I’ve received a lot of comments from potential visitors to Cuba, asking about the dissidents. Many were locked up before the beginning of the normalization process which began last December. Recent reports state that “dissidents are continuing to be jailed.” Future travelers have expressed concerns that participating in a people-to-people program might somehow contribute to an increasing number of Cubans being thrown in jail. They wonder if perhaps this is a reason to reconsider their scheduled trips, and perhaps spend their vacation money somewhere else.
I still continue to feel strongly that all the comments I have heard in the last decade that have been made to support the Embargo are actually good reasons to end it. Once you understand this concept, things will make a lot more sense. The Embargo has only hurt the common people of Cuba; not its leaders. It has given the Cuban government a convenient excuse to blame most problems on the United States.
There certainly are dissidents currently in jail who crossed over the line and made provocative statements. I also have to question just how far over the line they actually crossed. I personally have had many discussions in public with Cubans about the government, its mistakes, and its problems. And my guides have always talked about how they want things to change, and how unresponsive the government has been to problems. One of the most notable dissidents is Yoani Sanchez, who blogs from Havana. In an article she wrote last year, she refers to the Castros and senior government leaders as: “Those very old men who govern us… have prevented discussions of modernity.” She has made even more disparaging comments about the government, and yet continues to blog and criticize Cuban leaders, spreading her point of view from Havana to the rest of the world. All this makes me question exactly what the dissidents currently in jail actually did to be arrested.
In my experience with patients who were prisoners in California, I remember their rationalized explanations of why they were in jail. Most of them claimed to be totally innocent—they were “framed,” or were “arrested for ‘nuthin’,” but in reality, convicted of a serious felony. I remember having one prisoner patient tell me he “got beat up for just calling the cop a bad name.” Only later did I find out that he tried to run over the policeman with his car.” I wanted to be sympathetic for a fellow human being, but there is a huge difference between using a bad name and attempted homicide of a police officer.
Although I don’t know for sure, I suspect that most of these “innocent Cuban dissidents” were jailed for a LOT more than just bad-mouthing the government. Of course their families almost always claim they are innocent (just as in the U.S.). The radical exiles in Miami are always quick to defend them ferociously, usually based on hearsay. After considering my experiences traveling around Cuba, I would say that if everybody who bad-mouthed the government were thrown in jail, there would be relatively few Cubans left on the outside.
So when you read about “Cuban dissidents being jailed just for exercising free speech,” think about much more likely explanations based on your observations of human behavior in your own country. On the other hand, if you accept these claims at face value, then you have yet another reason to push for normalization between the governments of Cuba and the United States.
NOTE: For more information about Cuban journalist Yoani Sanchez, and to access her blog, click on the following link to an article where she mentions “Those very old men who govern us….”