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Cuban Dissidents Harbor Hope, Fear and Fury Over US-Cuba Reconciliation

Damas de Blanco or Ladies in White demonstrate in Havana, Cuba 2012. Photo by Hvd69 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Damas de Blanco or Ladies in White demonstrate in Havana, Cuba 2012. Photo by Hvd69 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Last week’s announcement of renewed relations between Cuba and the United States elicited responses of hope, skepticism and even anger among anti-government advocates and bloggers in Cuba.

Many dissenting voices in Cuba now worry that the US government has not drawn a strong enough link between diplomatic ties and improvements in human rights standards on the island.

Speaking with Diario de Cuba, human rights advocate and founder of the Estado de SATS intellectual forum Antonio Rodiles said Obama’s decision to negotiate with Cuban authorities without consulting civil society on the island was a misstep. “To give to the regime without asking for anything in return seems to me a tremendous error.”

Many prominent voices both from Cubans like Rodiles, who have developed a powerful presence both online and on the island, and older generations of dissidents, see the policy shift as one that will empower the Cuban government to increase social control and repression of anti-government activists.

On social media, many have echoed the sentiments of conservative US lawmakers since the shift was announced. Las Damas de Blanco (“Ladies in White”), an organization of women who march in solidarity with jailed journalists and other political prisoners on the island, retweeted and highlighted comments from US congress members such as Marco Rubio and Robert Menéndez, both of whom represent “hardline” anti-Castro exile communities in the US. 

Group leader Berta Soler, one of the most prominent anti-government voices on the island, told Diario de Cuba

Las medidas del presidente Obama son para el Gobierno, no para Cuba. Se ha equivocado si piensa que restablecer relaciones va a favorecer al pueblo de la Isla. Aquí habrá cambios cuando se respeten los derechos humanos y no existan los Castro.

[…] 

En estos momentos nos sentimos desprotegidos, pero con apoyo o sin él lo importante es mantenernos en nuestra lucha, buscando la libertad del pueblo de Cuba.

Hasta este momento, hemos sido hombres y mujeres golpeados y encarcelados. Ahora creemos que pueden aparecer activistas muertos en las cunetas.

The measures that President Obama has taken are for the government, not for Cuba. He is mistaken if he thinks that reestablishing relations will benefit the people of the island. Here there will only be change when human rights are respected and the Castros no longer exist.

[…]

At times like these we feel unprotected, but with or without support, the important thing is that we continue fighting for freedom for the people of Cuba.

Until this moment, we have been jailed and beaten. Now we believe we will start seeing activists dead on the streets.

Known to accept financial support from US government agencies, many members of the Damas de Blanco have suffered beatings, detentions and other forms of repression by Cuban state security since their inception in 2003. This week however, supporters noted that they were able to march freely, without a single arrest:

#Cuba Pudieron caminar hoy las @DamasdBlanco de Cárdenas y Colón sin ser arrestadas, repudiadas y golpeadas como siempre ha hecho la tiranía

— Iván Hdez Carrillo (@ivanlibre) December 21, 2014

Today the @DamasdBlanco were able to walk from Cárdenas y Colón without being arrested, harassed or beaten as the tyranical forces have always done

Many thought back on the work of fallen civil society leader Oswaldo Payá, who led a late 1990s civil society effort calling for a referendum on the country's constitution that would have enshrined rights to full electoral participation, free expression, and other fundamental rights for all Cubans. Payá was killed in a 2012 car crash that his family suspects was orchestrated by Cuban authorities, though this has never been confirmed. Since his death, Payá’s daughter Rosa María has become a prominent voice on human rights in the country, albeit following a distinct path from that of her father. 

In an open letter to Barack Obama published by the Washington Post, Rosa María Payá wrote: 

Mr. President, your laws are not what is preventing the free market and access to information in Cuba; it is the Cuban government’s legislation and its constant censorship.

What would be new would be a real commitment to the Cuban people, with concrete actions supporting citizens’ demands. We don’t need interventionist tactics but rather backing for solutions that we Cubans have created ourselves.

But not all opposition voices are so negative. Reinaldo Escobar, a journalist-turned-blogger and the husband of famed blogger Yoani Sánchez, expressed hope that these expectations would prove incorrect:

Yo apuesto a que van a quedar mal, pero estoy deseoso de perder la apuesta. Todas las señales y la experiencia acumulada dicen a las claras que se trata de una nueva maniobra para ganar tiempo y que se van a salir con la suya, pero es también una jugada inédita y las cosas siempre pueden salir de otra manera.

I am betting that things will go badly, but I hope I lose that bet. All signs and past experience suggest that this will be a new way for the regime to buy itself time, but this is an unprecedented move and things could always turn out differently.

Manuel Cuesta Morúa, leader of the Partido Arco Progresista — a progressive political group that opposes the Cuban communist party — identified three ways in which the reforms would improve conditions for Cubans: 

Primero, se puede utilizar más la solidaridad global para favorecer nuestras estrategias en materia de recursos, de contactos, de relaciones. Segundo, es posible destruir para siempre la narrativa del régimen, que siempre nos ha acusado a nosotros, los disidentes, de trabajar a favor de potencias extranjeras, sobre todo de EEUU. Tercero, pero no último, nuestro contacto con los cubanos al interior del país puede ser menos envenenado porque ahora los ciudadanos, que son los que dan legitimidad a cualquier apuesta y propuesta política, están en mejores condiciones de participar, de interactuar con nosotros.

First, it will allow for more global solidarity in support of our strategies, in the form of resources, contacts, and relationships. Second, it will now be possible to permanently destroy the narrative of the regime, which has always accused us, the dissidents, of working for foreign interests, above all the US. Third, but not least, our contact with Cubans in other parts of the country can be less fraught because now citizens, those who give legitimacy to any political proposal, will be more able to participate and interact with us.

Yoani Sánchez, blogger and editor-in-chief of recently launched digital magazine 14ymedio, highlighted the way in which the feud between the US and Cuba has functioned as a motor for the Cuban government.

…a pesar de la ausencia de compromisos públicos de la parte cubana, lo de hoy fue una derrota política. Bajo el mandato de Fidel Castro nunca se hubiera llegado siquiera a perfilar un acuerdo de esta naturaleza. Porque el sistema cubano se apoya -como uno de sus principales pilares- en la existencia de un contrincante permanente. David no puede vivir sin Goliat y el aparato ideológico ha descansado demasiado tiempo en ese diferendo. 

…in spite of the absence of political commitments on the Cuban side, what happened today was a political defeat [for the Cuban government]. Under the command of Fidel Castro, we never would have gotten even close to an agreement of this sort. Because the Cuban system is supported by — as one of its principal pillars — the existence of a permanent opponent. David cannot live without Goliath and the ideological apparatus has relied for too long on this enmity.

For Cubans and Cuban-Americans all along the political spectrum, it is difficult to imagine that “normalization” of relations will lead to the pressing of a proverbial reset button on all things ranging from economy to civil and political rights. Shortly after the announcement, Estado de SATS leader Antonio Rodiles quipped:

Cuba is not a computer in which you can install new software and expect it to work differently.

Indeed, regardless of political priorities, most voices agree that neither Cuba nor the US will change its ways easily or quickly. Time will tell whether the so-called “thaw” will reflect a renewed commitment to human rights by both Cuba and the US.

  • Roberto Green

    Cuba forum at itscuba.com

  • Martin Edwin Andersen

    With a U.S. “thaw” in relations to the Cuban police state underway it is critically important that those participating in government-sponsored exchanges are not torture advocates.

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