Saturday, May 28, 2016

José Daniel Ferrer, the man behind Cuba’s largest opposition group

José Daniel Ferrer, the man behind Cuba's largest opposition group

Former political prisoner heads the Cuban Patriotic Union, an
organization in eastern Cuba that has launched a campaign urging the
island's people to let go of their fear.

Irreverent youth, activist in the Christian Liberation Movement's early
days, political prisoner and now leader of Cuba's most active opposition
group, José Daniel Ferrer is probably one of the biggest headaches for
the island's government.

One of the 75 political prisoners jailed in the 2003 crackdown known as
Cuba's Black Spring, Ferrer, 45, was one of the last to be freed in 2011
under a parole that barred him from leaving the country. He arrived in
Miami last week, after the government gave him a one-time permission to
travel abroad.

After his release Ferrer founded the Cuban Patriotic Union, UNPACU by
its Spanish initials, which he estimates now has more than 3,000 members
and sympathizers, mostly in Santiago de Cuba and other parts of eastern
Cuba although it also has members in Havana, Camaguey and the Isle of Youth.

How he managed to gather those 3,000 supporters — a number that is small
in an island of 11 million people yet is significantly large compared to
other dissident organizations — is a question with more than one answer.

He is a clearly charismatic leader, and even in prison he managed to
persuade the jailers to improve the quality of the food or rush an
inmate to a nearby hospital. His love for politics, he told el Nuevo
Herald and Miami Herald editors on Thursday, grew as he listened
clandestinely to foreign radio broadcasts. He described himself as a
voracious reader, and more than once quoted Chinese strategist Sun Tzu's
book, The Art of War.

Czech leader Vaclav Havel was another idol.

"When I completed my military service in 1991, I got a copy of Vaclav
Havel's book, The Power of the Powerless, and I understood that we could
topple the dictatorship," he said. "Until that time, the question of
whether I would leave [Cuba] or stay was in the air. But the fall of the
Communist bloc and this book encouraged me to start the struggle."


What's more, Ferrer has organized UNPACU for maximum efficiency, and the
movement now has a structure and way of operating that look much like
those of a political party. Although Cuba bans all but the Communist
Party, Ferrer acknowledges that turning UNPACU into a political party is
one of his goals.

Members have concrete and clear goals to meet, and they are checked
regularly. One important part of their work is face-to-face contacts,
trying to persuade others to join the group. They receive training to do
just that.

If anything distinguishes UNPACU from other dissident groups in Cuba, it
is that ability to move beyond street protests.

Ferrer said that "valiant work in the streets" is indispensable for
showing the government that there is "a vanguard that is not afraid of
it" — an important message to convince the rest of the people that
change is possible and that the opposition has at least some chance of

But Ferrer also lists other key activities: humanitarian assistance to
the poor "without asking for anything in return," and an "intelligent
outreach" with the organization's anti-Castro message.

That's another strong side of UNPACU, which maintains an active presence
in social networks, publishes videos of its activities and
man-on-the-street interviews on topics like rising food prices, and goes
door-to-door distributing thousands of DVDs and flash drives with its
work or foreign news reports. Occasionally, it also manages to sneak
UNPACU information into the paquete — the weekly digital archive of
entertainment, news and other items sold throughout the island and the
main source of independent information for most Cubans.

UNPACU also creates its own educational materials from a broad range of
sources, including Hollywood movies edited "to encourage people to lose
their fear" or to generate discussions at group meetings.

"No one wishes for what they don't know, and no one loses their fear if
they don't see that others have liberated themselves, that they have
lost their fear," he said.


Ferrer said that one of the positive results of President Barack Obama's
recent visit to Cuba, aside from his meeting with a group of dissidents
that included the UNPACU chief, was the media spotlight trained on the
island for a few days.

"When Obama went to Cuba, dozens of journalists from the free world also
went and asked us about the political prisoners, the basic freedoms," he
said. UNPACU activists later copied the articles published and
distributed them "house to house. Then people can say, 'They really are
right, because the newspaper said so.' "

Ferrer stressed that this work of disseminating information is essential
in a place like Cuba, where the mass media is totally and tightly
controlled by the Communist Party.

"A people that for so many years has received only the information
allowed by its oppressors cannot see things in the way that a free
person sees them, for example in Miami, where they can see as many
newspapers as they want," he added.

Another UNPACU initiative has been the elaboration of a "minimum
program" for a transition, in which the organization calls for economic
reforms, a new electoral law, a free press and the release of all
political prisoners, as well as decent wages and food security. It also
declares that "health, together with education and social welfare, will
be considered a non-negotiable right of all Cubans" — an ideal that
aligns the dissident group with the desires of many Cubans on the island.

UNPACU also is trying to use the micro-enterprises allowed by the
government to sustain its members and make up for the emigration of many
of its members, who have been joining the exodus shaking up the island
in the past few years.

What's more, all of the group's activities take place under the tight
vigilance of and repression from Cuba's political police, which
constantly try to keep the opposition from continuing to grow.

Aware of the government's power to "intimidate," his strategy has been
to use small activities to slowly move toward "the democratization of
Cuba," Ferrer said.

Ferrer, who spent 90 minutes in conversation with Herald and el Nuevo
Herald journalists, acknowledged that his leadership accounts for much
of UNPACU's success. He was asked what would happen if the organization
suddenly lost its leader.

"It's a risk, but there are other people in other organizations. In
fact, I have said [to members] on several occasions that if I disappear
and they don't feel they are capable of carrying on with UNPACU, they
should end the organization and join the United Anti-Totaliarian Front,
the Pedro Luis Boitel Movement or the Ladies in White," he answered,
referring to some of Cuba's other dissident movements.

Ferrer already has urged other dissident organizations to put aside
their differences over the changes in U.S. policies toward Cuba and
agree on common aspects under a Democratic Action Unity Roundtable,
which backs initiatives such as trying to register independent
candidates for legislative elections in 2017.


"We have to be active in all sectors of society. We have to battle the
regime in any arena where we can," said Ferrer, who is scheduled to
visit several other cities in the United States and Europe before
returning to the island.

"We cannot allow them to feel comfortable any place," he said with a
smile. "Anywhere they are, they should feel the heat. They should feel
the chair is a little tight."

Source: José Daniel Ferrer, the man behind Cuba's largest opposition
group | In Cuba Today -

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