Interview with María-I. Faguaga Iglesias

María-Ileana Faguaga Iglesias

“The Particularities in Cuba are not Always Identified nor Understood by Human Rights Activists from Other Countries”


María-Ileana Faguaga Iglesias knows firsthand about human rights activism in Cuba. A historian and anthropologist, Faguaga is an associate professor at the University of La Habana and Director of the Inter-Cultural and Inter-Religious Dialogue Project from Cehila-Cuba (Commission to Study the History of the Church in Latin America). An activist in the rights of the Afro-Cuban population, her main focus of research are the Afro-Cuban women, Afro-Cuban religions, power and authority relations, as well as the possibilities for a dialogue among Afro-Cuban religions and the Roman Catholic Church, race, gender, and health.

In this interview given to Conectas, María-I. Faguaga Iglesias explains the background of the human rights organisations in Cuba, besides speaking about the difficulties faced by activists and academics on the Island, among which is the lack of access to technology. During the interview, the activist highlights how “the concrete reality of activists and scholars concerned should be taken into account and, above all, that of the affected populations, even if not directly involved in activism. If this is not done, the work will lack substance and reach.”

Based on this perspective, Faguaga emphasises how important it is for NGOs to focus their work on the axis of human rights, both in the South and in the North in its work with the South, to take into account the idiosyncrasies; among these is Cuba, whose situation is not always properly understood.

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Conectas Human Rights • Human rights organisations have re-thought their strategies for action, taking into account local demands. Large organisations in the North have increased their presence in the Global South. And organisations in the Global South, besides their ever-growing international action, have reflected on their strategies within a framework in which mass protests and other ways of questioning representative institutions gain greater space. In your opinion, which is the difference between working with human rights from the vantage point of the Global South, particularly from Cuba?

María-I. Faguaga Iglesias • In the debate fostered by work in human rights from the perspective of the South, there are fundamental aspects of the present-day world context that are often not taken into account. There is a lack of understanding of the realities and the specific needs of countries that are part of the South, so that human rights activists and scholars, as well as those who study other sociopolitical issues, can adequately face the obstacles and challenges that are not necessarily those of the capitalist world. Not to consider these differences limits the studies carried out by national, international and transnational instances devoted to scrutinising, analysing and informing, or limits the very human rights activism.

For example, the absence of street protests is not a verifiable index, ipso facto, that there is no activism advocating for human rights. The lack of opportunity to publish results of intellectual work or fieldwork is not an index of passivity or of lack of interest. These misguided simplifications point to the need for international and/or multinational organisations to take into account the different social realities of each country and look beyond mere appearances.

Due to all this, these organisations must necessarily maintain a constant dialogue with the realities that are the object of their study and/or intervention. The concrete reality of activists and scholars concerned should be taken into account and, above all, that of the affected populations, even if not directly involved in activism. If this is not done, the work will lack substance and reach.

Conectas • You have a vast experience working with human rights organisations in Cuba. What are the circumstances in which human rights advocates carry out their activities on the Island? What are the opportunities and challenges?

M-I.F.I. • The panorama of activism in fundamental rights on the Island has changed considerably since the beginning, from the late 1970s to the present. At that time, a small group of former political prisoners founded what would become the Cuban Pro-Human Rights Committee (Comité Cubano Pro Derechos Humanos) in 1976. This small organisation brought together intellectuals, former diplomats, university professors and other people who had had an active and direct participation in the Castro government.

Their possibilities for survival were almost null. These people were exposing their own safety and that of their families, in a country where one of the most stringent and effective control mechanisms used was the separation of families, due to political reasons. Under such conditions, isolated from the world, these pioneer activists in human rights began that path of contacting embassies and the foreign press. This was their sole possibility of having any repercussion beyond the borders of the Island. These activists operated in a context that lacked both economic resources and legal protection, with harassment by the political police, amidst the lack of understanding by their families, isolated from the nation.

That initial core would later become larger and more diversified, until it too became fragmented. As a result, in the 1980s what arose were the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation (Comisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos y Reconciliación Nacional) and the Pro-Human Rights Party. The 21st Century witnessed the birth of the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights and the Health and Human Rights Centre (Centro de Salud y Derechos Humanos). This unrecognised hub of activity, which would sociologically represent the 1980s, was the breeding ground for the expansion of independent activism in Cuba, even if it could not become visible – this is where other organisations stemmed from. All of them, like their predecessor, the Committee, submitted to the intense and broad work of the political police.

Gradually, activism extended to the hinterlands of the country. During the first years, there were less activists there, given the ease the forces of repression had in exerting greater control; possibly today there are more activists there than in the capital. It is difficult to precisely mention the date when all of this took off. It would not be wrong to locate that process chronologically as part of a psychological opening and a change of mindset that has been taking place since there began to be an increase in material penuries, at the beginning of the 1990s.

Slowly but sustainably, young intellectuals and artists would join this movement, and the presence of Afro-Descendants grew as well. Professionals, workers, housewives and students, heterosexuals, bisexuals, gays and transgender persons, whites, mestizos and blacks, from all generations now nurture this activism. The number of women grew, possibly because of the example given by the known Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco). The already numerous organisations that existed expressed the multiple cultures and the multiracial nature of the Cuban nation.

Among these new groups, some became materialised as what could be deemed parties, or at least that was their purpose. All of them, based on Cuban conditions, identified with human rights activism. It should be mentioned that not all share the same priorities, nor have the same human capital or material resources. Additionally, in those groups that have greater material resources, not all of the members are in the same situation. Humble people whose rights have been violated, for example, rights to inheritance or to a change of job or position; a person who has been run over by a police car; people whose labour rights were infringed and could find no support in unions; artists whose art and life were not understood and were censored by authorities; some former military who accused the head of the army of undeserved treatment; intellectuals suffering censorship and/or protestors, though in small numbers, all joined forces with activists. The initial claims were expanded to the rights of political prisoners and government opposers. This is an ongoing process at present.


Conectas • That is precisely what we would like to ask you about. In your opinion, how has the human rights panorama changed in Cuba in the last decades? What is the role of international players in the local Cuban scenario?

M-I.F.I. • The national panorama has changed, moderately becoming more favourable to civic activism. Human rights activists (but not all of them, as already noted) nowadays have new material resources to carry out their task. In many cases, that old typewriter has given way to computers; and, instead of the earlier cuts in telephone landlines (if one had one, as the percentage of people with phones is negligible), now mobile phones are blocked, leading to lack of communication.

Abroad, this allows for visibility of only a part of what is happening on the Island, all the way from day-to-day reality lived by the majority of Cuban men and women, up to the extraordinary protests that have been taking place; from the particular case of someone fired from his/her job to the lack of care for the elderly, children, women and people with different disabilities; all the way from domestic violence to constant political repression.

Nowadays some activists manage to publish in papers and magazines abroad. Some send their videos abroad, so they can be used on television. Others yet tape their television or radio programs in Cuba, so they can be launched overseas.

Several people have received grants from prestigious universities, such as Harvard. Others are granted international awards with their ensuing economic benefits. Since January 2013, when the government put in force new migration regulations, there has been an increase in the number of people going abroad to deliver conferences, to present their books and/or exhibitions and to participate in international events, or to contact their co-nationals that live in other countries, for exchanges with activists in other regions of the world, to follow courses and even to interview renowned leaders, such as the founder of the paradigmatic Polish union Solidarity (Lech Walesa) and presidents like Barack Obama. Prior to this, very few were able to obtain those loathsome “exit permits” and “re-entry permits”.

Notwithstanding, at present the political, cultural, economic and sociologic particularities of Cuba are not always identified nor understood by human rights activists from other countries. The need for independence in positioning and thought of men and women of Cuba today is not understood, expressed very often in the exacerbated desire for a more leading role.

Conectas • One of the questions of the current issue of the Sur Journal is how the new information and communication technologies have influenced human rights activism. You have already spoken somewhat about that; however, how is the situation of access to technology for activists in Cuba at present?

M-I.F.I. • Although this is not often mentioned, the material scarcity on the Island also affects activism day-to-day. The possibility of having a PC or a MP3, or a flash or a camera, a mobile phone and enough foreign currency to be able to hire and maintain a line, and the very expensive access to internet – which was recently allowed for Cubans in a few authorised centres –, are not within the reach of most of the opposition.

Furthermore, you have to consider the high cost of the hour on internet in the Island, which varies between 4.50 and 12 CUCs**. Reviser’s Note: One CUC – Cuban convertible peso – is equivalent to one US dollar. The CUC is one of two official currencies in Cuba and is officially exchangeable only within the country. The other currency is the Cuban peso.. As 1 CUC is purchased in currency exchange stores for 25 pesos and the average wage is of about 300 pesos, connection prices are grotesquely abusive; and, besides, they do not guarantee full navigation, as many web sites have been banned in Cuba.

Those who do have this and have the backing of foreign embassies to be able to access internet do not have this service available 24 hours a day; and hotel managers, where the few and highly heralded and controlled internet centres have been set up, are free to allow or refuse this service to Cubans.

During the 1970s and the 1980s, manuscripts or notes written on old typewriters were delivered by activists to foreign press agencies and embassies. Agencies did not always pass these forward. Not all of the embassies received them. It was impossible to resort to diplomats from the former socialists countries, whose practices were similar to those of the Cuban government. Not all of the Western countries acknowledged them. Some governing officials had very strong complicity relations with their equivalent on the Island.

Later there were press conferences, evidently without the presence of the national media. They created an internal structure and a logotype to grant certain legitimacy to their documents. Their houses were, and continue to be, the venues for meetings.

It is under these conditions that activists broadened their pursuits and interests, with the ever-growing harassment, pressure and police repression. Ever since the initial claims linked to government change and the ensuing change of political regime and economic system, denunciations may be said to have shifted from an individual to a collective nature.

It is essential to consider the existence of what we could call cyberpolice. That is to say, a political police sector that monitors and controls virtual communications. Unofficial, politically protected agents were arbitrarily granted powers to invade users’ mailboxes and take over their communication, all the way from their contacts to content, and to block accounts or slow down communication for specific users. Content of e-mail messages exchanged by opposition members has been aired on national television in campaigns geared to discrediting them.

These are the conditions under which activists work in, when gaining access to internet or to telephony. They are aware that their communication is being traced and that they can be tapped, intercepted and interrupted, that their messages may not reach their destination or that they may not receive mail. They know that there are rules through which the government can legally declare them “enemies”, sue them and sentence them to prison.

Conectas • In your opinion, which is the role of scholars in Cuba at present? What is the relationship between them and human rights activists?

M-I.F.I. • The case of Cuban scholars in human rights deserves an analysis on its own. For now, suffice it to say that the organisms whose focus is on human rights should identify and distinguish between what we could call the diploscholars and the others. The former are authorised by the government and stimulated to set up international contacts. The latter carry on with their work, despite multiple difficulties, the first of which is institutions refusing to accept their presence or the result of their research, alongside with the harassment by the political police.

It is from the latter, those condemned to ostracism, that results that are more in accordance with reality come from. Evidently, there are exceptions, and we should not reject nor accept any analysis a priori, based solely on the researcher’s position. Known scholars have been adapting the results of their research over a period of time. And there are intellectuals, opposers, who are outside the system and whose research on occasion seems remote from the scenario in which they carry out their exploration.

In any case, the key lies in constantly seeking that very difficult balance. Not get tied down to appearances nor to characters. Leave the doors open to knowledge and to the experience of activists and scholars, of those who live on the Island and abroad as well, be these Cuban or not, without forgetting that information should always be comparative.

Agencies worldwide that are responsible for monitoring the human rights situation should continue to fight for the Island’s government to ratify international covenants it has subscribed to, enabling monitors to enter the country officially. Because sending their delegates with subterfuges (for example, pretending they are tourists), submits them to the possibility of being detected and expelled by the Cuban government.
Human rights bodies could perhaps set up an international protection mechanism for activists and scholars on the Island. Up to present, the sole and scarce protection that activists and scholars enjoy in Cuba is their international recognition and their contacts abroad.

María-Ileana Faguaga Iglesias

María-Ileana Faguaga Iglesias is a historian and anthropologist, associate professor at the University of La Habana and Director of the Inter-Cultural and Inter-Religious Dialogue Project from CEHILA-Cuba (Commission to Study the History of the Church in Latin America). An activist in the rights of the Afro-Cuban population, her main focus of research are the Afro-Cuban women, Afro-Cuban religions, power and authority relations, as well as the possibilities for a dialogue among Afro-Cuban religions and the Roman Catholic Church, race, gender, and health.

Original in Spanish. Translated by Amy Herszenhorn.

Interview conducted in March 2014 by Juana Kweitel (Conectas Human Rights).