In recent months, a number of official announcements from inside Cuba have led to speculation that meaningful political change could be underway. From a declaration that it will release a number of political prisoners to an apology for past repression of gays to an acknowledgment that “the Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore,” the Castro regime has sought to signal that a more benevolent rule is replacing the authoritarianism of the last half-century. But civil society activists have found that very little has changed inside Cuba when it comes to respect for human rights and labor rights.
In November 2009, sitting inside a crowded and cramped room in Havana, I received my own firsthand education in the machinery of Cuban state repression. The room had once been part of a more spacious apartment, with high ceilings designed to provide a measure of relief from the heat of the day, but the couple who made this place their home had built in it a sleeping loft for the many civil society activists who gathered there from across Cuba, and there was barely enough space to stand up. Around the room were artifacts of the many activities that took up its days: children’s art from day care and after-school sessions, bookshelves filled with the volumes of an independent library, a union placard, pictures of Cuban democratic national heroes and a large poster of Martin Luther King, and a wall dedicated to the signatures of visitors from Cuba and around the world. Gathered in the middle of the room were a dozen Cuban educators—remnants of a national conference of the independent teachers union, the Colegio de Pedagogos Independientes, which had planned to meet that month. In the middle of the circle was Roberto de Miranda Hernández, leader of the Colegio and one of the scores of leading Cuban human rights advocates and trade unionists who had been imprisoned by the Castro regime in a wave of repression during the spring of 2003.
The Colegio had invited the Polish union Solidarity and my national union, the American Federation of Teachers, to send representatives to its conference. Jan Mosinki of Solidarity and I teamed up with translators and traveled separately to our destination. We did our best to avoid the scrutiny of Cuba’s political police, including the marked police car conspicuously parked on the narrow street that provided the main approach to our meeting place. We arrived within minutes of each other, and De Miranda quickly began the tale of what had transpired the day before. Close to eighty members of the Colegio from across Cuba had come together, only to have state security descend upon the gathering, declare it “counter-revolutionary,” and threaten to arrest them if they persisted in meeting. Most of the Cuban educator unionists left, but a smaller group—a mixture of older and younger teachers, men and women, predominantly Latino but with a few Afro-Cubans—stayed behind to meet ...
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