democraciaAbierta: Interview

Prison has not discouraged Cuba’s leading dissident

The human rights activist José Daniel Ferrer says recent protests have left the regime on the back foot.

José Zepeda
23 February 2021, 10.37am
Ferrer says that food scarcity is being underreported.
Pedro Portal/Zuma Press/PA Images

José Daniel Ferrer is a prominent Cuban dissident and human rights activist, who was one of 75 dissidents imprisoned during a 2003 government crackdown known as the Black Spring. After eight years in prison, he was released in 2011 and has been permanently harassed ever since, spending more than six months in jail in 2020. He is the founder of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), an umbrella organization hosting many Cuban opposition organizations since 2011. 

José Zepeda: Has your imprisonment made you reconsider your position on non-violent resistance?

José Daniel Ferrer: The most comfortable thing for the regime would be for us to be the violent ones, for us to be the kind of people they try to portray us as. But, as they know, these are lies, and they have to disfigure our reality to try to justify the repression. 

They know that our position is precisely non-violent; it is one of reconciliation, dialogue, and a profound willingness to find solutions to the serious problems they have caused the nation. 

So, they are the ones who have to use violence against us. The detainments, assaults, and robberies in our homes, and the blows that have fallen on our wives. Sometimes, even elderly members of our families are beaten in violent raids perpetrated by people without the slightest scruple, accustomed to imposing themselves by force.

These acts show who is who in this struggle. Who is constantly lying, who is violent, seeking reconciliation and a solution to the problems, and wants to keep Cuba as his fiefdom, as his private property at all costs. 

JZ: Will the protests that took place in November last? 

JDF: One of the questions we asked ourselves following the protests last November is whether this movement could consolidate, continue to grow. And the answer seems to be yes. From 27 November to 27 January, the government did not manage to extinguish this flame completely, as they did in 2003 when we went to prison. 

I remember that during the so-called Black Spring of 2003, the vast majority of activists and people around us were so frightened (except for the most committed leaders) when they saw the 20- to 25-year prison sentences and death penalty requests. Many turned away and emigrated immediately. A year later, they were still afraid. 

In the case of 27 November, there were growing signs of solidarity and support from ordinary people who saw on Facebook and YouTube what was happening, what the movement was defending.

The regime knows that they have not been able to control the protests, which will continue to grow and strengthen. In the latest arrests, a high-ranking officer told me that he knows that the objective conditions – as they like to use the Marxist-Leninist terms – for change in Cuba are in place, but that the subjective conditions are not, because the people are for something else and not for producing change. 

I told him it was inevitable that Cubans will eventually say, “Enough! I want my rights, I want my freedom”.

JZ: According to Human Rights Watch's America director, José Miguel Vivanco, the dictatorships in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba are stronger than ever. Is that a fair assessment?

JDF: I agree to a certain extent. But, in essence, I differ with Vivanco. The government is going through one of its most challenging moments since 1 January, when it started its new economic policy.

They have not had to backtrack significantly enough for it to be called failure, but they have had to justify themselves in a way they have done before. 

Today the regime not only justifies itself but also reverses many of its measures. Even if it is a minimal step, it has had to do so.

In the past, they launched their measures, and, no matter how unpopular they were, they came with repression so that the majority would accept the reality that things were the way they were and would not change. However, today they not only justify themselves but also reverse many of their measures. Even if it is a minimal step, they have had to do it. 

Repression is a reality, and I agree with Human Rights Watch, but the methods they use show they fear the consequences of direct and strong repression. The regime tries to confuse the masses by using the state media to attack anyone within the peaceful Cuban opposition. 

They are close to reaping what they have been sowing: discontent, rebellion, especially from a youth tired of being deceived and lied to.

JZ: Before doing this interview, in the past few days, I have seen several videos of people complaining bitterly about food scarcity. How big is the problem?

JDF: It is terrible. What happens is that many do not dare to say so. Especially those who suffer the most. If they don't have enough to eat, they can't afford a telephone or an internet connection to spread the word about their suffering. 

To tell the truth, most of them are preoccupied with their survival, except for a few very conscientious activists. That is why they do not go out to the slums to monitor, film, or document the reality of hunger, the situation with medicines and diseases.

At the national headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, the organisation I founded, we feed a number that grows daily. A month ago there were between 90 and 100 people. A few days ago, I was informed that we are already feeding more than 144 people. 

Anybody would say that 144 people in a city of half a million inhabitants is a small thing. But let's remember that we are talking about a persecuted organisation under siege for six months. My wife and I had to go on a hunger strike to force the regime to stop preventing people from reaching our headquarters. 

People have been overcoming their fear because their hunger and basic needs are stronger than all the threats and obstacles imposed by the regime to prevent us from going ahead with our humanitarian work.

We start from the Christian principle that there is no more useful and necessary work than assisting those living in dire conditions.

JZ: How do you respond to accusations that your organisation is a tool of the US government?

JDF: Where there is a one-party nation that monopolises and controls the nation's life as, to some extent and unfortunately, happens also in Venezuela and Nicaragua, the thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are violated. 

In Cuba, workers work in the most challenging and complex situations and receive the lowest wages in the continent. We are in the presence of a ruling class very similar to that in ‘Animal Farm’, in which the pigs end up controlling the farm entirely and in the name of rebellion, of animalism, they end up enslaving the other animals.

We are aware that we were deceived. We were swindled.

The regime has created a system where its leaders enjoy more power than an absolutist king of the Middle Ages, while the people have to work in conditions of slavery and misery, without rights or freedoms. I cannot even defend the right to food of a worker who goes to bed in the middle of the month without food. 

Here we are imprisoned, tortured, our lives are made impossible, and we are accused of being mercenaries of a foreign nation when we do not have the slightest link with that nation. We only thank you for your solidarity and support in our struggle for freedom. 

If the United States supported us as the Cuban regime supports the Venezuelan regime, or as the Russians supported the Cuban regime, or as the Russians, Iranians, Venezuelans support each other, we would have finished with the regime long ago. 

But we are so alone in this struggle that we cannot even count on the United States to tell them: this individual to whom you are going to give a visa is an agent of the regime, and he is doing us a lot of harm because he is sending the wrong message to the population. You can travel to the United States faster as an agent of the regime than someone who is persecuted by it. And American officials don't pay any attention to us. Our lives are our best proof of who is lying and who is telling the truth. 

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