Fidel Castro, who died on November 25, was a political tyrant who succeeded in convincing many people in the democratic world that he was actually the very opposite. The Prime Minister of Canada called him a “legendary revolutionary.” To the leader of the British Labour Party he was “a champion of social justice,” while the President of Ireland called him “a giant among global leaders, whose view was not only one of freedom for his people but for all of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet.”
Castro was able to fool so many people because he was a skillful demagogue who knew how to manipulate emotions and political prejudices to secure his power and magnify his public image. How he was able to do that, and why democratic countries have produced so many “useful idiots,” which was how Lenin described Western apologists for communism, are questions that have been dealt with elsewhere. It is also not my intention to respond to the lies and propaganda about Castro, which is a fruitless exercise that only dignifies ideas that don’t deserve to be taken seriously. Rather than focus on Castro, in my view it’s more fitting on this occasion to remember those who heroically resisted his demagogy and ruthless brutality, and to let their stories elucidate his ignominious legacy.
I want to speak about four Cuban heroes. The first is Pedro Luis Boitel, who has been called the emblematic figure of the Cuban pro-democracy movement. Boitel was active in the 1950s against the Batista dictatorship until forced into exile in Venezuela, where he set up a radio station that broadcast anti-Batista messages to Cuba. He returned to Cuba after the revolution and ran for the presidency of the university students as the candidate of Castro’s 26th of July Movement. But Castro supported a rival candidate, already viewing Boitel as a potential threat because he was charismatic, an opponent of communism, 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 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. He was the first of the Plantados, the “immovable ones” in prison who endured the harshest punishment. 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 his continued imprisonment and other injustices. According to fellow prisoners, when Boitel died 53 days later, it was not from the hunger strike but because a prison security guard suffocated him with a pillow.
Because of his moral leadership and uncompromising resistance to the regime, and not least because of his mother’s persistence in making his case known to the world, Boitel 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. Today many dissident groups opposed to the dictatorship are named after Boitel.
Huber Matos is another hero who opposed Batista, but unlike Boitel, he was a leader in Castro’s armed struggle to overthrow the dictatorship. He famously flew a 5-ton cargo of weapons to the rebels, led the assault on Santiago de Cuba, and rode into Havana atop a tank alongside Castro and other revolutionaries in the victory parade in January 1959. Castro appointed him to be the Commander of the Army in the province of Camaguey.
Like Boitel, Matos soon became disaffected by Castro’s first moves to impose a totalitarian system, including the execution by firing squads of hundreds of prisoners at the La Cabana fortress and the establishment of Cuba’s first forced labor camp—Guanahacabibes—that set the pattern for jailing dissidents, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Afro-Cuban priests. (This repression has been documented by Nestor Almendros in his moving film Improper Conduct.) He resigned his position on October 19 and was immediately arrested, along with five captains and eleven lieutenants who protested his arrest.
At the subsequent trial, Castro delivered a 7-hour harangue, accusing Matos of campaigning against the revolution and promoting the interests of the United States, large landowners, and supporters of Batista. Matos was sentenced to twenty years in prison, sixteen of which were spent in solitary confinement. He was tortured, engaged in hunger strikes, and was constantly told that he would never get out alive.
But he was released in 1979, in part because of an appeal signed by 100 prominent Americans—among them Senators Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, and intellectuals like Jeane Kirkpatrick, Arthur Schlesinger, and Sidney Hook.
At a press conference in New York just weeks after his release, Matos issued a powerful statement affirming his belief that the Cuban struggle for freedom would succeed. “The struggle against the regime will be a long one,” he said. “Of that we have no illusions. But it will succeed because of the people’s commitment to basic democratic values. We do not support terrorism or an invasion from the outside. We don’t want a dictatorship of the right to replace the repressive regime we now have. But we will win.” He called for “an ideological struggle against Castro…to explain the hard truth about his rule: which is that his regime violates every norm of human freedom and well-being and is despised by the overwhelming majority of the Cuban people.” The following year in Caracas, Matos established Cuba Independiente y Democratica (CID) to carry out this struggle, and it remains active today through its efforts to support the development of a strong civil society across the island. Matos died in exile in Miami in 2014.
The third hero is Laura Pollan, the founder of the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White. She was a simple woman—a mother, a housewife, and a teacher. She loved literature. She was not political, at least until her husband, Hector Maseda Guitierrez, was arrested along with 74 other dissidents in the “Black Spring” of 2003. From the moment he was taken away, she had a mission—to free her husband and to rally other women whose loved ones had also disappeared. Towards that end she formed the Damas de Blanco. They marched every week from the Church of Santa Rita, dressed in white and carrying gladioli. The garments symbolized the purity of their motives and the flowers their integrity and moral strength. And when they chanted “Libertad,” they did so not just for their husbands and fathers and sons and brothers, but for Cuba itself.
The regime reacted to their peaceful marches with violence and venom. The women were insulted, called traitors and mercenaries, and attacked by shock mobs. But they persisted, and as they did, their reputation and moral authority grew in Cuba and throughout the world.
Then on September 24, 2011, when the women were being shoved and beaten by one of these mobs, Laura was personally attacked by an agent of the State Security. She fell into critical condition eight days later. She died on October 14, a martyr in the cause of freedom.
Was Laura assassinated? Her successor Berta Soler believes that she was—she told me so herself earlier this year. And so does the Cuban musician Amaury Guitierrez, whose beautiful hymn remembering Laura Pollan includes these powerful lyrics:
The evil of your executioner made you eternal; the homeland thanks you and worships you,
Today the world is watching and accomplices silently are ashamed…They wanted to silence you and your voice today sounds ever so high
Dictators, murderers of women,
Justice has not arrived but it is coming
It’s been more than 50 years but we continue on fighting
Laura, brave woman!
While people throughout Cuba mourned the death of Laura Pollan, the government responded with “infinite ideological rancor,” in the words of Yoani Sanchez. “Laura is gone,” she continued, “and now all the acts of hatred against her resonate even more grotesquely. Laura is gone and we are left with a country slowly waking up from a very old totalitarianism that doesn’t even know how to say ‘I’m sorry.’”
The last hero is Oswaldo Paya, one of the most prominent opponents of the Cuban dictatorship. Paya was a Catholic activist who founded the Christian Liberation Movement (CLM) in 1988 and is best known for the Varela Project, a petition drive he launched in 2002 calling for free elections and other rights. The project angered the Cuban government, which responded by forcing a constitutional amendment through the National Assembly making the communist system in Cuba “irrevocable.” This was followed by the “Black Spring” when it arrested 75 of the most prominent Cuban activists.
The regime didn’t arrest Paya because of his international renown. The European Parliament had awarded him its Sakharov Prize in 2002, and that same year he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by hundreds of parliamentarians in a campaign led by his friend, the Czech President Vaclav Havel. Unlike Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma and Liu Xiaobo of China, for whom Havel also campaigned, Paya never received the Nobel Prize. But he was an activist in the same mold—committed to nonviolence and reconciliation and a moral leader of world stature.
Like Laura Pollan before him, Paya died under mysterious circumstances. On July 22, 2012, he was killed in an automobile crash when he was traveling in a rented car with three fellow Christian Democrats—two of them from Europe—to meet with supporters of the CLM at the eastern end of the island. The Cuban regime sentenced the Spanish driver, Angel Carromero, to four years in prison for vehicular homicide. But after the Spanish government negotiated his release, he gave an interview to The Washington Post in which he said that their car was rammed from behind by a vehicle bearing state license plates. Eight U.S. Senators have called for an investigation of the crash by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, charging that Carromero’s account has raised “deeply troubling questions that Payá’s car was deliberately targeted by Cuban government officials well known for their harassment of Payá.” Until now the Cuban government has refused to cooperate with such an investigation.
The stories of these four heroes—Pedro Luis Boitel, Huber Matos, Laura Pollan, and Oswaldo Paya—bespeak a regime of extreme inhumanity and duplicity. Those who challenge its power risk paying the ultimate price, and many have. It is in this context that Manuel Cuesta Morua recently received the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Ion Ratiu Democracy Award.
I have known Manuel now for a number of years and I know he stands in the tradition of the Cuban heroes who have sought a non-violent path to democratic transition and reconciliation.
Manuel Cuesta Morua’s strategic vision is informed by a spirit of democratic unity and guided by fundamental democratic principles:
The Cuban people have a profound need for international solidarity from the outside world, which has been partial and inadequate because of the obfuscation and wrong-headedness engendered by Castroism. But their liberation must come from within, and so must the effort to find a balance between reconciliation and coming to terms with the truth of the past nearly six decades.
Now that relations between Cuba and the United States have been normalized, its urgently important that relations be normalized between the Cuban people and their government. Many people have suffered and died to achieve that goal that is called democracy, and the number of Cubans who share this vision continues to grow. If they can hold together, the future is theirs.
Carl Gershman is the President of the National Endowment for Democracy. This article is adapted from remarks he delivered on December 5, 2016, at the presentation of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Ion Ratiu Democracy Award to the Cuban democracy leader Manuel Cuesta Morua.