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Themes Prisoners of Conscience » Manuel Vázquez Portal

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Born in 1951, Manuel Vázquez Portal grew up in the early days of the Castro regime. He received a degree in philology and worked for several years as a teacher. Afterward, he served as a literature advisor in the Ministry of Culture and a journalist with a state-owned media outlet. Through his work, he discovered first-hand how the regime used media and literature as propaganda and banned anything that challenged government ideology. Disillusioned with the regime’s censorship, Manuel focused his talents on children’s literature, a field that offered more flexibility for creativity and imagination.

In 1995, Manuel joined an independent news agency called Cuba Press, and in 1998, he helped form a similar organization called the United Workers Group. In 2003, Manuel was arrested along with 74 other nonviolent dissidents as part of a massive government crackdown known as the Black Spring. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his criticism of the regime. While incarcerated, Manuel worked with fellow political prisoners to organize protests against the prison guards and hunger strikes.

Also during this time, Manuel smuggled his diary out of prison with its descriptions of the conditions he and fellow prisoners endured; his testimonies were published for the outside world under the title Written Without Permission. The Committee to Protect Journalists presented Manuel the International Press Freedom award in absentia for his efforts to expose the regime’s treatment of political prisoners..

In 2004, Cuban authorities transferred Manuel from prison to a hospital; years of abuse and malnutrition had caused his health to deteriorate. Much to his surprise, Manuel was released and went into exile. He brought his family to the United States where he continues to champion a free and democratic Cuba. 

Look, the most important thing that happened to the Group of 75 [nonviolent dissidents who were arrested during the March 2003 crackdown known as the Black Spring] was that Amnesty International immediately recognized us as prisoners of conscience. This is very important.

Amnesty International has played a very important role in the protection of the lives of the prisoners of conscience, political prisoners inside the island because the government is more cautious. And in reference to organizations like Human Rights Watch, like Human Rights First, like Reporters Without Borders…, that’s why I don’t like to name within groups because then I forget some.

In the end, all international organizations help by giving visibility to a prisoner who is isolated in a totally closed island, in a closed totalitarian society where there is no public opinion, there is no free press, and where there is no freedom of press, there is no freedom of expression. When you wish to kill all freedoms, the first thing you do is kill freedom of expression and by that you have killed liberty and freedom. Because the mother of all freedoms is freedom of expression; when a human being can express him or herself, they are free even if they’re jailed, which was something that really bothered the prison guards when I would say, “I am freer than you are because I express myself. I have the valor, the courage of saying what I think and also publish it. You are a slave, I am not.”

When these organizations give visibility to political prisoners it’s as if they provide them a cloak of protection. But they don’t take away the suffering. They don’t take away the separation of families. They don’t take away the hunger. They don’t take away the sickness. They don’t take away the torture. But they might take away the imminent fear of death. It’s very difficult. In the end, there were cases that even with all that protection some died from hunger strikes, like Orlando Zapata Tamayo. Others were brutally beaten. Others decided to sew their mouths [shut] to demonstrate the lack of freedom of expression inside of Cuba. Among those was Juan Carlos Herrera, whom I believe is in Kentucky right now.

[Orlando Zapata Tamayo (1967 – 2010) was a Cuban opposition leader and human rights advocate. From 2003 to 2010, he was a prisoner of conscience after this arrest in the Black Spring crackdown. He died in prison as a result of an 80-day hunger strike. Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta is a Cuban independent journalist and human rights advocate. From 2003 to 2010, he was a prisoner of conscience after his arrest in the Black Spring crackdown.] 

But when the free press of the world, when the humanitarian organizations of the free world worry about prisoners of conscience, it becomes something very important and it also becomes a nightmare for closed societies. Because some way or another that society will find out, because some way or another that information filters out. It always filters out.

And I remember during the time when the Group of 75 were jailed, even if they were sotto voce [whispering], all of Cuba knew we were imprisoned. And then it occurs, what I believe to be the most interesting phenomenon of the history of the struggle against Fidel Castro which is the appearance of the Ladies in White.

[The Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) is a civil society organization founded by the mothers, spouses and daughters of dissidents who were imprisoned by Cuban authorities during the “Black Spring” crackdown in March 2003. They practice nonviolent resistance against the repression of civil liberties on the island of Cuba and support political prisoners.] 

Cuba, an island nation of 11.4 million people in the northern Caribbean Sea, is a totalitarian state.

Fidel Castro led the 1959 Cuban Revolution and ruled the country for 49 years before formally relinquishing power to his younger brother Raul in 2008. Raul Castro is the current head of state and First Secretary of the Communist Party, which is recognized by the Cuban Constitution as the only legal political party and “the superior leading force of society and of the state.” Raul Castro has said that he will step down from power at the age of 86 in 2018.

Cuba was a territory of Spain until the Spanish-American War. The United States assumed control of the island until 1902, when the Republic of Cuba became formally independent. A fledgling democracy was established, with the U.S. continuing to play a strong role in Cuban affairs.

In 1952, facing an impending electoral loss, former president Fulgencio Batista staged a successful military coup and overthrew the existing government. While his first term as elected president in the 1940s largely honored progressive politics, universal freedoms, and the Cuban Constitution of 1940, Batista’s return to power in the 1950s was a dictatorship marked by corruption, organized crime and gambling. He held power until 1959 when he was ousted by Fidel Castro’s rebel July 26th Movement.

While promising free elections and democracy, Castro moved quickly to consolidate power. By 1961, Castro had declared Cuba to be a communist nation.

Castro’s communist government nationalized private businesses, lashed out at political opponents, and banned independent civil society. As Cuba aligned itself with the Soviet Union, Cuban-American relations soured, including a U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba. In the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union came close to war, after the Soviets installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, prompting a U.S. naval embargo.

Since the revolution, Cuba has remained a one-party state. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the evaporation of Soviet economic support, Cuba loosened some economic policies, became more open to foreign investment, and legalized use of the U.S. dollar. By the late 1990s, Venezuela had become Cuba’s chief patron, thanks to the close relationship between the Castro brothers and Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez.

The regime continues to exercise authoritarian political control, clamping down on political dissent and mounting defamation campaigns against dissidents, portraying them as malignant U.S. agents. In a massive crackdown in 2003 known as the Black Spring, the government imprisoned 75 of Cuba’s best-known nonviolent dissidents.

The Cuban government does not respect the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion. The government and the Communist Party control all news media, and the government routinely harasses and detains its critics, particularly those who advocate democracy and respect of human rights. Frequent government actions against dissidents often take the form of attacks by regime-organized mobs. Prison conditions are harsh and often life-threatening, and the courts operate as instruments of the Communist Party rather than conducting fair trials.

Cuba relaxed its travel laws in 2013, allowing some prominent dissidents to leave and return to the country. It continues to experiment with modest economic reforms but remains committed to communist economic orthodoxy.

In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, Cuba was designated as “not free” and is grouped near the bottom of the world’s nations, with severely restricted civil rights and political liberties.


More on this theme from Manuel Vázquez Portal

Manuel Vazquez Portal: International Support “All international organizations help by giving visibility to a prisoner.”

Other videos from Manuel Vázquez Portal

Manuel Vazquez Portal: Background “I'm tired of painting a pretty picture when in reality the quality of life in Cuba is catastrophic.” Manuel Vazquez Portal: The Black Spring “The cell was three steps wide and seven long.” More +