20 YEARS OF PEOPLE IN NEED ON CUBA: SOCIETY IS MORE OPEN BUT REPRESSION PERSISTS
People in Need first began to contact dissidents against the authoritarian communist regime of then-leader Fidel Castro in September 1997. Cuba then existed in isolation, so that Cubans could not travel and only learned about the outside world indirectly. 20 years later, Cuba is in many ways more open than ever, yet it remains a non-democratic country where freedom of speech and assembly are consistently repressed.
Šimon Pánek, 20 years younger and under the guise of a promising young writer seeking to find Hemingway’s island, travelled to Cuba with an electronic typewriter, a bundle of books, two cameras and memorized addresses of 15 Cuban dissidents; intellectuals and journalists which he was to meet and present with these items as well as medication, money, and hope. As a young democracy enjoying its freshly recovered freedom, the Czech Republic could support both morally and financially the fight against the oppression and drabness of a communist regime, such as it itself so recently experienced.
Answering a call for help
“One day in Spring, Frank Calzon knocked on our door, this Cuban man who emigrated to the US as a child and founded a small non-profit which sent books, computers, cameras, typewriters – simply put things which were not readily available on the island,” Pánek recalls concerning the beginnings of People in Need work on Cuba. “When looking for someone who would understand how to operate in a communist dictatorship and evade the secret police, he thought that such people might well be found in post-communist countries. The Czech Republic was then particularly due to Václav Havel a real protagonist of active support for human rights. So Frank sought the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs – and there they told him that they could not help him, but that he should try People in Need.” Since the very start, People in Need work on Cuba was thus answering a call from the outside. “It was similar as when we started working in Belarus, and even when the floods of ’97 hit at home or concerning work in socially excluded localities. Answering some sort of appeal is to this day the driving force behind what People in Need does,” Pánek says.
Initial aid aimed to support activists, dissidents, families of political prisoners, and through nuns also long-term political prisoners. People in Need began to transport food, medication, and money to the island along with hope that the situation can improve. It also delivered books, cameras, and voice recorders in order to help local writers and independent journalists report on the situation on the island.
Helping journalists and political prisoners
The relationship between Cuban dissidents and Czech aid workers gradually developed. In 20 years, People in Need helped hundreds of journalists, lawyers, and activists demanding adherence to basic human rights and professing democratic principles. It began to continuously bring attention to the problem of political imprisonment in Cuba, systematically monitor unjust sentences, help the families of the imprisoned and appeal for their release. It supported the publishing of independent newspapers and the activities of writers’ clubs and organized seminars on human rights. It endorsed important figures of Cuban dissent such as opposition movement leader Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, blogger Yoani Sánchez, or eleven dissidents and former political prisoners whom People in Need granted the Homo Homini award for extraordinary contribution to the fight for human rights.
The situation of Cuba’s civil society is gradually changing. The island is no longer closed so that most cannot leave. In 2013, the borders became partially open and many Cubans have since travelled abroad, which brought the country new perspectives also on what it means to live in a free society. However, state institutions are now beginning to limit travel once again. If you count among critics of the regime, artists, or lawyers who help human rights activists, you can never be sure that you will not be detained on the border or elsewhere.
Another partial opening set in after 2015, when the government created public wi-fi hotspots across the country. Nevertheless, there are problems in this regard as well. Internet connection remains very expensive for the average person. An hour of access to the online world costs 1.5 dollars or more, a sum for which many Cubans can travel to and from work by bus for a whole month. As a result, people usually do not search for otherwise inaccessible independent sources of information on the internet, because they wish to spend their costly time online for instance to communicate with friends and family living abroad. The key sources of information on Cuba are thus still television and radio, subject to state control. The main alternative is Radio and TV Martí, broadcasted from the United States.
“On Cuba, a certain opening was achieved through information technologies and renewed diplomatic relations with the US. It definitely cannot be called a democratization,” Šimon Pánek says. “Power is still firmly held by the same group. Actual elections, the free competition of people applying for the right to make decisions, does not exist there.”
Hope in youth
Though still criminalized by state power, Cuban civil society is much wider and more diverse than in the 1990s. More young people are interested in issues such as women’s rights, LGBT rights, and the environment. At the same time, they see that the present ruling apparatus cannot answer their needs. Thanks to international support, their voice gradually gains in strength.
“While years ago we supported a small group of extremely courageous people, well-known to the regime – similarly to when dissent was forming in mid-70s Czechoslovakia – today the scope of our support is much wider,” Šimon Pánek explains. People in Need still supports lawyers, independent journalists, and political prisoners, but it also directs aid to environmental activists, to artists, to LGBT communities, or to women striving for gender equality in a traditionally heavily patriarchal society. Contribution to the development of civil society can thus be achieved not just through politics, but also through smaller projects that function well and develop by degrees.
“I have hope in the younger generation. Although young Cubans don’t immediately want a better constitution, they want to travel, to have access to information and everything that youth in other parts of the world have. This is the force that can have an impact in the future and change something on Cuba,” Pánek says. “Small groups of long-standing dissidents are a source of inspiration, but their strength in numbers and in form is relatively small. In 10 years, Cuba may be a step closer to democracy, or will at least be a quasi-democracy with at least some political competition that will allow a degree of control of those in power.”
The inability to freely conduct business, express oneself, form civil associations, or publicly critize the regime becomes the more distinctive, the clearer the possibilities brought by freedom become for Cubans. Official government discourse remains the same, but more and more people try at the boundaries of what they can do. Therefore, the push towards a more liberal and open society will continue. Most of all, Cuban civil society now needs international support. While in the past, help was mainly a question of moral principle, now it is essential for allowing the civil society in all its breadth and diversity to create a strong counterweight to the ruling elite.