Psychological violence in Cuba: the long arm of power

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Visual poem by Francis Sánchez

The government of Cuba projects to the world the image that its main raison dêtre originates from the fact that it is a victim of permanent violence at the hands of an almighty enemy, the United States. This image usually provokes sympathy on the international level and provides justifications for arbitrary acts and the lack of rights suffered by Cubans.

However, this international victimization glosses over another situation of violence that has more real and constant manifestations for life on the island, where the population lives in a system dominated by a single party, and at the mercy of a political police force that acts with absolute impunity. This type of submission becomes more visible when acts of public repression occur, but the truth of the matter is that this system’s success is fundamentally based on trying not to reach the point of physical aggression, that is, its goal is to achieve dominance through psychological violence.

Theorists describe “psychological violence” as “an action or omission intended to degrade or control the actions and behaviors of other people, through intimidation, manipulation, threats, direct or indirect, humiliation, isolation or any other types of conduct.” It is characterized by being silent in nature, it does not leave any visible traces, it is expressed through the progressive manipulation of feelings, with threats and coercion that end up inflicting on the victim as much – if not more – damage as an act of physical aggression. It can be divided into vertical and horizontal forms of power, present from the first moment when the bully enjoys a position of power superior to its victim.

Everyone in Cuba experiences vertical violence, regardless of their social status, before a superior and faceless controller that is the State Security apparatus, which conditions the generalized attitudes that allow for double standards, denunciation, self-censorship and pretense. Now, the main objective of this continued harassment are the dissidents, in their different shades: members of the opposition, activists, critical thinkers, journalists and independent artists. Perhaps the most vulnerable group of all is women, since the widely accepted machismo adds an almost infinite capacity for the abusing of political power.

Security agents roam streets and corridors, with the image of arrogant tough guys, thugs. They try to disguise their harassment in simple conversations, even supposed chivalrous acts, while freezing the blood of their victims who fear for themselves and their families.

Belkis, a woman who made the mistake of using the Internet at her workplace to communicate with family members abroad, described the meeting with the agent who “handled” her company: “Without any pretense, he showed the gun on his hip. To scare you even further, they pause in silence in a way that terrifies. He inspected some papers calmly, before speaking again. They like to transmit the feeling that your life belongs to them.”

All excessive power, regardless of the ideology that sustains it, has been – or is – patriarchal and misogynistic. But for even a stronger reason, it is always the type of power that emanates from the use of force, intolerance and lack of dialogue. Therefore, psychological violence, when repeatedly exercised on women – to undermine their self-esteem and to shatter their emotional balance – then presents a clear connotation of gender.

Belkis herself recounted: “He began to endear himself to me in exchange for favors. He told me that if I agreed to go out with him, he would let me use the Internet freely. They are usually disgusting types, who use the impunity they have to intimidate others.” [1]

Such impunity on the part of the repressive agents has a profound impact on their victims who are in a position of extremely inferior power and defenselessness. This is even stronger in the case of women in the opposition, such as the Ladies in White, for committing the crime of disobeying the power of the patriarchy. They are turned into non-people through demonization campaigns, they are isolated, and they and their families have to see for themselves how the whole society can be used against them.

María Matienzo said: “It is not known how many women are part of the Cuban opposition, how many have been expelled from their jobs for ‘not being trustworthy,’ how many think differently and have decided to remain silent or ‘collaborate’ with State Security so as not to ‘harm’ or ‘mark’ your children or your family.”

What is certain is that none of these will appear in the statistics that the Government promotes as part of its campaign against violence against women and girls.”[2] And – we must add – nor will these be added to the statistics of the UN, where the Cuban government tends to position the data that are most agreeable for them.

Unlike other countries in Latin America, where physical violence abounds as a result of imbalances, in Cuba the hard hand of patriarchal power leaves hardly any intimate cracks or public spaces where a coercive will is not present. Slogans such as “the street belongs to the revolutionaries” and “the university is for the revolutionaries,” are painted in red lettering here and there, proclaiming the fact that in those same streets there would not have to be chaotic lynch mobs, where social death has been sufficiently normalized, under forms of absolute intolerance.

The rivers run in frozen silence, instead of blood. In Cuba, social death is a substitute for the physical death, to the extent that patriarchal power allows itself the luxury of psychological violence on such a large scale.

[1] Iván García: “Security of the Cuban State, the Backbone of the Repression” (original only in Spanish) in: https://www.diariolasamericas.com/seguridad-del-estado-cubano-columna-vertebral-la-represion-n3213687

[2] María Matienzo Puerto: “The Accomplices of Violence Against Women in Cuba”(original only in Spanish) in: https://www.cubanet.org/actualidad-destacados/complices-de-la-violencia-contra-la-mujer-en-cuba/