Saturday, March 26, 2011

Haunting scene in Cuba

Posted on Saturday, 03.26.11

Haunting scene in Cuba

We've all watched the TV images as dictators and autocrats in the Middle
East and North Africa sent their thugs to the streets to attack
pro-democratic protestors. These images have brought back to my memory a
scene I witnessed almost five years ago in Cuba. It still haunts me.

They gathered in front of Yamila Llanes Labrada's house around noon. A
vitriolic crowd dominated by the town's elders. It was Saturday in the
small town of Las Tunas in 2006, and it was very hot, with humidity on
the rise. The oppressive weather made the situation even tenser. I had
an unclear vision of what was coming.

Yamila and her four kids were, at that time, waiting for her husband,
José Luis García Paneque, to come home from prison where he was serving
24 years for dissent. Never giving up, she often looked out the window
hoping for his return. José Luis was arrested on March 18, 2003 as part
of Fidel Castro's crackdown on 75 members of the Cuban opposition.

I had talked with Yamila in her home the day before Castro's people
came. Yamila, a member of the anti-government movement Women in White (
Damas de Blanco), told me about the mob actions. When I gave her a
puzzled look, she said: "A small crowd of people come to my door to
verbally harass me. They call me many names. Bitch, worm, garbage, just
to name a few. Come and see it with your own eyes."

This was all too familiar to me. I came of age under communism in the
former Czechoslovakia where the party leaders and their backers used to
treat people who opposed the regime with hatred and disgust.

However, the mob scenes in Cuba were a new thing for me. I accepted
Yamila's suggestion to see it for myself. To be sure I could really
witness everything, I found a hiding place in the bushes close enough to
see the crowd, hoping not to be spotted. If Castro's thugs were to see
me inside the house, they would have "proof" that Yamila was "palling
around with Western spies." So to protect her and her children, I hid as
I watched.

Everything started on a calm note, as if the people coming to Yamila's
house were getting together for a picnic. Two men were chatting while
smoking cigarettes; an older woman was slowly waving a fan in front of
her face. Then, a group of five came to join them. After a while,
another six people showed up. Most of the people were well into their
70s. The oldest Cuban generation is the most loyal to Castro because his
revolution is their whole life, and they are prepared to defend it.

I counted some 25 villagers gathered outside Yamila's home. They started
to shout nasty slurs almost as one. They called Yamila a slut, a
terrorist, dirt. After a while, hysteria took hold. People were urging
Yamila to leave the country and threatening her with prison. Some were
stomping the ground forcefully. Pretty quickly, the scene got a bit hazy
because the stomping mob stirred up the dusty road. Even in the haze,
the mood became more intimidating. "This street belongs to Fidel," a
female voice suddenly cut the air sharply with this verbal assault. It
was a high-pitched shriek that gave me a chill. I decided to retreat for
my own security.

A few days later, I went to see Oswaldo Payá Sardinas, one of the
leading figures of the Cuban opposition. With the scene outside Yamila's
home still fresh in my mind, I had to ask him about it. "Castro borrowed
these acts from Nazis pogroms against Jews and Mao's cultural
revolution," Payá told me in his Havana home. "Castro's thugs harass and
beat people because they have been promised a new telephone or have been
paid couple of pesos. Some of his adherents throw rotten eggs,
vegetables or even animal excrement at the houses of the anti-regime
people," he added.

Castro's daughter, Alina Fernández Revuelta, who lives in exile in
Miami, is also familiar with these brutal practices. "This is, by all
means, one of the ugliest faces of the Castro regime," she told me when
I spoke to her in 2006. Fernández also revealed that Castro's thugs had
assaulted her a couple of times, even in Miami. "The scenario is always
the same. They want you to get scared; they want you to break down."

Fortunately, the Castro regime did not break Yamila's spirit. She and
her children got out of Cuba and settled in Texas in 2007. Only now am I
writing about what I saw in 2006 because I feared that press exposure
could bring them harm. But even though Yamila left, her husband remained
imprisoned in Cuba. It was only last summer that he was freed by the
Castro regime and sent to Spain.

There he told the press what his family had gone through and he
described an incident involving even more ferocious psychological
warfare than what I saw. Another time, around 50 of Castro's supporters,
this time carrying clubs, started to hurl stones at Yamila's house and
threatened to burn it down. Some shouted that they'd kill Yamila and her
kids or in their words: "To burn the worms inside to death."

To this day, Damas de Blanco and other Cubans face this torment.
Recently, the Cuban government might have started some significant
economic reforms, but politically it is still a ruthless regime, ready
to unleash its own thugs against pro-democracy people. This force of
intimidation still works on most of the Cuban population except groups
like Damas de Blanco. They march on...

Eduard Freisler is a Czech journalist who lives in New York.

Tag: Repression, Act of repudiation

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