In a godforsaken corner of the Western Hemisphere, a group of people
have decided to die for a cause and harm no one else in the process
Alvaro Vargas Llosa
Washington — From Wednesday's Globe and Mail Published on Tuesday, Mar.
30, 2010 5:38PM EDT Last updated on Wednesday, Mar. 31, 2010 2:57AM EDT
Nowadays, most of those who die for a cause either perish for the wrong
cause or bring death to innocent people. Islamist and nationalist
terrorists have turned the noble concept of martyrdom into the opposite
of what we were taught it meant. We have gone from Socrates drinking
hemlock in the name of philosophical inquiry to the female bombers who
massacred dozens of Russians at two Moscow subway stations.
But in a godforsaken corner of the Western Hemisphere, as if taking it
on themselves to restore the old tradition of martyrdom, a group of
people have decided to die for a cause and harm no one else in the
process. For weeks, the world has followed the drama of the Cuban
prisoners of conscience, many of them black, who have started a chain of
hunger strikes demanding the liberation of their fellow prisoners.
Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a mason who was one of the 75 activists and
journalists incarcerated in what is known as the Black Spring of 2003,
died in February after a hunger strike that lasted more than 80 days. He
was succeeded by psychologist Guillermo Farinas, who has now refused to
eat for more than a month. Engineer Felix Bonne Carcasses has said that,
if Mr. Farinas dies, he will replace him.
While these men give up their existence for a principle, a group of
women symbolically dressed in white are also putting their lives on the
line by taking to the streets against the Castro brothers. The Ladies in
White – mothers, wives and sisters of the Cuban political prisoners
jailed in the 2003 crackdown – have been kicked, punched, dragged
through the streets and arrested by government thugs. And they have not
The international commotion is such that political, civic and artistic
leaders who, until recently, turned the other way in the face of half a
century of political persecutions in Cuba have felt compelled to express
– cough, cough – their discomfort. Even Spain, which was instrumental in
blocking efforts by the European Union to defend human rights in Cuba,
has belatedly criticized the repression. In Havana, folk singer Silvio
Rodriguez, a revolutionary emblem of the nueva trova musical movement,
has begun to talk about taking the "r" out of "revolution" and replacing
it with "evolution." In Miami, New York and Los Angeles, thousands of
people have marched in protest.
Cuban martyrdom is not new – whether we speak of those Don Quixotes who
took up arms against the revolution early on, the many would-be Mandelas
who rotted in prison or the families who perished on boats fleeing the
island, giving a moral meaning to the Spanish word "balsa" (raft).
But this feels different. In his Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion,
Robert Wuthnow says "a crescive society, one that is weak but on the
rise, produces martyrs like those of early Christianity." Their
willingness to die "affirms the priority of culture over nature, law and
civilization over biological self-interest."
The gradual rise of a civil society built on the foundations of law and
civilization amidst the Communist tyranny is precisely what these men
and women are announcing to the world – and to their fellow Cubans,
mostly barred from knowing what's happening by a news blockade. What a
defining moment for Cuba, comparable to the rise of the civil society
that made possible 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I remember my teacher explaining that the Greek origin of the word
"martyr" was not directly related to the concept of death. It meant,
simply, "witness." Later, the Christian tradition of martyrdom gave it
its new meaning; every other religion has its own version. When least
expected, it has fallen on a group of valiant Cubans to not only restore
the noble tradition sullied in our day by genocidal terrorists but also
the original meaning of the word martyr. As witnesses, they are
testifying the truth – indeed, a deadly truth.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute.