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Cuban hunger strikes deserve our attention

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While dozens of activists flocked to Washington Square Park for last weekend’s Folk Festival, a couple dozen Cuban dissidents conducted hunger strikes throughout Cuba. The protesters in the park consisted mainly of fringe groups opposed to capitalism — socialists and remnants of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Cuban dissidents sought the release of Jorge Vázquez Chaviano, a man who remained incarcerated even after fully serving his prison sentence. The Cuban government failed to provide a reason for prolonging his captivity — imposing a judgment without trial, as per usual.

The OWS activists sang tunes about protest while the anti-capitalists held up banners denouncing greed and debt. They presented an array of serious issues coupled with dubious solutions. The socialists in particular advocated an alternative form of government able to circumvent most of the ills faced by the United States. Their methods were far tamer than a hunger strike, and yet they garnered far more media attention.

Those demonstrating in favor of socialism packed their belongings at nightfall and simply returned to enjoying the full benefits of the capitalist society in which we live. For those demonstrating against the self-declared socialist government in Cuba, nightfall only meant the inevitable continuation of hunger and exhaustion. In recent years, these hunger strikes have ended in death simply because of the Cuban government’s adversity to negotiation.

Surprisingly, such a blatant abuse of human rights did not receive widespread media attention in the United States. Within our campus, even among those immersed in activism and politics, few could speak of the Cuban dissident movement with authority. This creates a paradoxical situation in which a society deeply concerned with freedom and human rights ignores the plight of a country located only ninety miles away from our coast.

Two major factors account for the lack of mainstream debates on Cuba: national security and public opinion. Cuba does not pose a liability to U.S. security nor does it possess significant economic assets. As a result, Cuba’s opposition movements have seldom garnered the media attention given to many countries of the Arab Spring. Yet Cuba’s democratic spring has dragged on for the past 20 years. Dissident movements against the authoritarian government have been met with imprisonment, torture and even execution.

Many believe Cuba boasts exemplary education and health care systems — even though the country is poor. These myths form part of the official government propaganda, which advertises Cuba as a country oppressed by U.S. influence. For example, the socialists at Washington Square Park advertised their message through the iconic image of Che Guevara. A prima facie, his image evokes an exalted notion of revolution, hope and the struggle for the working classes. The less glamorous truth regarding Guevara involves the routine execution of prisoners without trials and his role in creating Cuba’s current government. This duality helps us understand a country that some decry for its human rights records while others laud for its apparent progress.

Back in Cuba, dissidents halted their hunger strike after the government announced  Chaviano’s ensuing release. The courage of thirty citizens prevailed against a 50-year-old dictatorship. This episode highlights a continuous struggle for freedom within Cuba that will gain momentum as more people learn the truth. Unfortunately, this attention has yet to gain a foothold in the United States.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 24 print edition. Carlos Estevez is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]

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11 Responses to “Cuban hunger strikes deserve our attention”

  1. Marie on September 24th, 2012 11:14 am

    Well-written piece on a topic very deserving of our attention. For 53 years the Cuban people have lived under oppressive authoritarian rule. Those hailing Cuba’s supposedly marvelous healthcare and education system are only victims of an aggressive state propaganda machine aiming to garner credibility with a fringe intellectual left that is tone deaf to ongoing systematic violations against human dignity. Kudos to you for calling out this astounding hypocrisy.

  2. Matt on September 24th, 2012 3:14 pm

    Dear Carlos,

    As someone who was in Cuba and witnessed the dissident actions during the Pope’s visit to Cuba in March, which Jorge Vázquez Chaviano was arrested trying to attend, I want to say that your op-ed shows a real lack of understanding about Cuba.

    I will start by saying that you are right that Cuba is largely ignored by people in the US because it poses no real security threat and has no real economic assets. However, this does not mean that alleged human right abuses are under reported. In fact, it’s the opposite. The lack of interest in Cuba in the US has allowed the exile community in Miami to hijack the narrative on Cuba, forcing politicians of both parties to continue the embargo, since the exiles vote in bloc and Florida is a swing state. Why is rhetoric calling Castro an evil tyrant, akin to hitler, accepted with no questions in the US? Why is it that nobody talks about the atrocities committed by the US-backed dictator Batista before he was overthrown by the revolution? Why is it ignored that US-funded anti-Castro terrorism has killed over 3,000 Cubans since the revolution? Why does the media leave out the most important voices in this debate: actual Cubans who live in Cuba?

    Because of the exile’s control of the narrative, dissident activity in Cuba is pretty much the only thing that foreign media reports on in Cuba. This is somewhat difficult, since there are virtually no dissidents in Cuba. This is not to say that people aren’t critical of the regime. In fact, I’d say most Cubans are. However, if you were to walk the streets of Havana and talk to people, you’d find that hardly anyone wants to march through the streets in protest, let alone start a counter-revolution.

    The day before the Pope came to Cuba, I attended a protest with Las Damas de Blanco (the Ladies in White), who are perhaps the most well-known dissident group in Cuba. Amid intelligence that the government would not tolerate the march, over 60 journalists from every media organization imaginable attended the march. There were less than 30 protesters. There were no attempts made to stop the march. After getting some interviews about the “horrible repression” going on in Cuba, the media went back to their 5-star hotels to sip mojitos before going back to the US.

    What these journalists ignored were the attitudes of the average Cuban towards Castro and the dissidents. Almost everyone I talked to about the protests dismissed the Damas as US-backed mercenaries, a fact in part due to government propaganda, but also due to documents exposing the group receiving funding from the US special interests section. Some people who I talked to were pretty happy with the regime. I talked to a member of the Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas (the Young Communists League), who while admitting there were many problems in Cuba, said that he couldn’t complain about the free college education and living stipend he received. I talked to people who were much more critical of the regime as well. I met a teenager who had dropped out of high school because he felt there was no future for him in the country. He was trying to teach himself English in hopes of going to the US or Canada.

    The one thing that almost every Cuban I talked to was a sense of national pride, a belief that a return to US Imperialism does not equal democracy. Fidel Castro and the revolution brought a sense of identity to the island for the first time in its history of colonialism, first the Spanish and then the US. The US is constantly questioning that sovereignty. Castro has used this threat on Cuban sovereignty to justify special executive powers. In a way, it’s similar to George Bush after 9/11. Many Americans were opposed to the Patriot Act, wiretaps, and torture. However, this does not mean that they supported Bin Laden and the terrorists.

    One cannot argue that Castro’s aggressive policies haven’t been effective at maintaining the longest-lasting socialist regime in history. You can argue that they are not necessary. However, if you take a look Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president of Chile who was assassinated with funding by the CIA, you can see the justification. The US was, has, and will always be the reason for legitimizing socialism in Cuba.

    Finally, before you dismiss me as an ignorant tourist, let me say that Cuba is no paradise. The average wage is less than $20 USD a month, the majority of the population has no internet access, and roads, pipes, and electrical service are often sketchy to say the least. However, during my three months there, I was constantly amazed by how much Cubans did with so little. Cuba is a poor country. Socialism did not make Cuba poor. In line with Dependency Theory, Cuba’s single crop economy (sugar), has made the country dependent on a larger country, first Spain, then the US, and finally the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union fell, the country went into the worst depression that it ever experienced. It was only because of the strict government rationing controls and remittances from relatives in the US, which many exiles are opposed to by the way, that the country was able to make it out.

    The way I feel is that in Cuba, socialism makes a lot out of a little, but doesn’t create more. Despite spending far less per-capita than in the US, the average life-expectancy in Cuba is the same as the US, along with infant mortality and literacy. Government subsidies make art and culture affordable to virtually everyone. I was hospitalized in Cuba and the service I received seemed comparable to what I’d receive in the US, although I admit that it was in a hospital specifically for foreigners, actually the one featured in Michael Moore’s Sicko.

    All of this is not to say that the country is not in dire poverty. All I mean to say is that I know no country on this planet where the majority of the population could function off so little material wealth and not be in utter misery all the time, which is definitely not the case with many Cubans now.

    Also, although socialists are a part of it, Occupy Wall Street is not an inherently socialist movement.

    Matt Sezer

  3. Sergio on September 24th, 2012 8:27 pm


    Thank you for your passion for the topic. As a Cuban living outside the island, I really appreciate it because it gets at the heart of what Carlos is trying to promote: American awareness of the situation in Cuba. I single out America, as I believe Carlos has, because in other countries with the moral and democratic strength to sympathize with Cuba (the European Union) this awareness does exist. Perhaps having endured a dictatorship makes a nation more sympathetic to these issues.

    I’ll take the liberty of ignoring the rhetorical nature of your questions and offer some answers:
    First, the narrative of Castro as an evil tyrant isn’t entirely the responsibility of the Cuban exile, it is very much in line with the American-as-apple-pie anti-Communist sentiment product of the American Red Scares and McCarthyism. Secondly, I think in the minds of many Americans the words “evil” and “tyrant” are redundant. Since Fidel is doubtlessly a tyrant (“an absolute ruler unrestrained by law or constitution” per Merriam-Webster’s definition), there is no question to Americans that he is also an “evil tyrant.”
    Nobody talks about the atrocities committed by past dictators because in the case of Cuba, those have no effects on the lives of people anymore.
    “US-funded,” “terrorism,” and “killed over 3000 Cubans” need further explanation. Those are disputable phrases.
    The most interesting question of all: “Why does the media leave out the most important voices in this debate: actual Cubans who live in Cuba?” You are right, those are indeed the most important voices in this debate. One reason they are left out is that those voices are often mouthpieces for government propaganda which the international media rightly refuses to grant a wider audience. Those are the voices you can hear by the hundreds chanting “Patria o Muerte” (“Homeland or Death”) at the Plaza de la Revolución. How to tell their choir is orchestrated by the government? Well, who would employ their every Sunday or Saturday morning at political rallies under the Havana sun? Who if not those who are bussed to the place, their attendance a condition to keeping their jobs? Cubans living in Cuba who are critical of the regime have two options: 1) make their voices heard through blogs and activism like Yoani Sanchez, the Ladies in White, and others, or 2) keep silent for fear of persecution and prosecution. (See http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/sep/18/cuba-hunger-panfilo-internet). I suspect that same fear is what kept many people from candidly expressing their feelings to you.
    A crucial point I think you failed to make –whether out of carelessness or lack of conviction– is that autocratic governments are categorically undesirable. Nothing justifies those. Nothing legitimizes them. Not greater national unity, which can be more properly attributed to the identity-building property of shared grievances. Not the Comandante’s fear of losing his life or power at the hands of CIA funded assassins. Not the food or education or healthcare handouts, all heavily conditioned and rationed, and instrumental to the regime’s survival. Nothing.
    What makes a dictatorship bad isn’t lack of internet access, or the sketchiness of roads, pipes, and electrical services. It has to do with human rights, personal freedoms, and human dignity.

  4. Carlos Estevez on September 24th, 2012 8:05 pm

    Hi Matt,

    First of all, I want to thank you for your comment. I appreciate that you took the time to craft a response to the article. I really can’t tell you how glad I am that the article sparked commentary. If you’d ever want to get together and discuss Cuba in person I’d be more than happy to do so. I agree that OWS is not an inherently socialist movement; it was not my intention to make it seem so. You raise many interesting points, which I’ll try to address as well as I can. For the time being, I’ll limit myself to the first so that readers will not be deterred to read on by the length of my comment.

    The first point that you make is that I have a “real lack of understanding about Cuba.” This really puzzles me; given that I have lived most of my life in Cuba .You could argue that living in Cuba itself, is not enough to understand the island. Perhaps because communication is so rudimentary and inefficient, you could say that I do not know the whole Cuba? Certainly in anthropology there have been papers on the meaning of being Cuban but I think that I satisfy most conditions, except for drinking coffee.

    Not only did I live in Cuba for many years, but also I experienced different aspects of Cuban society. In other words, I lived in terrible conditions as well as in really privileged ones. Being born in the 90s, I experienced the hardest economic period to affect the island, with both of my parents still in college or graduating. I have traveled throughout the island and of course my family goes back many generations. In fact, most of my family still lives in Cuba.

    In the few years that I have lived in the U.S., I have worked with organizations that focus on human rights and humanitarian issues with regards to Cuba. But if this experience were not enough to understand Cuba, then I would really love to hear what is, because it certainly wouldn’t be visiting as a tourist.

    Again, I appreciate you bringing up some crucial points, which my word limit did not allow me to address; I will attempt to respond to them so as soon as possible.

    Carlos Estevez

  5. Humberto Capiro on September 25th, 2012 11:26 am

    AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL VIDEO: Routine repression in Cuba – Harassment and detention of political dissidents, human rights activists, journalists and bloggers across Cuba has risen sharply over the past 24 months. – Mar 22, 2012

  6. Humberto Capiro on September 25th, 2012 11:28 am


    The Cuban government wages a permanent campaign of harassment and short-term detentions of political opponents to stop them from demanding respect for civil and political rights. Since Amnesty International’s last report on the respect for the freedom of expression in Cuba, published in June 2010, (Restrictions on freedom of expression in Cuba, Index: AMR 25/005/2010) the situation has further deteriorated with a steady increase in the number of arbitrary detentions. Criticism of the government is not tolerated in Cuba and it is routinely punished with arbitrary and short-term detentions, “acts of repudiation” (demonstrations led by government supporters with the alleged participation of state security officials aimed at harassing and intimidating government critics), intimidation, harassment and politically motivated criminal prosecutions.

    The authorities continue to deny those wanting political change in Cuba their right to express and share their ideas freely and without reprisal or retaliation. Repression is routine. Peaceful demonstrators, independent journalists and human rights activists are routinely detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and movement. Activists are often detained as a preventive measure to stop them from attending public demonstrations or private meetings.

    In spite of the repression, the restrictions to the exercise of these rights are continuously challenged across Cuba resulting in thousands of detentions. Two organizations monitoring human rights in Cuba reported on a monthly basis hundreds of short-term detentions during 2011.



  7. Carlos Estevez on September 25th, 2012 2:40 pm


    Forgive me for jumping around your points; it makes it easier to organize my thoughts. I want to address two points towards the end of your response, education and health care in Cuba. Before I do, I want to thank you again for taking the time to write to me, I appreciate that you are trying to enlighten me. And some of your points are very accurate, something that I rarely see when debating with a foreigner.

    One of the common defenses of the Cuban regime results along the lines of its exemplary education system and literacy rate. This point is valid as long as you are willing to also accept the following considerations. Corporal punishment is widely used throughout the island in schools. I know this because I went through Cuba’s public education system, in Havana; and I have family members who are still going through it, in different cities as well as in the countryside. I am not arguing whether this policy is good or bad, I’ll just be stating some facts of reality.

    Due to a shortage of teachers, the government started taking recent high school graduates and making them teach in schools. I am not sure when they started this but at least in the 90s; it’s akin to being taught by your peers. These are students who did not specialize in any given topic and go on to teach students on all subjects. One teacher has a class all day long, in which he/she goes through science, Spanish, etc. The next issue is indoctrination, even if I weren’t a history major, it would hard to no detect the bias of the education system; I still own many Cuban history books. They outright distort historical events and draw history in a straight line that can only lead towards the Cuban revolution.

    No alternatives are taught and dissenting views are not allowed. Through various methods that I will not get into, students are made to fall in line with party ideology. All of your school assignments must conform to party rhetoric. A school day begins with students saying an oath of allegiance to communism, singing the anthem, and then praising revolutionary heroes. These activities are mandatory and actions are taken against those who do not attend.

    This in turn, translates into a “100%” literacy rate, which in itself is questionable. As a personal word of advice, never take government statistics at face value in your studies of Cuba.

    Turning towards health care. You mentioned receiving good care in a hospital but that it was restricted to tourists. You are completely right in both senses and that should speak for itself, but I will take the liberty to elaborate. I hope that you’ll take my word that I understand the health care system. I was born in a Cuban hospital which had no bathrooms in the whole building, did not even have sheets for the bed, much less air conditioning. I have family members who have died in this health care system due to lack of simple care and misguided policies.

    I’ll limit myself to answering your claims, that Cuba has high life expectancy and infant mortality. Both are true, but if you praise them, then you must be aware that Cuba has mandatory abortion policies. In order to avoid children being born with defects or health issues, the government mandates their abortion; in some cases they do infanticide. A great report about this was written by the Cuban Dr. Biscet in the 90s, unfortunately he was jailed for the next 10 years. For obvious reasons, this results in the children being born living long lives, thus an outstanding life expectancy. Again, I am not going to argue the validity of these policies, I just want people who read these comments to be aware of all the nuances of the issue.

    As was mentioned in another comment, I am very grateful that you study Cuba; I urge you to continue your interest. As president of the Cuban club, here at NYU, I am doing all within my power to increase awareness of Cuban issues. There are many more points worth discussing from your response, but I will not address them now because I need material for future articles!

    All the best,

    Carlos Estevez

  8. Matt on September 25th, 2012 3:29 pm

    Hi Carlos,

    I really appreciate you taking the time to read and respond to my comment. I had no idea that you were a Cuban and I think you should have at least mentioned it in your original article. For me at least, hearing about the conditions of the hospital you were born in was much more powerful than just hearing the prevailing view in the US media that Castro is an evil tyrant with no redeeming features.

    All that I was really trying to say is that, in my opinion, the attitudes of Cubans aren’t that black and white. I feel that you’re dismissing a large percentage of the population who have mixed feelings towards the regime as being brainwashed. True, as a foreigner who only spent three months in the country, my perception of things may have been warped by people’s fears of speaking out. However, I became pretty close with a number of Cubans who were very critical of the regime, but were still opposed to US imperialism in Cuba and still saw a lot of the good that came out of the revolution. They wouldn’t speak critically on camera, I was shooting a film there, but I feel that what I heard from them in private was what they genuinely felt.

    Anyway, I’d like to meet you and talk about your experience in Cuba. I went there through NYU and a foreign-funded art foundation, which made it somewhat difficult to actually learn about everyday life there, since the people I was interacting with on a daily basis would definitely be considered the elite.

    You can email me at: [email protected]


  9. Paul Maurer on September 25th, 2012 6:47 pm

    Hi all,
    well written words and thank you.
    Why isn’t anybody mentioning the absolutely illegal U.S. economic embargo
    on the Cuban people (up vor vote again at the UN in a few weeks), condemned by every nation on the planet, except the U.S. and Israel?
    The terrorist attacks on Cuba, funded by the extremist Cuban community in Miami,
    sanctioned by our government (Luis Posada Carriles & Orlando Bosch, anyone)?Remember their fanatical, appalling behaviour during the Elian saga?
    For example, look into Radio Marti,it’s funding and intention. Follow the money that supports various “Democracy in Cuba” groups and you’ll understand why this callous and cynical status quo has been maintained.

  10. Alberto on September 26th, 2012 2:04 pm

    Hello Paul,

    The “Cuban Embargo” is the best business that the Cuban Government ever had. It has been the perfect cover for the incapability of the economic and social projects of the revolution. Do you have idea how many Cuban businesses are running in US? Speaking about terrorism is a complicated and a long subject. Remember that Cuba has been the center of training ground for “guerrillas” from all Latin America. Also, remember that the political changes of 1959 didn’t start by a pacific transition; it was the result of blood and fire; for example bombs in public places. The technical word for this event is “terrorism”. Years later, three young men were condemned to death sentences for stealing a boat trying to escape from the island. The Elian case was an unfortunate game between both sides; please check what has happened to Elian. The Radio Marti is one radio station among thousands of mass media; you can check also how many mass media are in Cuba and who is behind them. I lived in Cuba for 35 years, so I can tell, and trust me on this: The reality is more complicated and dramatic than my few examples.
    I have a question for you: What really is the embargo that you are able to commercialize Cuban Art of artists from the Island? Have you ever been at the Miami International Airport and watched the humongous line of people with incredible volume of luggage? You can easily at first glance recognize who are flying to Cuba.

  11. Frigga on October 19th, 2012 1:56 pm

    What about the “Cuban Five” imprisoned in the USA without any charges? What about the cuban exile terrorist Posada Carrilles who has been “protected” by the US government even though he has blown up a civil airplane killing 78 innocent people!
    Where is justice? I am suspicious about this article. I like OWS but this should not be the arena of anti cuban propaganda.

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