Cuba — where even human rights are subversive

Every country has its own narrative, a product of its history and mythology. Narratives are important because they are, essentially, the stories we tell ourselves. And stories are the foundation of humanity. It’s how we establish connections and how we remain connected.

Stories sell everything, from shoes (think Zappos) to pizza (think of all those menus with family histories) to revolutions (think of the 20th Century).

Political leaders know this and so do dictators, of course, which is why the Cuban revolution was so successful and why it’s lasted so long. It was a good story. Astonishingly, for many, it still is.

I first rebelled against “the story” of the revolution at 10, when, at the end of the school year, my teachers gave me a large book with gruesome picture of the bloodied and tortured bodies of young men who had died in the struggle against Fulgencio Batista.

The idea was that I would feel humbled and grateful for their sacrifice. But too many martyrs already weighed on my then narrow shoulders, from José Martí to Che Guevara. I closed the book and hid it on top of the tallest shelf I could find. When I left Cuba six years later, I’m pretty sure the book was still there.

One of the first things the Cuban government did when it came to power in 1959 was to close the newspapers and eradicate press freedoms. The narrative was one and it was tightly controlled. The only mythology allowed was the one fed to the masses by the regime.

Shrewdly, it neatly tied together rebellious native Cubans and Martí’s poetry, with the mambises who fought against the Spaniards, and a dozen bearded men who came down the Sierra Maestra Mountains to become the leaders of the “first free territory of America.” (In a sign of the endurance of that particular mythology, Amazon sells posters with this phrase for $6.99 plus shipping).

And that’s pretty much how the country remained until the emergence of independent journalists in the 1990s and, later, with the advent of the Internet, a handful – now dozens – of courageous men and women who share a different story.

Powerful and personal, intimate yet universal, their stories pierced the thick mantle of censorship that encapsulates the island like a hard shell, and the world began to see a different narrative — a more literary, civil, measured and inspired one. A narrative that reaches back to our oldest and richest mythology: Cubans as learned and tolerant. Cuba as an inclusive island.

It’s been nearly impossible to disseminate that message among Cubans because access to the Internet on the island is restricted and expensive, the second most expensive in the world, after Eritrea.

Now comes the news, revealed by AP last week, that the United States Agency for International Development created and financed a social media site, similar to Twitter, called ZunZuneo. The site, which closed in 2012, was either a way to promote communication in Cuba or a covert attempt to weaken, or even overthrow, the Castro regime.

Because I don’t believe the Obama administration has the desire or inclination to overthrow any government, I’m going with the agency’s version, as revealed by Rajiv Shah, USAID’s administrator, during a congressional hearing last Tuesday.

“These programs are part of our mission to promote open communications,” he said.

While the idea may have been to help the democratic forces on the island, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, a writer and blogger who is now in the U.S., told me no one he associated with in Cuba’s blogosphere even knew of ZunZuneo. Yet, he said he has no doubt the program, though now defunct, will be used against those who promote democracy there.

“To support human rights is not subversive,” he said. “The problem is that in Cuba human rights are subversive.”

Even our languages — both English and Spanish — certainly do accommodate this need for story. It is time to “turn the page” when we need to move on, when “ el cuento,” the story, changes on us. But you can’t turn the page when someone else is holding the book.

What is needed in Cuba, with the aid of the U.S. government or any other country or international organism willing to help, is a way for its people to connect with each other and create a new narrative for themselves, sidestepping the stories they have been told for years by the Cuban government, by the Americanos, and by the nostalgic left.

Only then will they be able to imagine the country they want. If they can imagine it, they can build it. And that would be a much better story to tell than the one we’ve been repeating for more than half a century.

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