Cuba: Four Heroes and a Demagogue


cuba cuestamoruaFidel Castro, who died on November 25, was a political tyrant who succeeded in convincing many people in the democratic world that he was actually the very opposite, the National Endowment for Democracy‘s Carl Gershman said yesterday. The Prime Minister of Canada called him a “legendary revolutionary.” To the leader of the British Labour Party he was “a champion of social justice,” while the President of Ireland called him “a giant among global leaders, whose view was not only one of freedom for his people but for all of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet.”

Castro was able to fool so many people because he was a skillful demagogue who knew how to manipulate emotions and political prejudices to secure his power and magnify his public image, Gershman said at the Woodrow Wilson Center presentation of the Ion Ratiu Democracy Award to Manuel Cuesta Morua (left).

How he was able to do that, and why democratic countries have produced so many “useful idiots,” which was how Lenin described Western apologists for communism, are questions that have been dealt with elsewhere. It is also not my intention to respond to the lies and propaganda about Castro, which is a fruitless exercise that only dignifies ideas that don’t deserve to be taken seriously. Rather than speaking about Castro, I think it’s far better to remember people who heroically resisted his ruthless demagogy, and to let their stories elucidate his ignominious legacy.

Image result for cuba BoitelI want to speak about four Cuban heroes. The first is Pedro Luis Boitel, who has been called the emblematic figure of the Cuban pro-democracy movement. Boitel was active in the 1950s against the Batista dictatorship until was forced into exile in Venezuela, where he set up a radio station that broadcast anti-Batista messages to Cuba. He returned to Cuba after the revolution and ran for the presidency of the university students as the candidate of Castro’s 26th of July Movement. But Castro supported a rival candidate, already viewing Boitel as a potential threat because he was charismatic, an opponent of communism, and had strong backing from the labor movement. When Castro’s totalitarian intentions became clear, Boitel founded the Movement for the Recovery of the Revolution. In short order he was arrested and condemned to ten years in prison.

It was in Castro’s prisons that Boitel underwent a profound spiritual transformation. He rallied prisoners around a philosophy of unyielding nonviolent resistance to the regime, one that accepted no type of compromise with his jailers. He was the first of the Plantados, the “immovable ones” in prison who endured the harshest punishment. Boitel began a series of hunger strikes and other protests as a way of defending his dignity and that of his fellow prisoners. The regime kept him in prison beyond his ten-year sentence, and on April 3, 1972, he began one last hunger strike to protest this and other issues. According to fellow prisoners, when Boitel died 53 days later, it was not from the hunger strike but from being smothered with a pillow by one of the security officers……

cuba-matosHuber Matos is a second hero who also opposed Batista, but unlike Boitel, he was part of the military effort to overthrow the dictatorship. He famously flew a 5-ton air cargo of weapons to the rebels, led the assault on Santiago de Cuba, and road into Havana atop a tank alongside Castro and other revolutionaries in the victory parade in January 1959. He was appointed Commander of the Army in the province of Camaguey.

Like Boitel, Matos soon became disaffected by Castro’s first moves to impose a totalitarian system, including the execution by firing squads of hundreds of prisoners at the La Cabana fortress and the establishment of Cuba’s first forced labor camp – Guanahacabibes – that set the pattern for jailing dissidents, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Afro-Cuban priests. (This repression has been documented by Nestor Almendros in his moving film Improper Conduct) …..

The third hero is Laura Pollan, the founder of the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White. She was a simple woman – a mother, a housewife, a teacher, someone who loved literature. She was not political, at least until her husband, Hector Maseda Guitierrez, was arrested along with 74 other dissidents in the “Black Spring” of 2003. From the moment he was taken away, she had a mission – to free her husband and to rally other women whose loved ones had also disappeared. Towards that end she formed the Damas de Blanco. They marched every week from the Church of Santa Rita, dressed in white and carrying gladioli. The garments symbolized the purity of their motives and the flowers their integrity and moral strength. And when they chanted “Libertad,” they did so not just for their husbands and fathers and sons and brothers, but for Cuba itself…..

cuba Oswaldo-Paya-embed-1024x768The last hero I want to speak about today is Oswaldo Paya, who was one of the most prominent opponents of the Cuban dictatorship. Paya was a Catholic activist who founded the Christian Liberation Movement (CLM) in 1988 and is best known for the Varela Project, a petition drive he launched in 2002 calling for free elections and other rights. The project angered the Cuban government, which responded by forcing through the National Assembly a constitutional amendment making the communist system in Cuba “irrevocable.” This was followed by the “Black Spring” when it arrested 75 of the most prominent Cuban activists. …..

The stories of these four heroes – Pedro Luis Boitel, Huber Matos, Laura Pollan, and Oswaldo Paya – bespeak a regime of extreme inhumanity and duplicity. Those who challenge its power risk paying the ultimate price, and often do. This is the context today in which we honor Manuel Cuesta Morua.

I have known Manuel now for a number of years. I can say without any doubt that he stands in the tradition of the Cuban heroes I have memorialized today, especially the tradition of Oswaldo Paya who sought a peaceful path to democratic transition and reconciliation. Manuel Cuesta Morua’s strategic vision is informed by a spirit of democratic unity and guided by fundamental democratic principles:

  • That existing opposition coalitions should find a way of working together, even if they keep their separate identities;
  • That it’s important to welcome and support different strategies for advancing democracy, since one never knows what will provoke change and all can do their part in the democratization struggle;
  • That Cuban democrats must not isolate themselves from the international community but should try to build ties of dialogue and cooperation;
  • That it’s important to observe the politics of what is possible, which is the best way to move toward the politics of what is desirable, while also recognizing that the inevitability of gradualism does not obviate the need for mobilization and resistance to push the struggle forward; and finally,
  • That supporting initiatives that emerge from within Cuba is the best way to come into close contact with the Cuban people.

The Cuban people have a profound need for international solidarity, which they have not received because of all the political confusion and wrong-headedness engendered by Castroism. But their liberation must come from within, and so must the effort to find a balance between reconciliation and coming to terms with the terrible truth of the past nearly six decades……RTWT

Print Friendly, PDF & Email