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.