A sign of hope from Havana

Oppositionists divine signs for the Castro regime's political destabilization

By Sebastian Grundberger
Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V.
(Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation), 27.08.2010

Orlando Zapata Tamayo, Cuban political prisoner who was sentenced 2003 to 15 years of detention, died after 84 days of hunger strike against torture and miserable prison conditions. 

The last months were full of movement in an else wise lethargic Cuban political everyday life between state propaganda and an economy of scarcity. The hunger striking Orlando Zapata Tamayo's death in February, the following hunger strike of the oppositional journalist Guillermo Farinas, the release of until now 28 political prisoners and the reappearance of Fidel Castro, the aged Leader of the Cuban Revolution, did create a new political situation. The democratic opposition needs to attune to this, too.

In this process two of the most moulded dissidents divine explicit signs for a weakening of the dictatorship. Both hope for the beginning of the Castro regime's end. But international solidarity with the democratic opposition would be of outstanding importance in order that it really starts soon.

When thinking about his eleven months imprisonment the else wise happy doctor Darsi Ferrer abruptly becomes serious. "This was completely hell", he reports – and on two square meters space for each person and meals which actually were meant to be for pigs. This time of suffering for Ferrer is now over. As one of the first oppositionists he was released on June 22 as a result of an agreement between the Catholic Church, the Spanish government and the Castro dictatorship. In contrast to 26 other released dissidents he was allowed to return to his wife and his son to Havana and had not to choose between prison and exile.

While his imprisonment Ferrer continued to work for the democratic opposition. "Almost every week I bootlegged something out of prison", he reports. Only because of this "inner rebellion" he was able to resist the imprisonment. Ferrer’s will is unbroken. "They could arrest me again. I will always remain rebellious". He does not accept the Cuban judicial system: "Some days ago an elderly man brought me a citation for court. I pulled it to pieces and said: If you want to arrest me again, please come by with a patrol. I will not stay in front of an illegal tribunal". The last two months the defender of human rights had to suffer further repressions. Some of these just seem absurd. Some days ago agents by order of the government simply cut out the glass windows of his miserable first floor apartment, he reports.

Fidel Castro's comeback creates chaos in Cuba

Dr. Darsi Ferrer, founding member of the ISHR Section Cuba 

Nonetheless Darsi Ferrer seems hopeful. Especially the last weeks' events are the reason for that. Ferrer speaks a long time about Fidel Castro's reappearance on the political stage. However, in contrast to some others he does not interpret it as an upcoming increase of repressions. Contrariwise: "If Fidel gives interviews on TV, one almost does not understand him. The whole world sees right now how he becomes senile. And the Cuban people also see it". Although the Leader of the Revolution, who just became 84, warns in reflections which are filling pages in the state newspaper "Granma" of an upcoming atomic war which is completely made up out of thin air, he goes on removing himself.

Ferrer is convinced that the Cubans are not that dumb to believe all this. But in particular a power vacuum is created by Fidel Castro’s reappearance: "Nobody right now knows exactly who is actually ruling Cuba – Fidel, Raul or anybody else", Ferrer believes.

The situation in Cuba is becoming chaotic more and more. The regime is too much keeping itself busy with its own survival, as if it could achieve its censorship and spying as effective as still some years ago. In accordance with opinion polls Ferrer carries out, the government just sees its popularity’s bottom. Less than ten percent of all respondents have a positive opinion about Raul Castro.

Because of this, Darsi Ferrer imagines a time slot when the opposition can make public appearance more frequent. Now it is especially important to center the various oppositional groups and parties in some central demands and to put in these demands totally public to the government. He believes that the democratic opposition is facing a huge challenge: "Until now we are mainly a moral power. Now we need to accomplish to become a civil and political power".

Release of dissidents shall save the regime's power

Juan Carlos Leiva, founding member of the ISHR Section Cuba, with his wife Tania Maceda Guerra

Also the blind civil rights activist and advocate Juan Carlos Leiva sees in the recent releases of, until now, 28 political prisoners mainly the desperate attempt of a weakening government to save its power some more years: "With the release the government ditches many problems at the same time", the founder of the "Council of the Cuban Human Rights reporters" explains. On the one hand side the possible hunger death of the dissident Guillermo Farinas was avoided: "The government would not have stand another dead person after Orlando Zapata", Leiva is convinced.

Further on the release is an effective mean to weaken the protest movement of the "Ladies in white" (Damas de Blanco). This organisation, which was awarded with the Sakharov award by the European parliament, was founded by wives and relatives of the 75 arrested civil rights activists who were put in jail while the "Black Spring" in 2003. Since then the Damas de Blanco march every Sunday peacefully in a white dress through the streets of Havanna for remembering the prisoner’s destiny.

Now, as more and more of the 75 prisoners are released, the basis of the "Ladies in white" breaks down, especially because some left the country together with the former prisoners.

However, the Cuban government"s most important aim is a stronger international acceptance, Leiva is convinced. To allow the European Union’s Common Position on Cuba from 1996, which any relation with the Cuban government connects with the respect for essential human rights, to expire is particularly essential for the Castro brothers. Juan Carlos Leiva warns the European Union to be impressed by the Castro dictatorship and to withdraw the Common Position. Thus, one would possibly help the dictatorship to delay the democratic change.

The democratic opposition's bleeding

Juan Carlos Leiva appreciates his release: "I still prefer the prisoners to go into exile alive, and not them being released from prison as semi-cadavers”. Nonetheless the democratic movement in Cuba bleeds to death because of the exile of dozens of moulded oppositionists. "We need the people for the change in Cuba, not spread somewhere in the world", Juan Carlos Leiva warns.

In general the blind civil rights activist is aware of a change in the regime's tactic: "The government changed its way of acting. Instead of arresting people, they try to control them on the streets". Because of this intimidations still are part of everyday life. His phone connection for example is arbitrarily cut off over and over again. Furthermore he is threatened by short time arrestments right now.


Hope for change

Both Darsi Ferrer and Juan Carlos Leiva believe that the Castro dictatorship's zenith has exceeded long since. Both do also agree about the date which could have started the definite change – 23 February 2010. This day Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after 86 day in hunger strike in the hospital of Camagüey.

Darsi Ferrer believes that Zapata will make Cuban history as "martyr" for freedom. A sign for that is also the fact that the deceased’s mother is the aim of very aggressive harassments right now. In the beginning of August she was bashed brutally by a special force of the State Security in the East Cuban town of Holguin, both human rights defenders report congruently.

For Darsi Ferrer and Juan Carlos Leiva it is important that the international community continues to support the dissidents and does not allow to become blinded by the Cuban dictator ship. Anyway, both are going to fight for democracy and human rights in the country with undamped power. If necessary also without phone connection and windows.

Sebastian Grundberger is advisor for Latin America, International Society for Human Rights (ISHR).
The human rights defenders Darsi Ferrer and Juan Carlos Leiva are founding members of the ISHR Cuban section.