Globe-trotting Cuban activists sway world opinion
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
At least a half dozen Cuban activists are now crisscrossing the globe, more or less at the same time, publicly airing their grievances against the Cuban government and meeting with high-level officials and politicians abroad.
What gives? Many Cuba watchers are wondering why a society and government that has been closed for so many years is now allowing opposing voices to speak so freely abroad and collect awards — some with significant amounts of money attached.
In the past, Havana sporadically granted an exit visa allowing a human-rights activist to travel, but a reform instituted in January swept away the need for the reviled tarjeta blanca, or exit visa. Dissidents and opposition bloggers quickly began testing the waters, requesting their passports and accepting international invitations that in some cases had been stacking up for years.
Some say money — or lack of it — is the motivating factor in Cuba’s decision to institute economic and migration reforms. With Cubans freer to come and go, they can work abroad and make international contacts.
But the big question Cuba analysts are asking is: Is Cuba truly opening up — or just trying to burnish its image at a critical time when the future of its main benefactor, Venezuela, is uncertain and it needs to reach out to the world? On May 1, Cuba also is scheduled to officially present its report on human rights for review by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“Cuba has taken some modest steps towards opening up. Easing up on travel restrictions has been one key area,’’ said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy analysis center. “Cuban authorities can say that it is easier now for Cubans to travel to the U.S. than for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba.’’
Regardless of the dissidents’ critical messages abroad, their travel gives the Cuban government the opportunity to appear less restrictive. “Every time they take a plane and travel they are proving this point,’’ said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence analyst who now lives in Miami.
But Pepe Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, an exile organization, says that rather than giving more legitimacy to Havana, the trips are more advantageous to the dissidents and their views.
“They are giving a face to Cuban reality that is different from what the government is putting out. I think this will change the world’s view of the internal situation in Cuba,’’ he said. “We also have an opportunity to relate more personally with these people that we have been helping for quite some time.’’
Another benefit for the dissidents, he said, is “when they return, they will be protected by the knowledge and the contacts they’re collected outside.’’ And some will return with additional monetary support, he said, from the prizes they’ve received and the contacts they’ve made.
But he worries that with all the focus on the world travelers, no one is paying much attention to the repression and continuing arrests of dissidents on the island.
Amuchastegui said the new travel policy also is a response to a changing world. “The rules of the game have changed... and Cuba is trying to respond to these new rules.’’
In the end what prevailed among the Cuban leadership is the idea that “we have to deal with these people [dissidents] in a different way,’’ he said.
But Rosa María Payá , daughter of Oswaldo Payá , perhaps Cuba’s most well-respected dissident at the time he was killed in a car crash last year along with colleague Harold Cepero, takes a more cynical view.
“This effort by the Cuban government to sell its reforms as democratic changes, as the beginning of an opening, is what we call cambio fraude” — fraudulent change, she said during a recent meeting with The Miami Herald editorial board. “They are trying to clean up their image.
“In Cuba there has been a change but it has nothing to do with the changes of the government. It has to do with changes that are occurring in the hearts of Cubans who are convinced Cuba needs change,’’ she added.
While on a world tour that took her to Spain, Sweden, New York, Washington and South Florida, Payá, 24, continued to press for an international investigation of her father’s death. The Payá family believes his death wasn’t accidental but caused by Cuban security agents who rammed the vehicle in which he was traveling.
From long-time human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez, who arrived in Spain last week, to Orlando Luis Pardo, who writes the blog “Monday of the Post-Revolution’’ and has been giving lectures on college campuses from Wisconsin to Princeton, the dissidents have taken full advantage of the platform the novelty of their visits has afforded them.
Yoani Sánchez, who writes the critical Generación Y blog, got a rock-star reception during her recent visit to Miami, and Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, a dissident group that has marched relentlessly on behalf of Cuban political prisoners, has an event-packed agenda during a visit to Miami starting this weekend. “I think the Cuban government miscalculated and didn’t fully understand what the impact of the visits would be,’’ said Raúl Moas, who heads Raices de Esperanza (Roots of Hope), a group that connects young people in the U.S. with those on the island and sent some 1,500 new and refurbished cell phones to Cuba last year.
“For 50 years you had one voice coming out of Cuba. Now you have multiple voices,’’ he said. “It changes the narrative that the government has so long tried to control.’’
But Amuchastegui said it wasn’t a miscalculation on the part of Cuban leadership — just a risk Havana was willing to take. “I think the Cuban leadership was perfectly aware the dissidents would travel around the world in 80 days… and they were willing to go ahead given the current context of Cuba.’’
The Foundation’s Hernandez said he expects a cost-vs.-benefits analysis is going on in the highest echelons of the Cuban government. “In the long time I have been in this fight, I can assure you that the Cuban government had this all pretty well planned and calculated.”
Still, some analysts say the countless media moments the travelers have racked up as they appear on talk shows, meet editorial boards and hold press conferences on three continents are disconcerting for Havana.
During an appearance at the Inter-American Dialogue earlier this month, José R. Cabañas, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Washington, chafed at all the attention Sánchez has received.
The same Sánchez met with members of the U.S. Congress — “a few, I would repeat a few members of Congress’’ — Cabañas pointed out a congressional hearing was going on discussing the U.S. relationship with Cuba and the embargo, and it received scant media coverage.
But he added, “She was free to come and make her comments freely.’’ However, in response to questions from the Inter-American Dialogue audience about Sánchez, Cabañas never said her name, referring to her as “this lady.’’
“The Cuban government officials are uneasy about what the bloggers and dissidents are saying outside of Cuba, and about all of the attention they are getting. The sharp criticism naturally makes them uncomfortable,’’ said Shifter, of the Inter-American Dialogue.
“The authorities tend to be dismissive about the bloggers and insist that they don’t represent anyone in Cuba, that they have no constituency,’’ he said. “Of course, the bloggers claim no such thing; they are just expressing their views.’’
A few activists, including Payá, are now back in Cuba and others plan trips in the coming weeks.
How their taste of freedom of expression and the contacts and supporters they have gained abroad play out in their daily activities remains to be seen.
Sánchez has said she hopes to start a digital newspaper that will be distributed in Cuba via flash drive when she returns. Payá is continuing her campaign for an international inquiry into her father’s death. And activist Eliecer Avila has said he wants to start a political party when he returns to Cuba.
Avila was the student who confronted then-National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon in 2008 with a series of tough questions — including “Why can’t the people of Cuba go to hotels or travel to other parts of the world” — when Alarcon visited his school. Video of the encounter was posted on YouTube and went viral.
But with little Internet access available to the average Cuban, the ongoing policy of short-term detentions of dissidents who become too public in their protests, scant recognition at home of the names that have become so high-profile abroad, and a largely politically apathetic Cuban public, dissidents face an uphill battle in getting out their messages on the island.
“As long as the government can control the internal situation, they could care less what the international view is,’’ said Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.
He said the government has allowed dissident travel as a way to relieve pressure on the island “There is no way Raúl Castro is going to lose control — yet.’’
And for dissidents returning to Cuba, it does seems to be life as usual. Payá, for example, tweeted that last Thursday afternoon police hassled friends who had stopped by her home to visit.
Even Yoani Sánchez acknowledges the political malaise in her homeland. “The average Cuban is apathetic and indifferent, doesn’t believe in the government but also doesn’t believe that anything is going to change,’’ she said last week in an interview with Spanish blogger Joan Antoni Guerrero Vall in Madrid.
Many Cubans, said Sánchez, currently look to emigration as a solution. “As the national rebellion continues to be channeled outside our borders, the pressure cooker is never going to reach the temperature of explosion. The government knows this and encourages, promotes economic migration.’’
But Hernandez is optimistic the visits will represent a watershed event for Cuba. “This is going to change the Cuban scene without a doubt. This is finally coming to an end,’’ he said.
“It is hard to know what the long-term effect of such travel might be on the political situation in Cuba,’’ said Shifter. “There is no evidence that it marks the beginning of the end of the Cuban system, but clearly some change is happening in Cuba — on that point, both the Cuban government and the bloggers seem to agree.’’
And the activists seem intent on their quest to open more space within Cuban society for themselves and others.
Avila recently tweeted that while leafing through a magazine on a flight, this title caught his eye: “Move and the world moves with you; stop and the world will pass you by.”