Unfair Trade

In exchange for securing Cuba against outside threats Fidel Castro took away the country’s freedom. This must be the moment for change.


In a sleight of hand characteristic of political extremism, Fidel Castro’s promise of equality was underwritten by one of the most profound forms of inequity – that between a dictator and his public. Castro’s strengths and weaknesses were neatly symmetrical: in exchange for securing Cuba against outside threats and internal dissent he took away the country’s freedom.


This trade-off is a familiar one. Our own government is often ready to use security to justify illiberalism. Witness the Terrorism Act 2000, which criminalises the possession of material which might be useful to a terrorist, or the law against “glorifying” terrorism. We would do well to remember where these kind of security measures have led Cuba before we get too worked up about either the passing of socialism or Cuba’s entry into the free market. The leftist nostalgia denigrates the painful restrictions under which Cubans have been living for the last half a century, whilst the free market euphoria conveniently ignores the erosion of our own freedoms in the west.


We are approaching the fifth anniversary of the “Black Spring” of March 2003, when 90 of Castro’s political opponents, including 27 journalists, were rounded up on a miscellany of charges. No external observers believe that their crimes stack up to anything other than a concerted attempt to close down opposition by suppressing the media.


The majority of these writers remain in prison today. They include the poet and journalist Normando Hernandez Gonzalez who was sentenced during trials held on 3/4 April 2003 under laws governing the protection of the Cuban state. The hearings were held behind closed doors and it is reported that there was insufficient time for the accused to prepare their defence. After sentencing, Normando began a hunger strike in protest at the conditions in Boniato prison and was transferred to Kilo 5 ½ prison, Pinar del Río, where he was held in solitary confinement for almost a year, in a cell measuring 2 sq m The prison authorities denied reports of Normando’s deteriorating health, and allegations that he was assaulted by the prison’s security chief.


Yet his health continued to worsen, with bouts of pneumonia, parasitic infections and severe intestinal disease. On 21 June 2007 his wife reported that he weighed just 53 kilos. Normando has now been diagnosed with gastrointestinal malabsorption syndrome and giardiasis, and after considerable pressure from international agencies he is finally receiving regular meals and some medical attention. However, he is still dangerously thin and in a great deal of pain. He has been shunted around Cuba’s prisons for purportedly humanitarian reasons. The only humanitarian solution to his position would be to release him and his fellow prisoners of conscience, unconditionally.


When Castro himself became too ill for public speaking, he said ‘ I do what I can: I write’. Unfortunately, this recourse is not open to Normando, nor to Adolfo Fernández Saínz, Julio César Gálvez Rodríguez, Fabio Prieto Llorente, Pedro Argüelles Morán or José Luis García Paneque – just five of the writers for whom English PEN has been campaigning for the last five years.


Cuba is one of the very few states in the world which has yet to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression. Whoever succeeds Castro, the international community must use what leverage it has on the new president to ensure that this simple document becomes part of Cuba’s future. Without freedom of expression, it doesn’t matter how secure the people of Cuba are from internal and external threats; they will continue to be isolated from the world, and from their own desires. This is not healthy for the world, or for Cuba.


President Bush has seized on Castro’s retirement with evident delight, saying: “The international community should work with the Cuban people to begin to build institutions that are necessary for democracy.” And Downing St has echoed this sentiment with its call for a “peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba.” The free world longs to welcome Cuba in from the cold. Yet we should look to our own before gloating at Castro’s demise.

Freedom and security cannot be held up as simple alternatives – not in Cuba, the United States, or the UK. Each is worthless without the other. It is the job of governments to find a workable balance between these two fundamental human rights. It is the job of the rest of us to hold them to account. Cuba’s undemocratic constitution has made power unaccountable there for too long. This must be the moment for change.



Jonathan Heawood

Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/writersinprison/honorarymembers/cuba/unfairtrade/

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