U.S. outreach to Cuba opens fissures among dissidents
By Karen DeYoung February 2 at 7:56 PM
HAVANA — President Obama’s outreach to Cuba, intended to open doors for
human rights and political activists here, has also opened divisions
within the island’s small, tight-knit dissident community.
While many here see opportunity in restored diplomatic ties and expanded
U.S. trade and travel to Cuba, others charge betrayal.
Their disagreements mirror those in the United States. Critics, led by
Cuban American lawmakers, charge that Obama has sold an end to five
decades of estrangement with Cuba too cheaply. But the new policy has
garnered bipartisan support from many in Congress, as well as from a
wide range of U.S. business and human rights leaders.
As State Department officials met with their Cuban counterparts here
late last month, activist leaders held competing news conferences. The
Cuban Patriotic Union, or UNPACU, the island’s largest dissident
organization, posted man-on-the-street interviews on YouTube.
“I think it’s positive,” said one man who, like the others, was
unidentified. “The United States above all governments in the world can
help alleviate the misery we have here. .?.?. I like President Obama. I
think he’s a good guy.”
A woman in a pink sundress said no one here would benefit. “What’s going
to survive is the [Cuban] government. We’re not going to see any change.”
Despite ongoing arrests and sharply limited freedom of expression and
assembly, Cuba’s repressive system has lightened up somewhat in recent
years. Cellphones and the Internet, though restricted and primitive,
have nonetheless given dissidents new ways to communicate with each
other and the world.
While dozens are still serving lengthy prison sentences imposed in
decades past, the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and
National Reconciliation recorded 178 political detentions in January,
virtually all of them lasting a few hours or days before release, the
lowest level in years.
A decade ago, “10 people in the street” was a major demonstration, said
Commission head Elizardo Sánchez, 69, “Now there are thousands of us.”
José Daniel Ferrer, 44, the executive secretary of UNPACU, thinks that
the opening is good news for dissidents — provided the United States
keeps up its human rights pressure.
Some of his organization’s 5,000 members have doubts, he said. But “only
200 to 300 are thinking of leaving” the group to protest its approval of
the U.S.-Cuba agreement.
One of them may be Felix Navarro Rodriguez, a farmer and teacher in his
late 50s from Matanzas province in central Cuba.
Since the Dec. 17 announcement of a move to normalize U.S.-Cuba
relations, which came after 18 months of secret talks, “only one side
has benefited — the government of Cuba,” said Navarro, who like Ferrer
was arrested during Cuba’s “Black Spring” of 2003 and held until 2011.
“What’s no secret is that the jails here are still full,” he said. “The
United States has turned its back on these people.”
Beyond the in-your-face demonstrations of UNPACU, whose members march
and distribute manifestos openly on the street, there are activist
organizations here that eschew confrontation.
The founders of Cuba Posible, a Catholic Church offshoot, consider
themselves facilitators. They publish a magazine and hold “dialogues”
between the government and its critics over big issues such as
constitutional and economic reform.
Although the government of President Raúl Castro does not endorse the
effort, it has begun to tolerate some criticism and calls for change, as
long as they do not challenge basic Communist Party control.
Many university professors, economists and other professionals —
virtually all of whom work for the government — are privately disdainful
of Cuba’s frozen political and economic systems. But few risk acting on
Educated young people chafe at the limited Internet and the lack of
consumer goods, scoffing at the government’s insistence that the U.S.
embargo is responsible. But political activism for many hardly seems
worth the trouble in what remains a closed system.
Ferrer has his own theory to explain a relative lack of active political
dissent over the past 50 years — the same “learned helplessness” that
CIA interrogators tried to engender in terrorism suspects with extended
isolation and harsh treatment.
Restrictions on civil and political liberties here have been so tight,
and the internal security system so pervasive for so long, he said, that
many Cubans have lacked the motivation to speak out and “don’t see an exit.”
“We were all born into this system,” Ferrer said.
For some, the only exit has been to leave. Since the normalization
announcement, and rising fears that special U.S. treatment of Cuban
exiles will dissolve, there have been spikes in the number of Cubans
leaving the island, along with those who gain permission to travel
abroad and never return.
Antonio Rodiles, 44, is one who did come back. After studies in Mexico
and the United States, he returned to Cuba in 2010 to campaign for Cuban
ratification of international conventions on civil and political rights,
and he founded State of SATS (the term is a Scandinavian theater
reference). The organization hosts interviews and panel discussions
among dissidents, intellectuals and cultural figures that are posted
online, along with news and articles written by Rodiles and others.
Although most Cubans have no Internet access, material is distributed
via downloads from laptops, flash drives and connecting cables that
Cubans string from house to house.
In late 2012, Rodiles was roughed up and arrested by state security
personnel when he went to their headquarters to inquire about a detained
colleague. He was released after 19 days.
Like Navarro, he is scornful of the secret negotiations, about which
activists here and Cuban exiles abroad were neither consulted nor
informed. The Obama administration, Rodiles wrote after the
announcement, clearly considers Cuba’s activists “incapable of assuming
our own political responsibilities, anchored in the past and wishing
that foreign governments would come and make the necessary changes.”
Sense of hope
Yoani Sánchez, 39, also came back, returning from Switzerland to become
Cuba’s best-known blogger on political issues and human rights, at least
among overseas readers. Most of what she produces is often blocked here.
Her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, is one of a number of activists who have
been briefly detained since the Dec. 17 announcement.
But Sánchez sees promise in the new relationship with the United States.
“What I’ve perceived on the streets is a sense of hope in a country that
had lost it. There are people who think this will bring Internet, or
economic improvements,” she said. “Everyone has their own hopes. It’s
been positive, but there’s still much, much more to be done.”
Sánchez describes the activist community as pluralistic, rather than
divided. “Within the Cuban government, there are lots of people who
don’t agree with each other, too. But they can’t say so openly.”
Some activists welcome criticism from American lawmakers such as Sen.
Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who will chair a congressional hearing on the
issue Tuesday. But others dismiss U.S. opponents as self-serving and out
of touch with Cuban reality.
“I think that to the extent they try to stimulate the opposition here,
they’re endangering the Cuban people,” said Miriam Leiva, an activist
and independent journalist whose articles are published on U.S.-based
Web sites. “The people who know what’s going on here are the people who
Leiva worked for the Foreign Ministry until 1992, when she was fired,
she said, for “expressing my ideas.” She helped found the Ladies in
White movement among families of political detainees when her husband,
government economist and diplomat turned dissident Oscar Espinosa Chepe,
was arrested during the Black Spring. He was released 19 months later
for health reasons, and he died in 2013.
Leiva still supports the Ladies in White, although she disagrees with
its current leader, Berta Soler, who has criticized the opening with the
United States and has refused to meet with U.S. officials here.
“Not everybody here agrees with everything,” Leiva said. “The reality is
that so far the situation in Cuba hasn’t changed. There is great
repression and tension. But, yes, there is hope.”
A continuing fight
Ferrer, the UNPACU leader, began dissent early, listening to shortwave
broadcasts from the BBC and Voice of America as a child in rural
Santiago province on Cuba’s southern shore. That led to making tape
recordings of broadcasts, spreading the word with an old typewriter and
carbon paper, attending and organizing protests, and finally his 2003
“Everybody has their own story,” he said of Cuba’s dissidents. “Some are
looking for an escape route, principally to the United States. Others
have wanted to look for liberty inside Cuba. But the majority opted not
to confront” the powers that be.
Ferrer said he and others are trying to temper Cubans’ enthusiasm about
the opening with the United States — reminding them that it is not the
end of their problems.
“Lots of Cubans are very excited and think their problems are going to
go away,” he said. “We’re telling them, you might get another slice of
bread, but if you don’t fight for your rights, it’s going to have a
The U.S. government, Ferrer said, has a role to play by continuing to
show solidarity with the dissidents. And when the tourists start to
come, “tell them to bring printers and ink cartridges. .?.?. Bring a DVD
with the latest truthful news about Cuba and give it to the first Cuban
you see. That’s a way to help.”
Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security
correspondent for the Washington Post.
Source: U.S. outreach to Cuba opens fissures among dissidents – The
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