Acceptance speech by Mary Anastasia O'Grady, Winner of IPN's 2005 Bastiat Prize for Journalism
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
I want to thank the International Policy Network, both for awarding this prestigious prize to me and for all of its work on behalf of liberty, including the establishment of this very important recognition. Thank you very much.
I also want to thank the Wall Street Journal and especially the editorial page and Paul Gigot for giving me a place to write about the Latin American region from a classical liberal perspective.
Finally, I want to thank my editor George Melloan, who is the best boss and the best editor I could ever have hoped for. I share this honor with him.
Since we’re here tonight to recognize journalists who defend freedom, I’d like to take a moment to say a word about Cuba’s independent journalists and writers, many of whom are in jail right now for the crime of refusing to conform. They are a constant source of inspiration for me.
In 1999, before I was named a “counterrevolutionary” and forbidden to travel to Cuba, I took a trip to the island. A Cuban writer I know living in Spain had asked me to try to see a political dissident there, with whom he had established a correspondence. All he gave me was a phone number.
From a pay phone in the street in Havana, I called the number and was instructed where and when to meet my contact. In front of my hotel was a line of shiny cars and a group of uniformed drivers, who worked for the government. But none of them had any idea how to get to where I wanted to go. They got in a heated argument over the question and I finally walked away from them. It was the entrepreneurial taxi drivers with the old 1950s cars who knew the city and I happened upon one who agreed to take me to the address. I was a bit worried for him, because, as he explained to me, he was not permitted to carry foreigners. And it was quite clear that I was not a local….I am way too fat to pass for a starving Cuban. Happily, we managed to make it to the destination without being stopped.
We pulled up in front of what I can best describe as a prime example of that major soviet contribution to architecture: a concrete block. With its broken windows, it literally looked like a bombed out building in Sarajevo. I stupidly got in the tiny elevator in the lobby, which promptly began to climb, then stalled and went black. The diminutive elderly Cuban lady with me said nothing. We stood in the heat and darkness for almost ten minutes. I stayed calm by noting that she wasn’t panicking and figuring that this must have been routine. Then just as suddenly as it had stopped, the car lurched, the lights came back on and the ascent continued.
I tell you this to give you a feel for Cuba and to describe the general sense of poverty, entrepreneurial oppression, and hopelessness that characterized Havana in 1999. It was all very grim.
Yet once I entered the apartment of the dissident I was to interview, everything changed. He and his wife met me with smiles and enthusiasm and proceeded to tell me why they were convinced their country was changing. Sewer roaches were walking on the walls but they didn’t seem to notice. I had brought them a plastic bag filled with bars of soap, a rare commodity in Cuba and non-existent for anyone at odds with the regime. They were ecstatic.
Neither one of them had jobs, of course. He seemed terribly thin. But they were brimming with optimism. Their calculation was simple: The economic interests of so many small businesses—like my taxi driver-- together with the church and opposition groups that were circulating information bulletins, were slowly weakening the system. Change will come, he told me, not because the government wants it but because the younger members of the ruling class "know they cannot survive like this."
Four years later in March 2003 that man, along with some 75 others, was arrested in a sudden assault on the dissident community. He is now serving a sentence of more than 15 years. His arrest was part of a brutal crackdown explicitly designed to halt the process he had described to me during my visit. The regime decided it was not going to happen.
It’s estimated that there are some 350 political prisoners in Cuba today. All of them willingly pushed their luck at one time or another, fully aware of the downside risks to which they were exposed. And they are paying dearly for their crimes of dissent.
The Castro regime has not changed its methods of dealing with its critics in the nearly five decades it has been in power. The goal is to force the capitulation, “reeducation” and “rehabilitation” of the non-conformist. Beatings, torture, sleep deprivation, weeks of confinement in punishment cells that have little ventilation and are too small to lie down in, infestations, malnutrition, psychological manipulations and the use of common criminals to terrorize are all designed to break the spirit. Political prisoners are deliberately placed on opposite ends of the island from their families and a large number of them have medical conditions that go untreated.
What amazes me about these heroes is their capacity to resist. Armando Valladares—who spent 22 years as a guest in one of Fidel’s dungeons—revealed some of what inspires the will to resist, despite the suffering, in his memoir Against All Hope when he wrote that as long as he refused to give in, he saw himself as a free man. "They've taken everything away from me -- or almost everything. I still have my smile, the proud sense that I'm a free man, and an eternally flowering garden in my soul."
Amazingly, after being nearly annihilated in March 2003, Cuba’s dissident movement is up and running again, spreading the gospel and recruiting new minds, according to reports from the island. The government is using the fullest extent of its power to try to extinguish that recovery by brutalizing the jailed. For their part, the prisoners have shown that they will not yield. They are an astonishing combination of hope and courage. Let’s not forget them.