One of the preferred tactics of the Cuban government to disprove the dissent of its citizens is to present it as the fruit of an operation concocted by U.S. imperialism and its capitalist cronies in the rest of the world. It is unthinkable that a decent person might exist who would confront the system on their own. Everyone who is opposed obeys orders and receives funding from the empire, lacks ideas, and only deserves to be called a traitor in the service of a foreign power, a vulgar mercenary. That is the official line and anyone who tries to deny it or to qualify it also becomes suspect.

The other parallel tactic that is used to discredit the opposition is to criminalize nonconformist people, to demonstrate that they are not proponents of any political platform, but rather common criminals, people of the worst sort, without ethics or principles. The most eloquent example was what happened in 1980 in the atmosphere of the Mariel boatlift, when President Carter declared his willingness to receive with open arms all Cubans who decided to abandon the island. It was calculated that the number of emigrants could reach such a magnitude that it would be unsustainable to keep on saying that the people supported the revolution.

The Comandante had said, “Let the scum go!” and to show that it was actually only the worst of the population, it was decided to pollute the human river which, from all the provinces of the country, was advancing on the port of Mariel to cross the Straits of Florida. With that intention, the rumor was spread that anyone with a criminal record had priority for getting out.

The release letters that attested to having been imprisoned for any crime were pulled from the dark drawers, where they had remained hidden, to be shown with pride at the offices in charge of the migratory process. Those who could pay bought one of those falsified records which testified to the criminal nature of citizens who, in real life, had never gotten so much as a traffic ticket. It was also said that homosexuals would be among the privileged, unleashing a wave of false transvestism, where entire families were “confessing” to being “raging perverts” so as to get an exit permit.

In a move taken as masterful by his flatterers, the Maximum Leader had the brilliant idea of opening the prisons and practically forcing thousands of inmates to board the vessels chartered by Cuban-Americans who had come to find their families. Finally, Carter lost the bet and had to fold his cards, but Fidel Castro was able to demonstrate to the eyes of the world the repugnant nature of those who didn’t want to live in the socialist paradise.

Like those circus tricks repeated over and over, every time an opponent acquires some notoriety it is attributed to a criminal record or chalked up to sinful behavior. The cases of Orlando Zapata Tamayo and Guillermo Fariñas are the most recent, but they won’t be the last. At the moments when Cuban civil society wakes up from its lethargy, new forms have come to light: there have been the independent librarians and journalists, the Ladies in White, the bloggers. If, thirty years ago, they dared to slander under the epithet “scum” more than a hundred thousand Cubans who left the country, what are they not capable of today against those who are seeking to change it?

Since I don’t have the ability to think like them, I lack the imagination to predict their actions, but I fear that anything is possible. In order to turn the lies they broadcast into truths, they can put Internet into the prisons so that rapists can open a blog, or they can promise conditional release to the worst riffraff on the condition they infiltrate some civic movement. The new river that is emerging does not culminate in migration, but rather in change, and contaminating it, no matter what, has become, for them, an urgent priority.