Political Controls from Above

Against the Current, No. 141, July/August 2009

Samuel Farber

WHEN IN 1961 Fidel Castro proclaimed “inside the revolution everything; outside the revolution, nothing,” he left out the key question of who decided what was and who qualified as being “inside the revolution.” The slogan was immediately followed by repressive measures directed not against right-wing counterrevolutionaries but against non-Communist leftists.

Lunes de Revolución, the weekly mass circulation literary and political supplement of the government newspaper Revolución, which published a wide variety of non-Communist independent left-wing authors from all over the world, was closed. The documentary titled “PM,” depicting the apolitical pleasure-loving night life of poor people in Havana directed by Saba Cabrera Infante, Guillermo’s brother, who was the editor of Lunes, was also suppressed.

The following decades were characterized by the government’s repression of dissident currents on the left, as well as on the right. Among countless repressive incidents of that period was the purge, for the second time, of the old Stalinist Aníbal Escalante who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1968 for organizing what was really a discussion group. His so-called “microfaction” had been meeting to analyze the shortcomings of the Cuban economy from an orthodox Soviet perspective and was friendly with a number of Soviet block diplomats.

While this was occurring in the context of tensions with the USSR, the Cuban leaders were simply unwilling to openly debate the criticisms of the old Communists which in fact predicted the economic debacle of the 1970 campaign for a ten million ton sugar crop.(1) Purges and persecutions were also carried against Black Power advocates such as Black author Walterio Carbonell, a former Communist who had been the Cuban Ambassador to the Algerian FLN;(2) so were, in later years, known gays such as the writer Reinaldo Arenas.(3)

On the cultural front, Fidel Castro’s 1961 slogan might have been interpreted as government censorship of “counterrevolutionary” content and a permissive attitude regarding anything with a politically neutral content and a diversity of artistic forms. However, things did not turn out that way.

During the ’60s, censorship was extended to such politically innocuous phenomena as the music of the Beatles. Cultural Stalinism reached its high point as the National Congress of Education and Culture in 1971 viciously attacked gay artists and intellectuals and approved banning gays representing Cuba abroad in artistic, political or diplomatic missions.

This opened the door to what Cuban writer Ambrosio Fornet called the “Quinquenio Gris” (Gray Five-Year Period) from 1971 to 1976, during which a series of  “parameters” were imposed on professionals in the fields of education and culture to scrutinize their sexual preferences, religious practices, relationships with people abroad, and other political and personal-level issues.

Dark Memories Resurfaced

The dark memories of this period unleashed a “war of emails” protest in 2007 in reaction to the sudden reappearance of three top bureaucrats who had been responsible for the repressive cultural policies of the “quinquenio”: Luis Pavón Tamayo, Armando Quesada and Jorge “Papito” Serguera. When they were presented in Cuban television as important contributors to Cuban culture, many intellectuals and artists reacted with fear thinking that this might constitute the opening shot to reintroduce a more repressive policy under the aegis of Raúl Castro, who had just recently taken over from his ailing older brother.

A veritable torrent of email articles circulated objecting to the reappearance of these personalities and providing many fresh details of the horrors of that period. One of the contributors was the well-known architect Mario Coyula, who argued at some length that the worst period of Cuban cultural history had started earlier in the sixties and had lasted fifteen years (“trinquenio”) and not the five years (“quinquenio”) that Ambrosio Fornet had claimed.(4)

The protest succeeded in getting the government to admit that it had been an error to resurrect the three bureaucrats and that it would continue to pursue the relatively more liberal policies that it had in place since the nineties. This protest was politically limited in the sense that it neither challenged current censorship nor posed the question of who had given the orders to the three bureaucrats to implement the repressive policies of the Quinquenio. However, the protest was, at least initially, truly spontaneous, a rarity in Castro’s Cuba.

Political Prisoners

It is true that the Cuban government has not engaged in the excesses of high Russian Stalinism.  Nothing the Cuban government has done is comparable to the massive purges and killings that terrorized the people of the Soviet Union in the thirties, or a Gulag that enslaved millions of people for both economic and political purposes.

However, from the middle to late sixties, the Cuban government established the UMAP camps (Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción — Military Units of Aid to Production) to isolate political, sexual and religious dissenters. A still unknown number of Gays, Catholics, Jehovah Witnesses and practitioners of certain Afro-Cuban religions, such as the secret society of Abákua, found themselves thrown together doing forced labor as a penalty for deviating from the ruling ideology and practices.

Fidel’s Cuba has also had a long history of using imprisonment for political and economic crimes and for attempts to leave the country illegally, and of the extra-judicial practice of physically relocating and ostracizing members of the Cuban Communist Party and government bureaucrats as a means to discipline them. Fidel Castro recently admitted that there had been as many as 15,000 political prisoners in Cuba,(5) although on an earlier occasion he cited the figure of 20,000.(6)

Although over the years the number of political prisoners has been greatly reduced, with current estimates (2009) ranging from 200-250, the overwhelming majority of these were convicted for entirely peaceful political “crimes.”

Cuba has a very large number of common prisoners. Compared with the world-wide average of 166 prisoners per 100,000 people, Cuba’s rate of 487 prisoners per 100,000 people is among the highest in the world and is only behind a handful of countries such as the Russian Federation (607 per 100,000 people) and the worst jailer of all, the United States of America with a rate of 738 for 100,000 inhabitants.(7)

The Cuban government has also maintained the death penalty, which has covered a variety of political and common crimes, although it has been used sparingly in recent years. An authentic political opening in Cuba is likely to lead to the demand for access to the government archives to find out the true extent of government repression.

A legal representative of the Cuban government in New York has acknowledged that a disproportionate number of these prisoners are Black and that Blacks are more likely to be stopped by police in the street for routine identity checks.(8)

The full story of the execution of General Arnaldo Ochoa and his associates in 1989 has yet to be unearthed; so are far less known events such as the forced relocation of thousands of people from central to western Cuba in the 1970s, long after the pacification of the Escambray mountain range.(9)

Surplus Systemic Repression

The Cuban government and its sympathizers abroad have argued that governmental repression has been justified by the continual armed aggression, sabatoge and terrorism organized by the USA.

The right of every revolutionary government to defend itself from violent aggression, whether coming from inside or outside the country is unquestionable. Thus, for example, when on the eve of the April 1961 U.S.-sponsored invasion, the Cuban government detained tens of thousands of people suspected of potentially aiding the invaders, it could not have been expected to do any different given the threat it confronted.

The government, however, has utilized its legitimate defense needs as a cover and justification for instituting a system that is intrinsically repressive. In this context, it is useful to distinguish between repression and systemic surplus repression.

Simple repression is violence that a revolutionary regime may legitimately use to defend itself against the inevitable violent domestic and foreign resistance and opposition to its rule. Systemic surplus repression refers to the repression that a regime uses not for legitimate protective purposes, but by virtue of its very nature as a repressive system, both in its ideology and practice.

This is not a quantitative distinction in the sense of being a function of the amount of repression. It is a qualitative distinction based on whether or not a given act of repression is justified by an objective security-related situation. For example, the systematic censorship of the Cuban mass media and the deeply resented denial of the right to travel abroad are instances of systemic surplus repression that cannot be justified by any legitimate defense needs.

Ironically, the sharp economic crisis of the nineties brought about a relative decrease of repression in the island. There was also a significant cultural relaxation. Thus, the Fourth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party held in 1991 lifted the ban on religious believers and practitioners joining the ruling Party and holding important positions in the government. This action gave a big impulse and revived religious practices among Cubans whether Catholic, Protestant, Afro-Cuban, even Jewish.

In the academic, cultural and artistic worlds the relaxation of government control encouraged the further development of small circulation journals such as Temas, La Gaceta de Cuba, Revolución and Cultura. These liberal Communist organs began to dispense with the hackneyed “party line” language and engaged in serious social and political criticism although within very clear limits. A number of NGOs and research centers have been allowed a longer and looser leash.

The popular counterpart of the liberalization that benefited the educated elites involved the toleration of a culture of complaint by individual citizens — certainly not of organized group activity outside the official channels. In addition to allowing their being vented publicly, complaints have been sometimes encouraged, provided they are directed at specific individual office holders and never at the top political elite.

Meanwhile, the mass media organs have maintained a strictly orthodox political orientation.  They have also remained quite dull, although occasionally Juventud Rebelde has enlivened its coverage with investigative journalism pieces revealing the extent of corruption in the country (Granma’s weekly page registering administrative complaints from the citizenry has been more superficial and less revealing.)

The ruling party orthodoxy is particularly evident in radio and television, which is under the aegis of the ICRT (Cuban Institute of Radio and Television), an institution despised by many artists and intellectuals for its censorship and arbitrary practices.

The official repression of gays, which once included the quarantining of AIDS victims, also began to be relaxed and eventually was replaced by a much more liberal and enlightened policy under the leadership of Mariela Castro Espín (a daughter of Raúl Castro) and CENESEX (National Center for Sex Education), which she directs. CENESEX has advocated the legalization and facilitation of transgender operations.(10)

None of this has meant, however, that Cuban gays have felt entirely free to come “out of the closet” or that discrimination has been eliminated. They, along with blacks, women, and workers, have not been allowed to organize independently of the state and the ruling party to defend their interests.

Restrictions on travel outside the country have also been liberalized. However, there is still no right to travel abroad; that is still a privilege granted by the state. Many political dissidents such as Yoani Sánchez, the editor of the Generación Y website, continue to be denied permission to travel outside of the island.

This has also been the case of Hilda Molina, a prominent neurosurgeon and former deputy of Cuba’s National Assembly, who was finally allowed to visit her son and family in Argentina after 15 years of waiting. The absence of the right to travel has created, especially among young people, a powerful sense of isolation and frustration verging on claustrophobia.

Inconsistent Liberalization

The government’s liberalizing tendencies have not been consistent. In March of 2003, 75 dissidents were jailed and given long prison sentences (about 20 of them have since been released, mostly for health reasons). Three young Black Cubans who had attempted to leave the island illegally by hijacking a small ferry were summarily executed seven days later, even though they did not physically harm anyone during the hijacking.

In the case of the 75 arrested dissidents, the government invoked laws that made it a punishable crime to receive funds from hostile foreign forces, even if they were used to carry out entirely peaceful political activities.

Some of the 75 dissidents did probably receive material aid from the U.S. government in the form of publishing resources and living stipends. The fact that their activities were of a peaceful nature should have made this issue not a police matter but, rather, a political question appropriate for public debate before the Cuban people so they could draw their own conclusions as to the political trustworthiness and credibility of the government and its opponents.

Moreover, this situation should not be judged in isolation from the overall context of the Cuban state monopolizing the means of publication and broadcasting. In addition to lacking any legitimate avenue to express their ideas, dissidents are routinely denied educational opportunities and fired from their state jobs, which constitute the great majority of available jobs in Cuba. This situation will lead many of them to the unfortunate conclusion that the enemy of their enemy is their friend, if not to become outright supporters of the United States, and thus make them willing to receive financial aid from the U.S. government.

It goes without saying that even while I defend their right to peaceful political activity, I oppose the “Plattista” (after the Platt Amendment) politics that these people espouse. Unfortunately, this is a pattern with a long, sad history in opposition movements in Communist countries.

While the number of formally sentenced political prisoners has been reduced somewhat in the last several years, the government has increased the harassment and temporary imprisonment of opponents for a few days at a time. The government has increasingly relied on this tactic of short term arrests to break up demonstrations, even though these are typically quite small as in the case of the Women in White (Las Damas de Blanco) group protesting the fate of their imprisoned husbands and relatives.

Since the “war of emails” in 2007 a number of incidents have occurred that suggest that a culture of collective resistance, rather than purely individual complaint, may be emerging in Cuba. Several hundred students openly demonstrated at the University of Oriente in Santiago de Cuba in September 2007 to protest poor living conditions and lack of security for women students.

The Cuban government media kept total silence over the demonstration, which must have been serious since the government found it necessary to hold a large official counter-demonstration in Santiago de Cuba in early October.

The intellectuals’ protest of 2007 demonstrated the potential power of the new technology as an avenue of protest. However, few Cubans have access to computers in the island, and for those who do, email is more accessible than the Internet. Nevertheless, a small group of left-wing Cubans led by the retired diplomat Pedro Campos Santos have begun to use the Catalonian left-wing website Kaos en la Red as a vehicle to advocate workers’ control and a number of other important economic and political reforms in the island.

Campos Santos and his associates continue to pay homage to the leadership of the Castro brothers and at least implicitly endorse the institutional structures of the one-party state, although they do support the existence of open tendencies within the ruling party.

I do not know whether they do this for tactical reasons or because those are their actual politics. In any case, they and Kaos en la Red(11) have performed a valuable service in helping to create what may eventually become a left, revolutionary alternative to a decayed bureaucratic regime.


  1. Maurice Halperin, The Taming of Fidel Castro, Berkeley, Ca.: The University of California Press, 1981, 271-76.
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  2. U.S. black leaders Eldridge Cleaver and Robert Williams also had to leave Cuba because their views differed from those of the Cuban leadership.
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  3. The experiences of Reinaldo Arenas were powerfully represented in Julian Schnabel’s excellent film “Before Night Falls.
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  4. Mario Coyula, “El Trinquenio Amargo y la Ciudad Distópica. Autopsia de Una Utopía,” n.d.
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  5. Ignacio Ramonet, Fidel Castro. Biografía a Dos Voces, Barcelona: Random House Mondadori, 2006, 486.
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  6. Fidel Castro interview with Lee Lockwood, Playboy, January 1967, 74.
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  7. Christopher Hartney, “US Rates of Incarceration: A Global Perspective,” Fact Sheet. Research from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Novermber 2006, 2. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a highly disproportionate number of common prisoners in Cuba are Black. If the government has figures relevant to this issue, they have kept it secret.
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  8. Devra Evenson, Law and Society in Contemporary Cuba. Second Edition, The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2003, 130.
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  9. See “Pueblos Cautivos. Entrevista con el doctor José Luis Piñeiro,” Encuentro de la Cultura Cubana, (Madrid), Spring 2001, 20, 228-231.
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  10. Some of the Center’s views and activities have elicited an open and explicit conservative critique from the otherwise politically cautious Catholic hierarchy in Cuba.
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  11. On several occasions, the editors of Kaos en la Red, who could be considered critical supporters of the Cuban government, have reproduced in their page the articles on Cuba that I have written for other publications. I thank them for the opportunity to participate in a discussion that I know is having some impact.
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ATC 141, July/August 2009