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Keeping the lid on dissent

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Keeping the
lid on dissent

Elizardo Sanchez is Cuba’s best-known human-rights dissident, head of the Comision Cubana de Derechos Humanos y Reconciliación Nacional (Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation). He has spent eight-and-a-half of the last 20 years in jail for his outspoken views. Wayne Ellwood spoke to him at his home in Havana.

What kind of leeway do you have to work on human-rights issues here in Cuba?
Despite the peaceful nature of our work the Government refuses legal recognition of our group. We’re prohibited from having a computer, a fax machine, a photocopier and other office equipment.
In fact, we can’t really have offices. We have to work in our houses. This house has been subject to police searches, assaults and stone throwings by the authorities or their collaborators on ten different occasions over the past 18 years.

Why doesn’t the Government permit opposing political views?
For the same reason North Korea, China, Romania and East Germany didn’t permit different opinions. But there is an important difference. In those countries socialism arrived with a red flag flying over a tank. Here there was a profound, broadly-based popular revolution. We ended up with a government which is a hybrid between the totalitarian model of Eastern Europe and the caudillismo (strong-man) model of Latin America. This explains the strength of the Cuban Government and its enormous capacity for social control – whether by means of repression or propaganda. It’s like a system of inter-locking tiles in our society which is capable of observing every individual person. That is why people are almost defenceless and unable to respond to this Government. It’s like having your hands tied.

Do you think the Government would win open, multi-party elections?
This Government maintains a broad base of popular support. Nonetheless, I believe if free elections were held the Government would be defeated and that’s the main reason they don’t do it. Personally, I believe we shouldn’t have elections in the short term. The country is not prepared to live through the shock at the level of either the political or economic order. We need a gradual and orderly transition.

What kinds of pressures are there on human-rights activists here?
As soon as you raise any kind of objection to the Government you are declared a non-person. Because the Government controls all employment the first consequence is that you lose your job. This happened to me in 1968. I was a professor of Marxist philosophy at the University of Havana. There was a small-scale ‘cultural revolution’ then, a wave of ideological intolerance against thinkers who questioned the orthodox Stalinist approach of the time. The same fate happened to many hundreds of others.

Is it your feeling that the Government seems to be opening up economically but not politically?
The Government doesn’t want any kind of real economic reform; it makes changes because they are convenient. Take the legalization of the dollar. That satisfied the Government’s own desperate need for dollars. First to finance its machinery of repression and propaganda. And second to finance certain minimum conditions of life for the population, but only at the level of subsistence. We have a totalitarian system of state ownership and that’s the reason why each day we are more poor. If Karl Marx were living in Cuba today he would have been shot or imprisoned because Marx would have been saying that the Government needs to liberate the forces of production. The Government doesn’t recognize this necessity and that’s the main reason we’ve had a system of rationing for the past 35 years.

Do you think the US Embargo is helping or hurting the human-rights cause in Cuba?
There needs to be an immediate lifting of economic sanctions by the United States, beginning with the sale of food and medicine. In my view it is immoral, inhuman and illegal to deny Cuba the possibility of buying food and medicine in our closest market. Powerful political forces in Miami and Washington say the blockade will bring ‘liberty and democracy’ to Cuba. I don’t know of one case in world history where killing people with hunger or preventing them from treating their sick has brought democracy and happiness.

Can you describe the current situation of human-rights dissidents here?
We have more space than we did five years ago. But we’ve paid a very high price with all the years of repression. Our investigation shows that Cuba has the highest number of prisoners of conscience in Latin America in proportion to the size of its population The majority are in for common crimes but there are 500-700 political prisoners and thousands of others accused of peligrosidad social (social dangerousness). They’re jailed on the basis of a police accusation for a period of up to four years – without proof, without witnesses and usually without a defence lawyer. In 1959 there were 12 prisons here, now there are more than 300. Why? Because the totalitarian model needs many prisons and a big repressive apparatus to maintain social control.

So what can be done to improve human rights in Cuba?
We’re committed to a peaceful formula of transition, a process of national reconciliation that includes all Cubans with the current Government as the main protagonist. Inside Cuba I believe the human- rights movement, other dissident political groups and the churches support this. Unfortunately, conservatives in Washington and in the exile community in Miami don’t. Nor does the Government of Cuba. For recommending this process we are attacked from both sides. The Government says I and my compañeros are paid by Washington and the CIA. And the radical exiles in Miami say we’re paid by Fidel. In the end nobody pays us. We’re completely independent.

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New Internationalist issue 301 magazine cover This article is from the May 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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