CubaBrief: 72 years of struggle against dictatorship, remembering those still jailed, and two leaders who passed in 2023

This CubaBrief establishes a new custom, a year-end column devoted to acknowledging meaningful Cuban political leaders who passed away during the year, and those currently imprisoned in Cuba for nonviolently exercising their rights.

Cuba has been under dictatorship for 72 years. Seven years under Fulgencio Batista (1952- 1959) and 65 years under the Castro brothers (1959 – present) who claimed to be liberators but created a more brutal totalitarian dictatorship. .

2023 has been a terrible year for Cubans. Over 1,000 Cuban political prisoners continue to rot in the Castro dictatorship’s dungeons.

Two of them are father and daughter human rights defenders.

On March 2, 2022 the Cuban dictatorship confirmed the prison sentences against two Cuban human rights defenders. Félix Navarro Rodríguez, ( age 68 ), condemned to 9 years in prison. His daughter, Sayli Navarro (age 35), was condemned to eight years in prison. Both are long time human rights defenders who have reported on systematic human rights violations in Cuba. They were detained after visiting a police station to learn more about the situation of the nonviolent demonstrators who had been imprisoned during the July 11, 2021 protests in Cuba.

​ Daughter and father jailed for their defense of human rights.

Felix Navarro is a member of the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR) board of directors. He has been arbitrarily jailed since July 12, 2021.  Sayli Navarro became a Lady in White, together with her mom. campaigning for her dad’s release following his arrest in 2003.

Sayli was also detained on July 12th, but was released hours later, and had been staying with her mother, who is in poor health. She has also spoken out against her father’s arbitrary imprisonment. Sayli was taken, with her hands and feet chained, to prison on April 18, 2022. On March 18, 2023, a recording was released of Sayli stating that state security is pressuring her to go into exile in order to get out of prison, and that she rejected their offer.

Cuban diaspora thought leaders Carlos Alberto Montaner and Rosa Leonor Whitmarsh y Dueñas passed away in 2023. Their loss is deeply felt, and their lives are highlighted below.

​ Carlos Alberto Montaner April 3, 1943 – June 30, 2023

Carlos Alberto Montaner passed away on June 30th at 80. He was not just a Cuban political figure; he was also an author, journalist, and intellectual with an international reach. Jay Nordlinger in National Review wrote a column celebrating his life on July 14h.

Montaner spent his exile largely in Spain. He wished for Cuba the kind of transition that Spain saw, after Franco — a transition to democracy. He joined the Liberal Club of Madrid. He became a vice president of Liberal International. He favored a free economy, a free society — freedom in general. In 2011, he said the following to the George W. Bush Presidential Center: “There is a secret family of victims of totalitarianism, which can be the families in Burma or the victims in North Korea or in Iran or in Cuba. We feel a special bond with them because we belong to the same family.”

The chairman of the Center for a Free Cuba, Guillermo Marmol, in a statement released by the Center on June 30th observed: “Carlos Alberto Montaner served for many years on the Center’s research council where he made significant contributions to the Center’s policies, publications, and research. We are confident that it will not be long before the extent, significance, and importance of Carlos Alberto Montaner’s life is fully known in Cuba itself.”

Rosa Leonor Whitmarsh y Dueñas May 9, 1930 – October 18, 2023

Rosa Leonor Whitmarsh y Dueñas passed away in October at 93. She was a teacher, lecturer, essayist, and historian. She taught at Vassar College, University of Anahuac, Tarbut Hebrew School in Mexico, Miami Dade College, the Miami Dade Public School System as well as in private academic institutions. Rosa Leonor was a founding member of the Centre for Human Rights of the Christian Democratic Movement of the Mexican delegation in Exile. She organized Christian Democratic Training Seminars (1960-1970) that included the Social Christian Doctrine.

She was the great-granddaughter of Cuban independence general Calixto Garcia Iñiguez. Calixto Garcia. Her great-grandfather, beginning at age 18, fought in the 10 Years’ War (1868-1878), the Little War (1878) and the Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898). He fought in all the insurrections against Spanish colonial rule in Cuba over thirty years becoming a general, before succumbing to pneumonia while on a diplomatic mission to Washington DC on December 11, 1898. Like her great grandfather Rosa Leonor was steadfast in her opposition to the Castro dictatorship, but hers was a non-violent struggle in the realm of culture, history, and education.

Rosa Leonor Whitmarsh y Dueñas participated in the panel discussion “Recovering Cuba’s human rights legacy” on December 10, 2022, with Yoel Suárez and Carolina Barrero. She sent an important message to both current and future generations in her presentation.

The executive director of the Center, John Suarez, noted in a statement that the organization had released “It was an honor to have known her, and learned from this woman of letters. The passing of Rosa Leonor Whitmarsh y Dueñas is a great loss for Cubans on the island and around the world who benefited from her tireless efforts to defend human rights, and preserve the memory of the Cuban Republic.”

They have passed, but their legacy lives on, and their arguments continue to expose the dictatorship in Cuba and serve the cause of freedom.

For example, Havana continues to call the United States economic embargo on Cuba a “blockade.” This is not true as the State Department (and U.S. – Cuba trade statistics over the past 20 years) demonstrate.

However, a meme that appeared on social media in Spanish that more effectively explained this reality,highlighted by Carlos Alberto Montaner in a commentary he delivered on July 15, 2021 on the blockade not prohibiting a series of economic measures that are proscribed by the Cuban government. Below is a translation to English of the above mentioned meme.

“The blockade does not prohibit fishermen in Cuba from fishing, the dictatorship does;
The blockade does not confiscate what farmers harvest, the dictatorship does;

The blockade does not prohibit Cubans on the island from doing business freely, the dictatorship does;
The blockade did not destroy every sugar mill, textile factory, shoe store, canning factory, the dictatorship did;

The blockade is not responsible for Cubans being paid with worthless pesos and stores sell you products with American dollars; the dictatorship is;

The blockade is not responsible that Cubans are beaten and imprisoned for thinking differently, the dictatorship is;

The blockade is not responsible that there are hundreds of Cuban political prisoners who have not committed any crime, the dictatorship is;

The blockade is not responsible for sending Cubans US dollars that they give to you in worthless pesos in the Western Union, the dictatorship is;

The blockade is not responsible for the dictatorship building hotels and the roofs that fall on Cubans’ heads, the dictatorship is;

The blockade is not responsible for hospitals in Cuba that are disgusting, the dictatorship is;

The blockade is not responsible for not having water in homes, for not maintaining the aqueduct system, the dictatorship is;”

What the meme and Carlos Alberto reveal is that there is an “internal blockade” on Cubans imposed by the Castro dictatorship. Remittances continue to flood Cuba from the exile community in South Florida, but now in Euros due to new restrictions imposed by the Castro regime on June 21, 2021.

Carlos Alberto Montaner contributed an article to The New York Times published on October 13, 2014 in which he made the case against normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba. He Tweeted it out one week after President Obama announced the normalization of relations with Cuba.

Time proved him right.

Notes from the Cuban Exile Quarter, December 31, 2023

72 Years of Dictatorship in Cuba: 65 Years of the Castros and 7 Years of Batista

 From bad (authoritarian dictatorship) to worse (totalitarian dictatorship)

#TheyAreContinuity #SonContinuidad

Cuba has been under a dictatorship for 72 years. On March 10, 1952, Fulgencio Batista brought an end to Cuban democracy. Carlos Prio, the last democratic president, and his first lady were forced into exile. An increasingly unpopular authoritarian and corrupt regime ruled Cuba for the following seven years. 

The hope for the restoration of democratic governance came to an end when Batista refused to cede power nonviolently through a dialogue process, opening a path for Fidel and Raul Castro to take it by force. Although they had repeatedly pledged to restore the 1940 Constitution, and Cuban democracy they imposed a communist dictatorship.

Cuba’s official motto was changed from Homeland and Liberty (Patria y Libertad) to Homeland or Death, We Shall Triumph (¡Patria o Muerte, Venceremos!).

Presidents of Cuba from 1902 to 1952 and dictator Batista

Fulgencio Batista, the authoritarian dictator, fled Cuba early on January 1, 1959, thanks to the conspiracies of the Communist InternationalThe New York Times pro-Castro propaganda, an arms embargo imposed on him by the United States in March 1958, and pressure for him to go from the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba in December 1958.

Since the beginning of their struggle on July 26, 1953, the Castro brothers promised a democratic restoration, but all along planned a Marxist-Leninist takeover. They imposed a totalitarian communist dictatorship, killing tens of thousands of Cubans. The Castro regime systematically denied human rights to all Cubans while exporting their repressive model to Africa and Latin America, creating misery for millions more.

The communist regime has re-written the history of Cuba, creating myths to justify its tyranny. The reality is that between 1902 and 1952, there existed a system that oversaw rising living standards for five decades and had been on the cutting edge of human rights

The Marxist-Leninist dictatorship in Cuba declared war on human rights at home and abroad to the present day.

From 1959 till now, generations of Cubans have resisted this communist regime.

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans risked everything in July 2021, taking to the streets in nonviolent protests demanding an end to the dictatorship. The Castro regime responded by firing on unarmed protesters, imprisoning over a thousand, and condemning many of them to 20 and 30 year prison sentences for exercising their right to peaceful assembly.

Remembering this sad past, we resolve to work even harder to bring democracy back to Cuba, replacing Homeland or Death (¡Patria o Muerte!) with Homeland, Life, and Liberty (Patria, Vida y Libertad). 

Please take two actions: 1) sign this appeal for an end to repression in Cuba and release of all Cuban political prisoners and 2) sign this petition to expel Cuba from the UN Human Rights Council

Both petitions are addressed to members of the international community.

Wishing you all a happy new year in 2024, and through the continuing work and struggle for a free Cuba may freedom be restored that will finally fulfill Cuban exiles’ goal of “this year in Havana!”

National Review, July 14, 2023 6:30 AM


A pen for humanity, &c.

By Jay Nordlinger

On Carlos Alberto Montaner, Milan Kundera, and more

  • Carlos Alberto Montaner had to be a Cuban writer in exile, but he was a Cuban writer to the core — always letting readers know about the torments of his island, always defending the right of Cubans to live in freedom and democracy. At the same time, he wanted this for everybody. His values, he regarded as human and universal. Montaner has died at 80.

Let me quote from the obituary in the Wall Street Journal written by my friend José de Córdoba:

In Havana, independent journalist Yoani Sánchez, who publishes the website 14ymedio, recalled how Montaner’s books, banned in Cuba, were passed secretly from hand to hand by dissident writers, as were videotapes of his television conferences. “Cultured, calm, without histrionics and with his prodigious verbal skills, Carlos Alberto Montaner practiced an art that had been lost in national political life: to debate with respect and with arguments,” Sánchez wrote.

Let me quote a little more from José’s obit:

In the hothouse world of Cuban exile society and politics, known for its sometimes violent rhetoric and extreme views loudly expressed, Montaner stood out for the equanimity of his voice and for his trenchant analysis.

“Carlos Alberto created a space to analyze and discuss Cuba in a rational and calm manner,” said Pedro Freyre, a Miami-based lawyer active in Cuban affairs. “He was an example of moderation, intelligence and cordiality.”

He was feared by the Castro regime as perhaps its most dangerous intellectual adversary.

Oh, yes.

Bear in mind what Yoani Sánchez and Pedro Freyre have said about Montaner’s manner — because another obit leaves the impression that he was extreme and coarse. I will address this further on.

Carlos Alberto Montaner Suris was born on April 3, 1943, meaning that he was 15 when Castro’s revolution triumphed — on New Year’s Day 1959. Like many Cubans, he welcomed Castro’s triumph, happy to be rid of the dictatorship. And like many Cubans, he quickly turned against Castro, realizing that Cubans were faced with another dictatorship.

He joined an anti-Castro rebel group. He was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He managed to escape from a detention camp. He fled to the Honduran embassy, where he was afforded refuge. Then, on September 8, 1961, he was able to go to Miami.

“I sang the national anthem,” Montaner recalled many years later, “and was sure that I would quickly return to a free Cuba.”

The young man had experienced something like a lifetime of drama and dislocation while he was still 18.

Montaner spent his exile largely in Spain. He wished for Cuba the kind of transition that Spain saw, after Franco — a transition to democracy. He joined the Liberal Club of Madrid. He became a vice president of Liberal International. He favored a free economy, a free society — freedom in general.

In 2011, he said the following to the George W. Bush Presidential Center: “There is a secret family of victims of totalitarianism, which can be the families in Burma or the victims in North Korea or in Iran or in Cuba. We feel a special bond with them because we belong to the same family.”

The obituary of Montaner in the Washington Post ends as follows:

In 2014, an interviewer in Cuba asked Mr. Montaner by phone if he would like to return to Cuba.

“Yes, I would,” he said. “I am nothing other than Cuban.”

“Do you think that will be possible?” the interviewer asked about a visit to Havana.

“No,” he said. “I think I will die without returning to Cuba.”

I am glad to have the information supplied in the Post obit. But I would like to spend a moment on the tone of that obit. In its first sentence, the obit says that Montaner was “a fierce opponent of the island’s communist ruler.”

Yes, I suppose Montaner was a “fierce” opponent of Fidel Castro. A fierce opponent of dictatorship, of totalitarianism. What is an un-fierce one? Someone who objects to dictatorship only mildly?

The first sentence also says that Montaner was “a polarizing figure across Latin America with harsh critiques of politics and culture.”

He was polarizing, I suppose. Dictatorships have detractors and defenders, both. Anyone who takes a stand will “polarize,” you could say. And “harsh critiques”? I would say those critiques were truthful.

Let me ask: Were critiques of apartheid South Africa harsh? They were, and rightly.

The Post’s obit says, “Nearly all Mr. Montaner’s works blasted Cuba’s regime and predicted its demise.” “Blasted”? Okay. I suppose I blast dictatorships in Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, North Korea, and elsewhere every day.

Another sentence: “He often struck a hectoring tone that resonated with hard-line Cuban exiles but drew criticism from others as stuck in Cold War-era simplicity.”

“A hectoring tone.” It’s as though Montaner had scolded neighbors for playing their music too loud. “Cold War-era simplicity.” Would that be the conviction that one-party police states are bad and democracies good?

Let me ask again: Were critics of apartheid South Africa hectoring? Also, were they stuck in simplicity? Equal rights and all that kindergarten stuff?

“In 1999’s ‘Viaje al Corazón de Cuba,’” the Post’s obit says, “Mr. Montaner tried to delve into the mind of his arch-nemesis. Castro is portrayed as a narcissistic overlord who cares for nothing but power.”

Sounds like an accurate portrayal to me. But focus on “arch-nemesis.” That sounds like something out of a comic book — unserious. Castro spent a career imprisoning, torturing, and killing his opponents. He caused millions to seek exile. His forces often shot people in the water as they tried to escape, on rafts and anything else that would float.


Was Stalin the “arch-nemesis” of Anna Akhmatova? Hell, was Hitler the “arch-nemesis” of the White Rose? Would anyone ever put it that way?

The Post quotes a review of Viaje al corazón de Cuba (“Journey to the Heart of Cuba”): “Montaner’s unequivocal approval of capitalism . . . his categorical attack on communism (undifferentiated from Castroism) and his failure to acknowledge his own justifiable subjectivity call into question his overall perspicacity and reliability.”

There are many things to say about this passage. I will say only this: It would be interesting to hear the writer try to differentiate between communism and “Castroism.”

Enough — except to say, God bless Carlos Alberto Montaner. And viva Cuba libre.

New York Times, October 13, 2014

Cuba Doesn’t Deserve Normal Diplomatic Relations

By Carlos Alberto Montaner

Carlos Alberto Montaner is a Cuban-born author, journalist and syndicated columnist. His work appears in The Miami Herald and other publications throughout Latin America, the United States and Spain. His latest novel is “Tiempo de Canallas.” He is on Twitter.

The United States should not normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba for several reasons.

First, the Cuban government has been officially declared “a state sponsor of terrorism” by the State Department. It’s inconceivable to oppose the terrorists in the Middle East while treating them normally in the United States’ neighborhood.

There’s also a bipartisan consensus in Washington against the Castro regime. All three Cuban-American senators and four Cuban-American representatives, Democrats and Republican, agree that sanctions should be maintained. They are the best interpreters of the opinion of the almost three million Cubans and descendants of Cubans living in the United States.

Cuba systematically engages in undermining the interests of the United States. It is an ally of Iran, North Korea (to whom it furnishes war matériel), Russia, Syria, the FARC terrorists in Colombia and Venezuela. The F.B.I. recently warned that Cuban intelligence is trying to recruit people in the academic world as agents of influence. It once infiltrated them into the Pentagon and the State Department; today, they are in prison.

The Cuba dictatorship continues to violate human rights and shows no intention to make amends. The small economic changes it has made are directed at strengthening the regime. Why reward that behavior? During the entire 20th century, the U.S. was (rightfully) reproached for maintaining normal relations with right-wing dictatorships. For the first time, the U.S. maintains a morally consistent position in Latin America and should not sacrifice it.

A reversal of policy would be a cruel blow against the Cuban democrats and dissidents who view the United States as their only dependable ally in the world. Normalizing relations would be the proof needed by the Stalinists in the Cuban government to demonstrate that they don’t have to make any political changes to be accepted. Not to mention a premature reconciliation without substantial changes would also be a harsh blow to the reformists in the Cuban government who are pressuring toward a democratic opening.