A Bold Attempt to Redefine 'Dissidence' in Cuba
By ERNESTO LONDOÑO SEPT. 3, 2016
"Dissident" is a loaded word in Cuba, a label used to discredit and
punish. Those who have embraced the term can be shut out of public jobs
and are often subjected to arbitrary detentions and beatings.
This year, with expectations reset by the normalization of relations
between Cuba and the United States, Luis Manuel Otero and Yanelis Nuñez
Leyva, a couple in Havana, figured it was time to redefine what it means
to be a dissident. They created the Museum of Dissidence in Cuba, a
website that chronicles the long line of people who have stood in
opposition to the government throughout history.
Among the dissidents they feature are President Raúl Castro and his
brother, Fidel, who took power through an armed revolt, along with
prominent leaders of modern opposition groups, who have been suppressed
by the Cuban government. The project carries an implicit message: The
current ruling class, which seems so rigidly entrenched, will most
likely be replaced one day.
Mr. Otero, who is a sculptor, has pushed the boundaries of free speech
before through performance art. But Ms. Nuñez's involvement with the
website was particularly gutsy, since she worked as a staff writer at a
magazine published by the Ministry of Culture when the site was created
"We set out to dismantle the pejorative meaning the word 'dissident' has
had in Cuba," Ms. Nuñez said in an interview. "It was designed to be a
space to generate dialogue."
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A few years ago, this act would have immediately turned its creators
into outcasts. But Ms. Nuñez said she had been hopeful that with the
culture of self-censorship and fear eroding, her supervisors might
simply look the other way. The site, after all, is not aligned with
dissident groups, nor does it challenge the government's policies directly.
In late May, though, it became clear she was in trouble. After meeting
with the vice minister of culture, Ms. Nuñez's boss told her that it
would be in her best interest to resign quietly because of her
involvement with the project. She refused and was told to take two weeks
of vacation. Before her leave was up, she was suspended without pay for
a month, pending the results of an investigation into whether she
visited websites at the office that were not relevant to her work.
On July 1, she was fired. Several Cuban state employees who have run
afoul of the government have chosen to walk away quietly. Not Ms. Nuñez,
who chose to challenge the decision.
"Even if I don't prevail, I think it's worthwhile to fight," she said.
"There's a pretense here that freedom of expression is respected. What
I'm doing could help build pressure to force them to follow the law."
Luisa Campuzano, the editor of Revolución y Cultura, the magazine that
employed Ms. Nuñez, declined to discuss her dismissal. "It's something
that's not worth talking about," Ms. Campuzano said in a brief phone
Last month, a labor board rejected Ms. Nuñez's challenge to the
dismissal. She is now appealing her case to a municipal court, hoping it
will be assigned to a maverick judge. "The museum has a noble intent,"
she said. "If we're acting nobly, we can't be afraid."
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