They call it “The Valley of Prehistory,” an odd park with oversized sculptures of dinosaurs and other ancient animals in the Baconao National Park on the outskirts of Santiago de Cuba. And that's where hundreds of dissidents, neighbors and supporters turned up recently, in what was designed as a fun outing for children as well as a show of the growing popularity of Cuba's largest opposition group.
A video of the outing shot by the dissident Cuban Patriotic Union, known as UNPACU, shows images unthinkable only a few years ago in an island where the government systematically dismisses its opponents as microscopic groups of “mercenaries” financed by the U.S. government.
Ignoring the official propaganda, hundreds of people took part in the outing and listened to UNPACU leader José Daniel Ferrer detail the activities planned for the children, which also included a free lunch and stops at a nearby beach and an aquarium.
Ferrer said UNPACU organized the outing as a “symbolic” message on the same weekend the Cuban Communist Party held its VII Congress, and to show what most Cubans would prefer to do if given the chance: go out and have fun. No one really expected that the Congress would discuss issues of real importance to the Cuban people, the dissident added.
Ferrer claimed nearly 1,000 people participated in the UNPACU outing because the organization hired 13 trucks, each capable of transporting up to 70 people. His numbers could not be independently confirmed, but a video of the gathering clearly showed an unusually large crowd of dissidents and other participants.
Ferrer said the outing was organized “with the utmost discretion” to avoid any government efforts to block it.
“They found out nevertheless, and six of the 15 trucks we had contracted withdrew at the last minute. They took away six, but we found another five,” he said.
The unusually large crowd at the UNPACU outing may be the most significant part of the event; perhaps in indication that Cubans may be losing their fear of the government.
It has not been a sudden change. But in recent months, and thanks to the growing use of cellular phones and Wifi access around the island, social networks have circulated several videos showing that Cubans are starting to complain against abuses, including arbitrary police crack downs on dissidents and non-state workers.
The circulation of those videos may well be what government officials refer to when they have repeatedly warned about the “dangers” of the Internet and the need to prepare for a “cyberwar.”
UNPACU, which is very active in social networks, has published several videos of these types of anti-government protests, many of them spontaneous — and unlike the protests regularly scheduled by the dissident Ladies in White group and other opposition activists to highlight the lack of civil and political freedoms in Cuba.
#TodosMarchamos — We All March — a campaign launched by several opposition groups to demand an end to repression and the release of political prisoners, posted a You Tube video in early March showing the silent protest of a young Havana man, his mouth taped over, whose bicycle-powered taxi had been confiscated by police. When two policemen try to arrest the man, people in the crowd are heard shouting, “down with the dictatorship” and “abusers.”
Another video published in March by Univision 23 reporter Mario Vallejo shows a crowd protesting when police try to arrest a woman in the El Cerro neighborhood of Havana. When three police officers tried to force the woman into a patrol car, people in the crowd drag her away and free her, leaving the police clearly bewildered.
“It is no longer just the political dissidents protesting and pushing back against police repression but now the people who live alongside them,” said sociologist Ted Henken, a Baruch College professor who studies Cuba. Until now, he added, the government has succeeded in isolating the dissidents from the everyday concerns of the general population, but that may be changing.
Unclear is how many of the protests are due to an expanding dissatisfaction or a loss of fear, or both issues combined. And perhaps more protests are being reported only because it's easier to record them and transmit the images abroad.
“It's very hard to know if there's more protests and frustration, or we're simply seeing more because of the technologies,” said Henken. “What is important is the fact that inexpensive and ubiquitous technologies allow both activists and bystanders to film and publish acts of repression with an ease and immediacy that we have never seen before.”
Sebastian Arcos, deputy director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said that the protests are the result of the “ideological and economic breakdown of the Cuban regime” that started with the collapse of the Soviet Union and resulting crash of the Cuban economy.
“If the regime can no longer hand out economic privileges like it used to, and no longer has an ideological justification for its existence, it begins to lose support. People are frustrated and start to make spontaneous gestures of rejection toward the regime,” Arcos said. “It is a natural part of the breakdown of a totalitarian or authoritarian regime,” he said, that parallel the events that preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Arcos stressed he does not link the increase in anti-government protests exclusively to the new Obama administration policy of easing U.S. sanctions on Cuba.
Henken said, however, that “the Obama charm offensive, masterfully deployed during his visit to the island,” may have played a role. The changes in U.S. policy, combined with the reforms launched by Cuban ruler Raúl Castro, may have helped to generate high hopes among the island's population for economic and political improvements.
He added that Castro's reforms “the internal reforms of the government have not kept pace with the rising expectations of the people leading to more frustration and more public protests - a simultaneous loss of fear of repression or punishment and a growth of discontent and frustration.”
Henken used sociology's concept of “relative deprivation” to explain the events. “People don't protest when things are bad, but instead when they perceive their situation has worsened compared to their expectations or the situation of other groups,” he said.
The recent Communist Party congress, which made no significant changes to Cuba's economic or political policies, “must have disappointed some people who had some hope for improvement,” Arcos said.
Increasingly daring complaints against the government also have appeared among bloggers, activists and journalists, especially those who write for non-government publications.
Isbel Díaz Torres, a biologist and LGBT rights activist, recently wrote in the
Havana Times web page that Castro's opening speech to the Communist Party Congress “made me cringe” because it showed “such grave gaps in knowledge and so few diplomatic abilities” when the Cuban leader touched on the issues of human rights.
Ferrer, Arcos and Henken cautioned against excessive optimism.
Although Cuba's economic crisis may be limiting the resources devoted to security forces at the Interior Ministry and other state agencies, “the government still has control of the domestic situation,” Arcos said.
Henken noted the government also can use the new technologies to control and repress the population in a more effective manner.
Ferrer said that although UNPACU managed to gather hundreds of Santiago area residents for the kids' outing, the opposition has limited financial resources and “the repression still frightens many people. Our mission is to start reducing that fear, and the regime's mission is to keep that fear in the heart of all Cubans.”
“It is a slow and lengthy process” but an inexorable one, said Arcos, adding that the process might well be described with Castro's famous phrase about the pace of his economic reforms: “Without haste but without pause.”