In the midst of a pandemic that has crippled health care systems in the developed world, Cuba has projected an image of international solidarity by dispatching its medical missions to countries that have been hit hard by the coronavirus. While these medical services are welcome, they also serve a symbolic purpose by tacitly endorsing socialized medicine. The positive press reports about the medical missions deflect attention from the less savory measures that Cuba has adopted to control the crisis at home. For Cuban authorities, any struggle against an outside force—be it an insurgency, capitalist cultural influence, or an infectious disease—inevitably becomes a symbolic battle against internal enemies. The spread of Covid-19 has given Cuban State Security a pretext for escalating its attacks on its domestic critics.
Just as fifty-two doctors and nurses landed in Italy brandishing Cuban flags and a portrait of Fidel Castro, 28,000 medical students were ordered to canvass homes throughout the island in search of possible cases of coronavirus. Any Cuban exhibiting symptoms was quarantined, and thousands of foreigners were sequestered in hotels. Brigades of college students released from classes have been deployed to isolation centers to tend to those stricken by the virus even though they lack medical training.
This energetic response from the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) has been matched by equally zealous measures carried out by Cuban State Security and police. In recent weeks, more than five hundred Cubans have been tried and sanctioned for violations related to the pandemic. A hefty fine of 3,000 pesos ($120, the equivalent of three months’ salary in Cuba) has been imposed for social media posts the government doesn’t like. The Cuban authorities have resorted to their old tactic of treating critics as pests that infect the body politic: in the 1960s those opponents were called “worms,” and during the 1980 Mariel crisis they were called “scum.” According to current official rhetoric, they are “intruders” who must be suppressed to ensure that Cuban society remains free of anything that might catalyze a rebellion.
The law that facilitates the crackdown on independent journalism existed before the arrival of Covid-19. Decree 370, otherwise known as the Ley Azote (Gag Law), went into effect in 2019. It largely governs the development of the Internet on the island, but its Article 68 prohibits the use of the Internet “to disseminate facts and information that is considered to be contrary to the social interest, to morality, good manners and personal integrity.” The vagueness of this interdiction enables the authorities to criminalize all kinds of online opinion, just as the term “social dangerousness” in the Cuban penal code functions as a catchall for punishing displays of dissent in public spaces.
The Cuban Communist Party daily newspaper Granma ran a story on April 8, 2020, reminding its readers of the country’s penal code that anyone that “propagates false news or malicious predictions that could cause alarm, popular discontent or public disorder” may receive a four-year prison sentence. In some cases, the relationship between the infraction and its punishment is logical even if the penalty might seem harsh, such as the recent sentencing of a Cuban in the town of Guantánamo to one year in prison for not wearing a mask. However, the article links protecting Cubans from the virus with defending them against those circulating opinions that have not been approved by state entities. At least twenty independent journalists, a popular YouTube personality, numerous activists, as well as ordinary citizens, have been detained for days, interrogated, and fined in the past three months.
Seven journalists have had their cell phones confiscated in addition to being fined. Those who’ve been detained and interrogated had expressed concerns online about such matters as a coronavirus outbreak at a nursing home in Santa Clara, ubiquitous food lines in which no one practices social distancing, doubts about the official figures announced by MINSAP, dubious remedies recommended at Cuban pharmacies, and the state’s secrecy regarding the number of ventilators available on the island. They also complain vehemently about being called in for interrogations, especially when they are supposed to be practicing social distancing. They’ve aired their views of their country’s management of the pandemic in the only space in which Cubans who are not government officials or PCC members have a voice—social media. As an increasing number of Cubans take to Facebook to complain about state repression and their government’s shortcomings, the authorities have grown more anxious about the platform’s disruptive power.
One of the journalists who has been admonished for taking pictures from her apartment window, and who was interrogated in April and fined for allegedly violating Decree 370, is Mónica Baró Sanchez. She happens to be the island’s most celebrated independent journalist, and last year she won the Gabo Foundation Award, which is granted by the Colombia-based Gabriel García Márquez New Journalism Foundation, for her trenchant essay about the origins and consequences of lead poisoning over a sixty-year period in a poor Havana neighborhood. Her investigation dealt a mighty blow to the pristine image of the state’s public health system. Her recent interrogators showed her a folder of her Facebook posts.
“They told me that if I had been called in it was because I was violating laws,” Baró Sanchez recalled to me in a Whatsapp exchange we had last month. “My answer to them was that if I was there it was because they were violating my rights, rights that are inalienable and universal. The right to a free press and free speech. Laws cannot prevail over human rights.”
She explained that while the pandemic might serve as a pretext for intensified policing, their interrogation sought to intimidate her into admitting wrongdoing. The agents expressed their disappointment that she was not like more her family, whom they understood to be “integrated,” the Cuban buzzword for those who are loyal to the system. They zeroed in on the funding sources for the publications she works for, insinuating that she was a tool of foreign interests. El Estornudo, the magazine in which Baró Sanchez currently publishes, is supported by the Open Society Foundations and the National Endowment for Democracy. “I characterized Open Society as a nonprofit organization,” she told me, “but they kept insisting that it was a subversive organization that was trying to bring down the revolution.”
Baró Sanchez has publicly declared that she refused to sign the receipt acknowledging the fine, and that she also refuses to pay it, preferring instead to appeal the Ministry of Communications’s decision to impose it. Baró Sanchez says her interrogators warned her that after thirty days, the fine would double, then triple, and that failure to comply could result in jail time. Fortunately, she is not the only Cuban to be resisting Decree 370. While the authorities continue to try to purge the Internet of dissenting voices, island-based critics of the law multiply daily, posting anti-Decree 370 graphics, petitions, commentaries, and academic analyses of the law’s logical fallacies. Since Cubans gained Internet access on their phones in 2018, social media has become their most vital and vibrant public forum. It may prove to be the only invasive force that the Cuban state will not be able to thwart.
Coco Fusco is a New York City–based artist and writer and the author of Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba. (April 2020)
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK—I live in an apartment that is somewhere between Greenpoint and the East Williamsburg Industrial Park. It’s mostly warehouses and the BQE, far from the things most associated with life in New York. The news coming out of the city can feel dire and overwhelming, but when I stay off the Internet, life still floods in. These are some of the moments that have kept me connected, and given me some hope.
PACKAGES: I was supposed to visit my family in California in April. Instead, my parents send me USPS boxes full of home-baked cookies, jars of olives, homemade masks. They’ve always sent packages, but these ones feel as though they’re from farther away, loaded with more intent, somehow suggesting a disassembled family vacation packed in a box.
“STAND BY ME“: While I was walking home with a pizza, around 7 PM on a foggy, cold Sunday, a man drove slowly past on Kingsland Avenue, all his windows down, blasting “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King. I started cheering and pumping my fist, and then crying. It felt like a small but deeply generous gift from one individual to his neighbors, to his city.
A NEIGHBOR’S VISITORS: Outside of my bedroom window, across the street, an older couple get a weekly visit from their son and his two daughters. The routine is always the same: everyone wears masks as they exchange goods as if at a border crossing, putting gifts and food down on the middle step of the stoop and disinfecting them before the visit really begins. Watching through my window, it’s been my most regular opportunity to enjoy the company of strangers.
SKATEBOARDERS: There are three very good skate spots near my house, and the teens haven’t been fazed by any of the stay-at-home orders: they keep skating, keep seeking each other out, rarely wearing masks—teens are generally rule-breakers. But I feel an unexpected mix of jealousy and frustration watching these skaters, wishing I could be with my friends, too.
KOSCIUSZKO BRIDGE AT SUNSET: Though it is perhaps the least scenic of any bridge in NYC—its span rising from scrap yards on the Brooklyn side, reaching over the Newtown Creek Superfund site, and dipping to the Calvary Cemetery in Queens—crossing Kosciuszko (named for the Polish-Lithuanian Revolutionary War hero) has become the daily ritual I most look forward to: I get to curse under my breath when I pass slower pedestrians, admire cute families all wearing masks, and experience that do-I-know-that-guy feeling so absent from much of quarantine. Plus, Manhattan’s skyline takes on a cinematic silhouette at sunset, everything backlit golden. My walk back feels like home.
Lucas Adams is a senior editor at New York Review Comics.