When about 200 owners of horse-drawn carts in the Cuban city of Santa Clara gathered recently outside a government office to protest their stiff taxes, dissident Guillermo Fariñas and a dozen other democracy activists stood with them.
The cocheros, who transport people and cargo, broke up peacefully after their protest on Sept. 11. Fariñas, winner of a top European prize for human rights, and the other dissidents were carted away by police, and freed later that day.
More than a simple protest, the event reflected a new strategy for Cuba’s dissidents, learned in part from Poland’s Solidarity labor union in the waning years of that country’s communist rule: If you want to win more popular support, tone down the push for a political opening and back the common people in their demands for economic and social change.
Opposition groups say they are now offering medical help and transportation for the ill, food and laundry for the elderly, education and entertainment for children and vocal support for squatters and illegal street vendors harassed by government inspectors.
“The idea is to do things so that the people can perceive us as their defenders,” Fariñas said. “We’re going to relegate the political demands because we need more popular support before we can really push them.”
What real impact the new strategy will have, if any, is uncertain in a country where the government regularly jails dissidents and brands them as “mercenaries” financed by the U.S. government to undermine the communist system.
The U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, in a 2009 dispatch to Washington, wrote that it perceived “very little evidence that the main-line dissident organizations have much resonance among ordinary Cubans.”
That’s all changing now, said Fariñas and José Daniél Ferrer, who founded the island’s most active dissident organization, the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU), in 2011, just days after Ferrer was freed after serving eight years in prison.
“We decided at that time that we had to combine the political message, the nonviolent struggle in the streets for democracy and human rights, with the social work,” Ferrer said in a telephone interview from his home in the eastern town of Palmarito de Cauto.
“We want to make it clear that we’re not only defending the elemental rights of citizens, but that we are accompanying everyone who needs our support,” he added.
Fariñas said the strategy took on a more-detailed shape in June, when he and several other government critics, including a Catholic lay activist, a Baptist pastor, a blogger and a rapper, traveled to Poland for 15 days of training at the Lech Walesa Foundation.
During a meeting with Walesa, former president of Poland and leader of Solidarity, they asked how the dissident labor movement had managed to gather 10 million members in a country of 19 million people ruled by a hostile Polish communist party.
“Walesa told us that we were very valiant, very good, but we focused too much on political demands and should concentrate much more on the social problems,” Fariñas said by phone from his home in the central city of Santa Clara.
So when the 200 cocheros met in front of a local government office to demand that their taxes be reduced, Fariñas said, he and the other dissidents decided to go there and show their support. The cart owners are waiting for a response to their demands.
Asked whether the dissidents and cocheros had reached any sort of relationship as a result of the protest, he declined to comment. Fariñas, awarded the European Parliament’s 2010 Sakharov prize for Freedom of Conscience, is UNPACU’s official spokesman.
Fariñas and Ferrer were glad, however, to talk about other UNPACU efforts to align themselves with the social and economic needs of common Cubans.
Five physicians and seven nurses who belong to UNPACU-run Health for All, a program to deliver healthcare and medicines to those in need — not just dissidents — and, when necessary, quietly refers them to other friendly doctors who can help, Ferrer said.
Two dissidents who own vehicles also volunteer them as ambulances for health emergencies, he added. Government ambulance services, the only ones officially available on the island, have deteriorated significantly in recent years as vehicles break down and are not repaired.
Two other UNPACU teams are helping neighbors fix up homes damaged when Hurricane Sandy hit eastern Cuba last year, while others are supporting residents of neighborhoods who are demanding connections to potable water lines.
Other dissidents are providing whatever food they can to the neediest, Ferrer said, and doing the laundry for and cleaning the homes of elderly neighbors who can no longer take care of themselves.
UNPACU members also have mounted protests as police and government inspectors harassed or arrested unlicensed vendors, usually workers at street kiosks that can sell food and clothing at prices cheaper than those in state stores, he said.
Fariñas said a small group of activists protested in a Santa Clara plaza last week to demand that officials in the state’s food rationing system provide the legally required special diet for a young girl with an unusual ailment.
And after nine dissidents protested high prices in a Santa Clara market last week, one participant said the event was intended to show other Cubans that it is important to speak out against abuses, the U.S. government’s Radio/TV Marti reported.
Videos filmed by dissidents, meanwhile, highlight issues that have nothing to do with politics, such as the thousands of homes left unrepaired after Hurricane Sandy and the poor who pick through garbage dumps in the city of Santiago de Cuba.
The social programs, Ferrer said, are designed “to make it clear to people that the government really lies when it says we are enemies of society, that we’re against health and education . . . that we are virtually poisoning the water.”
“They have the control of all the mass media,” he said, “so our actions must carry a political message.”