Sunday, June 19, 2011

Of Strikes and Causes: Reflections on a Conflict / Miriam Celaya

Of Strikes and Causes: Reflections on a Conflict / Miriam Celaya
Miriam Celaya, Translator: Norma Whiting

Recently a fellow Cuban living abroad and I exchanged views on the
advisability of hunger strikes as a way to confront the dictatorship.
The subject, of course, was motivated by the strike initiated by Jorge
Luis Artiles (Bebo) last May 9, in the city of Santa Clara, and that was
assumed on Friday, June 3, by Guillermo (Coco) Fariñas, when Bebo ended
his faced with the danger of grave consequences to his health, too
impaired to withstand a prolonged abstinence from food and water; that
is, before the logical imperatives arising from the action he had
voluntarily chosen. My colleague, who has a great admiration and
affection for Coco, is, however–like myself–against hunger strikes. His
position is that we must fight dictators with our lives. I fully agree
with him.

Fariñas' current strike, beyond the question of his demands which I do
not question and also consider to be mine, puts back on the table an
issue that goes beyond the particular aspects of the event: the
appropriateness or otherwise of the method in each case. At the risk of
upsetting the most sensitive, I think that as dissidents living immersed
in totalitarian regimes, we must be more rational than passionate when
the time comes to face off against the government, even if it implies–as
our friend Orlando Luis would say–adding a dash of cynicism to our
analysis. We have to consider first and foremost the real possibility of
achieving a significant advance as a result of actions undertaken, such
that they truly merit the sacrifice. With all due respect, health and
life are too high a price.

That is why–although in hunger strikes there is, without a doubt, a huge
portion of altruism, and an incredible individual willpower, as shown in
the one Coco held between February 24 and July 8, 2010, and that
influenced the release of dozens of political prisoners and of
conscience–using the method as a standard device can be
counterproductive and ineffective. The fact is, if every demand we have
against the government, however just it might be, requires an opponent's
ultimate sacrifice, in a very short time we ourselves will have achieved
the extinction of the dissent, to the delight of dictators.

The sacrifice involved in a hunger strike is well-known and the will
required by the striker to overcome the demands of his own body, used as
a weapon in the service of his cause, independent of whether or not the
demands that motivate him are met, contains a dose of triumph,
considering that even the death of the striker would constitute an
accusation against the system. Eventually, however, this death would not
be a guarantee that the government would accede to the striker's
demands. At the same time, in the difficult circumstances of Cuba today,
much more than moral successes is needed. An opposition leader on the
Island is much more useful alive than dead.

Nor should we neglect other collateral considerations, such as the
circumstances within which events unfold. Many factors of external
pressure and the existence of internal forces pushed us towards a
favorable solution to the prisoner crisis and a successful end to
Fariñas' strike last year. Some of these internal factors were more
significant, taking place simultaneously on the national and
international stage: Orlando Zapata Tamayo's death in prison which
sparked the beginning of Fariñas' strike; the worsening of the general
crisis within Cuba, exacerbated by the scandal of the death of more than
two dozen patients at the Havana Psychiatric Hospital; the force and
visibility reached by the Ladies in White movement and the solidarity
established among many civil society groups in favor of that movement
and its cause also influenced the outcome.

For their part, foreign media covered the events taking place on the
Island, expanding the possibility for the pressures of international
public opinion to force the government to seek a solution. At the same
time, the government was anxious to offer the world a gesture of good
will–we recall the lobbying of Mr. Moratinos to try to lift the European
Union's Common Position–such that the General considered it opportune to
demonstrate benevolence to those he had always classified as traitors
and mercenaries. This, there was an understanding in which all parties
could find an advantage, a requirement to achieve a pact.

The current scenario, however, is quite different from that; not because
the acute sociopolitical and economic crisis in Cuban has passed, but
because the international picture is extremely complex and events are
unfolding that are coming to mark globally defined milestones. Some of
these events are the wave of uprisings in the Middle East and North
Africa which are drawing a new political scenario in the region; the
crisis in Libya with the reluctance of Qaddafi to relinquish power, the
presence of rebel forces and the NATO air strikes; and the
demonstrations in European countries–such as Spain and Greece–demanding
new political and economic strategies to overcome their respective
crises, are some of the most relevant events.

In this environment, the demand for justice for the death of a Cuban
dissident, and the demand to the dictatorship to cease to beat those who
demonstrate peacefully in our streets, are as close to chimeric as
possible. Particularly since both demands reach very high levels,
requiring a retraction from the government in the first case (retracting
what they published in an official press release saying that Juan
Wilfredo Soto had never been beaten); and with regards to the second,
capitulation would mean taking the risk that the streets would be filled
with dissident demonstrations, in contradiction to the call, at the
close of the Sixth Communist Party Congress, by the
General-cum-President to defend the streets "as spaces for Revolutionaries."

A public commitment of this nature on the part of the government would
implicitly recognize that in Cuba–paradigm of respect for human rights
according to official preaching–violently represses those who think
differently. And I state that if the government were to retract or back
down, I would be the first to celebrate the miracle.

It also happens that, unintentionally, a hunger striker puts additional
pressure on his fellow travelers, who inadvertently fall into the
ethical dilemma of siding with him, even if they don't support the
strike, they must support the demands while deprecating the methods to
achieve them. The strike also imposes a moral commitment that banishes
to another level every aspect that is not related to the demands of the
striker, which may affect programs and activities of other groups,
perhaps no less important.

That is, in spite of being an individual action in defense of collective
interests, it commits spaces and social networks and forces priorities.
I am certain there will be no shortage of critics who will take the
opportunity to attack me for what they will call a lack of support for
Fariñas. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is precisely
because I support him and share his demands, because I esteem and
respect him, that I have a heartfelt desire that he would abandon the
practice of hunger strikers: those of us who do not accept these methods
are also those who want to live and be here to support the Cuba we dream
of; we need Cubans of his honesty and courage for these times and the
times to come.

To date, everything indicates that the government will not cede spaces
to democracy, therefore, it is urgent to find new solutions to conquer
them, beyond those involving the voluntary martyrdom of Cuban democrats.
I return to the phrase of my colleague, who also suffered political
imprisonment in terrible and lonely times in the '60s, to propose that
we oppose the dictatorship with LIFE. To awake to life every day and to
prepare ourselves for an individual and collective future, is in itself
a triumph over the regime, because life is the first condition for hope.

Translated by Norma Whiting

June 10 2011

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