Editor’s Note: Tania Bruguera (GS’21) is a top enemy of the Cuban government. As a political performance artist, Tania is committed to telling the world the truth about the situation on the island which has sparked the ire of the regime. She has been repeatedly arbitrarily detained, beaten, interrogated and recently subjected to house arrest as the regime persistently interrupts her internet connection, which kept her from appearing at the 2021 Geneva Summit. I spoke with Tania about the fight for freedom in Cuba and how she believes an intergenerational force of activists from a cross-section of causes are uniting to realize democracy, human rights and justice in the country.
Thank you very much, Tania, for being here with us. It’s great to hear from you after the Geneva Summit, when we were supposed to see a recorded video message from you, which was made impossible by the regime after they routinely cut off your internet connection. So, if you could please tell us: What is the situation now like for you?
Well, thank you so much for doing this interview with me. As you can see, the only way I can communicate is when the government isn’t aware of who I am communicating with. As soon as some announcement is made that I, or any other activist, is going to have a public forum to talk about what’s happening in Cuba, the only telephone company in the country, which belongs to the government, cuts off the telephone and internet service to the activist. So, it is very evident that they do not want us to tell our stories to the world.
In my case, and the cases of several activists, we have been without telephone service for months. They don’t let us leave our homes to meet with our peers. And, at the same time, they don’t let us communicate with them in any form. The other thing that is happening is that the Cuban government a few months ago released an order that gives authorities the right to intervene in private communications, supposedly for state security. The problem with that is that the very idea of what constitutes “state security” could be justified as anything. The regime feels so fragile and insecure that perhaps meeting for drinks could be deemed a threat to national security.
So, at this moment, we feel extremely vulnerable because we are being surveilled all the time. And I’m not talking about myself; I’m talking about a group of like 30 or 40 activists. And that’s in Havana only. In the provinces, it’s even worse. I’ve been an activist in other countries, and I have never encountered a place in which it is more difficult to be an outspoken activist than Cuba. Even more, state security forces are infiltrating our networks. So we are constantly thinking about everything we write, whether it be in private emails, or WhatsApp, because the regime will broadcast it on TV and expose you publicly.
Are these repressive strategies new? When did the regime start cracking down on and surveilling activists in the ways you’ve described?
The regime’s repressive strategies are absolutely not new. I think the Cuban government since the 60s has been conducting a pretty severe and intense persecution of those who think differently. What first comes to mind is when Cuban government shooting squad indiscriminately killed thousands of political prisoners — people who belonged to the old regime. This, I believe, was the first act to come from the revolution, which was murdering people in order to start a fear regime. So, after that, everybody was afraid if they stayed in Cuba. Or, people left the country for fear of their lives.
As you said, we are talking about the regime that has been in power for almost 70 years. Your father was a high-ranking diplomat in the Castro government after the revolution. What was it like to grow up in that context?
It’s strange because the vision I had of Cuba when I was growing up and living outside of Cuba with my parents, who were diplomats, was the vision that they were selling to the world. So, I thought Cuba was a magnificent place, a perfect society. And then when they divorced, and I returned to Cuba, I was confronted with a whole new reality.
I began going to school in Cuba and saw how poor the education system is. Before, I was living in Lebanon and in a French school which was all about analytical and critical thinking. And then I came to Cuba where it’s about memorizing concepts and ideology, not free thinking. The schools in Cuba aren’t preparing children to be better citizens or better. They just teach how to submit to power. So, it is a very traumatic experience I think to be educated here in that sense. Of course, the fact that we have access to free education is great. But what do you do when the education that is free is actually indoctrination? Of course it’s free; it’s indoctrination.
Is there a moment that triggered an inflection point that convinced you that you weren’t being presented with the truth?
Absolutely. I think many, many things happened that made me realize that the propaganda that the government was selling to the world was not the Cuban reality. I think of my grandparents. They lived very modestly, and were even poor. Their everyday life was a struggle—and that was characteristic for all Cubans. The life of a Cuban was reduced to looking for food each day, and accepting that education was indoctrination and that the lives of people were not being respected. Even more, people who dream of something better are stopped because, of course, that clashes with the government’s purposes.
And the other thing I realized that was very shocking is that the only way you can advance economically or professionally in Cuba was if you ally yourself with the government. And that for me was when I realized that it was my life goal to not do that and to demonstrate that there are other ways to become a better person, a better citizen, a better professional than just submitting to a bunch of people who I don’t respect. At some point, you even notice that the regime members don’t even believe in what they’re doing. They’re just defending their position in power. And they don’t care about the people.
As you said in the audio message you sent to the Geneva Summit, Cuba projects an image of being a social justice paradigm. What do you make of this contradiction when you see the plight of Cubans?
It’s very difficult, especially for my friends abroad because they are activists who either have that image of the Cuban country or they are in debt to the Cuban government, who in some way has supported them. Also, more and more, the Cuban people are making themselves heard. More and more, the Cuban people are amplifying their own personal stories — which are devastating — to respond to the regime’s political propaganda. And, to be honest, the Cuban government has been so inefficient and such a bad administrator — before we even talk about censorship and repression — that they have lost all consideration and faith of the people. Nobody believes in the government anymore. If you go in the streets now, people are constantly complaining and laughing and making jokes about the president, which is something that usually you’d never see.
People are sensing that the government right now is weak. They have nowhere to go. They have no escape. They have no solution. And they don’t want to leave power. So this is the moment which we are in right now. And I think that we know because many people say that even people in power, those who are now in government, are fighting with each other because there are so many clashing views. There are people who know there is nowhere to go from here. And there are people who want to make changes. There are people who want to stay the same. There are people who want to go back. There are people who think, for example, that the internet was a mistake. There are people who think the internet was good. So we know that even those up there in power are fighting. And the problem with that is they don’t know what to do. And this is an issue because one day they do something, and the next day they do something different.
So, we are in this period in which you can see power shaking. We just need to see if they open up the space for other people to intervene and have a stake in this moment.
Do you think that’s a possibility? Are you hopeful about the future in Cuba?
I don’t know, because if we remain in the conditions we are in today with COVID, which has eliminated tourism, or with the European Union talking about changing their relationship with Cuba and demanding the regime uphold human rights. And if international leaders start to judge Cuba under the same parameters as they judge every other country, then we have some hope. If the European Union, if the United States, if all the other partners — economic partners, political partners — and people in the world stand for the Cuban people instead of the Cuban government, then we might have some chance.
You are the daughter of a high-ranking government official. And yet here you are now as a very high-profile, pro-democracy activist who has become a target of the government’s repression. What was the moment that you realized that you had become a target of the regime?
As an artist, it was natural for me to question reality. Of course, in Cuba, you don’t realize you are the number one enemy of the state one day. It is a very long and subtle process, which the government begins by calling you. They threaten you very slowly, very softly, and then they go after you. So there is a progressive escalation.
Now, I realize that I’m the number one enemy, because the state security doesn’t even interrogate me anymore; they don’t even want to talk to me anymore because they know there is no way to blackmail me. That means I’m a lost case. I stand for what I think, and I’ve fought for 30 years for Cuba as a free place where people are not being punished for saying what they think, and for doing what they want to do.
Do you think that you’re now in more danger than you were before?
Absolutely, I think so. But that’s okay. I don’t want to sound like a victim. I know what I’m doing, and I know that what I’m doing has a price. And I’m willing to pay for it.
And, more than me, I’m worried about the other activists that have less visibility and that are in a more precarious political condition. So this is why, for example, at INSTAR — which is an umbrella for all of the other organizations and activists here in Cuba — some people are starting to realize how what they think will ultimately cost them.
You were once in New York pursuing your career as an artist. Why did you choose to leave a place where you were safe?
Well, I came back for personal reasons. And I think right now the situation is very unique; we are living in a historical moment that might go sour, turning my role into something different. And, if I’ve been fighting for 30 years to see that moment, I would like to see it firsthand, and I would like to be together with all my fellow activists in that celebration.
We’ll see what happens, but I think we have to fight, and we have to fight together. And, actually, I recommend to other Cubans to come back because we have all learned something useful, no matter where in the world we live, that can support the fight for freedom in Cuba. Also that will make the regime completely crazy.
Last November, there was a raid against the San Isidro Movement while they were on a hunger strike protesting the government for arresting one of their members. And, right after it, we could see you at the gates of the Ministry of Culture demanding their release and demanding freedom of expression on the island. What do you think that that moment in particular meant for you and in general for the Cuban people?
I think that was very special. I think that 27N, the campaign that began after the raid, was a historical moment. It was the first time on the island that around 500 people demonstrated in front of an institution. And this was historical because it gave faith to a lot of people that something could be done. It forced the government to bring the army into the streets. So it was a way to strip away their facade, their mask.
It was also a moment that something very special happened: The parents of the people who were demonstrating also joined. And there was a beautiful moment when I talked to the mother of a friend of mine who was once part of the high-ranking military agency. And I asked, “Why are you here?” She said, “Because I don’t want anything to happen to my kids.” And that for me was very special because that meant that the older generation is no longer going to bow its head knowing their children are at risk. And that means that we had an intergenerational protest that covers so many issues: gender and identity, animal rights, human rights, artistic rights, labor, economic rights, political. Everybody was there. So that means that we can actually be united and find a common cause. And it was the first time that we saw the government completely afraid and unprepared about what to do. And I think that gave me a lot of hope. I think that 27N has given a lot of hope to a lot of Cubans — so much that some of the Cubans who live abroad have come back to live here because they want to be part of the movement.
What can the rest of the world do to support you and the democratic movement in Cuba?
I would like the international community to ally with the people of Cuba. Do not justify anymore what the Cuban government is doing. When they present you with some curated version of life in Cuba, please ask the uncomfortable questions. Ask for facts, not for feelings. Ask for the facts of the Cuban Revolution and demand freedom for Cubans. Demand the government to step down and to lead a free movement to take over and change the constitution and change the laws and also change the way in which we live in Cuba. They are not adequate politically, and they had their time. They have had their moment.
What else do you want the Geneva Summit community to know about the reality of life in Cuba?
I think we need to ask the government for transparency. We know that there is a lot of corruption in the high spheres of power, and there must be accountability.
I also want to say that with each passing minute, the health of Cuba’s political life is waning. We have seen what happened in Russia. We have seen what happened in other countries. Why do you need to wait to see the same failures being repeated? We don’t need to wait for this Cuban mafia generated by the people in power to become an equivalent of the Russian mafia. We don’t need to wait until they kill one activist in the flesh — because, of course, they have killed many of us in other ways. The regime has put some activists in psychotic wards, they have cut off ties to friends and family as punishment. But do we want to wait until they kill dozens of us to react? Why do we have to wait? Why does the international community wait? What is the international community waiting for? We know this story has been repeated many times in different places. This is not going to be different. So let’s try different approaches, and let’s act now.