Poet’s Voice Provokes the <i> Lider Maximo</i> : Cuba: A young woman, now in prison, represents ideas and aspirations Castro refuses to acknowledge as legitimate.

<i> Harriet Babbitt, an attorney in Phoenix, is a member of the board of directors of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and chairs its Latin American subcommittee. </i>

In Jules DuBois’ 1959 book “Fidel Castro, Rebel, Liberator, Dictator,” the author asserts confidently that it was Castro’s ideas of freedom and democracy and human decency that inspired Cubans to risk everything to defeat the tyranny of the Batista dictatorship. He quotes from a Feb. 14, 1959, letter that Castro sent him: “Every person in the society of free nations--and even those who are repressed under the heels of dictators--has a right to express his or her opinion.”

Compare that with Castro’s ruthless and repressive treatment of one of the country’s most respected poets, Maria Elena Cruz Varela: She was attacked by a mob, arrested, convicted and incarcerated in a Havana prison for her activities, such as distributing pamphlets, as a founding member of the new dissident group, Alternative Criterion.

Cruz was the author of the group’s “Declaration of Cuban Intellectuals,” an open letter circulated among sympathizers last May, which called for freedom for a broad national debate, direct elections and, ironically, freedom for political prisoners.


Did Castro change from an idealistic revolutionary to the latest in Latin America’s long history of oppressive caudillos? Or was the oppression of alternative views always his modus operandi, one that has intensified Ceaucescu-like as the power of the lider maximo has become absolute? That’s a question best left to the historians and psycho-historians. What is clear is that the potential power of a young, charismatic poet like Maria Elena Cruz Varela must be terrifyingly apparent to Fidel Castro.

Two years ago, Cuba’s Union of Artists and Writers awarded Cruz the Julian del Casal Poetry Prize. Since then, responding to economic chaos and political repression, she and several other intellectuals formed the Alternative Criterion. Last May, they issued the declaration, which calls for a genuine national debate involving all Cuban citizens on the economic and political problems facing their country.

I met with Cruz and others on several occasions in Havana in May. When she approached me to bring the declaration out of Cuba for wider circulation, we both knew that its publication would irrevocably change, and perhaps endanger, her life. At one point, her family asked if I could protect her. I said no, trying hard not to allow myself to imagine the actions from which she might need protection.

Castro’s response was to subject Cruz to repeated acts of repudiation, one of which involved a mob dragging her down four flights of stairs at her apartment, beating her and forcefully stuffing her writings in her mouth--no subtle metaphors for these particular thugs. On Nov. 27, she was tried, convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for holding illegal meetings and defaming state institutions.

Castro’s brutal reaction to the declaration can be understood in part by his historically hard-line approach to anyone who has strayed from the world-according-to-Fidel. In spite of those marvelous assurances penned to Jules DuBois in 1959, Castro has rarely tolerated dissent, even during his early days as the leader of a band of youthful revolutionaries.

As a Cuban on the island that reveres a 19th-Century poet as its patron (Jose Marti is the only literary or political figure allowed to compete with Castro for space in the national pantheon), Castro understands the power of poetry. As someone who won a revolution on the basis of his personal charismatic use of language, Castro understands the power of the spoken word. As a 64-year-old leader of a crumbling political experiment, he is beginning to understand the threat of a young, articulate woman, potentially a symbol for all Cubans whose ideas and aspirations he refuses to acknowledge as legitimate.


In the face of plummeting economic fortunes, Castro has proposed “option zero,” in effect a return of Cuba to the 19th Century economically; farmers, for instance, are now expected to depend on oxen rather than tractors to till the fields. His preference also appears to be a return to a 19th-Century caudillo’s control over people with political opinions: They are tolerated only if they are his ideological water carriers.

Maria Elena Cruz Varela is nobody’s water carrier. That this talented poet and patriotic Cuban is in prison for, in the words of Castro himself, exercising “her right to express her opinion” is an affront to every person in the society of free nations. It is also the ultimate evidence of Fidel Castro’s political and moral deceit.