Cuban dissidents feel sidelined as US focuses on state ties
By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ and PETER ORSI
HAVANA (AP) — In the seven months since the U.S. and Cuba declared
detente, American politicians have flooded Havana to see the sights,
meet the country's new entrepreneurs and discuss the possible end of the
U.S. trade embargo with leaders of the communist government.
Their agendas have also featured an increasingly conspicuous hole — the
spot once occupied by U.S.-backed dissidents who then sat at the center
of Washington's policy on Cuba.
According to an Associated Press count confirmed by leading dissidents,
more than 20 U.S. lawmakers have come to Cuba since February without
meeting with opposition groups that once were an obligatory stop for
Advocates of President Barack Obama's outreach to Cuba say it's a more
intelligent way to push for democratic reform on the island. After
decades of fruitlessly trying to strengthen the government's opponents,
they see diplomatic engagement as the best method for persuading Cuba
it's time to open the political system and keep loosening control of the
centrally planned economy.
That's left many dissidents feeling increasingly sidelined and abandoned
as both countries celebrate milestones like Monday's opening of
embassies in Havana and Washington.
"The only thing they want is to open up business, the embassy," said
Berta Soler, leader of a faction of the Ladies in White, one of the
island's best-known dissident groups. "Whenever someone high-level came
from the United States before, they always made time to meet with us
before getting on the plane (back home), and that's not happening."
Legislative staffers say Cuban officials have made clear that if
Congress members meet with dissidents, they will not get access to
high-ranking officials such as First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel,
the man expected to be the next president of Cuba who has met with U.S.
politicians like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Patrick
Leahy of Vermont.
With embassies reopened and Cuba and the U.S. formally discussing issues
such as human rights, increased Internet access and opening trade,
supporters of the new U.S. policy say talking with Cuban leaders is
clearly the most promising way to promote reform on the island.
"Some (dissidents) may feel that because of the decision (to restore
ties), their views are not being reflected as they would hope," said Tim
Rieser, a senior adviser to Leahy who accompanied him on a trip to Cuba
last month. But "the senator believes that it makes no sense to continue
a policy that has failed to achieve any of its objectives. It hasn't
helped the Cuban people, and it is time to try a different way."
Cuban officials are highly sensitive to the issue of domestic
dissidents, whom they call mercenaries and tools of a U.S.-backed policy
aimed at overturning the half-century-old socialist revolution.
Many dissidents receive support from anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in
Florida. They have been unable to generate widespread support on the
island because of intense government pressure aimed at stifling popular
organizing and because many ordinary Cubans believe dissidents only want
to earn money, renown and visas to live in the U.S.
Advocates for the Obama administration's policy say recent congressional
visits have aimed to take the pulse of a broader swath of society:
small-time entrepreneurs who have set up shop under the economic reforms
of recent years; foreign diplomats and businesspeople operating in
Havana; and regular Cubans who have complaints about Internet access and
other issues without calling outright for a 180-degree change of the
Leahy was part of a U.S. delegation that met with dissidents in January,
the last one to do so, and he plans to keep talking to the opposition
"Senator Leahy has met with and listened to dissidents, he respects them
and he shares their aspirations for human rights in Cuba," Rieser said,
arguing that previous U.S. policy did not help them. "By supporting
engagement with Cuba, we can increase our ability to support the
freedoms that they and people everywhere deserve."
As part of the deal to re-establish diplomatic relations, Cuba released
53 people imprisoned for months or years on what the U.S. and many
rights groups called politically based charges. The subsequent warming
of ties with the U.S. has also coincided with a decrease in the more
common short-term detentions of political activists in Cuba, according
to figures compiled by activists.
The non-governmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National
Reconciliation says there were 2,822 politically related detentions in
the first six months of 2015, less than half the 5,904 registered in the
same period last year.
Commission president Elizardo Sanchez says those arrested report being
treated more roughly, however.
On a recent Sunday, a few dozen of the Ladies in White marched quietly
down a main avenue in Havana, talked in a circle underneath a leafy
grove of trees and then suddenly marched to an intersection where they
jumped up and down and cried "Freedom!"
Seemingly out of nowhere, counter-protesters swarmed the group, yelling
pro-government slogans and accusing them of being "worms" bent on
undermining the revolution. Police swooped in, plucked the dissidents
from the melee, loaded them on waiting buses and drove off.
The Ladies in White say their demonstrations have been broken up in this
manner every Sunday for months. Recently the group has been departing
from unwritten rules under which their marches were tolerated as long as
they did not stray from their traditional route or incorporate male
demonstrators, and it may be a deliberate tactic to provoke a reaction
and draw attention.
Activists and supporters contend they should be free to demonstrate
wherever and in whatever company they choose, and lament that U.S.-Cuba
detente has not changed their inability to do so.
"The fact that the Obama administration would agree to begin this
political process without a clear mandate on matters like the promotion
of democracy and human rights has allowed the regime to gain
legitimacy," said Antonio Rodiles, head of a pro-democracy group called
Estado de SATS.
Rodiles' claim that his nose was broken during a recent arrest prompted
an expression of concern from the U.S. State Department.
Despite such incidents, even some of Rodiles' fellow long-time
dissidents say the new U.S. policy is correct.
"I think they are talking with the people they need to talk to, that is,
the Cuban government," Sanchez said. "We are not the ones they need to
convince; it is the government that must be persuaded."
Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP
Peter Orsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter_Orsi
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