By Maykel Paneque
HAVANA TIMES — A woman got onto the bus and shouted: “If one of them worms comes close to me, I’m going to spit at her in the face. And if they let me, I’ll take out one of her eyes. Let’s see if they stop protesting so much.” It was Sunday. 9 AM. I didn´t expect the expressions of hate and violence to start so early.
Everybody had been gathered together at the local Communist Party theater at 8:30 AM and the first order given by one of the neighborhood coordinators was: “We don´t have to touch them, that’s why the Marianas are there, who are in charge of beating them if necessary, and escorting them to patrol cars with our colleagues from MININT (Ministry of Interior). If they touch us, then we’ll see how we’re going to hit back.”
A roar of laughter broke out and the official then said: “One wrong blow to… (a pause of disgust?) one of these citizens, can lead our country being reported for violating human rights, and that would mean giving our next-door neighbor the pleasure to want to interfere here, like it has in other countries, so as to prevent a civil war.”
The citizens that this Party official was referring to were the Ladies in White. And the “task” for that day was “to forcefully respond against some comedians, who using lies, are trying to damage the Revolution and our historic leader Fidel Castro.” Heart-rending applause. Fists raised. Slogans. Indignation. As all of this was taking place in a theater hall, I couldn’t help but think that I was watching a play rehearsal. Then other instructions were given.
“Our role is to follow the comrades who are in charge of organizing and leading the confrontation.” “We will put on a revolutionary reaffirmation show, we will sing the National Anthem and the July 26th song, we will hold flags, we will wave around propaganda posters.” “We have to concentrate on the task at hand, if this fails, it can have serious consequences that will have an effect on our country’s prestige, the revolutionary peoples’ image.” “It is worth noting that we will all be watched there. So let’s be calm and disciplined when they tell us to be. I say this so that you know that nothing will be improvised, everything has been thought out to the smallest of details.” Party orders are like military orders: they are carried out, nobody questions them, she forgot to say.
The Crime of Dressing in White
Control. Confrontation. Surveillance. I thought about these words while the bus was moving forward, taking us somewhere, a place which people were speculating depending on the streets that the driver was taking. At the beginning, I heard that they were taking us to Miramar, then to the Parraga church and then, later, to Alamar. Speculations. Mystery.
When the bus finally came to a stop, we were in the Santo Suarez neighborhood, in the 10 de Octubre municipality. The confrontation had been planned to take place in front of the house on the corner of Cumbre and E Streets, where a meeting of the Ladies in White would take place, something which we found out at the exact moment.
We didn’t go directly to the house, but to a one-story garage three blocks down, with a really high pitched gable asbestos-cement roof. Inside, there were parked patrol cars and motorbikes, soldiers, police, Customs officials and many others dressed in civilian clothes. There was a smell of intrigue and that brooding sense of undercover operations. It was 9:47 AM.
Surveillance. Confrontation. Control. I thought about these words again while seats were being moved around to form circles and men and women sat down, according to the organization they belonged to: Young Communist League, Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, Federation of Cuban Women, Cuban Communist Party. Also by workplaces: Food and trade office, Cultural Center, health clinics, factories, education centers. At least three people from every organization or workplace. It was the minimum number of people that had to be met, in order to avoid finger-pointing, humiliation and sanctions, pay cuts, negative replies to traveling abroad, or lowering your rank in your job assessment evaluation. These are just some of the consequences you face if you don’t “voluntarily” come to an event which many people consider a farce, but it’s not well-advised to mark yourself with an unexcused absence.
Confrontation. Surveillance. Control. It’s hard not to think about these words, especially now when I’ve just been told a story about the community project “Amor a la vida”, a group of women where the majority have had breast cancer operations, who put on free art shows for children, teenagers and adults. One of their performance costumes, when they sing, is white. Even though they use this with a blue belt tied around the waist, that didn´t stop the alarm going off, phone calls, and an operation set up to descend on them because people thought they were the Ladies in White.
They couldn’t act that day because some of the women, the majority of whom are in their 60s and 70s, suffered from an increase in their blood pressure when the organized crowd confronted them with shouts, posters and wanting to hit them. Everything ended with a “healthy warning from a Peoples Power official: that they should avoid wearing white clothes, and if they do, they should notify the Party and crowd management organizations in advance so as to avoid confusion.
Waiting for the Barbarians
10:38 AM. A loud speaker was switched on and salsa music filled the air. Several people got up, danced Rueda de casino and laughed. The soldiers present didn’t, neither did the police. They only watched attentively. It must be because they have to wear a mandatory uniform. A woman approached me who was fixing up a 6-year-old girl’s hair. This seems to be a leisure activity, the kind that they throw when something is being celebrated, I said to her. “It’s to distract, don’t you get it? Any curious onlooker or independent journalist who wants to report something will see that we came here to have fun, not to organize a confrontation against the Ladies in White.” Ah, pretending. Trying to. That’s what this is about.
They suddenly started calling out to the future confronters. They hailed organizations, then workplaces and everybody was waiting to get a place in the queue where a group of people were handing out a heavy snack (bread well-filled with ham and cheese, yogurt and a dessert) and another more normal snack (bread with luncheon meat and a powdered soft drink). It was 11:48 AM. While people were chewing, with Los Van Van’s songs still in the background, stories continued to come out. A 60-something year old dancer, who hadn’t stopped moving or eating, sat down to drink water. She was sweating and smiling. “They say that these riffraff’s make some giant gorillas accompany them to protect them. But not even they will be able to save them if they began running their mouths with bullshit. You don’t mess around with the Revolution, we owe everything to it and we should always be grateful.”
“Have any of you seen those fans they use? They put razor blades on the ends so if anyone comes to hit them, all they have to do is open the fan and cut whoever is approaching them. More than one of us have gone home with our faces all cut up.” a young man told me, wearing rimless glasses and who didn’t stop chewing. The heat began to become unbearable under the asbestos-cement roof and several people nodded off after eating. Going out is prohibited, but some people did so and return with popcorn, ice cream tubs or shopping that comes wrapped in shopping bags: oil, soap, detergent. A few have sorted themselves out and have brought disguised bottles of rum. “To put up with the long day that lies ahead of us,” said a broad and sturdy woman who works in food service. I took out my phone and got caught.
I pretended to update my messages and I already had a plain clothes policeman on top of me. “Comrade, taking photos is forbidden here. They can take away your phone, your camera or any other device you might use to try and record the event. I’m telling you for your own good, so that you can’t say that we didn’t warn you.” How could I forget? I live in a country where spontaneity is a luxury which you pay for dearly.
I went outside to stretch my legs. I walked blocks and blocks. On every corner and halfway point, policemen, soldiers and loyal State Security collaborators lie in wait dressed as civilians. Restless and unsettled. Some of them communicate using walkie talkies. They give and receive orders. When I returned to where the crowd was, it was 1:42 PM. I thought that we would have been going back to the pickup point by now.
“The worst thing is that sometimes we’re left waiting around because they want us to. Those damn women make us come all the way here and then they don’t even protest. Yeah, maybe we’ve come today just to waste time, it wouldn’t be the first time,” said a 50-something year old man who was bragging, as if he were talking about the medals he had on his chest, the 27 times he had taken part in one of these “revolutionary protests so as to prevent our socialism from being destroyed,” like they say.
Crippled by thirst, heat, the waiting around, the confronters hardly spoke. They even whispered about the fact that they had lost another day, that “the worms had begun to understand the Revolution’s undefeated force,” who “are scared auras who need to be suffocated once and for all,” “rats who should never be left out of sight because they take advantage to bite you and spit out their counter-revolutionary venom.”
Then, suddenly, everything started moving to and fro. The alarm had been sounded, “they’re ready, we’re going to leave.” Banners and flags were unfolded which had been kept out of sight until that moment. In a rage, the caravan started moving up the street. Six children were sat on their parents’ shoulders. “So they can start defending the Revolution against this white plague from an early age,” said a bald, hefty man wearing black glasses. It was exactly 4 PM.
Confronters were already lined up along one side of the two-story house, on the corner of Cumbre and E streets, where seven Ladies in White, and two men who made themselves visible, were hatching a “conspiracy against the Cuban State.” A man appeared in the top story doorway with bars. A videocamera was resting on a tripod. Equipped behind the film crew, the man seemed to zoom in. He was looking to record footage.
The heated crowd waved around its huge flags, one with a lonely star, the other with the July 26th logo. They held on tight onto banners painted in red: “The Revolution is immortal.” Numerous posters appeared with the Five Heroes, Fidel and Raul Castro, Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro. They sung the National Anthem, louder every time, because voices were shouting the following from the top floor: “Cuba yes, Castros no! You can hear them, you can feel them, the Ladies in White are here.”
The crowd broke out into a chant and began to shout its slogans “Cuba and Castro yes, worms no”, “Counter-revolution no, Homeland yes” “Long live Fidel, long live Raul, let the riffraff die, end of worms!
Calm. Silence. A truce that lasted for several minutes. A hanging peace until it broke from one moment to another. It’s a question of waiting. Waiting which throws you off center and exhausts you under a sun that has just started to go down, but is still suffocating. Suddenly, flyers started flying down, coming from the top floor, they scattered about with the wind. I tried to find a way through, but two plain clothed men blocked my path. “Where are you going? You have to stay here with us.” “I want to know what’s written on those bits of paper.” “Counter-revolutionary bullshit, that’s all. You can’t pass through here without permission, so stay here. We don’t know why you came here because we haven’t seen you taking part in the confrontation, but we won’t let you pass to see what this vile garbage says.” Several men scattered about really quickly and picked up all of the bits of paper that had been thrown or crumpled up in people’s hands and were thrown into a plastic bag.
Calm was reinstated, a false calm that hides some of the uproar that is about to take place. “It seems like they won’t come out onto the street today and they’ll stay locked up there,” I heard somebody say behind me. Maybe the truce will rear its uncertain head until the next confrontation the following Sunday, and the following ones. Another state-devoted Sunday lost in the attempt to defeat the Ladies in White, which will never happen, at least until there are changes in the country’s government and in the view towards creating a multi-party system.
Has it been ten minutes, fifteen minutes? Suddenly, the battle cry breaks out, the echo of angry voices filled with hate and confusion, talking in the name of insults. It seemed that the Ladies in White had finished their meeting and those who live in other places had decided to leave to go home. Restlessness. Pushing and shoving. Two women dressed as soldiers held a Lady in White and escorted her forcefully to a patrol car. Four female soldiers escorted her. The same thing happened to another two Ladies. They said something that I couldn´t make out. The last one, before getting into the military vehicle, shouted: “I love my country. My only crime is that I can´t stand the Castros and their government. Long live Cuba! Down with the Castros! The compact unit of protesters broke and everybody went to surround the patrol cars, shaking their fists and waving their banners.
I took advantage of the dispersion, the frenzy, the heated mood, to take some photos. The police cars that were holding the Ladies in White against their will took off fast, turned a corner burning rubber and disappeared. “Where are they taking them?” I asked the woman next to me. “They’re taking them to a police station, they give them a warning and then they take them home so that people don’t lynch them.” The people in uniform. The same people unable to lead a project on their own independently decide to lynch unarmed women.
I saw a truck parked on the corner that had closed off the street. It was carrying two huge loudspeakers. Music exploded. It was the song “Me dicen Cuba” (They call me Cuba) by Alexander Abreu. The confronters began to sing with their banners and flags still in their hands. They had come together and formed a group again. Like a column of protestors, they reached the front of the house and began to shout revolutionary slogans again, shouting “Long live a free Cuba, without worms”, until a woman dressed in white behind bars began to throw buckets of water. Somebody even said “die you damned women” from the crowd of protestors.
Returning to Paradise
Sweaty and happy faces dispersed, happy with a job well-done. Another great feat to tell their neighbors and friends, and their descendants when they grow up. Many of them dance as they walked while they were being led to the bus that would at last take them back. I approach an acquaintance of mine who works at the Antillana de Acero. “You’re here?,” he asked me surprised. “You too,” I replied. “You’re kidding, they take away my incentive in hard currency [if I don’t attend], not from you though.”
The woman who earlier had been combing her 6-year-old girl’s here walked by our side. “Would you have come voluntarily to this confrontation? I mean, if they hadn´t summoned you, would you have still come?” I asked her. “Whose side are you on? “Tell me!” she replied in a bad mood. “Those women who are bought by Imperialism´s money need to be treated like this or worse, silencing them with beatings. If only they let me.”
Silencing them with beatings. The auras, the worms, the rats, the comedians. Why? Because they think differently? Because they say what they think? Because they reveal uncomfortable truths? Beating is necessary if you want people to be silent. Defending the Revolution has also become a threat to the freedom of expressing your opinions. “Believe what I believe, or I’ll hurt you as best I can. Think like me or die!” says the dogma of fanaticism according to Voltaire.
For over two centuries, in a society where democracy and civil participation in the country’s future are still being planted, force still prevails as the means to suffocate diversity, whether that is on the political or art scene. “Everything with the Revolution, nothing against the Revolution.” The marriage of dogma and blindness. Also of censorship, ostracism and just because.
We were all aboard the bus. The person in charge checks that everyone who had come is there. He gives the driver the order and he gets the bus moving. A heavy sadness continues to float around in the air even though we have left the place of action. Silence them with beatings. Stories are then told again, the alleged victory against the barbarians. They remember other confrontations, the well-deserved lynching. There is joy in being the men and women to hold the whip, the arrogance and misunderstanding. You have to beat them if necessary in order to make them quiet. The silence of auras, the worms, the rats, the comedians… They have instilled hate so deep within us that it seems normal to express it, like daily bread. The man with 27 invisible medals on his chest for having taking part so many times in this Cuban Comedy was near me. “Why were there so much police and so many soldiers at the confrontation?” I asked him. “To prevent us from jumping them, comrade.”
Ah. The Party in the name of the Revolution organizes this farce and to top this off, the Revolution’s repressive force are the flag bearers, the protectors of the barbarians, those in charge to make sure that the stunned crowd doesn’t jump the Ladies in White to beat them.
Trying to control freedom of speech has also made us cynical. So many resources invested in food, transport and other supplies to show the world something that is unsustainable and a burlesque show: the police, soldiers and State Security disguised as civilians, controlling a people who have had intolerance and hate instilled in them against the freedom of opinion by the Revolution itself. This spell of hate has made us all blind.
It was 6:17 PM. I think about the confronters again, in their supposed victory, and I can’t help but think one thing: tomorrow, it will be one of our daughters, one of our mothers who will be the ones to say No in front of an offended Power, and they will be the next in line to be humiliated, the new witnesses of political persecution, in the name of the Revolution and the utopia of a democracy which believes it has the right to point the finger at and treat the Ladies in White cruelly because they think differently.