Although the majority of the alternative Cuban blogs are written from Havana, this emerging technology has traveled the entire island clandestinely and also effectively. In the Eastern region of the country Luis Felipe Rojas Rosabal has joined the blogging movement and launched his own entitled “Cruzar las Alambradas” [‘Crossing the Barbed Wire’], but in no way is he a rookie or an amateur within Cuban resistance.
Born in 1971 in a small Eastern village known as San German, Luis Felipe challenges the extensive control which the Castro government exerts over the citizenry. He is an independent writer, journalist, and poet who has published various works in numerous independent digital newspapers. But written word is not the only method Luis uses to combat the repression which exists in Cuba and to express his ideals of freedom- he also protests, denounces, marches, takes photos of his oppressors, teaches his fellow citizens how to use newer means of communication, and is part of the peaceful Cuban opposition, which is a movement that consists of enormous levels of bravery while confronting a brutal and armed enemy. Just for acting according to his conscience, Luis has been detained more than twenty times.
Luis is a father, and every time he stands up against the totalitarian Castro regime he runs the risk of landing in jail and not seeing his young son grow up. And with that said, he continues publishing photos on his blog of secret police agents who spy on dissidents, and he continues informing the world through his posts and “Tweets”. The following is the story of how Luis Felipe Rojas Rosabal has crossed, and continues crossing, the barbed wire which has been massively implanted throughout the entire island of Cuba:
Tell us about yourself- what part of Cuba are you from and how did you grow up?
I’m from a tiny and lost village called San German, located in the Eastern region of the island. When I say “lost”, you can take it both ways. According to what my parents tell me, this place was formerly one of the most prosperous regions within the massive sugarcane production area in the Cauto valley, which is now in ruins thanks to so many failures and which is always attributed to the economic crisis and the United States embargo on Cuba, as well as an ongoing list of excuses which leave out the carelessness of the government and the disillusionment of the Cuban people. As for how did I “grow up”…I’m not too sure. I’m guessing you are referring to how I have transformed and became an adult, because I think that with 1.65 cm of height I could not have grown too much. If you are referring to the latter, I still have not finished. I learn something new every day: the poetry of Antonio Machado, a book written by O’Henry, a tale by Maupassant, the letters written by Marti, a new blogger, and so on. We never finish growing. I’ve been through various schools, fields, foul-smelling homes, and a juvenile violence that journalism and fiction-literature in my country have “forgotten” in an Olympic fashion.
Would you say that in the Eastern region of the country the repression from the government against dissidents is stronger in comparison to Havana where there is a higher concentration of foreign media?
Luck is scarce for any non-conformist in whatever part of the country. It already has become a myth to think that if the foreign press/media is not present, then there is more repression. It’s a myth, a tall-tale. The Ladies in White were savagely beaten right before the undaunted lens of an international press camera. The issue on hand is that the orders to beat, temporarily kidnap/disappear opposition members, sentence without a trial, beat, beat, and beat, are given so that they are applied everywhere within the country with the aim of preventing the sparks from spreading. I also believe, without intending to offend anybody, that there is a certain kind of opposition in the Eastern part of the country which is of a different breed of confrontation, and I think that has a lot to do with it. Here, in the East, there is a more direct form of resistance where we go out in front of a military barracks or government headquarters and protest, without getting distracted by other things. It’s all a product of the repressive tactics.
How many times have you been detained by State Security? What was it like?
I don’t keep a highly-detailed record, but I think it has been more than twenty times. And this number is insignificant when you compare it to the number of times my colleagues in Guantanamo and Santiago have been detained, or to the number of detentions of Caridad Caballero in Holguin , and Martha Diaz Rondon in Banes.
The pestilent cells, humid and full of bacteria, are just a small sneak peak of the Inferno as described by Dante. The heat in Cuba is unbearable, even in one’s own home, so you can imagine what it’s like in a 3 x 4 meter cell crammed with other prisoners. Every time I am released from a prison scene like this one, I am sick for days, have pressure on my lungs, and have other ailments. But that is minuscule compared to what others who go straight to prison live through, it is incomparable.
I think that the objective with me has been to try to frighten me, to stop any trip I have planned anywhere, and to cause panic among those who surround me… it is a punishment for my fellow citizens, I am the example of what can happen if someone decides to follow down my path. The warning is not aimed at me. Like a slave, I have raised my hand up against my master, just like a famous TV personality once said. But every day, I think of the phrase by Adam Michnick: “The slave does not negotiate”.
Because I have chosen to not give in or give up, I’ve been subjected to more intense interrogations and they have read me the Gag Law multiple times, a document which has a few decades reserved for me in jail just for speaking what I consider to be the truth. Every single day, ever since my first detention, I wake up with the threat looming over my head of the authorities not allowing me to see my kids grow up, or of only seeing them every 21 or 45 days, according to the prison I am put in and to the level of rebelliousness I choose to display. But I am a practicing Christian and I know that nothing will happen that is not in the hands of God, and nothing that happens to me is out of his almighty reach. And that’s a fact, as solid as a rock.
Why did you decide to open a blog and why did you decide to title it “Crossing the Barbed Wire”? Do you think technology has been effective in combating the repression that exists in Cuba? Why?
The blog was a product of pure catharsis. I wrote for Cuba-encuentro ever since 2003, three years under a pen name and nearly three other years with my actual name, until I decided to continue writing in “Diario de Cuba”. The blog was intended to loosen up the tight frame that comes along with journalism and its other genres. To me, the blog is more rhythmic in the sense of everyday life, and that’s even considering the fact that I can only see it every two or three months and that I can’t even exchange comments with my readers. I don’t have enough money to afford the luxury of paying nearly 8 dollars per hour of internet multiple times a week. I would love to respond to some people, exchange opinions with others, and be attentive with people like you. Now, I’ve spent more than a week to answer these questions, but each time the messaging services are more and more difficult to ignore.
I am a counter-current kind of guy all of the time, that’s why I chose to name the blog “Crossing the Barbed Wire”, a space where we step on mined grounds, which goes beyond the governmental voices (without affecting citizens, my neighbors). Technology has, firstly, been a tool which has been used by the military Castro regime to oppress us and restrict our freedoms. Later, some people asked for it to be lent to them, and they lent it to us “under the counter” until a group of brave people took it upon ourselves to manage these methods, and here we are, photographing human rights violators, narrating the lives of pro-democracy activists, and in sum, making up, piece by piece, that Cuban puzzle which we all contribute to- the oppressors and the oppressed.
The effectiveness of cyber-activism, mobile-activism, and the alternative blogosphere have all been successful methods against the military dictatorship of the Castro brothers. Ask yourselves, wouldn’t the authorities want to uproot us or turn us non-conformists to be in favor of them? That says it all. We’re neither accepted nor welcomed just because, it’s because they don’t have any other choice.
On multiple occasions you have taken photographs of specific members of the Secret Police (G2) who watch over the homes of opposition members. Please, explain why you have chosen to do this and what have been the consequences. Have you been threatened by any of these people because you have taken photos of them?
Simple, my promise to myself and to those who came before me in this struggle is that no violators go unpunished. I abandoned my literary career (the chance of comfortably publishing fiction and poetry in my country) to take up testimonies such as this one, which rough waves of the future will eventually wipe out. The risks are all mine. But the violator must be signaled-out, so others may sentence him, or so that God may forgive them, but so that everyone knows who they are and what it is that they do. The verbal threats shouted out by the repressive officers of the political police are always abundant, for they do not need any excuses. But yes, they have explained to me that photographing a soldier on duty could cost me tens of years in prison. And so what? I don’t publish my photos for money or for influence. The democracy of the internet allows me to not have to respond to anyone or anything but my own moral code, my readers, and a handful of friends. Nothing drives me more than the freedom of Cuba.
The threats are not always explicit. Sometimes they detain me for 13 hours in a police headquarter, together with violent people, dipsomaniacs, child molesters, and thieves, and they need not tell me anything else, they release me, and that also carries a message on their part.
Tell us about the opposition in the Eastern region of the country. What are the methods of protest and what tends to occur after the demonstrations?
I think that the spark of disobedience has ignited its flame throughout these provinces. Has it done so the way we wish it has? No, but at least it’s something and we get things done. There is a rule which we have all accepted and it’s a style of a peaceful urban guerrilla- as a matter of fact, you can use that term. Protesting in front of a police unit, in the porch of a house, in the streets; all of this upsets the boss and we know that, and unless he starts acting differently we will keep on doing it. We have already noticed that they don’t like for us to step on their fingers, but we are going to squash them: denouncing soldiers who violate human rights, corrupt functionaries who lead licentious lives, and any other form of apartheid.
They temporarily detain people, they jail them also, they beat women, but none of that can stop us from wanting to be free. It has become a struggle in which we will never again lose sight of our goal. They will have to move out of the way or they will have us like insects bothering their existence every day. We have become professional kill-joys, constantly.
What was the impact of the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo among the general population and the opposition in the Eastern regions? How has the support been for Reina Luisa Tamayo, mother of Orlando Zapata?
There is an irrefutable fact: the regime underestimated Zapata, they didn’t think he was willing to take it to the very end. They treated him like a guy who didn’t have values or principals, but they were wrong. If you pay attention you will see how they treated the case of Farinas, they did not want him to go to the very end. We warned everyone a month in advance that he was going to die unless the authorities ceased, and we then demonstrated accordingly. We organized some protest groups and accompanied Reina Luisa and also demonstrated individually. The result of this was that there were beatings for the activists in all of Eastern Camaguey, and many were thrown in preventive prisons and other types of detainment. But the everyday people are very far removed from the language of hunger strikes, protests, and other forms of demonstrations. It’s been nearly 52 years of misinformation. I’ve had to explain a thousand times after his death that he was not a delinquent, that he was really a dissident, and also that is not even the purpose of the discussion, for if a common prisoner (a thief) decides, in the future, to demand from the authorities better food and they do not give in to his demands and let him die, then the authorities would be just as murderous as they were with Zapata, which in turn really is a political issue.
The pain has been double since I got to know him through phone conversations, through his reports, and from the description of all those prisoners who have been released and talk about how he was. Furthermore, we’ve had to confront a campaign of discredit carried out by the regime and even by presidents like Lula, and this is a slap in the face, but we now know that he (Zapata) has definitely raised the bar for us. There is an undeniable truth here: Zapata always acted with the intent of achieving victory, and that victory cost him his life.
Have you felt fear before for publicly denouncing the repressive actions carried out by the totalitarian Castro government?
Fear yes, cowardice never. I’m not a coward. I’m a guy whose read thousands of testimonies about the horror people have lived through in prisons, “transit accidents”, having stones thrown at them during the night, needles used against patients in hospitals. There are thousands of ways that they could extra-judicially kill me, and this was told to me as a slant by a G2 officer one day, but I know that it is very possible. It all depends on what I am denouncing. I don’t write while thinking how many years each line, or news “lead” would cost me in jail. They don’t need an excuse, really. But I’m not a naïve person who will be frightened the day they decide to lock me up permanently. I’m scared of not continuing to see my children or my mother (all because of a tantrum thrown by a hierarch), of not being able to go on reading a good book every once in a while, chat on the phone with my friend Jorge Olivera Castillo, of telling the latest jokes to my buddies in the neighborhood… he who is not afraid of being “taken off air” and of continuing to denounce the dictatorship come and tell me about it to my face.
But this fear doesn’t paralyze me. I constantly have some sort of high fever, but I continue onward, I don’t get cramped. I’m a guy who enjoys drinking a nice beer because I’ve never tasted brand-name wine. I really enjoy film, fresh air, living my life with my wife, debating about baseball, soccer, or politics- an everyday kind of guy, not a poet locked up in a cybercafé or in a governmental office.
You have showed some of your dissident friends how to use technologies like blogs and twitters. Has this been effective?
I have facilitated some things for them that others have given to me, and in the process I have learned as well. I’ve made them spend their only savings as they try to open a twitter account, just to find out in the end that we have made some mistakes! But yes, I have showed them how to fix some effects of a small digital camera in order to take photos through a window, how to type faster so that they won’t have to take paper copies into a cybercafé or other locales where flash drives are not permitted. I’ve also taught some people how to create a digital edition of a small publication, and have also traveled 200 kms to convince four young men and women about the effectiveness of digital journalism and so that they move away from the older ways of actual written print because, at least for now, the opposition has no mass printed newspaper. What do you think, has this been effective?
In your post titled “Doctrine, Crib, and Bread” you express worries in regards to the revolutionary indoctrination that your son will receive in school. What are the ideas that they try to implant in the minds of kids who are only in the second grade?
A kid that age still has a virgin mind, and when he is able to decide, I’ll let him do so. But for now, I am responsible and I don’t like the fact that they are always telling him about a revolution that he does not know of, about war, about people who died under god knows what circumstances and thinking who knows what. It worries me and it bothers me that they focus more on implanting hate towards his supposed enemy than love for his neighborhood friends. What enemies could my seven-year-old son possibly have? Which ideological preparation could he really have? What “isms” is he supposed to respond to at such a young age? That is what I am denouncing. They intend to convert the kids into hateful machines, but that’s why we [parents] are here at home, to teach them to be different. If we can’t make him a better man, then at least we will try to teach him not to be hateful and to not think of a war that has never happened.
As a father, how do you teach your son about the good and the bad while at school they attempt to indoctrinate him to be “like el Che Guevara and to hate his enemy”?
It’s easy, you only have to teach them about charity, sharing, tolerance, urban norms, speaking with a respectful tone, holding doors for ladies, helping those in need without expecting anything in return, not lying, not talking too much, and not remaining silent due to fear. It’s nothing that we have invented during this century- they taught these values to my grandparents who came from the Canary Islands and from Callabar [Africa], to my mother, and to me. If I haven’t strictly practiced these values each day, then that’s another story altogether, because I am not perfect and I am a human being. But still, those norms are present and available for any family or any person who wishes to learn them. In my home, we do our part.
Do you have any messages for the exiled Cubans?
Yes, don’t grow desperate for the day in which freedom will come. Nobody really knows how much more it will take. I’m optimistic and I believe that it won’t take much longer. There are already visible signs, but we can’t go ahead and declare victory just yet. Those of us inside can’t do this on our own, for this country belongs to all of us- those who are not here and those who are. Cuba is a large house. Nobody has left from here, instead they have been kicked out, but when the big boss is dethroned, there will be a law that would allow everyone to come back, whether it be permanently or just for a day.
Do you feel optimistic about the future of Cuba?
Optimistic, yes. I dream of waking up and being in a different Cuba, whether it be better or worse, but nonetheless a new path.
And thank you for this opportunity.