Features » June 3, 2011
A Day in the Life of a Cuban Dissident
On the 50th anniversary of the Revolution, a blogger is kidnapped and beaten.
Lacking economic openness, more food on the plate, structural changes, or long-awaited relaxations, Raúl Castro's government seems to have chosen punishment as the formula for self-preservation.
EDITOR’S NOTE: On Nov. 5, 2009, In These Times published “Inside Cuba: Voices from the Island.” In that special issue, which was edited by Contributing Editor Achy Obejas to mark the Cuban Revolution’s 50th anniversary, blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo wrote “Guerrilla Blogging: A Virtual Democracy Against All Odds,” in which he described the persecution faced by famed Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez and other writers. The day after we went to press, Pardo Lazo and Sánchez were abducted, beaten and dumped on the outskirts of Havana. (Pardo Lazo wasn’t the only In These Times writer to suffer. After agreeing to write an article about LGBT rights in Cuba for the magazine, activist Mario Jose Delgado Gonzales was arrested and jailed, ostensibly for trying to organize a “Mr. Gay Havana” contest.) In her new book Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today (Melville House, May), which compiles posts from her blog Generaćion Y, Sánchez tells the story of that abduction and the days that followed.
A gangland-style kidnapping, November 7
Near 23rd Street, we saw a black Chinese-make car pull up with three heavily built strangers. “Yoani, get in the car,” one told me, grabbing my wrist. The other two surrounded Claudia Cadelo, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo and a friend who was accompanying us to the march against violence. It was an evening of punches, shouts and obscenities on what should have been a day of peace and harmony. The “aggressors” called for a patrol car to take two of my companions, while Orlando and I were forced into the car with yellow plates, the terrifying world of lawlessness.
I refused to get into the car and demanded that they show us identification or a warrant, but they refused to show us any papers to prove the legitimacy of our arrest. To curious onlookers crowded around I shouted, “Help, these men want to kidnap us!,” but those who tried to intervene were stopped with a shout that revealed the ideological purpose of the operation: “Don’t mess with it, these are counterrevolutionaries!”
In response to our verbal resistance they made a phone call to ask someone who must have been the boss. “What do we do? They don’t want to get in the car.” I imagine the answer from the other side was unequivocal, because then with a flurry of punches and pushes, they pushed my head down to force me into the car. I held onto the door and received blows to my knuckles. I managed to grab a paper one of them had in his pocket and put it in my mouth. Another flurry of punches so I would return the document to them.
Orlando was already inside, with his head to the floor, immobilized by a karate hold. One man put his knee in my chest and the other, reaching back from the front seat, hit me in my kidneys and then punched me in the head to make me open my mouth and spit out the paper. At one point I felt I would never leave that car.
“This is as far as you’re going, Yoani, I’ve had enough of your antics,” said one, while pulling my hair. My legs were sticking up, my face red from the pressure, my body aching, while on the other side Orlando, brought down by a professional belligerent. In an act of desperation I managed to grab the testicles of one of them through his trousers. I dug my nails in, thinking he was going to crush my chest. “Kill me now!” I screamed, with my last breath. The one in front warned the younger one, “Let her breathe.”
I was listening to Orlando panting as the blows continued to rain down on us. I wanted to open the door and throw myself out, but there was no handle on the inside. We were at their mercy. Hearing Orlando’s voice encouraged me. Later he told me it was the same for him hearing my choking words–it let him know, “Yoani is still alive.” Finally they left us lying in a street in Timba [a Havana neighborhood], aching. A woman approached, “What happened?” “A kidnapping,” I managed to say. We cried in each other’s arms in the middle of the sidewalk. I thought about my son Teo: For God’s sake, how am I going to explain all these bruises? How am I going to tell him that we live in a country where this can happen? How will I look at him and tell him that his mother has been beaten up on a public street for writing a blog, for putting her opinions in kilobytes? How can I describe the despotic faces of those who forced us into that car, their visible enjoyment as they beat us, their lifting my skirt as they dragged me half-naked to the car?
I managed to see, however, the degree of fright in our assailants, a fear of the new, of what they cannot destroy because they don’t understand it, the blustering terror of those who know their days are numbered.
A brief medical report, November 8
I am recovering from the injuries inflicted during the abduction of last Friday. The bruises are lessening. What bothers me most now is a sharp pain in my lower back. I am using a crutch. Last night I went to the clinic where I was treated for pain and inflammation. It’s nothing that my youth and good health cannot overcome. Fortunately, the blow with which they forced my head to the floor of the car did not affect my eye, only my cheekbone and brow. I hope to recover in a few days.
A thank you to friends and family who have looked after me. The effects are fading, even the psychological ones, which are the hardest. Orlando and Claudia are still in shock, but they are incredibly strong and also will overcome it. We have already begun to smile, the best medicine against abuse. The principal therapy for me remains this blog and the thousands of topics still waiting to be written about.
Shadow beings, November 12
My relationship with the movies has always been from the seats, hearing the whir of an old projector. Then I started to live in my own movie, a type of thriller with pursuers and the pursued, where it is up to me to escape and hide. The reason for this sudden change from spectator to protagonist has been this blog, located in the wide space that is the Internet. Two years ago, I woke up with the desire to write the true script of my days, not the rosy comedy shown in the official newspapers. I went, then, from watching movies to inhabiting one.
I have my doubts whether someday I’ll see the curtain come down and be able to leave the movie theater alive. The decades-long film we’ve been living in Cuba doesn’t seem to be close to the credit roll and a blank screen. However, spectators are no longer interested in the interminable filmstrip shown by the authorized projectionist. Rather, they seem captivated by the vision of those who create a blog, a blank page that records the questions, frustrations and joys of actual citizens.
Believing myself a Kubrick or a Tarantino, I have begun to post images of these creatures who watch and harass us. Beings from the shadows who, like vampires, feed on our human happiness and fill us with terror through punches, threats and blackmail. Individuals, trained in coercion, who did not anticipate their conversion from hunters to hunted, their faces trapped on cameras, mobile phones or in the curious eyes of a citizen. Accustomed to gathering evidence for dossiers, records compiled on each of us, kept in some drawer in some office, now they are surprised that we make an inventory of their gestures and their eyes, and a meticulous record of their abuses.
Health update, November 15
I have regained my capacity to walk on two legs, abandoned the crutch and returned to my daily life. My thanks go to all of you who offered your hands in solidarity, the balm of support and the effective medicine of your friendship.
Anemic arguments, December 12
On December 10 a mob assaulted women who had only gladioli flowers in their hands. With fists raised–urged on by plainclothes police–they surrounded these mothers, wives and daughters of those imprisoned since the Black Spring of 2003. Several of the attackers learned the script on the run, and they mixed current political slogans with those popular almost three decades ago. They were shock troops with license to insult and beat, granted by precisely those whose job it is to maintain order and protect all citizens. On Friday’s newscast, the announcer said that those who berated the Women in White represented an “enraged people,” but on the screen there was no hint of spontaneity or real conviction. It just looked like fanatics who were afraid, very afraid.
I’m ashamed to say it, but in my country the demons of intolerance were having a party on Human Rights Day. Those who long ago lost the ability to convince and win us over with a new and just idea had incited them. They don’t even have an ideology any more, they just keep their hands on the reins of fear and call for “exemplary” acts of repudiation to stem growing discontent. On the faces of those summoned to do the social lynching, one could see doubt alternating with rage, exaltation with a fear of being observed and judged. As painful as it may be, it’s easy to foresee that perhaps one day a multitude just as blind and unthinking might direct their anger against those who, today, pit some Cubans against others.
Lacking economic openness, more food on the plate, structural changes, or long-awaited relaxations, Raúl Castro’s government seems to have chosen punishment as the formula for self-preservation. There are no other tangible results of his management. Rather, there are the sounds of the rusty instruments of control and the old techniques of punishment.
They haven’t even put forth promises of projects or announced plans with imprecise dates. Rather, they reach for their belt, not to tighten it in a gesture of austerity and savings, but to use it as authoritarian parents do, on the hides of their children. n
Sánchez continues to blog at www.desdecuba.com/generaciony. An English translation of the website is at www.desdecuba.com/generationy.
Yoani Sanchez is an internationally acclaimed writer based in Havana. Her blog Generation Y documents the daily lives of Cubans.