HAVANA TIMES — The practice known as the acto de repudio (reprisals) in Cuba has a terrible range of anti-social implications that make it a perverse innovation within tropical Stalinism.
Following its choreographic instructions, common citizens and plain-clothes State Security agents are mobilized to carry out the personal, moral and civic lynching of a defenseless individual. The process has been endured by poets, journalists, community leaders and the wives of political prisoners.
As an observant colleague points out, at its core the reprisals are a cynical and abusive practice, for the true author is the State/government, which pits a group of citizens against another with impunity and in an advantageous situation. It is an official initiative that is entirely different from the spontaneous protests staged by citizens around the world to condemn the abuses of an unpopular politician or a corrupt entrepreneur. It competes with similar tactics employed by the dictatorships of Somoza, Noriega and Pinochet.
The Cuban State has long employed these tactics against its critics, both on the island and abroad. It has even used it against people who do not actively oppose it but who simply choose to turn their back on utopia at a given moment. During the 1980s, in the midst of the Mariel exodus crisis, the country’s high leadership pitted Cubans against those who wished to leave the country. Insults, beatings, and the throwing of stones and eggs at homes and individuals marked more than one life and subjected many to trauma, pain and shame (simply imagine the children who witnessed or suffered these actions). A friend of mine even lost a neighbor, who suffered a heart attack during this uncivil harassment.
Like many, my family, which considered itself “revolutionary” and loyal to Fidel Castro, however it refused to join these fascist mobs. It even went further than that. I recall that, during those sad days, a friend from school would come over to my place. He was a shy kid from a humble family, whose parents had been stigmatized as “disaffected.” Recently, this person found me on Facebook and, in his message, full of vivid memories, he thanked me for the moments of joy he found in my home, where he found the toys he didn’t have and the friend he was denied elsewhere.
Like me, my friend left Cuba and today lives abroad. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of other Cubans live beyond the island’s borders, and their remittances help those they left behind to get by. Before, they were scum. Today, they are referred to as “Cuban émigrés.” No few of them, however (and putting all technicalities aside) are in fact exiles, banished from a specific way of life, individuals who fled a country where dissent, autonomous forms of organization and even seeking to realize the ever-changing aims of the “revolution” with independent thought were penalized.
The years go by, some things change, but the nature of such practices remains the same. Cuba has even brought about the trans-nationalization of these acts of reprisals, through Cuban embassies that organize, with the enthusiastic collaboration of naïve youths (who truly believe they are fighting imperialism) and the participation of seasoned Stalinists, these shameful spectacles, at cultural and social fora in other countries. The reprisals against blogger Yoani Sanchez and those recently staged at the Civil Society forum held in Panama, in the presence of Cuban dissidents, are recent cases in point.
But the worst takes place on a daily basis back home. The last incident evincing the political manipulation that the Cuban State continues to employ – and the precarious degree of disinformation and incivility that affects part of the population – can be seen in a video (below) where residents of the neighborhood of Miramar, Havana, demand that the authorities put an end to the Sunday rallies of the Ladies in White. Their demand is based on the claim that these affect the peace of the neighborhood, public morale and the education and stability of their children. They are addressing the same authorities that have no qualms about taking children to “reprisals” and exposing them to physical and emotional violence. We are talking about the same people who do not complain when the State takes their children out of the classroom, but who now exercise their right to make public petitions to ask that the right to protest be taken away from fellow citizens. In their demands they call on the State to continue to punish the already oppressed.
The background to this tragedy is easy to grasp: if the rule of law existed in Cuba, those who support or oppose the government would be entitled to protest in a peaceful manner and under the protection of the authorities. If this isn’t the case, that’s because our political system does not embody any kind of democratic model – neither the liberal-representative nor the popular-participative one. It is quite simply a mechanism for administering, without any counterweights or ratificatory channels at the citizen level, the enormous power that the hopeful masses gave a handful of military strong-men more than half a century ago. We are not, however, condemned to be like this forever.
We can, for instance, imagine that those who defend the “revolution” – they do exist and have their reasons to do so – could rally down Old Havana’s Paseo promenade, towards Revolution Square, while dissidents would enjoy the right to do so down 5ta Avenida, in Miramar. When that can happen, I assume some important questions would be answered. Can a simple protest rally overthrow a government that boasts of massive popular support? Can the Cuban police play the same regulatory and non-repressive role that law as order forces in sister nations (such as Argentina and Ecuador) play during demonstrations by citizens? Will we confirm that those faces we see time and time again, yelling at the top of their lungs during public reprisals, are average, common Cubans who negotiate the agony of looking for food and transportation to go and show support for their government? Will it finally be demonstrated that government opponents are a handful of “mercenaries and imperialist agents”?
I dream of the day in which all Cuban citizens and foreign sympathizers of this phenomenon some still call the “revolution” simply refuse to lend their bodies and words to these fascist practices, in my native country and abroad. I recall that black and irreverent poet who, during a forum organized by several colleagues at a cultural institution in Havana, was applauded after condemning reprisals as one of the shameful aspects of “our revolutionary process.” Unfortunately, that applause did not turn into a Decalogue or an axiom for the majority of those present, who today look the other way when these things take place. It is not a question of embracing one ideology or another, of becoming a dissident activist or distancing oneself from the official discourse of the Cuban government. It is a question of simply saying “no”, once and for all.
Ultimately, the “reprisal” – like any attempt at legitimating or concealing it – is a form of domination that dehumanizes, crushes souls and places a high wall on the road towards civility. One need not become a martyr. One need only refuse to join in and feel that this refusal makes a difference. When decent and thinking people of any creed or political affiliation refuse to legitimate such a loathsome practice, the Cuban nation and its global allies will have taken a civilizing step forward. Throughout this period in history, Cuba has known common citizens whose personal ethics – Christian, neighborly or revolutionary – has prevented them from turning into thugs or predators.