Eliécer Ávila is up with the roosters every morning, shoveling pig manure in the modest farm in the province of Las Tunas, Cuba, where this graduate of the country’s only computer science university raises pigs for a living. He sold nine in late January just before he left the island for the first time to visit friends in Sweden.
At 27, Ávila carries himself with the square-shouldered and serious demeanor he must have learned from his father, a former member of the Special Brigades of the Ministry of the Interior. It was jarring to hear this former member of the Union of Communist Youth (UJC in Spanish) speak of creating a movement on the island where dissent can flourish, along with a free press and what sounds like social democracy; he insists on the importance of free healthcare and education for all.
He calls the movement Somos Más, (We are more) and calls himself “ un cubano más.” Just another Cuban.
“I’m a dissident,” he told me with evident pride, noting that he resigned from the UJC about three years ago. “What we want is to give Cubans the opportunity to do at home the things that now they can only do outside.”
Five years ago, Ávila became an overnight sensation on YouTube when he challenged Ricardo Alarcón, then the president of the National Assembly, with a series of questions rarely — if ever — heard in a public forum on the island.
Why can’t we travel? he asked Alarcón.
Why can’t we fix the economy?
Why can’t we have a decent and reliable transportation system?
At the time, he said he wanted to travel to Bolivia to visit the place where one of his heroes, Ché Guevara, had been killed.
Alarcón responded what he could. Famously, he said that if everyone who wanted to travel did so, there would be a collision of airplanes in the skies. He also said “the north” wasn’t as appealing as some people believed. “I know. I lived there for 14 years,” he said referring to New York, and went on to say that his own wife had not been allowed to go into stores on Fifth Avenue, because it was obvious that she was Latina.
Note to Alarcón: Many of the employees at Fifth Avenue stores, as well as their clients, are Latinos. But Alarcón doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is what young people like Ávila are doing.
Since Feb. 2 he’s been traveling through Europe and now the United States — he arrived in Miami Friday — adding his voice to the choir of dissidents who have been able to leave the island after the Cuban government changed the rules allowing most citizens to travel abroad without an exit visa. Like Yoani Sánchez, Berta Soler, Rosa María Payá and others, he’s been challenging all our notions of what’s possible inside Cuba.
When we spoke last week for about an hour at Columbia University, where he had been attending a two-day conference on press freedoms in the Americas, I told him that for someone like me, who lived in Cuba at a time when dissent was swiftly and harshly punished, his trajectory and ambition seemed like science fiction; his courage, unimaginable. In our minds, many of us live in the Cuba we left behind — whether that was 50 years or three months ago — not in the Cuba that is.
And it is that Cuba that remains a puzzle: On the one hand, Sánchez, Soler, Ávila and others are not in jail, as they would have been in, say, 1972; on the other hand, they are often harassed and detained and even beaten.
Ávila says he was detained once when he went to help a friend in Santiago de Cuba; occasionally, he has been approached by the police. Let’s talk, they say. When he responds that he has nothing to discuss with them, they taunt him, Are you afraid? That always works, and Ávila follows them for a chat.
One of the things they want to know is why he affiliates with terrorists. It’s unclear who the so-called terrorists are, but Ávila says the government has a special distaste for Yoani Sánchez.
No doubt. If I were trying to cling to power after 54 years of a failed regime, I, too, would dislike Sánchez and Ávila and Soler and many others like them who are breaking barriers — real and psychological — to live as free men and women on an island where the jail bars remain firmly in place and the jailers ever alert and averse to change.