Cuba and the Perversion of Language

The Cuban government continues to rely on defamation and personal attacks.

Alejandro Armengol*

Castro supporters encouraging the “scum” to leave Cuba. Taken during the Mariel boatlift events of 1980.

HAVANA TIMES — The campaign against dissidents, the peaceful opposition and civil society activists that the Cuban press has maintained for decades illustrates the ideological decadence of a dying regime.

The means employed are not novel: insult and taunting, the spreading of lies that, though based on isolated elements of truth on occasion, present us with a false picture of the situation, a shift in perspective that deforms the whole and demonizes the enemy. The difference now is that these strategies have been reduced to their crudest form.

In its infancy, the ideology of Castroism advanced the image of a better (albeit future) society. Political attacks were fundamentally aimed at various groups, but all references pointed to the past: “vestiges of the past,” “ills of the past,” “petite-bourgeois attitudes that still prevail,” “members of the old, privileged classes,” “remnants of the old society.”

The identity of the enemy was diluted in their alleged persistence within a social class. Terror was aimed at extermination and segregation. The method was not new. In similar and varied fashion, communism and fascism had resorted to the same discourse, as had colonial and slaveholding empires before, wielding different arguments.

Language was then deformed in two ways. Abstraction was used as a means of depersonalizing and distorting words. One heard talk of the “liquidation” of exploitation, serving “justice” to traitors and “taking back” the “people’s” properties.

All the while, opponents were dehumanized: they were called “worms”, “scum” and parasites in Cuba, “rabid dogs of capitalism” in China, and “vampires”, “bastards” and “lice” in the former Soviet Union.

Because of these discursive strategies, the ideological language of Castroism was deformed at birth and began to deteriorate almost from the very beginning. Paradoxically, two contradictory factors contributed to this: the failure to consolidate the ideal social model it had promised and the successful segregation of its traditional enemies.

For years, the government chose to ignore the dissidents and to continue to label them “ills of the past”, intent on eliminating all criticisms and identifying those who opposed the system with the “previous society.”

A Cuban bodega store where rationed foods are purchased.

The permanence of the new government’s power gradually eroded these arguments. The most formidable blow was felt during the crisis that culminated with the Mariel exodus in 1980, when thousands who had been children in 1959, or had been born after that year, thousands of workers who had never owned properties before the revolution, decided or were forced to leave the country.

This forced the government to resort to a less political and more vulgar form of defamation. The head-on attack on the “class enemy” was replaced with humiliation and labeling. The most oft-repeated words were “prostitutes,” “homosexuals,” and “procurers” (in their crude versions, of course).

The Mariel crisis did not, however, change the fact that these insults continued to be based on broad generalizations. The word “scum” was used to label everyone, despite the fact that, in many cases, individual differences far outweighed any similarities.

These defamatory tactics were maintained in the course of years, but their language was gradually changed. Now, there are no attacks on the exile community in general. The government prefers to speak of the “diaspora”, “émigrés”, “Cubans living abroad.” It refers to the “Miami mafia” to define and limit its attacks on a city and a sector of the Cuban community abroad.

A lack of ideological arguments has led Cuba to resort to personal attacks which are more vulgar and more limited.

This new approach stems from a weighty financial problem: the island’s economy depends, to a great extent, on the remittances sent from Miami. The government, however, also acknowledges the financial and political influence of a sector of the Cuban exile community.

It no longer speaks of the “puppets of imperialism”, but of recalcitrant “mercenaries” on the “Empire’s payroll.”

The duality the regime maintains to employ the fetishism of money as a weapon – more political than ideological – is curious.

When Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez expressed disdain over the possibility of having Cuban-Americans invest on the island during a gathering with members of CAFE (Cuban Americans for Engagement), he did so by showing a predilection for large figures.

“I don’t know how many Cubans you know who could invest 200, 300 or 500 million, perhaps even a billion dollars, which is the investment Cuba needs,” he said.

Astronomically lower figures, however, are quoted in Cuba as part of a perfect, disparaging argument used to awaken envy and give additional impetus to those who participate in violent reprisals against alleged dissidents.

If you were born in Cuba, live abroad and have managed to amass a billion-dollar fortune, know that the doors of the island are open to you, but do not dare do anything that could make the government accuse you and discredit you (without proof) for having scrounged up a few dollars.

A CADECA money exchange house.

Individual defamation has shed the language of the class struggle to take on the contours of the pettiest envy, and the revolutionary saga and epic of the early years has degenerated into crude neighborly quarrels, vulgarity and obscenity.

A significant step in this direction was taken during the incident involving Elian Gonzalez, a Cuban child who was lost at sea following the wreck of a raft, was taken to Miami, held in custody by relatives and finally returned to Cuba. During this time, the shipwrecks Cuban balseros suffer was reduced to descriptions typical of the so-called “culture of poverty”: of abusive and inebriated men who beat their wives, family relationships based on violence, prostitution and theft.

In the end, we were left with the language of a novel that was not quite rose-colored, that was lost in a dirty grey, where intentions were more important than facts – that people left the country on makeshift rafts, as was repeated on a daily basis then -, where reality was reduced to crude, formulaic anecdotes and endless, empty-sounding spiels.

During the time of the “Elian incident”, Cuban ideology no longer aspired to be doctrine. It limited itself to being a forceful distraction.

Fidel Castro had not understood that Elian was an exceptional incident and tried to repeat a similar campaign (this time at an international level) in connection with the conviction of five Cuban agents accused of espionage in the United States. The campaign continues, unrelenting, and it is one of the legacies of the last years of Fidel’s active leadership.

The propaganda surrounding the so-called Cuban Five – who have been reduced to three in the course of time – seeks to give us a kind of sugary buzz, invoking the injustice of the case, the arbitrariness of the trial and Miami’s hostile atmosphere. It appeals to false arguments, like the one used by former spy Gerardo Hernandez, who, according to Cubadebate and an EFE cable, during a press conference in Washington held on June 4, said that the “Miami Herald fired three journalists in 2006 when it learned that they were covering the case ‘on the payroll of the United States government’”. This is a barefaced lie.

All the while, attacks on the opposition increasingly rely on an aggressive language.

These demands for righting a “wrong”, rapprochement, conciliation and debate contrasts with the hostility towards those who are merely calling for the free spread of information, changes under the current legislation and the expansion of civil society.

The Cuban government shows itself incapable of discussing ideas and proposals in a civilized manner. Personal attacks and insults continue to be part of the system’s essence – even after the class enemy has been replaced with one dressed in money.
(*) An HT translation published with permission from

15 thoughts on “Cuba and the Perversion of Language

  • June 10, 2014 at 1:55 am

    Where is that part of my text that said, “The Marielitos were FORCED to leave the country”?
    I wrote: “thousands who had been children in 1959, or had been born after that year, thousands of workers who had never owned properties before the revolution, DECIDED or were forced to leave the country”.
    You wrote: “all the common criminals who were released from prison and causing a crime wave in Havana were loaded (forcibly if needed) onto the first boats to come in and leave”.
    Not so: the offenders not were released and then they could walk the streets and robbing the house, and after that then taken to Mariel. They were taken from the bars to the boats, directly and escorted by police.
    Most marielitos DECIDED to leave, others were FORCED to leave by disaffected or homosexuals and criminals were thrown to force in the boats, directly from prison.
    “That’s a major lie or misrepresentation of the facts”. Yes, but by whom?
    Anyway, thank you for your partial reading.

  • June 9, 2014 at 8:56 am

    Can you please post a source for your absurd and fanciful interpretation of the events of the Mariel crisis? I have read several histories of that event, some from anti-Castro writers and some from pro-Castro writers. Not even the regime’s own statements from that time support your nonsense. You are delusional.

  • June 9, 2014 at 5:25 am

    Fidel is still the “power behind the throne”. His recent protests, via Evo Morales and directly, show he wants to remain with his fingers on the buttons of power.
    Calling the US a state of “totalitarian capitalism” is indeed hypocrite as it is a lie. People that support a true totalitarian system like Castro’s Stalinist state should think twice before stating these propaganda lies.

  • June 9, 2014 at 5:11 am

    Indeed, not all prisoners in Cuba were and are political. Nobody ever truly claimed that. It is a fact though that lots of dissidents are sent to jail on trumped up charges to ensure they aren’t seen as political prisoners.
    A lot of con-political prisoners are also in jail because the violated repressive rules of the regime (smuggling, illegal fishing, trading without a license, …) out of necessity and despair.People go to jail for “smuggling” a couple of bags of potatoes or a few pounds of coffee to their families. In a sense they are victims of a regime that has politicized all aspects of life.
    Lastly there are those sentenced without having committed any crimes under the law of “pre-criminal dangerousness”. Lots of them are true political prisoners as the law is frequently used to silence people.

  • June 9, 2014 at 5:05 am

    According to people that were in the Mariel boat-lift those leaving were constantly harassed while waiting by students and others sent to try to divide families and stop people from leaving. It is also a fact that violent criminals were put on boats forcibly.
    The crude attempt of the regime to claim all were “anti-socials” and criminals is the real lie.

  • June 8, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    I was alive and politically active at the time of Mariel . I took special interest in the events surrounding the boatlift and all things leading up to it.
    I know very well that I am saying is factually correct .
    On your post: #1 DUH! OF COURSE no one in the “anti-Castro” ( a lie within a lie !) movement BELIEVED that all prisoners in Cuban prisons were political.
    They, like all opponents seemingly are forced to “embellish” their tales of horror about Cuba because the truth is usually not sufficient to stir much interest .
    #2 – After the Cubans released all the prisoners the U.S. stated that they needed time to go through the applicants or some such and left Cuba with all the prisoners running around the streets .
    #3. You use the U.S. as a model country and so I use it for comparison to Cuba and its undemocratic systems.

  • June 7, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    FACT (1) No one belonging to the anti-Castro movement in Miami believed that ALL prisoners in Cuba were in prison for their political beliefs.
    FACT (2) The US did not renege on its promise to accept all Cubans fleeing Castro’s oppression.
    FACT (3) Highlighting the failures of the US criminal justice system does not justify the tyranny of the Castro dictatorship.

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