Español Micaela Hierro’s last name means “iron” in Spanish, and she certainly lives up to it. Born in Argentina, now living in Germany, Hierro is the founder of two human rights organizations in Latin America: the 18-country Latin-American Youth Network for Democracy, and the Latin-American Youth Network for Democracy in Cuba.
She has visited Cuba three times (in 2009, 2010, and 2012) and has a deep understanding of life on the Caribbean island, based on her connections with its civil society. As far as Hierro is concerned, the island undoubtedly suffers from a “communications blockade.” In an effort to promote democracy, she has launched a campaign to donate prepaid cell phones to Cuban activists who take part in her project’s Dialogue Roundtable.
What is the project about and how do you fit in?
The project was born in 2012 when a group of activists founded the Latin-American Youth Network for Democracy in Cuba. They were concerned with the lack of free speech in Cuba, because they cannot engage in the sort of activism that we can in our home countries.
In Cuba, you are prohibited from organizing with civil society if you come in on a tourist visa.
We came up with different strategies to strengthen the human rights activism carried out by young Cubans and promote democratic values.
We doubled our efforts in 2013 and 2014. On February 22, 2014, after a year working separately with different groups in Cuba, we managed to assemble 47 young activists and 17 organizations in the Dialogue Roundtable, and it continues growing everyday.
That makes us very happy, because we started with only 12 groups, and since then, the Dialogue Roundtable has become a place for open debate on democratic values. After that, Cuba saw an increase in initiatives and offshoot projects.
What kind of organizations make up the Dialogue Roundtable, and are any of them political?
There is everything from cultural and social movements to political parties, and even independent journalists and young Cubans who belong to no party and simply look for a safe place where they can be heard and present proposals and initiatives. Cuba needs more places like this.
Why does someone like you, with no political or military influence, face problems organizing in Cuba?
I believe the regime is afraid of anyone who promotes democratic values or dares to speak out. The first time I visited Cuba, I attended a seminar on public policy with an official visa. The last time, however, I ran into problems after speaking with several civil-society leaders. This is something you are free to do in any other country. It shouldn’t be forbidden.
They all seek freedom, because the regime controls every aspect of life.
In Cuba, you are prohibited from organizing with civil society if you come in on a tourist visa. We’re not talking about opposition political parties that want a regime change, but it’s just normal people like Catholic leader Dagoberto Valdés, director of the magazine Convivencia that promotes the coexistence of people with different beliefs. It’s not just about political ideology, but also civic values, such as cooperation and solidarity. It’s very broad, yet it’s illegal. That’s why I have had problems.
Where in Cuban society have you noticed a greater degree of opposition to the regime?
In Cuba, everything is an act [of defiance]. Even the young people with tattoos, who go out to the streets and drink all night — even if they consider themselves apolitical — they’re demonstrating in some way. Same thing with the rappers, because they all seek more freedom.
Beyond politics, they want to live in a place where they can play their music freely, and they’re not under constant surveillance or control. Women, workers … they all seek freedom, because the regime controls every aspect of life.
Would you encourage people to visit Cuba?
Yes, but they should get to know the real Cuba. I’ve come across other Argentineans at the beach, and they don’t have any real contact with Cubans; they just see what they want to see.
I have visited Cuban hospitals; they’re not what the regime promotes as world-class medical care, and far from it. The rooms are falling apart, patients have to take their own sheets with them, rats…
Did you document any of that?
No, unfortunately not my own, but I have recordings from others. I was able to visit the hospitals thanks to Hilda Molina when she was still in Cuba. I met doctors, medical care centers for the average Cuban, and I witnessed their catastrophic conditions. These aren’t the hospitals commonly visited by foreigners.
Doctors charge people who want quicker attention illegally, because no economic activity is allowed outside the state system. Physicians cannot offer their services privately. Someone who wants a doctor fast ends up paying under the table.
What is your take on the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States?
It’s controversial, and I understand the criticism from civil-society leaders, in and out of Cuba, that you cannot negotiate with a regime like that. We have to consider why Cuba chose this moment to negotiate with the United States.
I agree with Obama that Cuba already suffers enough from restrictions imposed by its own government.
Why now? Cuba is completely bankrupt, and all these years the regime has blamed the embargo for the misery brought on by an obviously failed socialist economic system.
I see a dash of hope; change is inevitable, but the regime must allow Cubans to have access to the rest of the world. I agree with Obama that Cuba already suffers enough from restrictions imposed by its own government, and it doesn’t need to also suffer from restrictions imposed from abroad.
The people on the street received the news with the hope that it would bring the winds of change. Meanwhile, the regime continues to repress Cubans, as usual.
Translated by Daniel Duarte. Edited by Guillermo Jimenez.