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"It’s a good time to set an example of civic conduct": Cuban civil society in the face of the pandemic

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Rosa María Payá, Berta Soler and Eduardo Cardet evaluate the government's reaction to Covid-19.

Otero Alcántara, Rosa María Payá, Eduardo Cardet and Berta Soler.
Otero Alcántara, Rosa María Payá, Eduardo Cardet and Berta Soler. DDC

"The fact that the Cuban Government has taken so long to start taking measures to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic is not only a reproachable attitude, but has put citizens at risk," said Rosa María Payá, a promoter of the Cuba Decide project, who, together with several leaders from independent civil society on the island, assessed the delicate situation that the country is facing in the face of the expansion of the new coronavirus.

Payá pointed out, in statements to DIARIO DE CUBA, that the island features "aggravating conditions: those in which citizens live. For most Cubans it is practically impossible to practice social isolation."

In this regard Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White human rights group, noted that "the Cuban regime is reassuring people that nothing is going to happen. This is not a question of whether public health is good or bad. People are on the streets, unnecessarily; Coppelia, full to buy ice cream; with lines everywhere, because people have to go out and buy food."

"The regime has not devised a strategy to feed Cubans. The situation is very worrisome. They are not thinking about the people, but rather about making money by sending doctors abroad. Those are violations of the human rights of the Cuban people," Soler said.

Artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara also criticized the authorities sluggish reaction: "They've been lax because they don't have many options in terms of movement. The government knows that if it imposes a quarantine the country will collapse in a matter of hours. The regime suffers from too many systemic economic errors. Many of the actions its has taken are more political in nature. All the children and adolescents who are not at school are not going to be at home. Here there are families with 20 or 30 people living in one house, so many will be on the streets. They are doing what they are supposed to, but it is showing that the Cuban system is faulty, on an economic, social, and medical level."

Meanwhile, Eduardo Cardet, a former political prisoner and leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, as well as a doctor by profession, pointed out that the situation in which this health crisis finds the island could have very serious consequences for Cubans.

"The Cuban people have been suffering for many years from a difficult, systemic economic crisis. All this will worsen our reality. We do not expect there to be effective measures, not only in terms of health care, but in terms of basic needs, like soap, detergent, antiseptic and food, which are all very compromised," he said.

"Poverty is one of the cruelest mechanisms of oppression that the regime uses, to keep the people in a state of precariousness and daily survival, so that they cannot struggle. No one is fully prepared to face a major epidemic. We lack all kinds of drugs at pharmacies, like pain relievers, antibiotics, all the groups of drugs are lacking."

"Totalitarian regimes misrepresent everything. For years in Cuba we have suffered from a major dengue epidemic that is not even talked about. Now the authorities claim that everything is under control, but there are no masks at pharmacies, they are asking people to make them, and toiletries are missing."

Tourism and "medical missions" as sources of income

Regarding the government's decision to close the borders after several weeks, stating that Cuba was a safe destination for tourism, Cardet pointed out that "they waited as long as they could, until the last second, because this cuts off tourism revenue."

Cardet pointed out that the Cuban health system, which the regime cites as one of its strengths," is one of the most ailing at the national level, at least the one that treats ordinary Cubans. Let no one forget that in Cuba there is a duality: the system that serves the people, and the one they put in the showcase to boast of a great health system, but which is not really for the Cuban people, but rather for foreigners, with the services they offer. Our reality is a lack of all kinds of supplies, and facilities in terrible condition, although there are indeed well-intentioned people who want to help people in those hospitals. We have to stand in solidarity with each other."

Rosa María Payá also recalled that in these kinds of situations the regime exploits doctors as political pawns. "There is a lot of confusion in the rest of the world, with people saying that 'Cuban doctors are arriving.' It is very important to remember that Cuban medical missions constitute forced labor, according to the United Nations Rapporteur on Human Trafficking."

"The fact that they use the forced labor of Cuban professionals to profit by putting them at risk is a crime, not an exercise in solidarity. This may have repercussions in our country, where the health system is currently in a deplorable state," she stated.

Political prisoners and human rights activists in the face of the pandemic

Payá underscored the role that civil society has played in confronting the pandemic in Cuba. "The measures that the regime took had been demanded by the population long beforehand," she pointed out.

"Cuba's civil society has already embraced the protest role that it must play. We in the Cuban opposition, which is not composed of partisan political blocks operating in a political arena, as this does not exist in Cuba, but rather defenders of human rights, regardless of our political positions, have a responsibility to use our voices to defend Cuba's citizens. At this time this means condemning the irresponsibility, the arbitrariness, the crimes that the regime is committing in its dysfunctional handling of this pandemic, and the danger that this means for Cubans."

In Payá's view the abrupt incarceration of Lady in White Aimara Nieto clearly reveals how the regime could use the situation to cover up repression. "They decided to transfer a woman who is unjustly imprisoned, and send her more than 700 km from her family, to another prison where we know that the conditions, the overcrowding, and humidity, are terrible. This case allows us to appreciate what the Cuban prison population is experiencing, and what this health crisis in Cuba, also being used as a repressive instrument, could mean. No action has been taken to protect political prisoners, as the Aimara case demonstrates."

Several activists who frequently carry out street actions said that they have decided to put protecting the people first, preventing contagion.

The Ladies in White, for example, have decided to temporarily suspend their actions, Berta Soler confirmed.

Otero Alcántara, meanwhile, thinks it is a good time to set an example of civic conduct. "In Cuba there is no notion of how serious the coronavirus can be. Neither the intellectuals nor the activists have realized it. People are waiting for the regime to impose a curfew. If we go out on the street, or to a protest, what we will probably do is exacerbate the pandemic."

The leader of the San Isidro Movement observed that an imprisoned activist who becomes ill, or dies, could be a thorny problem for the regime. "I was at Valle Grande, in the midst of subhuman conditions. If the virus spreads there, we are talking about 2,000 people infected."

"The regime, whether we like it or not, has the most power, as it has controlled everything in Cuba. It is the one that can buy a boat full of medicines, for example. But the virus is not going to distinguish between people's different political leanings. It will affect everyone equally. I think you have to take care of yourself," he advised.

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