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Themes Why I Became a Dissident » 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. 

The issue of being 7 or 8 years old when an ogre appears in your life disguised as a messiah is a terrible fact. And it occurred in my poor and unusual story, that when I was 7 or 8 years old, Fidel Castro appeared in Cuban history and took power. And from there, everything in Cuba began to become “exceptional.” Exceptional in the most pejorative sense of the word. Because the deception was for the worse not the better.

As a child, I was taught under the ideological standards [of communism]. Since childhood they instilled in me ideas which didn’t mesh with the national, republican ideals that previous generations had learned. Therefore I was a Pioneer, I studied in a highly ideological school, in a highly ideological secondary school; I say secondary because here in the United States secondary is what is called high school and it’s a highly ideological institution. I tried to comprehend the government’s formula of social economics which was being…or better said, had been installed in my country. I asked myself many questions and I didn’t have answers for them.

I discovered that my country was wandering with no purpose and towards nothing. It’s precisely that in 1980 in front of purely fascist events [by the government], brutal acts that were directed against the Cuban population wanting to leave the country through the port of Mariel and the events at the Peruvian embassy, which led me to understand that I was living inside a broken society, anti-democratic, totalitarian, and quite parallel to fascism. Because between totalitarian communism and fascism, the differences are very scarce and barely ideological.

[Pioneer movements are a common feature in communist societies. They are youth organizations operated by the party that indoctrinate students in communist ideology. In April 1980, thousands of Cubans seeking asylum stormed the Peruvian embassy. The incident attracted international attention and put pressure on the regime to relax its emigration restrictions; Mariel Port became the primary exit point for Cubans fleeing the country. Fidel Castro (1926 - ) led the Cuban Revolution and seized power in 1959. He established a communist dictatorship in Cuba and led the country until 2008.]

From there I had the noble occupation of teacher. I was a professor of physics, chemistry, and mathematics at the secondary and pre university level which they call middle school and high school here [United States]. Later I began to work as a literature advisor to the Ministry of Culture because I had graduated from college as a philologist [one who studies the relationship of languages to one another, and their history, especially based on the analysis of texts], better said I am licensed in Languages in Pan American and Cuban Literature with a little bit of art history and philosophy, etc…which was originally called in Cuba a Doctor of Philosophy and Letters; a career that, of course, one knows a lot but doesn’t really do a lot…one would say it’s not that practical.

After being a teacher I began to work as an advisor of literature in the Ministry of Culture which is really what I like to do; write, create literature and books. I won some national prizes, for literature and also for journalism. I made some trips outside of the country and discovered that the world was not small, like our Cuban village. And I better understood that phrase written by [Jose] Marti that says, "The prideful villager thinks his hometown contains the whole world." Because we thought that Cuba was the center of the world but in reality the world is, as the writer Pio Baroja said, “wide and strange."

[Jose Marti (1853 – 1895) is recognized as Cuba’s national hero. Marti was a writer and essayist who advocated for Cuban independence from Spain. Pio Baroja (1872 – 1956) was a Spanish novelist.]

Upon my return, I began to understand some of the reading that had been banned [in Cuba]. From [Immanuel] Kant to [Friedrich] Nietzsche, from [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel up to I don’t know...[Auguste] Comte, [Herbert] Spencer, from... because, remember we had studied philosophy, and history from the point of view of these [communist] manuals from the government and we had not been exposed to the original sources, the philosophers, the true historians.

When we discovered this, we realized even more the dreadful [communist] mechanisms which had been established in Cuba. By [19]89, I had spent many years working as a journalist in various areas of the Cuban press, and in [19]89, I told the director of the newspaper, "Look, I'm tired of writing lies. I'm tired of writing a complacent newspaper. I'm tired of painting a pretty picture, when in reality the quality of life in Cuba is catastrophic.”

In June 1989, I quit. I spent a few years working as a literature advisor for the Ministry of Culture and already in [19]92, I decided that no, not even as a literature advisor could I support the burden on my conscience. In 1993, I won my last literary prize for a children’s book I wrote. I had abandoned adult literature, conceptual literature where there were too many dangers, and I had dedicated myself to children’s literature which was less ideological.

I could fantasize a little more; one was allowed a little more free rein of the imagination, and to the wisdom, and enchantment, the magic necessary to captivate children.

[Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) was a German philosopher who commented on reason and morality. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) was a German philosopher who commented on religion, morality, contemporary culture, and science. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831) was a German philosopher best known for his commentary on philosophical idealism. Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903) was a British philosopher who commented on evolution and classical liberalism; he coined the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857) was a French philosopher who commented on the relationship between social evolution, science, and scientific methodology.]

In [19]93, when I won my last literary prize, I realized that the national prize that I had won was a check for 1,000 Cuban pesos. And that amounted to $6.16. . In the Plaza de Armas, this is an old colonial plaza in Havana in front of the Governor’s Palace and the “Palacio del Segundo Cabo,” a very touristy area, there were already some booksellers who sold books on their own.

And I asked one of the booksellers for a book of mine that was on display; a book that had been published a few years earlier called A Day of Paul, a book of poems for children. And the bookseller tells me, "Look, the Cubans don't buy here." I say, "What do you mean the Cubans don't buy here?" "No, no... We sell second-hand books but we sell them in dollars to the tourists.” "Well, I want to know, how much is that book worth?" He says, "Well, it’s worth $5." Immediately I said well, I just won a National Literature award for writing a book... I just won $6.16 and a second hand book of mine is sold in a kiosk and is worth 5 dollars, I cannot continue writing here. Apparently here you have to dedicate yourself to selling books.

And so three weeks later, I became a bookseller there in the Plaza de Armas, and I devoted several years, two years, to selling old books in the Plaza de Armas, selling old books, elated by my earnings; I had never earned $50 in one day, and standing there selling books allowed me to make these profits. That’s the salary of three or four workers in a month and I was making that in one day by just selling books. 

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: Background “I'm tired of painting a pretty picture when in reality the quality of life in Cuba is catastrophic.”

Other videos from Manuel Vázquez Portal

Manuel Vazquez Portal: The Black Spring “The cell was three steps wide and seven long.” Manuel Vazquez Portal: International Support “All international organizations help by giving visibility to a prisoner.” More +