Friday, September 23, 2011

Cuba's opposition tries to plot fresh course

Posted on Friday, 09.23.11

Cuba's opposition tries to plot fresh course
Associated Press

HAVANA -- When dozens of Cuban intellectuals and commentators were
jailed in a notorious crackdown on dissent, their wives united in 2003
to form the Ladies in White, a dissident group focused on a simple,
compelling goal: Freedom for their loved ones.

Every week since then, the Ladies have marched through a leafy Havana
neighborhood after Sunday Mass, wearing white and holding up gladiolas.
They have been met, on some occasions, by rowdy pro-government crowds
shouting caustic insults.

The ground shifted under the Ladies and the broader Cuban dissident
movement when a deal between President Raul Castro and the Roman
Catholic Church freed the last of their husbands this year and sent many
into exile in Spain. It cleared Cuban jails of peaceful political
detainees designated by Amnesty International as "prisoners of conscience."

It was the Ladies' greatest victory, but it also robbed them of their
founding cause and removed many of the opposition's most important
voices from the island.

Now, the Ladies and the rest of the island's dissident community stand
at a crossroads, as they struggle to redefine themselves and connect
with a public that has never appeared particularly receptive to their

In interviews with The Associated Press, opposition leaders acknowledged
the obstacles, but said they intend to keep pressing for greater
freedom, and are even raising the stakes by expanding their activities
outside the capital.

"We will not stop," said Elizardo Sanchez, a human rights leader and de
facto opposition spokesman. "At the end of the day, each one of us is
defending our rights."

The small, fractured Cuban opposition has been unable to duplicate the
popular uprisings rocking the Arab world, or even the street protests
jolting developed countries such as Greece, Spain, and Britain. And
while political freedom may still be lacking in Communist Cuba, which
has been ruled by one Castro or another for more than 50 years, the
government has undercut the opposition movement by allowing increased
economic opportunities and promising more reforms.

"The opposition finds itself in a process of redefinition, and frankly
it has been a chaotic process but not a failed one. What they lack is a
model, an overarching program," said Manuel Cuesta, a historian and
longtime opposition activist. "The opposition has a challenge, not only
to have a plan for the country, but to connect with the people."

Cuesta said some opposition leaders have started to refocus on a
political plan. Oswaldo Paya for one issued a manifesto in July calling
for a national dialogue and a multiparty political system.

"It is a conspiracy to say the dissidents don't have a plan," Paya told
the AP. "We do."

But whether their message will resonate with ordinary Cubans is another

While people on nearly any street corner will admit they're unhappy with
everything from the lack of housing to the government, few speak of the
dissidents as a viable alternative.

"I don't think that there could be an Arab Spring in Cuba," said Ricardo
Gonzalez, one of the political prisoners freed in 2010 after he accepted
the government's deal to go into exile in Spain along with his family.
"Every region and every country is different."

Even the United States has expressed frustration with Cuba's opposition,
which it has long sought to bolster. A U.S. diplomatic cable from April
2009 revealed by the group WikiLeaks described the Cuban opposition as
old, riven by petty rivalries and hopelessly out of touch.

The opposition can also point to few concrete successes in changing
government behavior, although the freed dissidents credited their wives
with helping push for their release.

An informal survey by the AP this week of 30 Cubans in the capital found
that only five, or 17 percent, could identify Ladies in White founder
Laura Pollan. Faring little better was Guillermo Farinas, who spent 134
days on a hunger strike last year that garnered international media
attention and won him Europe's most prestigious human rights prize. Only
nine Cubans asked said they knew who he was.

Three people surveyed knew the name of Yoani Sanchez, who has gained a
following for her searing blog about life on the island and is perhaps
the best known opposition figure outside Cuba.

Elizardo Sanchez, who is unrelated to Yoani, acknowledged the movement
remains marginalized and unknown to most Cubans, a fact he blames on the
state. Cuban authorities exert a tight grip on the media, and while some
form of Internet access is theoretically possible, most Cubans cannot
afford it.

"The government controls all the newspapers, all the radio stations and
all television, and it has an enormous ability to control society,"
Sanchez said. "When we try to establish a connection with the people,
the electrician comes, that is to say the government, and cuts the wires."

In recent weeks, the Ladies in White have focused their protests on the
eastern part of the country, including Cuba's second largest city,
Santiago, prompting confrontations and dozens of short-term detentions.

Sanchez said there were 2,221 short-term detentions in the first eight
months of 2011, nearly double the same period in 2010. The numbers were
impossible to independently verify, and the government had no comment.
State-run media has routinely accused the dissidents of exaggerating
about action taken against them.

A report on state website Cubadebate this month noted that several names
on Sanchez's list of detained dissidents in fact belonged to Bolivian
and Peruvian sports personalities, as well as an 18th century painter.
Sanchez acknowledged the mistakes, but said his people were tricked by
security agents posing as members of the opposition. The government
considers all dissidents to be mercenaries paid by Washington to stir up

Sanchez says the opposition has moved east in search of what could be a
more receptive audience, due to worse economic conditions than in the
capital. He likened the discontent there to dry grass waiting for a spark.

The next flare-up could come Saturday, when Catholics honor the Virgin
of Mercedes, the patron saint of prisoners, which has traditionally been
a day of protest in Cuba. The dissidents say they will march.

Already, pro-government blogs have denounced the planned demonstrations.
One, Cambios en Cuba, called on pro-government youth to confront the
Ladies, whom it calls the "the tip of the spear for invasions and
massacres" orchestrated by the U.S.

As the Ladies have stepped up their activities in recent weeks, they
have focused their message on a demand that about 50 other prisoners be
freed. Most of these lesser-known detainees were arrested for
politically motivated but violent crimes like sabotage and hijacking,
which disqualifies them from consideration by Amnesty as "prisoners of

Pollan, the Ladies' founder, told the AP that the group will keep
marching until every prisoner is free.

"As long as this government is around there will be prisoners," she
said. "Because while they've let some go, they've put others in jail. It
is a never-ending story."


Associated Press writers Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana and Jorge Sainz in
Madrid contributed to this report.

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