HAVANA, Cuba — In June 1961, Fidel Castro summoned Cuba’s leading writers and intellectuals to a meeting at Havana’s Biblioteca Nacional. There, he issued a warning that would regulate speech on the island for the next 50 years.
“Within the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution, nothing,” the 34-year-old Castro famously said.
In other words, public criticism of Castro’s socialist system would be allowed — but only if its intent was to support the government, not oppose it.
The meaning of Castro’s dictum has shifted over the years, pliable to the politics of the moment and to those with the authority to interpret what falls “within” revolutionary boundaries. Today, with Cuba struggling economically and facing increased human rights criticism from abroad, the words once again appear to guide the Cuban government’s policy toward the island’s small dissident groups.
Under Raul Castro’s leadership, Cuba has become more open to public criticism, albeit within certain limits. Castro has repeatedly urged Cubans to voice their frustrations and offer constructive solutions to the country’s pressing problems. The island’s state-run media now publish essays and letters to the editor with surprisingly frank critiques of Cuba’s notorious bureaucracy, or corruption and waste in the state-run economy.
Prominent artists and scholars have been publicly urging reforms, and last week, the iconoclastic hip-hop group Los Aldeanos was allowed to give a rare concert at an official venue, despite lyrics loaded with harsh criticisms of the Castros and their socialist system.
But public criticism can only go so far on this island. Cuba is digging in and clamping down even as it opens up.
The death of prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo in February after a lengthy hunger strike brought a wave of condemnation against the Castro government, especially in Europe, and Cuban officials have reacted defensively, railing against the European Union and “a global media campaign” to slander the Revolution.
After a series of daily protest marches in March by the Ladies in White, the Cuban government has pushed back forcefully. The group, formed by the wives and mothers of jailed government opponents, has been staging silent marches since 2003 along Havana’s Quinta Avenida after Sunday Mass. But for the past three weeks, their path has been blocked by government agents who order them to halt.
When the ladies refuse, the government sends crowds of pro-Castro demonstrators to harass the women with a frightening-but-controlled intimidation tactic known as an “act of repudiation.”
“Down with the worms!” shouted dozens of pro-government demonstrators last Sunday as they surrounded six members of the Ladies in White soon after the women attempted to march. The crowd ripped up their flowers, pushed the women into a nearby park and berated them at earsplitting decibels with obscenities, insults and patriotic slogans.
The six women absorbed the taunting stoically, staring straight ahead and holding up their fingers in an L shape for “Libertad” (Freedom).
“Mercenaries! Traitors!” the crowd screamed in the women’s faces. “Leave!”
Plainclothes government agents with earpieces and aviator sunglasses stood by, intervening whenever things got too physical. Throngs of police closed off the street, a major thoroughfare, and a handful of passing Cubans stopped to watch, though they neither joined in nor interfered.
“We have problems in Cuba, but we also have a government that provides us with social security,” said Aracely Keeling, a pro-Castro supporter who also denounced the “media campaign” against the island. “These women are here because they’re paid by the United States,” Keeling shouted.
She was referring to documents released by the Cuban government in 2008 showing that the Ladies in White have received support and financial help from U.S. officials and anti-Castro militants in Florida. While some members of the group have acknowledged receiving the assistance, they say they’ve got no other way to support themselves in a country where the average wage is $20 a month and almost all legal employment is controlled by the government.
Their harassment last Sunday continued the entire day, as the crowd refused to allow the women to walk away and the women declined offers from government security agents to escort them onto a bus.
“It was seven and a half hours of insults,” said Laura Pollan, one of the group’s leaders, the following day. “That was physical and psychological torture.”
The women have vowed to continue attempting to march, though their numbers have dwindled with each passing week as the harassment escalates.
Their Sunday procession was the only tolerated public protest against the Cuban government on the island, but with their daily marches last month, the women seem to have crossed a line. The government hasn’t explained why it’s now blocking them, but each weekend brings a new batch of photos and videos that draw attention to Cuba’s human rights record.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Cuba’s highest-ranking Catholic official, called the acts of repudiation “shameful” in a recent interview published in Palabra Nueva, the magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Havana.
“This type of verbal, even physical, intolerance should not remain in our nation's history as a characteristic feature of Cubans," he said. But Ortega also denounced U.S. and Spanish “media violence” against the Cuban government after Zapata Tamayo’s fatal hunger strike, saying the coverage had worsened tensions on the island.