For most of his career as a Cuban dissident leader, through his 2003 arrest and seven years as a political prisoner, José Daniel Ferrer was repeatedly pressed by the Cuban government to leave the country and not come back. He repeatedly refused.
It was only this spring — when Cuban officials offered a one-time chance to travel abroad and return to Cuba — that he took them up on it. As with many actions of the island’s communist leadership, there was no explanation.
Ferrer, 45, does not believe it signals a change of heart or loosening of government restrictions on basic civil rights. If anything, he said, “the dismal situation continues.” Arrests of members of his organization, the Cuban Patriotic Union, and others have increased this year.
In meetings and speeches in the United States and in Europe over the next several weeks, Ferrer said in an interview Tuesday, he will urge the outside world to “maintain and increase solidarity with those of us struggling for a free Cuba through peaceful means,” even as business deals are made and tourism flourishes.
“As more Americans and tourists continue to visit Cuba and show solidarity with the opposition, of course they’re welcomed by us,” he said. “But if they only go to speak with the regime and negotiate with the regime, it doesn’t help us achieve freedom and democracy.”
Ferrer chose his words carefully when asked if he shares the view of some here and in Cuba that the Obama administration should have demanded more of the government of President Raúl Castro before normalizing relations between the two countries.
“Finding the right formula is very complex,” he said. “That is true as much for the U.S. government as for the rest of the free world.” Efforts to positively influence events in Cuba “always run the risk that the regime is the one that wins.”
The United States, Ferrer said, is “the greatest ally of Cuban democracy . . . for the simple reason that it’s closest and has the greatest economic power.”
Ferrer was among a group of about a dozen dissidents who met with President Obama during his visit to Havana this spring. In recent months, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, has twice invited Ferrer to “talk about the Cuban reality and in particular how things are going in the east,” where UNPACU, as Ferrer’s group is known by its Spanish acronym, is based in the city of Santiago.
A tall, charismatic man with a deep voice, Ferrer is a new breed of Cuban dissident — using activism to show the population that they can overcome their fear of repression, and using a wide array of technology, including DVDs, an active website and social media, to spread information. UNPACU is the largest and arguably most effective such group on the island, with thousands of members.
“We recruit and train a vanguard . . . to peacefully confront the regime” and to send a message to both the government and the population that “we’re not afraid,” he said. Their marches and demonstrations frequently result in arrests and beatings by security forces, and Ferrer has been arrested countless times.
But “if we only concentrate on that kind of action,” he said, UNPACU would never number more than several hundred activists. Instead, it combines protest with social activism — feeding the poor, providing medicine to the sick, running activities for children and “serving as a bridge for victims of injustice” by broadcasting their treatment to the world.
“Our goal is to continue growing the number of people in the streets and to continue to grow,” he said.
One of 75 prominent dissidents arrested in 2003 during what is known as Cuba’s “Black Spring,” Ferrer was sentenced to 25 years for his work in gathering signatures for the Varela Project, a petition for a nationwide referendum on opening Cuba to greater political and civil freedoms.
One of the last to be released as part of a deal negotiated by the government of Spain and the Cuban Catholic church, he remains on probation and liable to be forced to complete his sentence at any time.
Despite the increase in short-term political arrests this year, Ferrer said he believes that “the struggle is going to get easier” once Raúl Castro follows through on his pledge to step down in 2018.
The aging Castros — Raúl and his brother Fidel, who ruled the island from the 1959 revolution until he stepped down in 2006 — “like Stalin in the Soviet Union and Hitler in Germany, have created a mentality that they are invincible,” Ferrer said. “The next person won’t be able to do that.”