The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner / Regina Coyula

Regina Coyula, 28 September 2015 — Since the words respect and reconciliation are so popular these days — both were mentioned in the announcement of the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States as well as in the recently concluded papal visit and in the agreements to end of the war in Colombia — I would like to share with readers the story of my neighbor, Oscar Casanellas, a researcher at the Institute of Oncology and Radiobiology (INOR), commonly known as the Oncology Hospital.

After graduating with a degree in biology in 2004, Oscar joined the staff of INOR as a researcher in molecular biology. After winning a scholarship, he studied at the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics from 2009 to 2011, becoming a specialist in the use of information technology in the field of immunological research related to cancer.

From 2011 and to the present, Casanellas has also taught courses and lectured at the center and at the Department of Biology at the University of Havana. He also served as executive secretary of the Forum of Science and Technology between 2011 and 2013.

Given all this information, it should be clear that there is no question as to this young man’s level of professional competence. His workplace troubles began in December 2013 after a friend, Ciro Diaz Penedo, came home during the Christmas break from his doctoral studies in Brazil and Oscar threw a party for him. Besides working with numbers, Ciro also belonged to a punk band known as Porno for Ricardo. The “official who overseas” the oncology institute brought this and other equally damaging information to its assistant director, Dr. Lorenzo Anasagasti Angulo.

Dr. Anasagasti carried out the order to isolate and constrain the wayward Oscar. Casanella’s arguments that he had never discussed his political views while at work or committed the sin of using the public health ministry’s email server (Infomed) for personal business were to no avail.

In his zeal Casanella’s boss limited his access to laboratories, excluded him from any projects involving Havana’s Polo Cientifico research center, and banned him from teaching at INOR or acting as a thesis advisor. A bio-information course that the director general of INOR had already approved was cancelled by Anasagasti under the pretext that it had to offered by the Department of Biology. Using veiled or explicit threats, he then “dissuaded” INOR workers from participating in the course.

Dr. Anasagasti’s threats led to strains in the workplace. He tried to prohibit other workers from having any interactions with Casanellas. The pressure was strongest on those closest to him, who are were torn between preserving the friendship or keeping their jobs. Some of them could not handle it and requested transfers out of the institute.

Oscar Casanellas has gone to his union and to the hospital management. He has written letters to the Ministry of Public Health, to the head of the department of the Central Committee which handles such mattes and even to the Cuban president, all without receiving a reply from any of them. When he tried to take legal action by filing a police complaint, the response from the national police force was that, since this was a personal matter, he should take it up with the police chief in his area. Casanellas knows all too well that it is not personal but work-related. Until the visit by the State Security agent, his interactions with Anasagasti were cordial.

This period of professional limbo has gone on for over eighteen months. They do not want to fire him because there is no evidence of poor workplace performance, so their intention is to make conditions so suffocating that he resigns.

Casanellas himself provides the key: “They don’t know me very well. For years I have been preparing myself and have run a lot of long distance races. If there is anything for which I am well-trained, it is endurance.”