Entry 3

This entry was written on Sunday, July 25.

I begin my Sunday at church. This is not exactly a tradition in my family. Let me explain:

In the spring of 2003, while the world was focused on the invasion of Iraq, Castro launched a vicious crackdown on dissidents and independent journalists, throwing 75 of them in jail. (There is only one kind of legal media in Cuba—state-controlled.) The dissidents and journalists were found guilty of having violated Law 88, a kind of catch-all antisubversion clause that the government can invoke at will. The dissidents and journalists, none of whom had done anything more than express their opinions, were sentenced, on average, to 20 years in jail. One result, as Reporters Without Borders puts it, is the “world’s largest prison for journalists.”

The Ladies in White

Every Sunday, the wives of many of those imprisoned gather at the Santa Rita de Casia Church, in Havana’s posh Miramar district. They dress in white, and after Mass is finished, gather and walk around the block. No bullhorns, no chants, no speeches. They call themselves Damas de Blanco— Ladies in White.

The Mass itself is uneventful. When the Ladies started coming to this church a few months ago, the priests got concerned and asked them not to protest inside. I’m sitting next to a Cuban journalist I have become friends with, A., so I ask her: If the priests are antsy about the Ladies, why did the group choose this church? “Because the saint represented in this church, Santa Rita,” she explains, “is the patron saint of lost causes.”

Their silent protest

After services end, A. introduces me to the women. Each has a button on her blouse with a photo of her husband and the number of years to which he’s been sentenced. After their walk, we make our way to the home of Elizardo Sanchez, Cuba’s most well-known human-rights advocate (who was also involved in a bizarre scandal last year after the state released a video that purported to show that Sanchez was also a state spy). He’s not home. So we all sit on the porch as the women chat amongst themselves, in a sort of impromptu support group, and a few others shower me with details about their husbands’ situations.

Most of their husbands have been jailed in far-away provinces (even though there are closer jails available), and the wives are only allowed to visit once every three months. They are allowed to call once a week, but the state schedules the time-slot, and as it happens, the time scheduled is usually Sunday morning during Mass.

Alejandrina Garcia de la Rivas, begins talking about trying to visit her husband, Diosdado Gonzalez Marrero, who was sentenced to 20 years under Law 88. She had heard that he had been put in solitary confinement and wanted to find out how he was doing. “I stayed outside the prison for four days,” says Garcia. “They wouldn’t let me see him. Eventually a note came out: ‘I am in solitary confinement. But I am OK. Please, stop waiting and go home.’ So I went home.” 

I go back to my apartment, out again, and then, after about three hours of searching, meet Claudia Marquez, one of the brightest young independent journalists in Cuba. We spend the afternoon chatting and walking around Old Havana. Marquez has written for Internet sites as well as De Cuba, an underground magazine published last year. (She’s also written op-eds for the Los Angeles Times and New York Times.) Then Marquez’s husband, Osvaldo Alfonso, a member of the political opposition, was arrested during the crackdown. During his trial, Alfonso apparently recanted his statements and asked Marquez to stop her work. He was sentenced to 18 years. Marquez kept working.

“Many of the editors of De Cuba had been arrested,” she says. “So I tried to put out another edition. We had trouble accessing computers, printers, even copiers. But we did get an issue done.” Soon after, in October, state security hauled her in. “They told me I should stop with De Cuba and asked me if I wanted my 7-year-old son to grow up without parents.”

“The cost of continuing was too high,” says Marquez, who seems to be keeping a low profile and essentially biding her time until she gets a visa. “My husband wants me to leave the country. Even if he remains.” We talk about what the worst part of the situation is. “I feel isolated,” she says, “even from other Cubans. I always feel scared and they feel scared to spend time with me. My brother got a visa to leave for the U.S. One day, he was gone; he never told me. And I had friend who worked at the national library. She called me one day; after that they fired her. I felt responsible.”

At night, I head over to a small dinner party thrown by a few American businessmen who are working in Cuba; two of them are staying at the same B&B I am. One, a middle-aged Southern man I’ll call Tennessee, introduces me to his Cuban wife, L. She’s about 20, very attractive, and doesn’t speak English. Tennessee, it turns out, doesn’t speak Spanish.

I start chatting with L. and one of the businessmen’s Cuban girlfriends. “Look at the girls all interested in Eric,” says Tennessee. “It’s like a Woody Allen movie.”

Hours and much wine later—”We’re going to eat some erroz [sic],” Tennessee says at one point—the talk gets to the Cuban economy. Walk around downtown and there appears to be at least a smattering of private enterprise. There are multiple car rental companies, even seemingly competing fast food joints (El Rapido and Burgui). Some are run by one government ministry, others by another (for example, some car rental companies are overseen by the tourist department; others are overseen by the ministry of transportation), but in the end all the businesses are owned by the state. “It’s the Duff Beer economy,” says one expat. “It might all look different, but it’s all coming from the same spout.”