Irreverent youth, activist in the Christian Liberation Movement's early days, political prisoner and now leader of Cuba's most active opposition group, José Daniel Ferrer is probably one of the biggest headaches for the island's government.
One of the 75 political prisoners jailed in the 2003 crackdown known as Cuba's Black Spring, the 45-year-old Ferrer was one of the last to be freed in 2011 under a parole that barred him from leaving the country. He arrived in Miami last week, after the government gave him a one-time permission to travel abroad.
After his release Ferrer founded the Cuban Patriotic Union, UNPACU by its Spanish initials, which he estimates now has more than 3,000 members and sympathizers, mostly in Santiago de Cuba and other parts of eastern Cuba although it also has members in Havana, Camaguey and the Isle of Youth.
How he managed to gather those 3,000 supporters — a number that is small in an island of 11 million people yet is significantly large compared to other dissident organizations — is a question with more than one answer.
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He is a clearly charismatic leader, and even in prison he managed to persuade the jailers to improve the quality of the food or rush an inmate to a nearby hospital. His love for politics, he told Nuevo Herald and Miami Herald editors on Thursday, grew as he listened clandestinely to foreign radio broadcasts. He described himself as a voracious reader, and more than once quoted Chinese strategist Sun Tzu's book, The Art of War.
Czech leader Vaclav Havel was another idol.
“When I completed my military service in 1991, I got a copy of Vaclav Havel's book, The Power of the Powerless, and I understood that we could topple the dictatorship,” he said. “Until that time, the question of whether I would leave (Cuba) or stay was in the air. But the fall of the Communist bloc and this book encouraged me to start the struggle.”
What's more, Ferrer has organized UNPACU for maximum efficiency, and the movement now has a structure and way of operating that look much like those of a political party. Although Cuba bans all but the Communist Party, Ferrer acknowledges that turning UNPACU into a political party is one of his goals.
Members have concrete and clear goals to meet, and they are checked regularly. One important part of their work is face-to-face contacts, trying to persuade others to join the group. They receive training to do just that.
If anything distinguishes UNPACU from other dissident groups in Cuba, it is that ability to move beyond street protests.
Ferrer said that “valiant work in the streets” is indispensable for showing the government that there is “a vanguard that is not afraid of it” — an important message to persuade the rest of the people that change is possible and that the opposition has at least some chance of winning
But Ferrer also lists other key activities: humanitarian assistance to the poor “without asking for anything in return,” and an “intelligent outreach” with the organization's anti-Castro message.
That's another strong side of UNPACU, which maintains an active presence in social networks, constantly publishes videos of its activities and man-on-the-street interviews on topics like the rising food prices, and goes door-to-door distributing thousands of DVDs and flash drives with its work or foreign news reports. Occasionally, they also manage to sneak UNPACU information into the paquete — the weekly digital archive of entertainment, news and other items sold throughout the island and the main source of independent information for most Cubans.
UNPACU also creates its own educational materials from a broad range of sources, including Hollywood movies edited “to encourage people to lose their fear” or to generate discussions at group meetings.
“No one wishes for what they don't know, and no one loses their fear if they don't see that others have liberated themselves, that they have lost their fear,” he said.
Ferrer said that one of the positive results of President Barack Obama's recent visit to Cuba, aside from the visitor's meeting with a group of dissidents that included the UNPACU chief, was the media spotlight trained on the island for a few days.
“When Obama went to Cuba, dozens of journalists from the free world also went and asked us about the political prisoners, the basic freedoms,” he said. UNPACU activists later copied the articles published and distributed them “house to house. Then people can say, 'they really are right, because the newspaper said so.'”
Ferrer stressed that this work of disseminating information is essential in a place like Cuba, where the mass media is totally and tightly controlled by the Communist Party.
“A people that for so many years has received only the information allowed by its oppressors cannot see things in the way that a free person sees them, for example in Miami, where they can see as many newspapers as they want,” he added.
Another UNPACU initiative has been the elaboration of a “minimum program” for a transition, in which the organization calls for economic reforms, a new electoral law, a free press and the release of all political prisoners, as well as decent wages and food security. It also declares that “health, together with education and social welfare, will be considered a non-negotiable right of all Cubans” — an ideal that aligns the dissident group with the desires of many Cubans on the island.
UNPACU also is trying to use the micro-enterprises allowed by the government to sustain its members and make up for the emigration of many of its members, who have been joining the exodus shaking up the island in the last few years.
What's more, all of the group's activities take place under the tight vigilance and repression from Cuba's political police, which constantly tries to keep the opposition from continuing to grow.
Aware of the government's power to “intimidate,” his strategy has been to use small activities to slowly move toward “the democratization of Cuba,” Ferrer said.
After 90 minutes of conversation with the Herald and el Nuevo Herald, it's clear that his leadership accounts for UNPACU's success. But what would happen if the organization suddenly loses its leader?
“It's a risk, but there are other people in other organizations. In fact, I have said (to members) on several occasions that if I disappear and they don't feel they are capable of carrying on with UNPACU, they should end the organization and join the United Anti-Totaliarian Front, the Pedro Luis Boitel Movement or the Ladies in White,” he answered, referring to some of Cuba's other dissident movements.
Ferrer already has urged other dissident organization to put aside their differences over the changes in U.S. policies toward Cuba and agree on common aspects under a Democratic Action Unity Roundtable, which backs initiatives such as trying to register independent candidates for legislative elections in 2017.
“We have to be active in all sectors of society. We have to battle the regime in any arena where we can,” said Ferrer, who is scheduled to visit several other cities in the United States and Europe before returning to the island.
“We cannot allow them to feel comfortable any place,” he said with a smile. “Anywhere they are, they should feel the heat. They should feel the chair is a little tight.”