Cuba dissident movement suffers blow with leaders' deaths

 

Two of the country's top government critics have died nine months apart, leaving a depleted opposition that was already being eclipsed by a new generation.

 

Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

 

MEXICO CITY - The abrupt deaths of two ofCuba'stop dissidents barely nine months apart represent a demoralizing blow to a movement already weakened by time and government-sponsored harassment.

 

Democracy activist Oswaldo Paya was killed July 22 when the driver of his car lost control while speeding and hit an unpaved patch of roadway in eastern Cuba, authorities said. The government identified the driver as a Spaniard, who was hurt along with a Swede also in the car. Another dissident traveling with the group was also killed.

 

Paya, 60, was one of the most respected dissidents in Cuba, a devout Roman Catholic who spent decades criticizing the Castro governments and urging peaceful democratic change. Although the opposition movement in Cuba is tiny, authorities used Paya's funeral to round up about 40 activists and briefly arrest them, a move widely criticized by human rights groups.

 

In October, Laura Pollan, a founder of the Ladies in White group, which has fought on behalf of political prisoners, died in a Cuban hospital after a sudden respiratory illness.

 

In both cases, the families raised questions about the circumstances and suggested the possibility of foul play, though they presented no evidence.

 

Even as they mourn, dissidents will have to dig deep into their depleted ranks to find new leaders and continue their struggle.

 

Already, the movement that Paya, Pollan and others led was in some ways being eclipsed by a new generation of dissidents and critics of the regime who use blogs, music and even poetry readings to demand freedoms.

 

"That is where the new voices are, the new ideas," said Ted Henken, an expert on Cuba at the City University of New York. And they have broader reach and deeper connection to people on the island, something that Paya and the older activists could not claim.

 

But, Henken added, that was not to say that Paya and the others didn't play a role in dissent.

 

"They are relevant to the international dialogue on Cuba," he said, "the boomerang of international pressure."

 

U.S. diplomatic cables dated 2009, released by WikiLeaks, were harsh in their criticism of Paya and dissidents of his ilk, calling them out of touch and torn by petty rivalries.

 

Still, Paya holds a special place in Cuba's political struggle. In an unheard-of campaign in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he managed to collect nearly 25,000 signatures in a petition drive that was aimed at forcing the Cuban National Assembly to consider laws that would guarantee civil rights such as freedom of assembly and speech.

 

It was called the Varela Project and was widely seen as one of the most important nonviolent challenges to the Castro regime; it won praise from President Carter and helped earn Paya the European Union's top human rights award.

 

Then-President Fidel Castro responded by having the socialist revolution officially declared "irreversible," and the National Assembly rejected the petition. In spring 2003, 75 dissidents were imprisoned for long terms; many of them with Paya's group.

 

Those arrests in the so-called Black Spring gave rise to Pollan's Ladies, many of them the wives, mothers or sisters of the jailed activists. They fought for years to free their relatives, staging small protest marches that often got heckled and harassed by pro-government mobs.

 

Although dissidents were occasionally released over the years, it took the intervention of the Roman Catholic Church to free most of the men, and not until the last few years. Most had to agree to go into exile.

 

With all the high-profile political prisoners freed, human rights organizations say, Cuban authorities have turned to a different tactic, as illustrated by the detentions at the Paya funeral. Instead of long sentences, activists are arrested and held briefly, then released and fined. The goal is a steady drip-drip of nuisance and intimidation, say groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

 

Yoani Sanchez, a Cuban dissident blogger who has gotten international attention, represents the new generation of protesters now overshadowing the work of people like Paya.

 

But after his death, she paid tribute to the trailblazer.

 

"Cuba has suffered a dramatic loss in its present and an irreplaceable absence in its future," she wrote on her Generation Y blog. "The great lesson that he leaves us is equanimity, pacifism, ethics above differences, the conviction that with civic action and legality, an inclusive Cuba is within our reach."

 

 

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