In Cuba, dissidents say opposition groups are weak
Sun Nov 4, 2007 3:02 am (PST) South Florida Sun-Sentinel.com
November 4, 2007
More than 200 people had mobilized for the late September protest demanding freedom for political prisoners. But state security agents intercepted many of the dissidents outside the capital and detained them for hours.
"People were picked up on roads; others were prevented from leaving their homes," said Martha Beatriz Roque, 62, one of the organizers. An economist by profession, Roque has pushed against the Castro government for 17 years and served two prison terms for her efforts.
In the end, only eleven people attended the peaceful demonstration outside Cuba's Justice Ministry. It quietly fizzled when police loaded the demonstrators on a bus and drove them home.
More than a year after Fidel Castro fell ill and ceded power to brother Raul, dissident groups on the island lack the strength and organization to force political change, analysts in the United States and dissidents on the island said. The opposition is not only infiltrated by state security but also hampered by conflicting views on how to bring about economic and political change and a widespread belief they're paid agents of the United States.
"In some cases, the dissidents have enormous dislike and distrust for one another," said Frank Mora, a Cuba expert at the National War College in Washington, D.C. "When I hear people outside Cuba talking about dissidents or pro-democracy activists or agents of change, I don't see that as being the reality on the ground in Cuba."
With about 300 dissident and human rights groups nationwide, the opposition has competing views on whether members of the current communist government should have a say in a post-Castro Cuba. In addition, some dissidents oppose the U.S.-imposed economic embargo and travel restrictions against Cuba, while others favor the current hard line.
"The entire weight of the opposition together, including the pro-democracy and human rights movements, is not enough to confront the regime politically," said veteran rights activist Elizardo Sanchez of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
Washington doesn't share that view. On Oct. 24, in his first major policy speech on Cuba in four years, President George Bush suggested that the opposition was prepared to rise up against the Castro government.
"The dissidents of today will be the nation's leaders tomorrow,” and when freedom finally comes, they will surely remember who stood with them," Bush said.
Many of the island's leading dissidents gathered at the U.S. Interests Section to hear Bush's speech live, but dissident Manuel Cuesta deliberately stayed away. A member of a social-democratic group that favors dialogue with the current government, Cuesta instead waited until the next day to read a full transcript of the speech that a friend had quietly pulled from the Internet. "In Cuba, there are things that shouldn't be done in order to advance your cause," he said. "I try to avoid the Interests Section when it comes to political matters."
Cuban authorities characterize dissidents and other government critics as mercenaries and counterrevolutionaries paid by Washington to undermine Castro's socialist system. Contact with the U.S. Interests Section only underscores that suspicion.
Cuesta, a 44-year-old historian, called the Bush speech "a lot of wishful thinking."
"Bush never used the words peaceful or dialogue or reconciliation," he said.
Cuesta and other dissidents said the opposition has not fully recovered from a three-day government crackdown in March 2003, when 75 dissidents were rounded up and jailed. Sixteen of the original 75 have since been released for medical reasons.
No clear opposition leader has emerged with the influence to marshal widespread support. Cuba also lacks strong civil groups like those in communist-era Poland. There, the Solidarity movement joined a powerful Roman Catholic Church and labor unions to topple the government.
Disarray among Cuba's opposition was underscored after the July 31, 2006, announcement that Fidel Castro was transferring power to younger brother Raul. Cuesta said dissidents learned a hard lesson: they were woefully unprepared to reach a Cuban public that knew little about them.
"We were caught with our pants down," he said. "Many opposition leaders call for free and democratic elections right now. But if Raul Castro decided to hold an election in, say, six months, the opposition wouldn't capture a municipal seat."
Ray Sanchez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org