Shifting Dynamics for Cuba's Dissidents
By THE EDITORIAL BOARDDEC. 27, 2014
The words were scrawled in graffiti on a street near the house of the
Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá a few years before his suspicious death in
2012. "In a plaza under siege, dissidence is treasonous."
Over the decades, Cuba's authoritarian government has relied on that
convenient argument to exert pervasive control over the lives of its
citizens and keep opposition movements from gaining enough traction to
threaten the state. The message was unmistakable: As long as the United
States was intent on toppling the island's leaders and meddling in the
country's affairs, Cubans, as a matter of national sovereignty, had to
close ranks. The era that began this month when President Obama and
President Raúl Castro of Cuba announced an end to more than 50 years of
enmity between their governments is a watershed moment for Cuba's
diverse and courageous opposition movement.
Under Communist Party rule, Cubans endure the austerity of living under
a stagnant, centrally planned economy. Their access to the Internet is
severely limited and censored. The island's official press is wholly
subservient to the state. Outside the rigid mechanisms of the party,
Cubans have few substantive vehicles to challenge their leaders.
In 1998, at the end of a decade of hunger and deprivation triggered by
the collapse of Havana's longtime patron, the Soviet Union, Mr. Payá
undertook an audacious mission. Relying on a Cuban law that ostensibly
allowed groups of 10,000 or more eligible voters to propose new laws,
Mr. Payá gathered, by some estimates, more than 25,000 signatures from
Cubans who endorsed sweeping democratic reforms, including free
elections, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and a
In 2002, Cuba's National Assembly responded to Mr. Paya's initiative,
known as the Varela Project, by amending the Constitution to make the
island's socialist, one-party system "irrevocable." The following year,
Cuban authorities jailed scores of dissidents and independent
journalists during a period of intense repression known as the Black
Spring. The crackdown, which took aim at many leaders of Mr. Payá's
movement, largely escaped global attention.
In 2010, the Cuban government agreed to release many political prisoners
in a deal brokered by the Catholic Church, on the condition that they
move to Spain. Mr. Payá died in a car crash in 2012 in Cuba that many
human rights activists suspect was staged by the authorities.
A few of the released prisoners, including José Daniel Ferrer, a fiery
lieutenant in Mr. Payá's movement, refused to leave the island. Mr.
Ferrer now leads the Patriotic Union for Cuba, the most visible and
outspoken opposition group on the island. In a recent interview in
Havana, Mr. Ferrer said his eight years in prison gave him time to
reflect on why Cuba's democratic movements had failed in the past and
how they might one day prevail. Historically, he said, Cuban activists
have often been seen by their compatriots as hapless victims of an
oppressive state. "These people inspire pity, not a desire to follow
them," said Mr. Ferrer, who is based in Santiago de Cuba, the island's
second-largest city. "We're trying to avoid reaching people with
speeches of losers."
Mr. Ferrer says his goal is not the type of sudden, dramatic overthrow
of the Castro government that many Cuban exiles have historically
favored. Rather, he said, Cuba's opposition movement must become
sufficiently empowered to get a seat at the table.
"We need to become large enough to force the regime to negotiate," Mr.
Ferrer said, acknowledging that it will take time to get enough Cubans
to believe that siding with the opposition is worth the risks. "No one
wants to bet on the horse that's losing the race."
Despite decades of economic deprivation and government oppression, the
vast majority of Cubans have been unwilling to join, or openly support,
opposition movements. It is easy to understand why. Cuba's shrewd
intelligence service has managed to penetrate those movements over the
years and make it hard for opposition leaders to join forces. And it has
effectively cast dissidents as greedy agents of Western plots in a
deeply nationalistic nation that for many years was, in fact, the target
of covert American plots.
While the tactics used against dissidents are not nearly as brutal as
they were a decade ago, they remain insidious. Prominent opposition
leaders are attacked by the official media. Activists are often detained
temporarily to keep them from attending meetings and to remind them —
and their neighbors — that they are being watched. State surveillance is
widely assumed to be so pervasive that diplomats blast music whenever
they want to have a conversation about sensitive issues. Wary Cubans pop
out the batteries of their cellphones if they want to speak privately,
fearing that the state's extensive army of domestic spies can listen in
on virtually anyone at any time.
On a very basic level, said Elizardo Sánchez, who is known as the dean
of Cuba's human rights activists, political activism requires a level of
zeal that many Cubans lack. "Life is so hard that people don't have time
to think in political terms," he said. "Everything from finding food,
transportation and medicine takes so much time."
After the announcement of the rapprochement between Washington and
Havana this month, a handful of prominent activists and civil society
leaders issued a joint statement outlining four sensible requests. They
call for the unconditional release of all political prisoners. Under the
deal Mr. Castro and Mr. Obama announced, the Cuban government pledged to
free 53 of them. The activists also demand that Havana abide by the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the Cuban government has
ratified. The statement — signed by Mr. Ferrer and the popular dissident
blogger Yoani Sánchez, among others — asks that the Cuban government
formally recognize civil society leaders who are at odds with the state.
Finally, they argue that the state must be open to constitutional
reforms that will eventually lead to free, democratic elections.
Whether Cuba's opposition movement will be empowered by the thaw in
relations with the United States or suffer intensified repression will
depend largely on the support activists receive from the international
community. As Cuba becomes more accessible to Americans, including
Cubans who are dual citizens, the government in Havana, feeling
vulnerable in the face of a flood of investment, increased travel and a
less-regulated flow of information, may well seek to redouble its
efforts to stifle dissent.
For decades, Latin American governments have coddled, or appeased, the
Castro regime because confronting it would be interpreted as an
endorsement of Washington's harshly punitive policy toward the island.
By changing that policy, Mr. Obama has removed that concern, which
should allow leaders from democratic nations to support the principles
Cuban activists have put forward. The leaders of Latin America's largest
economies, in particular, can be strong champions of Cuba's opposition
leaders at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April.
Despite a traditional reluctance to meddle in other countries' internal
affairs, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and President Dilma
Rousseff of Brazil should speak up unequivocally for democratic values
that are embraced by most nations in the Americas. As a former political
prisoner, a leftist and the leader of one of Cuba's main trading allies,
Ms. Rousseff would arguably carry the most weight.
If Cuban dissidents and civil society leaders are allowed to participate
in the summit meeting, as Washington has advocated, Ms. Rousseff may
well be speaking to the future leaders of a democratic Cuba.
Source: Shifting Dynamics for Cuba's Dissidents - NYTimes.com -