The following is based on a speech given by the author, upon receiving the “Juan de Mariana Award for an Exemplary Trajectory in the Defense of Freedom,” Madrid, Spain, April 30, 2010. © Firmas Press.

In 1980, shortly after making a dramatic exit from Cuba, the magnificent writer Reinaldo Arenas collected in a book his more combative articles and essays and titled it The Need for Freedom.

It was a shout. Reinaldo felt the need to be free. Human beings need to be free. He was asphyxiating in Cuba. He lived in sadness, fear and indignation. None of those three emotions is pleasant, and sometimes they twisted in his heart to the point of desperation.

After finding exile, Reinaldo felt profound relief and said something that was both wondrous and painful: for the first time, he had shown his true face. He had “unmasked” himself and felt the warm sensation of being himself, without the fear that such an act might bring him punishment and alienation.

In totalitarian societies, the pain of not being free and moving about in disguise becomes somatic in various ways, from a knot in the throat to a diffuse malaise expressed by assorted neurotic behaviors.

What is freedom? It is the ability we have to make decisions based on our individual beliefs, convictions and interests, without external pressures.

Freedom is choosing the god who best fits our religious perceptions, or choosing no god if we don’t feel the spiritual need to transcend.

Freedom is fearlessly offering our affection and loyalty to the people we love, or to the groups with which we feel a kinship.

Freedom is choosing without interference what we want to study, where and how we wish to live, the ideas that best reflect our vision of the social problems or the ideas that best seem to explain them.

Freedom is selecting the artistic expressions that please us the most, or, conversely, rejecting them without consequences.

Freedom is being able to undertake or renounce an economic activity without reporting to anyone, beyond the formalities established by law.

Freedom is spending our money as we see fit, acquiring the goods that satisfy us and disposing of our legitimate properties. Without freedom, the creation of wealth is weakened to the point of misery.

José Martí, the illustrious journalist who generated Cuba’s independence, contributed another definition: “Freedom is the right of every man to be honest, and to think and speak without hypocrisy.”

Tyrannies deny us the right to be honest when they force us to applaud what we detest or reject what we secretly admire.

When Cubans parade, shouting slogans they don’t believe in, they are not honest. When they applaud the leader they abhor or laugh at the nonsense he spouts, they are not honest.

That simulation creates in us an uncomfortable psychological dissonance. When we sacrifice our honesty, when we renounce our internal consistency to avoid harm or obtain a privilege, we feel “dirty” and internally ashamed. Hypocrisy is a behavior that wounds the person who practices it and repels the person at whom it’s directed.

But there’s more. At some point in the evolutionary process, when human beings abandoned the rule of instinct and began to guide themselves by reason, they discovered the agonizing process of making decisions by constantly shuffling the prevailing moral values, material interests, and psychological impulses.

To make such decisions, it was necessary to become informed. Totalitarian violence tries to prevent people from becoming informed. Why become informed if all the decisions are made by the State and all the truths have already been discovered?

In Cuba, there are numerous police brigades whose task it is to remove parabolic antennas, find satellite phones, confiscate banned books, and deny Internet access to anyone who is minimally independent. I cannot think of a more wretched activity.

When Spanish socialist Fernando de los Ríos asked Lenin when he was going to institute a regime of freedoms in the fledgling Soviet Union, the Bolshevik answered with a question loaded with cynicism: “Freedom for what?”

The answer to that is manifold: freedom to investigate, to generate wealth, to seek happiness, to reaffirm the individual ego in a human tide, all of them tasks that depend on our ability to make decisions.

The history of the West is the history of societies that have progressively expanded the horizons of free people.

Gradually, they took away from the monarchs and the religious and economic oligarchies their exclusive powers to decide in the name of the whole. The poor and the foreigners attained their rights. The same happened with the races considered to be inferior, with the women, with the people who were alienated because of their sexual preferences. Slavery was finally eradicated.

It is possible to narrate the long, historical trek of human beings as the constant adventure of our species in the quest for a gradual increase in the number of people given the right to make their own decisions.

Sometimes, the exercise of that ability assumes heroic proportions. Some weeks ago, Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo decided to die of hunger and thirst to protest against the injustice and abuses of the dictatorship. All he had to defend his dignity as a human being was his life—and he gave it. To him, to his sad memory, with deep emotion, I dedicate these words.