This tradition came to an end when Fidel Castro, ignoring his own history, decided not to recognize even the category of political prisoner, much less any traditional right attached to that status, such as the right to dress in civilian clothes and to refuse compulsory labor. Many of Castro’s political prisoners resisted being treated as common prisoners, which led to the phenomenon of the “plantados,” who also opposed the “rehabilitation” plans established by the Cuban government in 1964, aimed at pressuring those prisoners into giving up their political ideas in exchange for improving their prison conditions and reduce their sentences.
The “plantados” protested against those plans and against their prison conditions with hunger strikes and dressed only in their underwear to avoid the uniforms of the common prisoners. These protests were repressed, often brutally, by the prison authorities. Pedro Luis Boitel, a former anti-Batista student leader opposed to Communism, died in one of those hunger strikes in 1972.
The ideological subtext of these practices by the Cuban government is that there is only one legitimate political thought. Any opposition to it automatically entails endangering and betraying the revolution and turns into a common crime the moment someone tries, however peacefully, to persuade others in an organized fashion, of ideas different or opposed to the official ones. The presumption that there is only one legitimate political thought penetrated all aspects of the official discourse concerning the nature and destiny of Cuban society quite early on.
That is why, for example, the government baptized the armed struggle ongoing in the Sierra del Escambray mountains in central Cuba in the sixties as the “lucha contra bandidos” (the struggle against bandits). The reality is, however, that this was not a struggle against bandits, but a struggle against what the government could have called “counterrevolutionaries” – a term that assumes the existence of a counterrevolutionary politics instead of reducing and falsifying reality with a term suggesting common criminal activity.
In fact, the Cuban government never seriously argued that what happened in the Escambray in the sixties was a fight against horse thieves, robbers and run of the mill delinquents for whom the term “bandido” might have been appropriate. It is ironic that the CIA, that invested so many resources in helping and providing material aid to those armed groups, did not deem them as delinquents, but as counterrevolutionaries. It is clear that the regime deliberately used the term “bandidos” to discredit the Escambray rebels, and to place them outside the bounds of politics in order to legitimize any treatment it might impose on them and their supporters, as was the forced relocation, in the seventies, of thousands of peasants hundreds of kilometers away, in the western end of the island after the hostilities had ended.
The Current Situation
The Cuban government continues to criminalize the political activities of its opponents. With increasing frequency, it argues that those activities are financed and organized by U.S. imperialism. Thus, Law 88 of 1999, justifiably labelled by many as the “gag law” (Ley Mordaza), establishes the deprivation of liberty for a term of 3 to 8 years and/or a fine ranging from a thousand to three thousand “quotas” (the value of one quota ranging from fifty cents to twenty Cuban pesos, which is to be determined by the court in each case) for those who participate in the distribution of financial or any other kind of material resources proceeding from the U.S. government.
This accusation has been well founded in several cases involving the financing of dissident political activities. Even then, however, it is necessary, at least from the socialist and democratic point of view, to establish what kind of political opposition activities have been organized and financed with those funds. Overall, the opposition activities adjudicated by the Cuban courts in recent years have been peaceful, and have consisted in the distribution of printed and other kind of materials of a non-violent nature. As such, they would be considered entirely legal in any Latin American country, except for those ruled by antidemocratic regimes. They are not communications inciting to violence or arms trafficking, and they are eminently political ideas and exhortations addressing a public from which they seek political support.