Thursday, November 22, 2012

Cuba's Ladies in White

Cuba's Ladies in White
An undercover reporter finds out what it is like to live in a culture of
fear and surveillance.
People and Power Last Modified: 22 Nov 2012 10:28


After 53 years of revolution, Cubans are increasingly exasperated by the
restrictions imposed on them by the country's change-averse communist

In spite of, or perhaps because of, recent modest economic reforms,
activism is growing as the government's opponents overcome their fear of
arrest and take to the streets.

But it is not easy. Today, even the church-based Ladies in White - a
group of female relatives of imprisoned activists - say they are
routinely spied on and arrested.

This year they achieved brief international notoriety when they were
prevented from meeting Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the island,
but for the most part their activities are carried out under the
ever-present threat of harassment and intimidation by Cuba's internal
security police.

Nevertheless, inspired by the Arab Spring, the Ladies are determined to
keep up their protests, sensing that the regime's grip on power is
fading and that sooner rather than later it will be forced to give way.

But what is it like to live in such a pervasive culture of surveillance
and fear? People & Power sent an independent undercover journalist to
find out. He has asked us not to reveal his identity because he may wish
to visit Cuba again in the future, but in the article below he describes
what it was like to make the film and the many difficulties facing the
activists he met.

Following the 2011 economic reforms announced by the Cuban government
for the 52nd anniversary of the country's revolution, there was
widespread speculation about the possibility of comparable political
reforms that would end the persecution of dissidents and the Communist
Party's grip on power.

But it took a courageous Cuban journalist to make an insightful current
affairs programme about it. Today, that journalist, Ivan Hernandez, is
in hiding.

My first ever attempt to meet up with Ivan in a Havana bar, back in
September 2011, failed for fear of being arrested by the political
police on his tail.

I was on a tourist visa and aware that any encounter with political
dissidents could mean immediate expulsion from the country and a
permanent ban from returning.

To Fidel Castro, Ivan is a "counter-revolutionary" working for the
American right-wing Cuban lobby. In reality, Ivan is just an independent
freelance journalist, albeit one with a very critical view of the Cuban

But in 2003, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring
against the government and publishing "false information". He was sent
to a high security compound, isolated in an individual cell and deprived
of contact with anyone other than his guards for months on end. His
crime was merely to write reports about how difficult life was for the
ordinary Cuban.

In 2011, Ivan was freed as a gesture of good will on the part of Fidel
Castro towards Pope Benedict, ahead of his 2012 visit to Cuba. The
released prisoners were given the option of leaving the island. Most of
them did. But not Ivan.

"This is my country," he told me when I asked him about his decision,
"why would I leave? This is my calling, my mission - to tell the truth.
Life is terrible here. There's a US blockade against Cuba, and inside
Cuba there's a blockade of the government against the people."

I was impressed by Ivan's determination. I thought that following him
undercover as we contacted other political dissidents and victims of
state-sponsored violence could illustrate what it is like to be critical
of Fidel Castro in Cuba today.

Ivan liked the idea and we worked out a way to make it happen without
being arrested. First, the programme had to be anonymous to protect
everybody connected with me in Cuba who was unaware of what I was doing.
We feared reprisals against my landlord for renting out a room to me, or
my friends and colleagues who live and work in Cuba. Any suspicion
against them could end their careers and seriously affect their daily lives.

From the start, Ivan warned me that one-out-of-every-five Cubans is
suspected of being a police informer and that few people can be
absolutely trusted. He said we needed to film with mini hidden cameras
and concoct a plausible cover story for me, the foreigner in the team.

In successive trips we took cameras into Cuba without raising any
suspicions and in May 2012 we started shooting. The very first challenge
was to portray the lives of dissidents under surveillance without being
detected. We decided that giving the activists cameras to record their
own video diaries was the best option.

We established a security protocol by which if the dissident with the
camera did not report back to one of us within a specified period of
time, we had to assume that he had been detained. We had a network of
pre-determined "safe houses" and arrangements to call each other using
public phones at a given time.

I taught Ivan some counter-surveillance techniques learned by covering
other conflicts but he was well used to this himself.

Filming with Berta Soller, the leader of the Ladies in White protest
movement, was one of our first tasks. Aware that her apartment was under
constant surveillance we used a key-fob camera to get shots as we walked
up to her building, although as it turned out, our work was made easier
by the fact that too many policemen and "local informers" could be
persuaded to look the other way for $5.

We managed to film five interviews without being followed. Then we took
the decision to meet Antonio Rodiles, a 40-year-old with a degree in
Physics who had left Cuba for work and had chosen to return to defy the
government's censorship from within.

In 2010, Antonio founded Estado de SATS, or State of SATS. "SATS" is a
Scandinavian word that refers to the instant just before the actor has
to face the audience or the runner hears the bang. The moment of
greatest concentration, the adrenaline rush that precedes an explosion.
State of SATS is "an initiative of young artists, intellectuals and
professionals in search of a better reality". The best known work of
SATS are the film-debates, produced in Antonio's own home, that
circulate with great success on Cuba's alternative information networks.

But Antonio's home was surrounded by CCTV cameras. Once inside the
house, we went to check the backyard, which overlooks the sea, and as we
were unpacking Antonio pointed out the CCTV cameras that could possibly
be filming us.

"Come on, I'll show you." We followed him and filmed him pointing at the
cameras. We had to assume from that point on that we might have been
spotted. But we filmed the interview anyway and left looking over our
shoulders. Once in the car, we decided to lay low for a day.

Our next mission was rather ambitious: to attempt to film a one-man
protest against the government in Revolution Square. Ivan had advanced
knowledge of the event through a contact and we had a couple of days to
plan it.

We assigned a second crew, two European-looking Cubans, to film in the
area in the guise of tourists at the time the protest was to take place.
I would be covering the opposite end of the square to film the protest
from afar. The protester, a rickshaw driver, had not even started
holding up a sign that said "Down with Repression", when three policemen
surrounded and handcuffed him.

I caught the moment on camera, but my colleagues, who were supposed to
be closer to the action, were nowhere to be seen. I just did not know
what had happened to them.

The police saw me. I turned off the camera. One of the agents who had
just arrested the protester came up to me and grabbed the camera. He
started flicking through the images, thinking they were stills. He could
not see anything wrong but questioned me for 10 minutes, then warned me
"be careful with what you film" and let me go.

I walked away from the square pretty fast. An hour later I met Ivan. Our
second crew had been detained. That night, my landlord got a call from
state security inquiring about me. He came to tell me with a worried
look on his face. "What's going on?" I bluffed my way out of it, but
when he left, I took all my belongings and drove for two hours out of

Ivan continued filming on his own until July 22. That day, Oswaldo Paya,
one of the most prominent dissidents, was killed in a car crash that his
daughter claimed was "not an accident".

Ivan and I met. He wanted to film the funeral. He said it could turn
into a demonstration. Knowing that I was now suspected we realised that
if I went there after what happened, we risked losing everything we had
filmed. So Ivan volunteered.

"I'll go and film it. I'll send you the footage in two weeks." He left
in a hurry. I did not have time to even shake his hand.

Two weeks later, I got the footage from a colleague who had gone to Cuba
as a tourist to pick it up. I emailed Ivan to confirm that I had
received it. But he did not reply. His phone was permanently "out of
range". I can only assume he is still in hiding.

Then on November 8, Antonio Rodiles, one of our main interviewees, was
arrested and detained. This film, which will probably go to air as
Antonio is in a cell for daring to speak his mind, will no doubt confirm
the government's suspicions of him - but like all the dissidents we
spoke to in our film, he would not have had it any other way. Only by
speaking out, they say, will Cubans bring change to their country.

There are some indications that Cuba may decide to allow emigration from
January next year. Perhaps it is a sign that the government is finally
acknowledging that economic reforms need to be followed by deep
political reforms and a transition to democracy.

For the sake of Ivan, Berta Soller, Antonio and all the other
dissidents, one can only hope so.

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