The Death of a Young Cuban

Armando Chaguaceda

Wilman Villar Mendoza

HAVANA TIMES, Jan 21 — A few weeks ago in a virtual discussion forum, an old colleague wrote a forceful and clear comment in response to assertions around a highly controversial matter:

“I believe that one can easily sympathize with people, especially when they’re victims of certain practices (…) I think all of the acts of solidarity we practice have a lot to do with knowing how to put ideology aside (to the extent possible) (…) as a result of solidarity (…) More than ideologies, what are important are acts of solidarity. I could easily offer support to someone who doesn’t think like me, but it would be difficult for me to support someone who, while thinking like me, does things I find unacceptable.”

If I’m now referencing that quote, it’s to write the most uncomfortable post in my experience as an online columnist.

Sometimes one’s conscience — sparked into action by categorical imperatives — leaves few options, and this is one of those cases.

The death in Santiago de Cuba of young Wilman Villar Mendoza, 31, after nearly two months on a hunger strike, forces one to choose whether to turn their head — allowing the repetition of such events — or to raise their voice against the incompatibility of what has happened with the most elementary sense of humanity.

This is a situation that in Cuba is compounded when we find that those who suffer and rebel most against the status quo — or those who engage in, silently, the many forms of daily protest and resistance — are blacks, women and the poor in rural areas and slums.

They are people to which the labels “petty bourgeois” or “mercenaries of the empire” — according to the official party line — don’t’ seem to apply very well.

Wilman’s hunger strike was not an offensive action that demanded the government make concessions that could have been considered excessive or unacceptable. He didn’t advocate a change in the political regime or call for the resignation of its top leaders: his was merely a plea for the correction of a judicial conviction that, according to several accounts, had overtones of legal arbitrariness and political retaliation.

Therefore, it was a perfectly compatible act of self-defense, one that even possessed a well-developed rationale. His case pointed out that what weighs on governments are the legal, political and moral mandates to ensure the physical well-being of their detainees, and when they don’t provide these, they deserve the same condemnation that the international community leveled against Margaret Thatcher and George Bush for allowing the indiscriminant deaths of Irish prisoners and Afghan combatants.

Almost two years ago — and under similar circumstances — Orlando Zapata died. This was why I wrote an article that questioned the interpretation of murder that some people made of the Cuban government’s inaction that accompanied that fatal outcome.

I argued that the complications arising from the act were something that Havana’s authorities (out of elementary political realism) should have wanted to avoid, and that even if the treatment given to the hunger striker was objectionable, it was not a conscious and deliberate act on the part of the authorities.

I also repudiated, like in this current case, the cowardly campaign to diminish the moral stature of the deceased, presenting him as no more than a common criminal or simply stupid.

However on this occasion, the death of Wilman has all the markings of a “chronicle of a death foretold, one in which the government’s arrogance was directly responsible for the fatal outcome. What’s more, on this occasion there was insufficient time to remedy the deadly course of events.

Over those weeks there were repeated requests to safeguard his health, either by releasing the young man or transferring him to a hospital. When they did finally move him — eliminating the first option — it was too late and the prisoner had no hope.

As for the other cause of this man’s death — the prisoner’s own decision — and even though I don’t share such a categorical method of struggle, I understand that his choice was the result of his inability to assert his rights in an environment of institutionalized arbitrariness and neglect of citizens. No one puts their life at risk unless their convictions are clear and firm.

I have no choice but to offer my respect for someone whose principles led them to die for what they believed, even when their ideology didn’t match my own view of what is desired for this country.

It has been expressed that the deceased was a common criminal who had violent behavior, an element that had caught the attention of the authorities. It was also noted that his mother, sister and mother-in-law are government supporters and maintain personal relationships with Ministry of the Interior agents and had disagreements with Wilmer over his political stance.

But even if we assume the information put for by the government to have been true, I believe that the question marks in the life of any person should not be enough to convene a public trial without the right to appeal, especially when the person cannot defend themselves.

In a country where legal arbitrariness is common and widespread, and where the chronicles of our past struggles speak of the coexistence of daily miseries alongside sublime acts of the human soul, it’s worth remembering those verses by Silvio Rodriguez when he said “taking into account the implacable that must be the truth, I would like to ask — I’m so compelled — what should I say? – what boundaries must I respect? If someone steals food and after life, what should I do?”

Because of all this, like I told a friend this morning, there are times when one is left simply speechless when confronted with an unexpected horror, when one’s hopes are dashed and their creativity becomes dormant.

After weeks of fruitful exchanges and the promotion of views and proposals on the left concerning necessary options to the reform/crisis of the existing order, I feel the time has come for a momentary pause.

This is not because reason dictates it, but simply because sometimes philosophizing loses its sense and poetry becomes an unattainable luxury compared to the fragility of human life and the obscene impunity of despotism.

Armando Chaguaceda

Armando Chaguaceda: My curriculum vitae presents me as a historian and political scientist. I'm from an unclassifiable generation who collected the achievements, frustrations and promises of the Cuban Revolution and now resists on the island or contributes through numerous websites, trying to remain human without dying in the attempt.

Armando Chaguaceda has 143 posts and counting. See all posts by Armando Chaguaceda

5 thoughts on “The Death of a Young Cuban

  • Cuba needs an independent judiciary!

  • Hello Ric,
    Could you help me to find Marti’s citation?
    I kind of remember it, but couldn’t find it now in his writings

  • I truly wish that your closing statement is read and taken to heart by those on both sides of the Florida Straits so that the transition necessary to bring the changes so direly needed to reconcile our people could begin to formulate.

  • Great article and sadness with the passing of V. Mendoza. I don’t think I can add much but I will state that
    if the Cuban Government thinks that the death of Mr. Mendoza will not be scrutinized by those in Cuba
    who want change, they are sadly mistaken. It reminds me of Vietnam in the sixties when Buddhist Monks
    would set themselves on fire to protest the puppet governments instigated by the US. The uprisings were incidental until, in one major swoop, change! Amazingly, the communists one that battle. Where’s Silvio
    Rodriguez, the so called “Bob Dylan” of Cuba to protest the violence against those who want a
    different world in a country that for so many is now foreign?
    The only hope I see, is the liaison with the expatriates, who hold the key, the present Cuban government
    and the Roman Catholic church. I’m not a Catholic but they are now the only conduit for an orderly
    major change that’s needed in Cuba. Again, a sad day!

  • The totality of the modern Cuban experience may be summed up in the the final word of your treatise: despotism. I know Cubans who have escaped from the Island, risking life and limb, to come to my homeland, the USA. They speak of the communist block captains, the coercing of students to march for Fidel or be thrown out of school, the poverty, the black outs, waiting in line to get a an ice cream treat, the oppression, and the desperation. One such young man, whose father escaped from Cuba, and who subsequently was allowed to come to the US, told me of how he and his friends would face the north and dream of some day making it to the USA. You can protect your liberties in this world only by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can be free only if I am free.

    “Socialist ideology, like so many others, has two main dangers. One stems from confused and incomplete readings of foreign texts, and the other from the arrogance and hidden rage of those who, in order to climb up in the world, pretend to be frantic defenders of the helpless so as to have shoulders on which to stand.” Jose Marti

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