Cubans Are Afraid, All the More Brave

By: Vanessa Garcia / 8/12/2021
For Unafraid Magazine

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A month ago, Cubans poured out onto the streets of Cuba asking for freedom.

It’s difficult for us who live in a free and democratic society, to understand what this truly means. To understand the fear people have had to push down from their throats to their feet in order to hit those streets, chanting “Liberty!”

Liberty is such an easy word for us to utter, almost glib, but for Cubans on the island it has proven extremely punishable.

Since the protests of July 11th, the regime itself has also hit the streets, sending out black berets and beating down its own citizens. Literally battering and shooting them. This too has been recorded and shown to us on cellphone camera videos, photos, and audio.

Despite this, despite fear, people have gone out again in protest, though the government has done everything possible to prevent it -- with 800 plus disappeared citizens and a call from the head of the regime, Miguel Diaz-Canel, toward democide, murder of its own people.

Diaz-Canel publicly gave an order for “Communists” to go out into the street and fight. He said: “they [those against the regime] will have to pass over our dead bodies if they want to confront the revolution.”

In other words, the Cuban government considers nonviolent dissent illegal, but publicly encourages its “soldiers” to act violently against those nonviolent dissenters. At this point, those dissenters are a majority, according to Tania Bruguera, an artist trying to live and work inside Cuba. This double standard, exemplary of tyranny, sums up the system that the Cuban people are trying to topple.

Anything that goes against the “irrevocable” state -- as so stated in their constitution -- is subject to criminal and “pre-criminal” charges. If the government thinks you might, perhaps, maybe, in the future, create a crime against the state, you can be taken to prison. For years. And by crime, the regime means many things. “Social dangerousness,” as it’s been called.

Social dangerousness could include wearing the Cuban flag on your shoulders while making art, or using the anthem in a way that the state does not allow. And what the state allows or does not allow is, itself, intentionally vague.

If you are an artist and your art is considered “harmful to ethical values,” you can be arbitrarily arrested. Such has been the case of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, a visual artist, Maykel Osorbo, a rapper, and Hamlet Lavastida, a conceptual artist. And such is the case since July 11th with hundreds of others – artists and non-artists alike -- around Cuba.

The decree under which artists are forced to either become propagandists or criminals, without much in between, is decree 349,, which states that art, which is not approved by the state, is simply not allowed.

Other crimes and “pre-criminal activity” include travelling. People in Cuba cannot travel, not even within their own country, without the approval of the paternal state. In this way, the Cuban government has been able to prevent people from gathering at protests in the past. The “children of the revolution,” however, are rebelling.

But what does it mean to rebel under this kind of tyranny? What does it mean to be “unafraid,” as is the name of this publication, under these circumstances? Over the last twenty years, I have asked many Cubans this question. Two answers stand out.

Most recently, I asked Yotuel, one of the musicians that created the song Patria y Vida, which has become an anthem for the fight against the regime. Patria y Vida means “Motherland and Life,” as opposed to the well known slogan of the revolution: “Motherland or Death.”

When I asked Yotuel what made him break down his fear before recording Patria y Vida -- which everyone knew would be dangerous for its call toward change, so much so that one of his countrymen and collaborators, Maykel Osorbo, mentioned above, is still in prison for helping create it -- he responded as follows:

“We have not broken-down fear. We’ve gone to war with fear. My late father would say that to be brave is not to be unafraid, it is to go to war with that fear…Yes, we were afraid when it came time to make this song, but the heart rules out over reason, over the mind…[As a kid], I would fight with my father and he would tell me, ‘that one came from the entrails.’ And I didn’t get it. Because I would tell him, how can you tell when I’m fighting for real and when I’m not….He said one day I would understand. When we made this song and we hugged in the studio after and we started to cry from our entrails, I thought, coño, ahora si, I get it now. And that’s exactly where the Cubans are calling out from now when they yell out: Patria y Vida.”

Before Yotuel, back in 2010, when I interviewed the writer, journalist, and blogger Yoani Sanchez, who was bravely writing the truths (still is) about Cuba from inside the island, despite all odds, I asked her the same question. Aren’t you afraid?

“Afraid,” she said, “I’m afraid every day. But, look, there are many ways to confront your fears. You can hide from them or you can do what I’ve done since I was little. Whenever I feared something when I was a child, I would run, head-on, until I butt heads with the thing that brought me terror, thereby confronting fear. But fear, fear I feel daily. Fear of the police, of the government, of the regime, of the loops in our laws, of everything. This is a system that can kill me, both socially, and physically. But I have a responsibility…Cuba libre is the call of the Mambises, those long-ago guerillas, who used to sing out from the mountains against the Spanish. And it has remained in our genes, in our pluralistic diaspora, wherever you may be. For me a Cuba Libre is a free cuba, is a place you can publish a book, any book you want, and not be persecuted. It is a place where you are free to express yourself; this is what I imagine.”

And for this we all fight. Not unafraid, but moving, acting, marching with fear, until fear is not necessary because we are all free.

What does this mean for us here in the United States, then, where Liberty is so easy to utter.

I have been approached by many Cuban Americans who are afraid to tell their story because of stereotypes placed on them. Such as that we are all “right-wing” or “hardline” or “crazy” or “children.” These are all words I hear and must grapple with daily as an American Born Cuban (ABC) speaking my truth.

The defamation is heightened because there is an attempt to divide us in the United States across racial lines, when, in reality, we should be fighting together, all of us who believe in true justice for all. I refuse to be divided.

As artists in Cuba fight against the tyranny of the state which does not let them speak, it is important that we here, in freedom, continue to speak if we so desire, and refuse to silence each other.

Many of our families have survived a horror only we know about and, at least I, feel responsible for telling these stories. When newspapers are more interested in interviewing mouthpieces for the Cuban regime over an oppressed people fighting for their voice, I feel the burden of this responsibility even more. When we hide the truth of Cuba behind the veneer of a benign, tropical singing monkey, the responsibility becomes heavier still.

We must not be afraid to tell our story.

If people in Cuba are fighting with their flesh on the streets and on social media, moving with fear toward freedom, then surely, we can stand on free soil and ask ourselves where the fear of telling our story comes from – question that beast, question cancel culture, if that’s part of it, find the answers, and use those answers to propel us forward and further. Taking the reins of a narrative that has been quieted and ignored for too long, reclaiming what’s rightfully ours.

Our Cuban roots, whose routes have been so twisted, arduous, painful – these are the routes we are working to repave daily with our truths, so that others may walk on the road and see what’s been hiding behind that vaudeville monkey’s smile all the while.

May every story be a crack in that façade.

About Vanessa Garcia

Vanessa Garcia is a writer and mulit-media artist