What Life Is Like for a Castro-Hating Dissident Living in Cuba
As Cuba prepares for Trump to re-escalate the embargo and travel ban, residents say the move won't do anything to lift political oppression.
A billboard outside the village of Ciengugos showing government propoganda against the US embargo.
There is no reason that we shouldn't have been mugged—all of us—in our ironed shirts and high heels, taking photos with the lights of Havana in the background, eating rabbit paté and remarking about the art on the walls at a trendy restaurant with a rooftop view of the ocean.
The men and women in rags and bare feet on the street outside should have taken us for everything that we had. Since credit cards can't be used most places in Cuba, it is likely well known that Americans must carry cash on them everywhere they go. I thought of that often walking around Havana over a two-week period in July, my pale skin reddening a little more each day. No one messed with us. That's because if you mess with a tourist in Cuba, you go away.
Or at least that's what Roberto, whose named has been changed because he is a political dissident, told me. "You think everyone just happens to like Americans?" he said, grinning.
One thing is certain: There are about to be fewer of us visiting the island thanks to Donald Trump's decision in June to reinstitute trade and travel restrictions. The debate is whether that will help or harm efforts at political change in Cuba. Many locals I spoke to believe Trump's intention to ban individual travel to Cuba will do nothing to entice the Castro regime to end the ongoing political oppression of its people.
At the moment, Trump's promise to limit access to Cuba is a promise only. A presidential directive gave several federal agencies until September 14 to officially release new travel and trade policies for Cuba. As of this writing, none of those agencies have actually done so, putting US policy toward Cuba into a regulatory purgatory. That's true even after a mysterious "sonic attack" on US diplomats and others that worsened relations between the two countries, though the State Department is now warning US citizens not to travel to Cuba.
If and when the individual travel ban finally does go into effect, Roberto told me, it will only harm relations between the Cuban and American peoples.
I met Roberto after coming across a woman in the El Centro neighborhood of Havana who said her husband was an outspoken critic of the government. The next day the couple invited me to their home so I could catch a glimpse of how many regular Cubans live. It's the stuff you don't normally see at the palatial, colonial-era Airbnbs and sparkling government-run hotels where tourists often spend their nights.
Roberto showed me the loft he built with wood he stole from a hospital where he worked, making his government-provided 20 square foot box of an apartment more livable. He also rigged up a rainwater collection system so he wouldn't have to carry drinking water up two flights of stairs. He told me that his upstairs neighbor, a 75-year-old man, isn't so lucky.
Roberto is part of a network of political dissidents who, in quiet and careful ways, try to subvert the government through humble means, primarily by getting access to outside information and passing it along to those they trust. He said he became a dissident after the government blacklisted him because he wouldn't sit approvingly through propaganda meetings.
"This is bullshit," he would say, throwing up his arms in exasperation.
So Roberto was out of his job as an X-ray technician, and believes he has been blacklisted from getting another sought-after occupation like working in a hospital. After years of operating a bike taxi in Havana, he was screwed once more by the government. This time, they'd implemented a new program that required taxi drivers to pay for licenses. Guess who didn't get one? Now Roberto hustles whatever construction work he can find, but mostly relies on his wife to pay the bills. (Her job can't be described here in order to protect the couple's identity.)
After eight days in Cuba on a combination reporting trip and vacation, it was refreshing to speak to Roberto, whose frankness about the government and its alleged oppression of political dissidents was accompanied by a sly smile and gallows humor. Most Cubans I ran into said their lives were fine, there was no political oppression, and if there was it was overblown or the product of American intervention.
This has been the story Cubans tell outsiders for years, said Sebastian Arcos, who left Cuba for the United States in 1992 and now helps to run the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. "We're dealing with a police state, and people know what they have to say in order to please the government, because in a police state they make you believe that your neighbor or the guy leaning against the corner is with the secret police," Arcos told me over the phone from Miami. "They call these people 'mercenaries.'"
But Roberto did not say those things.
"They take you to a place and they drop water on your head, slowly, for days, if you speak out against the government," Roberto told me. "And they make you tell them that you were being paid by the Americans to say these things."
While Arcos couldn't corroborate Roberto's story about Chinese water torture being used against political dissidents, he described what happened to his own father. "Forget about the images of torture that you see in movies," Arcos said. "Yes, they beat you to a pulp. But they also put you in isolation. They feed you very little and poor quality food. You don't get to talk to anybody or have any visitors, and they put you in a cell block with 15 hardened common criminals and tell them, 'If you harass this guy, I might reduce your sentence.' This happened to my father. So you have to fight every day."
Trump's announcement on travel restrictions was only a few weeks old when I arrived in Havana with my girlfriend on the night of July 4. We were greeted by a rainstorm, stifling humidity, and a man who would take us to our Airbnb. Through dark streets with mounds of trash on the corners, we wound our way through the slums of El Centro to a seemingly random door, knocked, and were greeted by a woman who showed us to our room.
After a few days learning our way around—walking in order not to be ripped off by the taxi drivers charging at least $10 to get anywhere, I spotted a locals-only bar on an El Centro street corner. Luis, the bartender, shooed drunks away from us while we bought beers. A German man approached and asked us what the hell we were doing in there. I told him we were in search of people who would speak to us about Trump's reinstatement of the embargo—and also in search of political dissidents. He offered to translate for us, and we were off.
Many Cubans we spoke to dismissed Trump's embargo—and the president himself—with a sigh and a wave. What effect will an embargo that was lifted only a few years ago by Barack Obama have now that it'll soon be in place again? they asked. What effect will Trump have on a country where many people are simply looking to make enough money to pay their rent, put food on the table, and clothes on their children's backs?
"It means nothing to me," 80-year-old Francisco Sala said of the embargo. Sala has lived in the slums of Havana all his life, and said he knows enough of Trump to know he doesn't like him.
But it isn't Sala who the embargo is necessarily intended to affect. Trump, like the 11 presidents before him stretching back to Dwight Eisenhower, believes putting the squeeze on Cuba will force its government to loosen its grip on political freedoms.
"It won't happen," Roberto told me. "They control everything."
That includes the media. "They just always say that these government officials are meeting with these businesspeople or other government people, and things are going really well, and that the result will be good for the Cuban people," Roberto told me of the information that comes from state-run TV and Cuba's official newspaper, Granma.
Anyone familiar with Trump's almost daily boasting on Twitter is familiar with this form of information dissemination. In the United States, we just happen to have easy access to other sources.
Trump's position on the embargo has changed over the years. In 1999 he was in support of it, while simultaneously allegedly trying to violate it by pursuing business opportunities on the island. Around the time he began his presidential campaign in 2015, he called Obama's decision to allow individual Americans to travel to Cuba "fine." By 2016, Trump was shying away from directly answering the question of whether he supported the embargo, instead saying during a March primary debate that he wanted to make "a good deal, a strong deal." When pressed by CNN's Dana Bash whether he'd continue the lifted restrictions of the Obama administration, Trump could only say that he'd make a "good deal." The crowd chuckled at his ambiguity, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American who is outspokenly anti-Castro, pounced.
"Here's a good deal: Cuba has free elections. Cuba stops putting people in jail for speaking out. Cuba has freedom of the press," Rubio said to raucous applause.
By September 16, 2016, as the Republican presidential nominee, Trump had decided that Obama's lifting of portions of the embargo was no longer "fine." That day, Trump told a crowd in Miami that he would rescind Obama's executive order relaxing portions of the embargo.
"And that, I will do, unless the Castro regime meets our demands—not my demands, our demands," Trump said. "You know what those demands are. Those demands will include religious and political freedom for the Cuban people, and the freeing of political prisoners."
"The freeing of political prisoners. Right?" he asked, making sure he had struck the right tone for the Cubans in the audience. "Is that right?"
Two days later, polls showed Trump leading Hillary Clinton in Florida for the first time in six months, a state that became a key part of his eventual November victory.
"Without Americans coming here you and I would not be talking right now."
Everyone I spoke to in Cuba knew Trump was moving to reinstate portions of the embargo . Driving back to Havana from Trinidad one day, I remembered a sign I'd seen on our way there, just outside Cienfuegos. A cartoon Uncle Sam was being punched by a powerful fist, Cuba written on the fist's arm. Under Uncle Sam's head, the word bloqueo—how the Castro regime refers to the embargo —shattered under the force of the Cuban punch. I drew the image for our taxi driver, telling him that I wanted to stop to get a photo, he laughed and said he knew right where it was.
The cartoon is emblematic of both what most Cubans I spoke to think of the embargo and the view propagated by the Cuban government. The notion is that it's simply a way for the US to punish Cuba for being a thorn in the side of American imperialism. Cubans are aware of the United States' reasoning for the embargo, which is that it will force the Cuban government to cease oppression of political dissidents, and maybe even allow free elections. Still, everyone I spoke to said the embargo will only strengthen the government's resolve against yanqui imperialism.
Once Trump's renewed embargo is put into place, it will be more difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba. Those who do will do so in groups, likely staying in government-run tourist hotels, probably never meeting people like Roberto. They'll also be less likely to come into contact with the average Cuban who doesn't work at a tourist hotel, restaurant, or bar—the people who know well what they're supposed to say. We have free health care here! The schools are great! There is no violence here! Everyone in the tourist areas said this to us, repeatedly and unsolicited. They all had the same lines—word for word, and for many their English stopped there. This is because the government has taught them these lines, Roberto told me. (Arcos, of the Cuban Research Institute, couldn't corroborate this claim, saying that the canned lines might be an indication of the rampant fear of saying anything against the government.)
If you're Cuban and you happen to speak to a tourist about anything else, especially anything remotely critical of the government, you run the risk of being overheard by Castro's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, Roberto and Arcos said. The CDR is comprised of regular Cubans—neighbors, coworkers, friends—who are always listening for a wrong word. "The walls have ears," Roberto said as he walked us to his home.
Roberto and others provide news of the outside world to Cubans through illegal cable boxes, smuggled in from the United States, that beam in news Univision and Telemundo. They fill thumb drives with news—as well as soap operas and baseball games. "Cuban TV sucks," Arcos said.
In this way, Roberto confirms the oppression that Trump and others say exists in Cuba. But he insists that reducing the amount of Americans traveling to Cuba will not convince the government to change its ways.
"Without Americans coming here you and I would not be talking right now," he said.
Arcos and many others disagree with this sentiment. For them, Trump's promise to renew a ban on individual travel to Cuba doesn't go far enough. "It makes sense to entice the Castro regime to be more open with a carrot-and-stick approach," Arcos said.
The US government could allow businesses to operate in Cuba, businesses that would have to pay substantial sums of money to the Castro regime, but which also might show them that more commerce is good for the government—and the Cuban people, according to Arcos. "What doesn't make sense is to send a bunch of Americans from Wisconsin to sit in Havana and sip mojitos," Arcos said. "Government change through tourism has never worked."
Roberto, however, thinks Americans walking the streets of Havana can affect change. It would at least allow Cubans to come into more contact with Americans, and maybe see that we're not Yankee imperialists. He wonders if Trump understands or even knows of this point of view.
"Do you think Trump will read this story?" Roberto told me when we said our goodbyes. "I hope he does, because there is a message here for him."