Pedro Luis Boitel and the Future of Freedom in Cuba

Keynote Address by Carl Gershman

at the IX Annual Presentation of the Pedro Luis Boitel Freedom Award to

Iván Hernández Carrillo

September 24, 2009, Miami Florida

            It’s a great pleasure to be here tonight with all of you.  I’m especially pleased that we are joined by my old friend Huber Matos, whom I have not seen for many years.  We met first in January 1980 when I helped organize a dinner welcoming him to New York after he had spent twenty years in Castro’s prisons.  Later that year I joined him in Caracas when he launched Cuba Independiente y Democratica.  So it’s wonderful to see Huber again and looking so much younger than his 90 years.

            I also want to note that I learned just before arriving here this evening that Antúnez[1] was arrested last night in Havana, probably because today is the Dia de las Mercedes, the day of the patron saint of prisoners.  The Cuban authorities were clearly afraid to have such a famous former political prisoner mingling among common citizens on such a day.  So our thoughts are with him now.

            When I told the NED staff that I would be going to Miami to deliver the Pedro Luis Boitel Award to one of the five dissidents whom we honored last June with our own Democracy Award, I realized how important it was to explain who Boitel was and why he remains such an important figure  37 years after his death.  I mentioned to them an email I had received from Orlando describing Boitel and later sent it around to the entire staff.  It’s an extremely moving statement that explains why Boitel has become what Orlando[2] called “THE emblematic figure of the Cuban pro-democracy movement.”

            Orlando recounted Boitel’s early struggle in the anti-Batista underground and his subsequent exile to Venezuela, where he became active in the pro-democracy struggle against the dictator Perez Jimenez and also set up a radio station to broadcast anti-Batista messages to Cuba.  He later returned to Cuba following the overthrow of Batista, becoming active in the new revolutionary government and a leader of the democratic faction opposed to the incipient totalitarian tendency led by Raul Castro and Che Guevara. 

Fidel Castro’s leanings were not yet entirely clear, but they soon became so.  Boitel ran for the presidency of the federation of university students as the candidate of Castro’s 26th of July Movement, but Castro backed his rival Rolando Cubelas.  Boitel was still loyal to the revolution, but Castro already saw him as a potential threat, for he was charismatic, an anti-Communist, and had strong backing from the labor movement.  When Castro’s totalitarian intentions became clear, Boitel founded the Movement for the Recovery of the Revolution.  In short order he was arrested and condemned to ten years in prison.

            It was in Castro’s prisons that Boitel, in Orlando’s words, underwent a profound spiritual transformation.  He rallied prisoners around a philosophy of unyielding nonviolent resistance to the regime, one that accepted no type of compromise with his jailers.  Boitel began a series of hunger strikes and other protests as a way of defending his dignity and that of his fellow prisoners.  The regime kept him in prison beyond his ten-year sentence, and on April 3, 1972, he began one last hunger strike to protest this and other issues.  According to fellow prisoners, when Boitel died 53 days later, it was not from the hunger strike but when he was smothered with a pillow by one of the security officers.

            Because of his nonviolent moral resistance to the regime, his uncompromising stance, his democratic leadership qualities, and not least his mother’s persistence in making his case known to the world, Boitel soon became an icon of the anti-Castro struggle.  Though he was buried in an unmarked grave, his legend lived on by word of mouth in Cuba’s streets and especially in the prisons.  The pro-democracy activists soon found his grave, and there is now every year a clash with police when the activists make a pilgrimage to the gravesite to remember Boitel and his struggle.

            One thing especially caught my eye when I read Orlando’s account of Boitel’s life.  Boitel and Che Guevara, he wrote, “developed a strong enmity” toward each other.  That was very interesting.  Here were two participants in the Cuban revolution who were of the same generation, Che having been born in 1928 and Boitel in 1931.  And each became the emblematic representative of one of the two contradictory tendencies within the revolutionary movement.  Boitel, as we have seen, represented the movement’s democratic aspirations, for which he gave his life.  And Che was the leader of the hard-line, pro-Soviet faction that imposed a harsh totalitarian system on the Cuban people.

            It was Che who presided over the first firing squads at La Cabana prison, where hundreds of prisoners were executed in the first months after the revolution, some shouting “Long Live Christ the King” as they went to their death.  It was also Che who founded Cuba’s first forced labor camp, Guanahacabibes, which set the pattern for jailing dissidents, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Afro-Cuban priests and other “scum” that Nestor Almendros documented in his moving film “Improper Conduct.”  In the same “Message to the Tricontinental” in which Che called for “two, three, many Vietnams,” he proudly defended the monstrous inhumanity that lay at the root of his political outlook: “Hatred as an element of struggle,” he said, has to drive the movement; “unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine.  This is what our soldiers must become…”

            Significantly, it is Che – not Boitel -- who has developed into a cult figure in progressive circles in the U.S., Latin America, and beyond.  As the writer Alvaro Vargas Llosa has written, Che has become a virtual capitalist brand.  The Burlington Coat Factory has produced a TV commercial showing a young person in fatigue pants wearing a Che t-shirt.  There’s also a boutique in Union City, N.J., whose owner responded to critics of his marketing of Che products by saying “I sell whatever people want to buy.”  Then there’s “The Che Store” that caters on the Internet to “all your revolutionary needs.”  The Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona showed off the Che tattoo he has on his right arm when he visited Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and Mike Tyson even sports a Che tattoo on his abdomen.  When The Motorcycle Diaries, a cult film about Che, was shown at Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival in 2004, it received a standing ovation (Redford was the film’s executive producer); and the popular rock musician Carlos Santana wore a Che t-shirt when he performed the theme song from the movie at the Academy Awards ceremony later that year.

            This obviously raises the most troubling questions about the state of a political culture where such obscenities can flourish almost without eliciting any critical comment.  But let me leave a discussion of that phenomenon for another time.  Here I just want to ask one question: Between Boitel and Che, who will ultimately win – the democratic martyr whose unmarked grave has become a shrine for Cuban dissidents; or the murderous cult figure whose image adorns countless t-shirts?  Whom will history absolve?

            In answering that question, I would like to draw upon the insights of the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, who died just a couple of months ago and who will be honored by the NED three weeks hence at a memorial symposium in his honor.  It was Kolakowski , who explained the origins and deformities of communist totalitarianism, and the threat it posed to human freedom, more profoundly, I believe, than any intellectual since George Orwell.

In 1987, at an international conference that the NED organized in the U.S. Congress, Kolakowski made four points that have a bearing on our discussion of Cuba today.  Remember that he was speaking before anyone really knew that communism was about to collapse. 

First, he said that “we cannot simply deduce the situation in communist countries from the immutable essence of totalitarianism, thus implying that no changes of any importance and no social processes worth mentioning can occur in those regimes.”  In other words, communist countries can change from within; the totalitarian system can erode and decay.  Indeed, this is what Orlando and I wrote about in our Journal of Democracy article that appeared earlier this year.  There we described a process that the Directorio has charted in its annual “Steps to Freedom” reports -- the expansion over the last decade of the Cuban opposition movement from a few protests by Havana-based human-rights dissidents to thousands upon thousands of acts of civic resistance by grass-roots groups based throughout the island.  This resistance is made up of young people and women, workers and Afro-Cubans, bloggers and rappers.  Cuba is no longer the closed totalitarian system that existed when NED was created a quarter of a century ago.    It is now much more like a traditional tyranny, and as such it is extremely vulnerable to the growing civic movement in the country.

            Second, Kolakowski said that even when individual uprisings are repressed and it appears that they have failed, “the oppressive regime feels compelled to make concessions in response to some of their claims.”  More opposition activities are tolerated and “gone is the mendacious propaganda of success.”  The regime is put on the defensive, and the civic movement is in the position to start the next stage of the struggle from a higher plateau.  Kolakowski was thinking of Hungary in 1956 and Poland in 1981 after Solidarity was crushed, but the same insight also applies to Cuba today. 

            Third, with the Polish experience in mind, Kolakowski said “that the gradual dismantling of totalitarian institutions by building and enlarging enclaves of civil society is not impossible.  It is a dangerous path, no doubt, but the most promising one.”  And that is exactly what is happening today in Cuba – the steady enlargement of enclaves of civil society within the decaying communist system.

            And finally, Kolakowski challenged the notion that change in the Soviet bloc could only occur if it started from Moscow, in other words, from the center.  This was an argument that some people in the West used at the time to justify appeasement and ignore the struggles in Central Europe.  But, Kolakowski said, “The Soviet empire can be – and I hope will be – undermined from the peripheries: according to historical experience this is one way empires collapse.”

            Now how does that relate to Cuba? We know there are a lot of people who say that change can only come to Cuba from the top, from reforms initiated by the regime.  Along with that argument is the view that no real change is possible until Castro dies, an attitude that paralyzes even some dissidents.  But let me tell you something: Antúnez is not waiting for Castro to die.  He knows instinctively that change will only come from below-from the periphery, as it were.  And so he’s organizing protests now, day after day; and believe me, his oppressors are far more afraid of him than he is of them.

            The depth of the moral resistance to the Cuban regime should not be underestimated.  How is it possible that Antúnez learned about Boitel at all?  He didn’t know Boitel.  His sister Bertha recalls that when Antunez was beginning his struggle, the State Security officers would tell her, “If your brother keeps trying to follow Boitel, he will wind up like him.”  Bertha didn’t know whom they were referring to, as Boitel had been erased from the history books.  She thought he must have been some prisoner who was still alive, until Antúnez explained to her who Boitel was and how he had learned about him in the prisons from older prisoners who had known of his struggle.

            And so Boitel lives through Antúnez, and also through Iván  Hernández  Carillo whom we honor this evening. Iván  was born on May 24, 1971, just a year and a day before Boitel died.  But he, too, learned about Boitel and became the International Relations Secretary of the Pedro Luis Boitel Democratic Party.  When he was only 21 years old he was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for “enemy propaganda and disrespect for the person of Fidel Castro.”  He became a journalist with “Patria,” one of the independent press agencies, and had repeated run-ins with the police, once in 2002 when he and others were seeking to attend a meeting of the Boitel Democratic Party. 

            The following year, on March 18, 2003, Hernandez was among the 75 dissidents arrested in the “Black Spring” crackdown on the Cuban opposition.  Just two weeks later he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.  The court sentencing document charged that his crime was possession of a book about Martin Luther King, pamphlets containing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other examples of “injurious literature,” all of which, it said, would be burned by court order.  Among Hernández’s other “crimes” was placing a garland before the bust of Jose Marti at a local park in Perico; unfurling the national flag and observing a minute of silence in the Liberty Park in Colon; and calling a meeting of the National Independent Cuban Farmers and Cooperatives.  His mother, a member of the Damas de Blanco, women who march weekly to defend the victims of the Black Spring, has charged that in prison Hernández  has been threatened and attacked by common criminals who do the bidding of the prison guards to frighten and demoralize political dissidents.

            But as you’ve just seen in “The Courage to Be Free,” the documentary film that was shown when the NED presented its Democracy Award to Hernández , Antúnez, and three other dissidents, Hernández  has not been intimidated.  He knew that, for making the statement recorded in the film from his maximum security prison, he would be denied calls to his family for six months. Yet he still made the statement, and I think you will agree that it was superbly crafted, profoundly moving, and truly inspiring.

            Speaking from what he called “one of the darkest places in this hemisphere,” Hernández  said that it was his “duty to fight for democracy,” not just in Cuba but around the world, because “democracy has a global dimension.”  And as he said so movingly, “This makes us glad.”  And then he thanked the NED and the Members of Congress for the award, adding that such recognition “reminds us that we are not simply malcontents, but fighters for democracy.”

            Yet as we well know, Hernández  and others have been called malcontents and worse by the regime, by admirers of Che in the democratic world, and by so many other ignorant and deceived people who see dissidents like Hernández either as reactionaries or as an impediment to better relations with Cuba. 

            But they are anything but such an impediment.  On the contrary, they are the key to a new relationship between Cuba and the United States.  The reason is that such a relationship, which we all want, can only be built on the foundation of a new relationship between the Cuban government and the Cuban people, a relationship based on dialogue, trust, the rule of law, and democracy.

            Iván  Hernández  said that our Democracy Award, and by extension this award tonight, will encourage him and other democrats in Cuba “to continue fighting and believing in hope, high principles, and democracy.”  That, of course, is our hope, and it is also our obligation to communicate his message to the American people and to our leaders in Washington.  In that way, we can help build the international pressure that is needed to re-enforce and accelerate the internal forces at work in Cuba that will lead to the erosion of the regime and the liberation of the people. 

            Given the moral and intellectual poison that the regime in Cuba has spread in our country, in our hemisphere, and even in distant places around the world, what is at stake in this struggle is not just the freedom of the Cuban people but our own freedom as well.  So we must remain faithful to our Cuban friends, and to the legacy of Boitel, so that one day soon their hope for freedom will be realized.  I don’t know exactly when that day will come. But I have not the slightest doubt that it will.  And when it does, our hemisphere and the world will be a safer and a freer place for all of us.

            Thank you. 

[1]      Jorge Luis Garcia Perez “Antúnez” is one of the leaders of Cuba’s pro-democracy movement who spent 17 years in prison.


[2]     Orlando Guitierrez is the co-founder and national secretary of the Cuban Democratic Directorate that marshals international support for the pro-democracy movement in Cuba.