
- Ask what actions they’re taking to support human rights in Cuba.
- Ask the 40 reps who declined to sign a H.Res 760, a non-binding expression of solidarity with the Cuban pro-democracy movement, why.
- To Mass residents: McGovern and Pressley were Nays.
- Thank the 382 reps who were in favor of H.Res. 760.
- Ask President Biden to take action on this urgent matter, specifically:
- Use Magnitsky Act sanctions against Cuba’s leaders
- Provide mobile internet access to Cuba to allow civil society to communicate
- Follow #SosCuba or #11J on Twitter / read 14ymedio, Cubadecide / share news on Cubanos en Boston – Cubans in Boston’s Facebook page.
- Take Urgent Action with Amnesty International on Cuba
- Ask your organization to officially endorse the call for human rights in Cuba.
- Spread word, follow story, demand more reporting from the media.
- Consider donating to groups like:
- CubaLex—Miami-based legal aid group helping Cubans on the island who’ve been imprisoned
- 14yMedio—Independent online news media in Cuba
- Prisoners Defenders—Madrid-based human rights group focusing on Cuban political prisoners.
- Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (mention CUBAN violations)
I hope all is well with you and your families and that you’re gearing up for a wonderful Thanksgiving.
This Thanksgiving, like a lot of immigrants, I’ll feel gratitude for what this country offered my family when we arrived as political refugees from Cuba, in 1967. Libertad is something I heard praised at our Thanksgiving table over the years—along with the fried yuca and black beans.
Libertad is on my mind a lot right now because so many Cubans are suffering for trying to reclaim their basic human rights. You may have read about the countrywide uprising in July and the peaceful marches that Cuba’s dissident community had planned for this past Monday. A severe crackdown, building for months, thwarted Monday’s marches—for the most part. But even with the government’s internet shutdowns, people managed to film the protests that did occur despite the proliferation of shock troops, threats, house arrests, beatings, imprisonments and forced disappearances.
This dissident movement is truly historic. Nothing like it has happened in post-revolutionary Cuba. I’ve pasted links to materials below, if you’d like to learn more.
I want to make sure that you know that these activists have been asking for signs of solidarity and help from the international community for over a year. In Boston, Cubans and their friends have been rallying since the July 11th uprising to raise awareness, distribute information and suggest ways to take action. We’re not alone. Last week, people rallied in more than 120 cities around the world to support this movement.
Our diverse group of 50 Cubans and friends and family rallied at the State House last Sunday, and we’ll meet again this Saturday at the Samuel Adams statue in Faneuil Hall from 1-3 pm.
This is last-minute, and I’m sure you are jammed with work and the stresses of our new reality. But will you join us? Will you speak up for the besieged and jailed Cuban dissidents who can’t?
If you’d like to help in other ways, please begin with Amnesty International’s urgent action call, issued on the 14th to support the marchers who were prevented from marching. This is still a meaningful way to show the government that the world is watching. For other ways to take action, please see the list at the very end of this email.
And how cool is it that Patria Y Vida, which became the anthem for the protest movement in Cuba, won Song of the Year and Best Urban Song! Check it out if you haven’t listened already. It’s a bittersweet win, of course, because one of the singers, Maykel Osorbo, is on a hunger strike in Cuban jail, where he’s been since May for no other reason than singing his song, reclaiming his rights, wanting to be free.
Please share this if you can. We want eyes on Cuba right now.
Thank you very much for thinking about this with me.
Wishing you a peaceful and fun Thanksgiving,
As you review the information below, please note that Cuban special agents and shock troops often wear civilian clothes. This allows the government to blame the violence on average citizens who are “defending the revolution” from common criminals or “mercenaries” of the U.S.
1. 11/15. Act of Repudiation led by the Federation of Cuban Women against activist Saily González. Santa Clara. People who participate in the actos are often rewarded with material items (e.g., food, cars, clothes), favoritism at work or school, reduced sentences if they’ve been charged with a crime. Some are threatened, if they don’t participate, with the loss of employment, the denial of a request they’ve made to the gov’t, etc. And some, no doubt, are sincerely passionate about the revolution, but this long tradition of bribes and extortion should be noted.
The actos increased after authorities called on revolutionaries to combat the “mercenaries” and “provocateurs” wherever they are. “The order to battle has been given. Revolutionaries to the streets!” President Díaz Canel on state-run TV the day of the uprising.
2. Military motorcades began at midnight the day of the planned march, 11/15.
3. 11/14. Men arrested for shouting Libertad in Havana park.
4. 11/15. Activist under house. Guard prevents her from leaving, filming him.
5. Priest describes being threatened with imprisonment if he marches on 11/15. Says will do so (and they did) anyway, that the Bible describes liberty, justice and truth, which is what the Cuban people want.
6. Man with a dissent poster on door narrates agents taking it down, threatening him. 11/16.
7. Activist Carolina Barrera, under house arrest for more than 200 days, narrates agents cutting down 100-year-old trees in order to put up new cameras to surveil her.
8. Intrepid family hangs freedom of speech signs and chants as pro government group runs an Act of Repudiation. https://twitter.com/i/status/1460292437402959872. https://twitter.com/i/status/1460678295402344450 .
9. UNPACU dissidents chant on 11/15.https://twitter.com/i/status/1460325906036269057.
11. 11/14. Havana.
12. Playwright and dissident leader Yunior Garcia under house arrest on 11/14. The white rose is the movement’s emblem of peace. Sign reads “my house has been blockaded.” When agents on his roof saw the foreign press taking photos, they lowered the flag over his window. He and his wife were disappeared for over 24 hours and then forcibly exiled to Madrid on 11/17. 13. Poster for rally this Sunday.
13. Orienting video reports on July uprising.
- NBC video report explaining causes of July 11th uprising. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lu7Se4pczA4
- Canadian article about repression aimed at stopping new protests scheduled for Nov. 15th. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/cuba-canadian-march-for-change-democracy-1.6238995
- DW video report and interview with context of 11 July uprising. Mentions only six cities involved, but that was too early and the number turned out to be 50+. https://www.demdigest.org/cubas-astonishing-truly-breathtaking-protests-could-the-regime-fall/ 13. Actions to Take
· Attend events in support for human rights in Cuba.
· Ask your organization to officially endorse the call for human rights in Cuba.
· Sign up with Amnesty International for Cuban prisoners of conscience letter writing.
· Donate to groups like:
o CubaLex—Miami-based legal aid group helping Cubans on the island who’ve been imprisoned
o 14yMedio—independent online news media in Cuba
o Prisoners Defenders—Madrid-based human rights group focusing on Cuban political prisoners.
· Write to President Biden asking for supplying internet access to the island and for leading a coordinated response with other democratic countries.
· Join Amnesty International’s letter writing campaign for Cuban human rights.[i]
· Spread word, follow story, demand more reporting from the media.
President on national state-run news, 7/11/21.
Gracias for reading through all of this!
Foto: Facebook. Manzanillo, Cuba.Read More...
August 10th, 2021, Moultonborough, NH
Each time I’ve started to write this, something new happens in Cuba and I decide that is the story I want to share with you. I change course and start a new piece.
I won’t do that today. I’m going to stick with a plan: offer some context around the historic protests that broke out in my native country on July 11th and put two human beings in front of those events so you can feel the story in a deeper way.
My goal is to focus on the protests and avoid, for now, the political narratives (about the U.S. partial embargo, socialism vs capitalism, Left vs Right) that have been detracting from the magnitude of the story in front of us: unprecedented protests in a country that for 62 years has punished dissent at all levels.
Anyone who doubts the regime’s position on dissent should look into Luis Robles’s arrest last December for walking in Havana holding a sign that read libertad. Robles is facing 6 years in prison for enemy propaganda and is awaiting trial in a maximum-security prison alongside violent criminals.
A few small, random protests like Robles’s have taken protests place over the last few years, and one major one, known as the Maleconazo, in 1994, but no one has seen anything like the massive protests that errupted across the island in July.
The courage required to protest publicly in post-revolutionary Cuba—a single-party state with a well-documented history of punishing dissent with public shamings, beatings, loss of employment, harassment of family and friends, torture and incarceration—cannot be overestimated. And yet, approximately 190,000 people participated in more than 500 peaceful demonstrations across the island during the month of July.
Protestors in Havana, July 11, 2021. Reuters photo.
Independent and foreign media reported that the protests began peacefully, with people walking or riding bikes on streets across Cuba, chanting libertad, down with the dictatorship, and some truly salty insults against Cuban president and Communist Party leader Miguel Díaz Canel. In almost all cases, the violence seems to have erupted after the Boinas Negras (Black Berets, paramilitary anti-riot squads) and plainclothes arrived at the protests.
In the filmed scenes of the violence, it’s difficult to know who is beating whom, but a closer look suggests that the better dressed, well-fed men carrying bats, sticks, and guns were unlikely to be civilians. Guns have been illegal in Cuba since the revolution, and only select military and police officials are permitted to have weapons at home. But the trained Cuban eye can tell who these pseudo-civilians work for. As groups of these men appeared, the protestors often called them out with shouts like “the henchmen are here.”
According to the respected human rights NGO Prisoners Defenders July report, the regime detained between 2000 and 8000 protestors in July. There are 800 or so known disappeared and detained protestors, but the more likely number for July is believed to be between two and eight thousand. The regime says it has no political prisoners, but the reality is different, as last month’s numbers and reports from multiple human rights groups show.
One reason is that the families of the detained/disappeared/imprisoned are warned that if they denounce the arrests, or post on social media, their loved ones will suffer more. These families are often still trying to locate their relative, they roam from jail to jail searching for a daughter, a father, a son. They need the officials’ help, so they stay silent. These hidden threats also explain why volunteers tracking the missing and imprisoned struggle to convince families to report the incarcerations.
The protestors represented all ages and races, although most were young, including many minors. There were men, women, gay and straight. Some women carried babies or pushed them in strollers as they marched. At least one fearless priest joined a protest and tried to stop the violent beatings. He ended up with a head injury but continues to speak out.
The only weapon the protestors had and have is the internet. Mobile internet access is new in Cuba since December 2018, remains prohibitively expensive, and is often unreliable. The government shut it down across the country as the protests spread and has continued to block access intermittently since July 11th. The regime blames power outages and other malfunctions for the accessibility problems, and even the selective shutdowns of individual accounts. But Cubans are resourceful and, using VPNs and proxies, activists and others have been posting, at least occasionally.
A hard stop here. I know I promised to tell you about two protestors whose stories stood out for me. But my phone started chiming with Twitter alerts about ten minutes ago and I had to look. So, yup, I’m going with this breaking story instead.
This morning at 8 am, a popular and tireless activist, Ruhama Fernandez, Twitter account @ruhsantiago99, was taken from her home by political police after they ransacked the apartment. Ruhama, of African descent, speaks openly against the government and has suffered for it with harassment, detentions, and constant threats. A state-run TV news program dedicated to attacking the reputation of dissidents featured Ruhama multiple times over the last year.
Ruhama has been evicted or forced to move at least eight times after officials pressured her landlords. They’ve threatened her family and friends as well. If her frequent posts on Twitter and Youtube weren’t getting her enough attention, an August 5th phone conversation with Cuban American community organizers and political representatives about the brutal repression taking place right now, put her squarely in the regime’s cross hairs.
Youtube Screen Shot
The dissident community in Cuba and Cuban American supporters everywhere are urgently asking for help in keeping Ruhama’s case public. She is the most recent victim of the regime’s efforts to stop anti-government social media posts, especially those using #SOSCuba. In recent days, a number of popular activists who’ve used #SOSCuba have suddenly deleted critical posts and recanted their anti-regime views—another sign of the regime’s ability to shut down dissent.
Can I ask for your help? Will you help me keep Ruhama’s story and the importance of these protests in people’s minds by sharing this piece with others and/or posting under #SOSCuba or #FreeRuhama. There are many, many Ruhamas in unknown Cuban jails right now, some have had summary trials and received sentences of more than a year, some are minors, but all deserve the basic human right of free speech. I hope you’ll help tell people at least this Ruhama’s story. Knowing—bearing witness—is the least we can do.
Thanks for thinking about this with me…
 Some of these links are to Spanish language reports but the embedded videos are worth a look. They show footage taken during protests, scenes I haven’t been able to find with English language subtitles, if at all, on English language media.
Last Thursday, the Wall Street Journal published a book review I wrote about The Cubans, by foreign correspondent Anthony DePalma.Read More...
I’m honored to be one of three former refugee storytellers performing at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Join me on November 7th – tickets are free!Read More...
I recently shared the story of my family’s immigration from Cuba on “Hell or High Water”, an episode of PBS’s new show “Stories from the stage.
Check out the link here: http://www.pbs.org/video/hell-or-high-water-bqgbp2/