Cuba dissident movement suffers blow with leaders' deaths
Two of the country's top government critics have died nine months apart,
leaving a depleted opposition that was already being eclipsed by a new
By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
July 29, 2012
MEXICO CITY — The abrupt deaths of two ofCuba'stop dissidents barely
nine months apart represent a demoralizing blow to a movement already
weakened by time and government-sponsored harassment.
Democracy activist Oswaldo Paya was killed July 22 when the driver of
his car lost control while speeding and hit an unpaved patch of roadway
in eastern Cuba, authorities said. The government identified the driver
as a Spaniard, who was hurt along with a Swede also in the car. Another
dissident traveling with the group was also killed.
Paya, 60, was one of the most respected dissidents in Cuba, a devout
Roman Catholic who spent decades criticizing the Castro governments and
urging peaceful democratic change. Although the opposition movement in
Cuba is tiny, authorities used Paya's funeral to round up about 40
activists and briefly arrest them, a move widely criticized by human
In October, Laura Pollan, a founder of the Ladies in White group, which
has fought on behalf of political prisoners, died in a Cuban hospital
after a sudden respiratory illness.
In both cases, the families raised questions about the circumstances and
suggested the possibility of foul play, though they presented no evidence.
Even as they mourn, dissidents will have to dig deep into their depleted
ranks to find new leaders and continue their struggle.
Already, the movement that Paya, Pollan and others led was in some ways
being eclipsed by a new generation of dissidents and critics of the
regime who use blogs, music and even poetry readings to demand freedoms.
"That is where the new voices are, the new ideas," said Ted Henken, an
expert on Cuba at the City University of New York. And they have broader
reach and deeper connection to people on the island, something that Paya
and the older activists could not claim.
But, Henken added, that was not to say that Paya and the others didn't
play a role in dissent.
"They are relevant to the international dialogue on Cuba," he said, "the
boomerang of international pressure."
U.S. diplomatic cables dated 2009, released by WikiLeaks, were harsh in
their criticism of Paya and dissidents of his ilk, calling them out of
touch and torn by petty rivalries.
Still, Paya holds a special place in Cuba's political struggle. In an
unheard-of campaign in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he managed to
collect nearly 25,000 signatures in a petition drive that was aimed at
forcing the Cuban National Assembly to consider laws that would
guarantee civil rights such as freedom of assembly and speech.
It was called the Varela Project and was widely seen as one of the most
important nonviolent challenges to the Castro regime; it won praise from
President Carter and helped earn Paya the European Union's top human
Then-President Fidel Castro responded by having the socialist revolution
officially declared "irreversible," and the National Assembly rejected
the petition. In spring 2003, 75 dissidents were imprisoned for long
terms; many of them with Paya's group.
Those arrests in the so-called Black Spring gave rise to Pollan's
Ladies, many of them the wives, mothers or sisters of the jailed
activists. They fought for years to free their relatives, staging small
protest marches that often got heckled and harassed by pro-government mobs.
Although dissidents were occasionally released over the years, it took
the intervention of the Roman Catholic Church to free most of the men,
and not until the last few years. Most had to agree to go into exile.
With all the high-profile political prisoners freed, human rights
organizations say, Cuban authorities have turned to a different tactic,
as illustrated by the detentions at the Paya funeral. Instead of long
sentences, activists are arrested and held briefly, then released and
fined. The goal is a steady drip-drip of nuisance and intimidation, say
groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Yoani Sanchez, a Cuban dissident blogger who has gotten international
attention, represents the new generation of protesters now overshadowing
the work of people like Paya.
But after his death, she paid tribute to the trailblazer.
"Cuba has suffered a dramatic loss in its present and an irreplaceable
absence in its future," she wrote on her Generation Y blog. "The great
lesson that he leaves us is equanimity, pacifism, ethics above
differences, the conviction that with civic action and legality, an
inclusive Cuba is within our reach."