Be Careful Whom You Talk To
In Cuba, there are several forms of expression. The most peculiar one if when you want to criticize the political system. There are several steps you need to follow. First, you need to look around the place where you are. Second, with whom are you trying to have a dialogue. And third, you need to converse quietly, using signs and code words.
To many, this might seem an exaggeration. Some even ask if it is simple fear, or if it is really forbidden to criticize the socialist system. The truth is that many Cubans are afraid to speak up, others protect themselves with aliases and those who speak openly, are taking a risk.
The current criminal statues protect State’s leaders, officials and institutions against negative expressions and opinion from the citizenry. In other words, in Cuba, criticism may be a crime.
The Criminal Law includes several criminal provisions that protect people’s honor in general: defamation, libel and slander, and insult. However, the provision of “disrespect” offers exclusive protection to the authorities, in addition to those covered by the previously mentioned crimes.
The criminal provision applies a penalty of a fine or prison from 3 months up to 1 year to whomever “threatens, smears, libels, insults, reviles, or through any other mean defiles or offends, verbally or in writing, the dignity or decorum of an authority, public official, or its agents or assistants, in the course of performing their duties or on occasion or because of their duties.”
Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s initial sentence was for committing this crime. A prisoner of conscience, who died in prison after 86 days on hunger strike. He was sentenced to three years in prison because this crime is considered aggravated when is committed against the president, the members of the Council of State and Minister and the National Assembly. It is a common crime strongly tied to politics.
That means that mocking Fidel Castro or calling the president of the National Assembly a cynic could be interpreted by police as a crime of disrespect.
Don’t they say that in Cuba there is democracy? Then why can’t public figures be criticized by the citizens?
But that’s not all. There are Supreme Court rulings stating that inspectors from the departments of Architecture and Urban Planning, Public Health and the night-shift security officers working for the Ministry of the Interior are also protected by this criminal provision of disrespect. What’s more, members of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR’s) are also privileged with the protection of this norm, since they are considered authority’s assistants.
Whoever thinks that if they criticize the government without making a reference to a specific official they can avoid the potential judicial sentence is wrong. The criminal legislation also includes sentences for those who publicly defame, denigrate or despise the institutions of the Republic, the political, masses or social organizations in the country, or the heroes and martyrs of the homeland.
I know it sounds like a joke, but it is not. It is legally prohibited to criticize the historical leaders, the government, the parliament the CDR’s, the Cuban Workers Union and every single organization created by the communists.
Coded-talk will continue to be a form of conversation in Cuba, as long as we have crime definitions that attack freedom of expression. We will continue to have those whispers stuck in our throats, choking us and preventing the people from raising its voice against those who repress them.
By Laritza Diversent
Translated by Mailyn Salabarria