Dissidents struggle to regroup as US, Cuba move closer

 

AFP

 

Havana.- Dissidents in Cuba keen to get off the sidelines are reeling after the United States and the communist government said they will seek to end decades of Cold War bad blood.

 

Following news of the historic shift, announced December 17, many members of illegal opposition groups were riled by what they see as a US failure to get Havana to make specific pledges on human rights before seeking a new relationship.

 

Ultimately, “the closer ties (with the United States) are not good news. They end up breathing life into the Cuban government,” the Americas' only communist regime, said Berta Soler, a leader of the Ladies in White dissidents group.

 

“We don't see any connection between the announcement (of the planned rapprochement) and some benefit for the people of Cuba,” said Soler, whose group of political prisoners' families marches in Havana seeking basic human rights guarantees.

 

For Jose Daniel Ferrer, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU, based in the east) the move "could be good news."

 

But the Americans would have to press Havana on making rights progress when delegations from both sides meet in the Cuban capital January 21-22, he said.

 

“The United States has got to demand specific human rights changes" at that meeting the first at which the countries will start working toward reestablishing full diplomatic ties.”

 

- Rights still matter: US -

 

For more than 50 years, the United States railed against Cuba's unwillingness to allow more than one political party. The country still lacks freedom of speech or assembly.

 

More than one million Cubans have emigrated in over a half century, almost a tenth of the population. The economy has hit jaw-dropping new lows since the fall of old patrons led by Moscow; that relationship later was replaced by political and economic dependence on key ally Venezuela.

 

Amazingly after so many years of stasis, the neighbors' bilateral relationship finally has begun to evolve.

 

So when US President Barack Obama announced his Cuba policy overhaul last month, he insisted it would, in the end, help protect human rights in Cuba.

 

“This list (of political prisoners freed whose release was sought by the United States) is not to be seen as the end of our discussion on human rights with the government of Cuba,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

 

She pledged top US officials would raise the issue when they meet later this month with Cuban counterparts in Havana for the start of talks on normalizing ties.

 

For many dissidents, prying specific promises from President Raul Castro remains a must.

 

After the December announcement, Castro said he would discuss any topic with Washington, but warned not to expect political change.

 

“The European Union (already working on closer ties with Cuba) and the United States must condition their work with the Cuban government,” Soler argued.

 

“If they are not asked for anything (specific) in exchange (for dialogue) the government is going to keep doing whatever it pleases,” she said, adding: “We expect nothing at all from the government.”

 

- No big change looms -

 

Elizardo Sanchez, a prominent dissident from the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Committee, said he is expecting no particular shift from Castro as concerns human, civil or political rights.

 

“There won't be any dramatic change in the short term,” he said, recalling Castro's own remarks to that effect.

 

Officially banned, with no access to media, and virtually unknown across this Caribbean country of 11 million, Cuba's dissidents are fighting a massive battle just to keep going.

 

Even Internet usage is a mighty struggle. Access in Cuba is largely limited to government employees and pricey pay-by-hour public service.

 

Since 2013, a number of long-time opposition members and younger dissident bloggers have packed up and left the country to criticize the Castro regime from abroad. Yet most have ultimately not been able to communicate with Cubans on their home island.

 

Since news of a new outlook for US-Cuban ties was announced, there have been ups and downs for regime opponents here.

 

Last week, about 50 from among their ranks were detained as a performance artist readied to host an open microphone event in Revolution Square. The artist was arrested and the event was not held.

 

Then some days later, Cuban authorities started releasing people on a list of 53 political prisoners whose release the United States had sought. More than 40 had been freed by late Friday, dissidents said.

 

“The most important thing is to free every political prisoner,” said Soler. Dissidents had said there were about 100 in December.

 

Ferrer said that while US ideological support might be beneficial, technical and communications equipment cooperation could go a lot further.

 

“If they can help us out with communications, and getting Internet access, that will help us reach society, reach the people,” he said.

 

The government has opened some Internet cafes. But it costs $4.50 an hour to connect, a high price for most Cubans, who make under $20 a month.

 

 

Cubanálisis - El Think-Tank

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