Cuba’s Prisoners & Voluntary Banishment?July 4, 2011 | Print |
Haroldo Dilla Alfonso
HAVANA TIMES, July 4 — The BBC correspondent in Havana — Fernando Ravsberg — is a controversial analyst. Extremist bloggers from both shores frequently take potshots at him affirming that he likes taking sides with one group against the other, as if he spent all his time jumping back and forth across some line that those cyberspace mercenaries imagine divides the world in two.
But in reality Ravsberg doesn’t jump some line; rather, he has his own coordinates (as almost all of us do) inherited from his past leftist activism.
Some decades ago Ravsberg dreamt of changing the world when that seemed a reachable goal. Now, as a correspondent for a major news agency and reporting from a country in crisis, he does his work with a lucidity for which we his readers — whether we agree with him or not — are always thankful.
I just came across one of his regularly featured articles in the indispensable Havana Times; this one with the suggestive title “Cuba’s Catholic-Communist Conspiracy.” In it, Ravsberg navigates the thorny issue of prisoner releases in Cuba and says that he tackled it in order to confront a wave of criticism that seeks to blame the Catholic Church for having embraced an agreement that precipitated the mandatory exile of dozens of political prisoners.
He argues that there was no such forced exile, but the true granting of freedom. Those who emigrated did so voluntarily, he contends. Since some didn’t emigrate, says Ravsberg, “the rest of those imprisoned could have also remained in Cuba.” To bolster his arguments, he provided statements from two people: Laura Pollan, the spokeswoman of the Ladies in White; and a prisoner named Orlando Fundora, who he found “strolling freely in the Spanish motherland.” Both individuals, according to Ravsberg, confirmed that prisoner emigration had been voluntary.
In that assertion Ravsberg is partly right, because that’s what happened. We would say in the terms of formal logic that emigrating was not a legal requirement and therefore to criticize the ecclesiastical hierarchy for the outcome is only an example of the terrible polarization that has characterized Cuban politics, both on the island and in the diaspora. The church did the best it could do — at least as far as I know — and the result of having freed a hundred people from jail is always praiseworthy.
Of course it didn’t do it in an absolutely disinterested way, because with it the Catholic Church recovered a public standing that it had lost a half century ago. Likewise, let’s not forget that the church plays its politics over secular stretches of historical time, while the aged hierarchy of the Cuban government does it in five-year increments – though it did it well this time.
However, if Ravsberg had gone beyond what Pollan and Fundora told him he would have found other aspects of the analysis that would have led to more substantial and much different conclusions.
The departure of the political prisoners and their relatives was decidedly not free emigration. The people who emigrated with their families (or at least the majority of them) had suffered irregular judicial processes, few guarantees and exaggeratedly long prison sentences for writing articles about peaceful means for changing the government.
Nothing indicated that such punishment wouldn’t occur again since the political and judicial systems were the same as when they were imprisoned (they still are); likewise, that same system continued to brand them as anti-Cuba mercenaries. In this sense, their leaving for Spain was an opportunity for life outside of jail, outside of daily persecution and denigration by a government that controls the press, employment and almost all policies, except for that margin of maneuver for which they were imprisoned a decade ago. And in this world of finite existence, a decade in prison meant irreparable personal and family impacts.
This isn’t overlooking the fact that this was also an opportunity to live in the First World, even if it would mean on the periphery. This was particularly a life opportunity for the platoons of relatives that accompanied each prisoner. One is almost tempted to praise the Cuban government for allowing contingents of family members to leave the island – which is a kind of a cage in terms of immigration.
But the reality is that the Cuban government has never been inclined to respect families. On the contrary, it has used division and separation as a form of blackmail. I’m sure that here too there was a premeditated calculation to promote exile by exploiting the desires of family members and friends to do what Fundora and his wife did: “stroll freely in the Spanish motherland” – precisely what they couldn’t do in the land of their birth.
It’s true that some of them who decided to remain in Cuba. But that dozen people was made up of the last ones jailed, like a psychological maneuver to force them to leave. There was a moment in which the church itself had to remind the government that the terms had been overcome. Unquestionably, those who refused to be expatriated are of a special mold that not all of us share, but the greatness of those who remained does not in the least diminish those who emigrated.
What happened later was that those who left were informed that they wouldn’t be able to live on the island again…in their homeland…in the place where they were born. Because of Cuban immigration practices — it’s not even possible to speak of a specific law in this respect — these people are condemned to ostracism.
I believe there’s no better term to define all of this other than “exile,” and in this case “forced exile.” This is another of the many methods that the Cuban government uses to commandeer the rights of its citizens. No one imagines that this can happen or that it’s possible to establish a democratic system in Cuba. Either there are freedoms and rights for everybody or there won’t be any for anyone.