The Repressor I Could Have Been

Photo: El Toque

By Jose Leandro Garbey (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – I have never liked uniforms; they never suited me. Twice I was close to becoming a repressor. Both times I was in uniform. I didn’t want to be there, but I was. If I had received the order, perhaps today, I would be a repressor.


A crowd surrounds the metal gate that leads to the house of Rogelio Tabio Lopez, a man I don’t know, but hate. It is October 2010. Inside the house located at Carlos Manuel and 6th Street North, in Guantanamo, a dozen members of the Movement of Resistance and Democracy are under siege by State Security, the police, and hundreds of civilians who, like me, have been mobilized from various schools and workplaces to be used by the regime to mask the repression.

Pedestrian traffic is interrupted at the corners. A patrol. Motorized officers. Plainclothes agents loitering around the house. A few meters away, dozens of uniforms from junior high and high school stand out; minors who, without any explanations, were brought to that place. Turned by our teachers into passive protagonists of a hate rally.

A woman observes through a small gap in a window. She seems scared, under the pressure of a mob shouting slogans and insults as if they were bitter enemies separated by the most piercing betrayal.

Perhaps, years ago, she was the doctor who attended the birth of the child who now labels her a worm. Perhaps she was another single mother who has raised her children alone and abandoned to fate, without government help, and days before argued with a bureaucrat in an office to which one of her tormentors went in a desperate attempt to solve her housing problem. Perhaps she was the teacher who, before being expelled from her workplace, taught about Martí to the young woman who in a couple of hours will see her father hoarse, lying on the couch, after venting his anger in a hate rally.

Maybe among those present is a friend of her family; there may even be an unknown relative of the woman protecting herself behind an oxidized gate covered with anti-government phrases.

Reproducing the regime’s symbolic violence is common in Cuba, even involuntarily. In popular slang, there is little difference between a dissident and a worm. These are the consequences of the totalitarian dehumanization process and, in the case of a repressor, serve as a tool to normalize indifference to injustice. You can beat someone without a name. It is possible to crush a worm because of its repugnant appearance. You can lead a hate rally because the mercenary deserves it and it won’t be the last one they will endure. With the club about to strike someone else’s body, you don’t think that the victim could be a possible teacher, mother, doctor, friend, or relative. It is an order given… and executed. Job done.

I retain some memories of the events intact. Until recently, I tried to blame the innocence of someone who, being a teenager, considered them insignificant and assumed that time would erase the memory. Something not significant for someone who didn’t hit, didn’t carry signs, didn’t shout slogans… but was there. Not confronting the offense, to some extent, makes you feel complicit. It’s approaching the dangerous red line of apathy. Becoming a silent spectator in an extreme phase of hatred.

Being naive does not absolve you from guilt. One day you become aware of the seriousness of the events and their consequences. You feel miserable for the absurd attempt to escape responsibility.

In the following years, I didn’t hear of the Movement of Resistance and Democracy again. Occasionally, I walked on the other side of the street, quickening my pace to avoid catching the attention of those monitoring through the cameras installed by State Security at the corners. For a few seconds, I lost sight of that metal gate that had been painted over to hide what its owners had written.

At that time, I considered it an act of rebellion to listen at full volume to the defiant themes of “Los Aldeanos” in the solitude of an empty house. I still reacted with intrigue when hiding books by some censored author that I had exchanged with friends. I had never accessed the Internet. I was not aware of the repressive nature of the Cuban State. I always spoke of excesses, not dictatorship. I had enemies. Unknown. Faceless. People who, if they stood next to me, would be impossible to identify. But they were different. So different that, from my self-imposed moral superiority, they were questioned because of the stories I heard about their betrayals of their people.

Even as a minor, I received the official summons from the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) notifying me of the date of the medical examination for Military Service. I was in 12th grade and passing the entrance exams to enter university was my main priority. Unknowingly, initially, I had been selected by Military Counterintelligence to join Prevention — a special troops unit that performs the functions of military police and, in exceptional situations, supports the Ministry of the Interior.

One of my relatives mentioned the possibility of, through a contact on the medical commission, getting me declared unfit for FAR, which would automatically free me from Military Service. But I lacked the maturity to make such a significant decision. I had never been away from home. My friends were being recruited. I didn’t want to be the exception. It is the age when adventure is romanticized, and risks are minimized. So, I went from home to a military unit; from a classroom to a shooting range; from a book to a Kalashnikov rifle; from one uniform to another.


It took just a few minutes after enlistment to confirm that it would never be my place. There’s nothing like military life to disgust you with regulations and dogmas. There, the docile and compliant suffer less, the kids who love being subservient. I was never one of those. The most frustrating thing is being led by people, often arrogant and inept, intoxicated with power. Who order the implausible and are incapable of accepting their mistakes. More than once, I was on the verge of ending up in prison for almost getting into a fight with a superior.

If you refuse to comply, prison. If you protest, prison. If you are caught trying to escape, prison. A Cuban military unit is a microcosm of life in the country — or vice versa.

Every day there was equally monotonous. Stand up. Breakfast. Infantry. Cleaning. Lunch. Tactics and confrontation. Personal defense. Bathing. Public service. Orders followed by new orders: “Attention! At ease! Attention! March! Halt! Attention!”

It’s April 2014, and in front of the small park marking the entrance to the block of Military Counterintelligence offices in Guantanamo, a group of soldiers stands in formation. Sweaty. Hungry. Meanwhile, two officers discuss a mission, intervening in a popular revolt if necessary. Avoiding glances. An attempt to disguise the disgust that comes with dressing as police in the street. Marked as snitches. Worse yet, being forced to do what a police officer does best, repress. Waiting for the order from the CIM leadership. A point of no return.

There was no way to avoid punishment for refusing to follow such an order. The 1979 Military Offenses Law, in force at the time, stated: “Anyone who expressly refuses to comply with an order from a superior related to service or military discipline, or intentionally fails to comply with it, shall be punished with deprivation of liberty for six months to three years.” The regulation also indicated that if committed by a group, it would result in severe consequences, with the possible sanction extending up to eight years. Another offense, collective complaint — in groups of more than three soldiers — carried a sanction of deprivation of liberty from six months to five years.

The decision between ending up in prison or repressing was not of interest to any of those present. An existential dilemma. Beating people “guilty” of raising their voices against a totalitarian power that proclaims itself the owner and lord of their lives or being beaten with the force of a military tribunal.

For good behavior, one might be released from a military prison in a few months but attempts to wash away a repressor’s actions will never be effective. Blaming violence on decisions made by a superior is just a desperate attempt to avoid being consumed by guilt, to exorcise demons. A burden carried for life.

Time unfolds its slowest pace while a score of armed soldiers fall victim to the tension of waiting. Minds lost, far from that damned place. No jokes or stories. Only a sepulchral silence. Hours later, we were notified that we would not go into action. Instant relief. Even today, I am not aware of what would have happened if we had received the order. I try not to think about it.

After completing Military Service, I never walked down that street again. Then I said goodbye to Guantanamo. Until a few days ago, I had not inquired about the heretics whom, at one point, indoctrination made me hate. Only today have I seen Rogelio Tabio’s face on the Internet. I have read about his hunger strikes and the persecution his family has suffered for years. Today I empathize. I wish to let him know that his ideology holds no importance to me. I would apologize for my indifference. I would ask one favor, please read these lines.

Then I imagine the uncritical mob returns, shouting in front of that rusty gate full of anti-government phrases behind which the fearful woman I do not know shields herself. At that moment, I begin to learn about her life. I hear her name, whether she is a teacher or a doctor, a mother or a friend. For the first time, I ask her to share her fear. Her courage.

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