In spite of, or perhaps because of, recent modest economic reforms, activism is growing as the government’s opponents overcome their fear of arrest and take to the streets.
But it is not easy. Today, even the church-based Ladies in White – a group of female relatives of imprisoned activists – say they are routinely spied on and arrested.
This year they achieved brief international notoriety when they were prevented from meeting Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the island, but for the most part their activities are carried out under the ever-present threat of harassment and intimidation by Cuba’s internal security police.
Nevertheless, inspired by the Arab Spring, the Ladies are determined to keep up their protests, sensing that the regime’s grip on power is fading and that sooner rather than later it will be forced to give way.
But what is it like to live in such a pervasive culture of surveillance and fear? People & Power sent an independent undercover journalist to find out. He has asked us not to reveal his identity because he may wish to visit Cuba again in the future, but in the article below he describes what it was like to make the film and the many difficulties facing the activists he met.
Filmmaker view: Filming undercover in Cuba
Following the 2011 economic reforms announced by the Cuban government for the 52nd anniversary of the country’s revolution, there was widespread speculation about the possibility of comparable political reforms that would end the persecution of dissidents and the Communist Party’s grip on power.
But it took a courageous Cuban journalist to make an insightful current affairs programme about it. Today, that journalist, Ivan Hernandez, is in hiding.
My first ever attempt to meet up with Ivan in a Havana bar, back in September 2011, failed for fear of being arrested by the political police on his tail.
I was on a tourist visa and aware that any encounter with political dissidents could mean immediate expulsion from the country and a permanent ban from returning.
To Fidel Castro, Ivan is a “counter-revolutionary” working for the American right-wing Cuban lobby. In reality, Ivan is just an independent freelance journalist, albeit one with a very critical view of the Cuban Revolution.
But in 2003, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring against the government and publishing “false information”. He was sent to a high security compound, isolated in an individual cell and deprived of contact with anyone other than his guards for months on end. His crime was merely to write reports about how difficult life was for the ordinary Cuban.
In 2011, Ivan was freed as a gesture of good will on the part of Fidel Castro towards Pope Benedict, ahead of his 2012 visit to Cuba. The released prisoners were given the option of leaving the island. Most of them did. But not Ivan.
“This is my country,” he told me when I asked him about his decision, “why would I leave? This is my calling, my mission – to tell the truth. Life is terrible here. There’s a US blockade against Cuba, and inside Cuba there’s a blockade of the government against the people.”
I was impressed by Ivan’s determination. I thought that following him undercover as we contacted other political dissidents and victims of state-sponsored violence could illustrate what it is like to be critical of Fidel Castro in Cuba today.
Ivan liked the idea and we worked out a way to make it happen without being arrested. First, the programme had to be anonymous to protect everybody connected with me in Cuba who was unaware of what I was doing. We feared reprisals against my landlord for renting out a room to me, or my friends and colleagues who live and work in Cuba. Any suspicion against them could end their careers and seriously affect their daily lives.
From the start, Ivan warned me that one-out-of-every-five Cubans is suspected of being a police informer and that few people can be absolutely trusted. He said we needed to film with mini hidden cameras and concoct a plausible cover story for me, the foreigner in the team.
In successive trips we took cameras into Cuba without raising any suspicions and in May 2012 we started shooting. The very first challenge was to portray the lives of dissidents under surveillance without being detected. We decided that giving the activists cameras to record their own video diaries was the best option.
We established a security protocol by which if the dissident with the camera did not report back to one of us within a specified period of time, we had to assume that he had been detained. We had a network of pre-determined “safe houses” and arrangements to call each other using public phones at a given time.
I taught Ivan some counter-surveillance techniques learned by covering other conflicts but he was well used to this himself.
Filming with Berta Soller, the leader of the Ladies in White protest movement, was one of our first tasks. Aware that her apartment was under constant surveillance we used a key-fob camera to get shots as we walked up to her building, although as it turned out, our work was made easier by the fact that too many policemen and “local informers” could be persuaded to look the other way for $5.
We managed to film five interviews without being followed. Then we took the decision to meet Antonio Rodiles, a 40-year-old with a degree in Physics who had left Cuba for work and had chosen to return to defy the government’s censorship from within.
In 2010, Antonio founded Estado de SATS, or State of SATS. “SATS” is a Scandinavian word that refers to the instant just before the actor has to face the audience or the runner hears the bang. The moment of greatest concentration, the adrenaline rush that precedes an explosion. State of SATS is “an initiative of young artists, intellectuals and professionals in search of a better reality”. The best known work of SATS are the film-debates, produced in Antonio’s own home, that circulate with great success on Cuba’s alternative information networks.
But Antonio’s home was surrounded by CCTV cameras. Once inside the house, we went to check the backyard, which overlooks the sea, and as we were unpacking Antonio pointed out the CCTV cameras that could possibly be filming us.
“Come on, I’ll show you.” We followed him and filmed him pointing at the cameras. We had to assume from that point on that we might have been spotted. But we filmed the interview anyway and left looking over our shoulders. Once in the car, we decided to lay low for a day.
Our next mission was rather ambitious: to attempt to film a one-man protest against the government in Revolution Square. Ivan had advanced knowledge of the event through a contact and we had a couple of days to plan it.
We assigned a second crew, two European-looking Cubans, to film in the area in the guise of tourists at the time the protest was to take place. I would be covering the opposite end of the square to film the protest from afar. The protester, a rickshaw driver, had not even started holding up a sign that said “Down with Repression”, when three policemen surrounded and handcuffed him.
I caught the moment on camera, but my colleagues, who were supposed to be closer to the action, were nowhere to be seen. I just did not know what had happened to them.
The police saw me. I turned off the camera. One of the agents who had just arrested the protester came up to me and grabbed the camera. He started flicking through the images, thinking they were stills. He could not see anything wrong but questioned me for 10 minutes, then warned me “be careful with what you film” and let me go.
I walked away from the square pretty fast. An hour later I met Ivan. Our second crew had been detained. That night, my landlord got a call from state security inquiring about me. He came to tell me with a worried look on his face. “What’s going on?” I bluffed my way out of it, but when he left, I took all my belongings and drove for two hours out of Havana.
Ivan continued filming on his own until July 22. That day, Oswaldo Paya, one of the most prominent dissidents, was killed in a car crash that his daughter claimed was “not an accident”.
Ivan and I met. He wanted to film the funeral. He said it could turn into a demonstration. Knowing that I was now suspected we realised that if I went there after what happened, we risked losing everything we had filmed. So Ivan volunteered.
“I’ll go and film it. I’ll send you the footage in two weeks.” He left in a hurry. I did not have time to even shake his hand.
Two weeks later, I got the footage from a colleague who had gone to Cuba as a tourist to pick it up. I emailed Ivan to confirm that I had received it. But he did not reply. His phone was permanently “out of range”. I can only assume he is still in hiding.
Then on November 8, Antonio Rodiles, one of our main interviewees, was arrested and detained. This film, which will probably go to air as Antonio is in a cell for daring to speak his mind, will no doubt confirm the government’s suspicions of him – but like all the dissidents we spoke to in our film, he would not have had it any other way. Only by speaking out, they say, will Cubans bring change to their country.
There are some indications that Cuba may decide to allow emigration from January next year. Perhaps it is a sign that the government is finally acknowledging that economic reforms need to be followed by deep political reforms and a transition to democracy.
For the sake of Ivan, Berta Soller, Antonio and all the other dissidents, one can only hope so.