Two men, 7,400 miles apart, each recently behind bars. One is a longtime dissident. The other is — or was — an apolitical man who happened to be a convenient target for a regime that likes to take hostages.
Neither knows of the other. They are indissolubly linked.
The first man, Josť Daniel Ferrer, is founder of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, the largest dissident organization on the island. In 2003 he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for demanding democracy, civil liberties and amnesty. He served eight years in conditions he described as a series of “constant terrors.”
Unbowed, he returned to his political work. On Oct. 1, he and several other activists were arrested by Cuban security agents. For weeks, his whereabouts were unknown. After his wife was finally allowed a five-minute visit, she reported signs of torture.
Last week, Granma, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, accused the U.S. Embassy in Havana of “orienting and financing the conduct of Josť Daniel Ferrer, in a clear demonstration of interference in Cuba’s internal affairs and open instigation to violence.” An associate of Ferrer told me he has endured a dramatic physical deterioration and that there are fears for his life.
The second man is a Tehran, Iran-based graphic designer named Ali Alinejad. “On Sept. 24, about seven agents from the intelligence unit of the Revolutionary Guards stormed his home and took him away in blindfold and handcuffs and confiscated his mobile phone and laptop,” his sister, Masih Alinejad, told me recently. “This was done in front of his 11-year old daughter.”
He is now being held without charges in Ward 2A of Evin Prison, where the Islamic Republic isolates, interrogates, torments and sometimes tortures its political prisoners.
He was seized in order to intimidate his sister, a muckraking Iranian journalist who now lives in the U.S. In 2014 she started the online movement My Stealthy Freedom, through which Iranian women posted images of themselves without hijab. It helped inspire some of the most extraordinary acts of courage seen anywhere in years; women prepared to risk imprisonment, and worse, in defiance of the brutal misogyny that defines the Islamic Republic.
In July, Iran’s Revolutionary Court declared the journalist the equivalent of a “hostile government” for her work. In August, six women were sentenced to a combined 109 years in prison for sharing videos connected to her campaign.
And then Iran erupted last month in the largest mass demonstrations since the 2009 Green Movement. The regime is making a point of blaming its troubles on women.
Alinejad offers a telling analogy. “Once the Berlin Wall fell, Communism was finished. Once this wall of black cloth is removed, the Islamic Republic and its discredited political ideology will be gone.”
That’s easier said than done. From Havana to Tehran (and Caracas, Venezuela, to Pyongyang, North Korea), tyrannies have been able to survive decades of isolation and self-inflicted catastrophe with an adroit mix of ideology, corruption, an exit option for the discontented, and ferocious repression of those demanding change.
It also helps that both regimes have prominent apologists abroad along with the much greater number of people who are simply indifferent to what they do.
As for the U.S., championing dissidents once played a unifying role in a bipartisan foreign policy. Donald Trump’s reluctant but correct decision last week to sign a bill to support Hong Kong’s protesters suggests the tradition isn’t dead. Dissidents deserve that support not just because of who they are, or what they have suffered, or the cause they embody. It’s also because they are, potentially, our most potent weapon in undermining our enemies.
Thank Ferrer, the Alinejads and everyone else lighting lanterns of liberty in the world’s dark corners.
Stephens writes for The New York Times.