Fidel Castro

Prison, death, exile: Outcomes of peaceful opposition to a communist Cuba

Members of the Cuban dissident group 'Ladies in White' hold images of late dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo as supporters of Cuba's government chant revolutionary slogans on the first anniversary of Zapata's death in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011. Tamayo died Feb. 23, 2010 after an 83-day hunger strike while he was imprisoned for disrespecting authority. Ladies in White is a group of relatives of Cuban dissidents who were or are still imprisoned.
Members of the Cuban dissident group 'Ladies in White' hold images of late dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo as supporters of Cuba's government chant revolutionary slogans on the first anniversary of Zapata's death in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011. Tamayo died Feb. 23, 2010 after an 83-day hunger strike while he was imprisoned for disrespecting authority. Ladies in White is a group of relatives of Cuban dissidents who were or are still imprisoned. AP

There are 44 years of dissidence between Cuban human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez and street protester Sara Martha Fonseca, four and a half decades of peaceful opposition to a communist system that jails people for simply “disrespecting” Fidel Castro.

In between were the Ladies in White, bloggers like Yoani Sánchez, independent groups of journalists, librarians and lawyers, Afro-Cubans, Catholic and Protestant and gay rights activists and everyone else struggling for human and civil rights.

The Cuban government has branded them all as “counterrevolutionaries” and “mercenaries” on the U.S. payroll. It has thrown thousands of them in prison, freed them, forced them into exile abroad and then jailed thousands more again.

Yet the dissidents not only survived but evolved into today’s many-headed, multi-cause movement that, while still relatively small and little known inside Cuba, is bigger than ever and commands intense attention and respect abroad.

Blogger Yoani Sánchez won an armful of international prizes. The European Union awarded its Sakharov prize for human rights in 2010 to Guillermo Fariñas and in 2005 to the Ladies in White, female relatives of political prisoners.

Only a handful believe they can topple the system. But through sheer defiance and persistence, they have carved out spaces once thought impossible — for the Ladies in White the right to march down the streets of Havana every Sunday, for others the possibility of uncensored access to Sánchez’s blog.

“The important thing is that as recently as 1987 there were only 10 of us in Havana, and now there are thousands of us throughout the country,” said Elizardo Sánchez, who has spent 44 of his 70 years as a human rights activist — 8½ of them in prison.

A former professor of Marxist philosophy at the University of Havana, he broke with Fidel Castro in 1967 and now heads the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which meticulously monitors and tabulates government abuses.

Compare that with Fonseca, a 47-year-old high school dropout who staged a string of stunningly daring protests in very public places, including the Capitol building in central Havana, with the declared intent of sparking a street disturbance.

Yet Fonseca sees no difference between the many generations of dissent.

“We have one same destiny, to oppose the government,” she said. “Some do it with human rights, some with technology, like the bloggers. My thing is the streets, to take our message to the people and look for ways to have the people join us.”

Elizardo Sánchez acknowledges that he is the last of the founders of the dissident movement still living in Cuba. Many others, like Gustavo Arcos, have died. Dozens of others went into exile abroad after suffering years of government persecution.

They were followed by more politically minded dissidents like Oswaldo Payá, whose Varela Project collected 25,000 signatures demanding a referendum on the communist system, and Héctor Palacios of the Liberal Union. Payá died in 2012 in what the Cuban government says was a traffic accident and what his family insists was a crash caused by state security agents. His immediate family now lives in South Florida.

Other leaders have included hardliners like former Cuban air force MiG pilot Vladimiro Roca and economist Martha Beatriz Roque; Catholic activists like Dagoberto Valdés; and Oscar Elías Biscet, a physician who started out alleging abuses in abortion procedures.

U.S. diplomats in Havana reported in 2009 that dissidents were “the conscience of Cuba” and blamed many of their setbacks on penetrations by Cuban government agents designed to fuel internal rivalries.

But the dispatch, made public by Wikileaks, went on to report that the “traditional dissidents” were old, carried little weight on the island and were unlikely to play a significant role in its future.

“We see very little evidence that the main-line dissident organizations have much resonance among ordinary Cubans,” it said. They also “have little contact with younger Cubans and, to the extent they have a message... it does not appeal to that segment.”

The cable suggested U.S. policy should look more to “the younger generation of nontraditional dissidents” like bloggers and artists “likely to have a greater long term impact on post-Castro Cuba."

Fidel Castro tried to crush dissent once and for all in 2003, when his security forces arrested 75 government critics across the island and his courts sentenced them to up to 28 years in prison in a string of one and two-day trials known as Cuba’s Black Spring. All were declared “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International.

But just weeks later, wives, mothers and daughters of the prisoners who had met while visiting their male relatives in jail began staging Sunday marches down Havana streets dressed in white and carrying pink gladioli.

The Ladies in White eventually became the only opposition group usually allowed by security forces to stage such street protests, and helped push Raúl Castro into agreeing in mid-2010 to free the last of the 75 dissidents still in jail. Most were taken directly from prison to the Havana airport to board flights to exile in Spain, and only 12 remain on the island.

In his final years in power, Fidel Castro’s repressive tactics shifted from long prison sentences to short-term detentions — with the dissidents sometimes dropped off in remote areas. Elizardo Sánchez reported 8,899 such arbitrary short-term detentions in 2014, nearly 2,500 more than the previous year.

Dissidents also were subjected to verbal and physical harassment by government-organized mobs and pressured to leave the island.

Yet the opposition movement continued to grow and evolve, along with the technology.

Yoani Sánchez, who started out posting anonymously on the frustrations of daily life, had by 2008 become the world-famous face of a digital opposition movement that included some 40 blogs, ranging from her Generación Y to Cubanoconfesante, written by Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso, a Protestant pastor based in rural Taguayabón.

The new crop of bloggers — some prefer to be called “independent” or “alternative” writers rather than “dissident” — now include a former Cuban government counter-intelligence analyst, a lawyer, a photographer and several gay-rights activists and university students. Their blogs are based on servers abroad to get around the censorship, and are often then emailed back to the island.

Trying to fight back, the government has deployed squads of pro-revolution bloggers, most of them state employees, and created internet sites especially designed to engage in a “cyberwar” against the “cybermercenaries.”

Sánchez pushed on, founding a blogger’s academy and opening a Twitter account that almost immediately alerts to arrests and other government abuses. Most recently, she launched a digital news site called 14ymedio.

In the latest evolution of the dissidence, Fonseca and other women set out to stage protests in public places with the stated hope of getting people to join them and sparking a street disturbance.

The strategy of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), the largest and most active dissident group on the island, especially in eastern Cuba, is even more ambitious. Its leader, José Daniel Ferrer, one of the 75 arrested in 2003, has insisted on the opposition movement’s “need to coordinate more and more actions across the country” and work “with the people, person by person” in order to reinvent itself.

“When we persist in maintaining the old paradigms and these demonstrate patriotism, heroism, sacrifice, but do not attract the population, we must modernize our strategies,” Ferrer told el Nuevo Herald. With that goal, UNPACU has developed one of the most effective media strategies within the opposition movement by providing a steady stream of news, videos and other content on the internet.

Palacios, another of the so-called “75,” said that the greatest challenge facing the opposition is to establish a strong bond with the Cuban people, “who are the only ones who can change the situation on the island. Until the population has faith in the opposition movement and we educate ourselves to prepare for change, it will not happen.”

Said Ferrer: “Nobody will get on a boat they are told will sink 15 miles offshore. It's the same with the Cuban people: They are eager to take part in an expedition toward freedom and democracy but they want to make sure they are on a sturdy ship, in this case the opposition movement, and they want to see good captains on the bridge who know how to navigate.”

Even Fonseca, the feisty protestor, acknowledged that the government’s repressive tactics could force her to reach for exile abroad — a safety valve that has helped keep the dissident movement relatively small and isolated over the past five decades.

“I have two roads ahead, and I know them very well,” she said in 2011. “On one road I would go to prison, and I would not come out alive. I know that would end my life. The other is to leave. It’s not what I want. But it is one road.”

Fonseca indeed went into exile in the United States on Jan. 7, 2014. She now lives with her family in New Jersey.

Elizardo Sánchez, first arrested in 1972 on charges of “expressing criticism of Comandante Fidel Castro,” said he accepts that the road ahead for dissidents appears to be long and hard.

Sánchez himself suffered a blow to his reputation in 2003 following the release of a video showing a state security officer giving him a medal. Sánchez denied the accusation and said he was set up, but dissidents have long had to contend with infiltrations by state security agents to promote internal conflict. Likewise, those linked to funds funneled by the United States to pro-democracy programs in Cuba have had to fend off accusations of being U.S. mercenaries.

Antonio Rodiles, a human rights activist who has led a demand for the government to ratify several United Nations covenants, said that trying to propel change without outside financial assistance is nearly impossible because the Cuban government prevents dissidents from generating “their own resources, especially to pay for a project that could challenge the existing power. All that is coldly calculated. To say that a Cuban can generate the necessary resources internally to contribute to a regime change is totally absurd.”

Rodiles also warned that dissident groups should be more selective with their members: “The opposition movement in Cuba must have a clear profile of the people it wants within so that it can really gain prestige within Cuban society. Otherwise, the government will use that to try to denigrate the opposition movement.”

“The role of the dissidence has always been to present an alternative to the totalitarian system,” said Elizardo Sánchez. “So the best we can do is to do our work, and allow the younger people to perform the role that falls to them.

“Society will generate its next leaders,” he said, adding a reference to the Polish labor leader who helped end the communist rule of his nation. “The Lech Walesas of Cuba are in the future.”

Miami Herald staff writer Nancy San Martin contributed to this report.