“I believe in reason and in discussion as supreme instruments of progress,” the Holocaust survivor and writer Primo Levi once said. By abolishing reason and discussion, totalitarianism could be defined as the perfection of madness and paralysis.
Society doesn’t exist in this world, only silence maintained by massive and systematic violence. Self-expression, exchange of feeling, and other basic human behavior are crushed by the dogma that subjugates every institution to the State.
Like in Cuba.
Fidel Castro has imprisoned conscientious Cubans since 1959, and last month he imprisoned 80 more. The victims ranged from physicians and poets like Dr. Oscar Biscet and Raúl Rivero to journalists and economists like Omar Rodríguez and Oscar Espinosa. Biscet was sentenced to 25 years, Rivero to 20 years, Rodríguez to 27 years, and Espinosa to 20 years.
Castro’s injustice system convicted them of violating Cuba’s independence, which is the very thing they yearn for—“independence from oppression,” as Cuban founding father José Martí wrote. Perversion of language is to totalitarianism what theft is to kleptomania.
These heroes’ real crime was heresy; they defied Castro’s archaic absolutism and called for openness and progress. They called for a Cuba where people aren’t imprisoned for speaking their minds and are citizens instead of slaves.
Cuba’s most famous heretic is currently Oswaldo Payá. He was born in 1952 and endured forced labor camps from 1969 to 1972 for opposing the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. (Castro endorsed the invasion.)
Payá leads the Christian Liberation Movement and the Varela Project, the latter a petition drive that seeks a referendum on human rights, electoral reform, and other issues. The Project bases the referendum on a provision of Cuba’s 1976 “constitution,” a document that among other things prohibits private media and activities “against the existence and ends of the socialist State.”
Payá’s international prominence shielded him from April’s autos-da-fé, but lesser known supporters of the Project suffer greatly. College students Roger Rubio Lima, Harold Cepero Escalante, and Joan Columbié Rodríguez were expelled last fall for signing the Project; Project activists Jesús Mustafá Felipe and Robert Montero were sentenced to 18 months in February; and Project organizer Hector Palacios was sentenced to 25 years in April.
These are six names, and there are so many more.
While Cuban human rights organizations share a common purpose in emancipating Cuba from totalitarianism, they differ on methods. Dr. Biscet, for example, leads the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights and doesn’t support the Varela Project.
“When I was presented with the Project in 1997, I told them that everything that unites the people is good, but that I personally dissented, because I would never honor that  constitution,” he said last November. “I will only honor a constitution when a democratic constitution is established that respects the rights of the people of my country.” (There’s also the contradiction of a referendum on human rights, rights by definition not being subject to a referendum.)
Payá considers economic sanctions diversionary from Cuba’s internal crisis, describing them as “not a factor in change in Cuba.” Dr. Biscet supports sanctions, however, and made the following analogy in November:
My stand is pragmatic: if you have an individual that abuses his family at home, the right thing to do is to remove the individual from the home, not to give him more money to continue abusing. If the international community had acted with Cuba in the same form that it did with [the apartheid regime] of South Africa, our country would have been free a long time ago.
This tactical diversity is appropriate. Unlike a despot’s lackeys, free thinkers aren’t expected to be identical.
“Cuba has decided on her emancipation; she has always wanted emancipation in order to rise as a republic,” Martí wrote in 1873 on the proclamation of Spain’s First Republic. One hundred and thirty years later, Cubans like those 80 heroes behind bars struggle to realize this dream.