HAVANA — President Obama’s outreach to Cuba, intended to open doors for human rights and political activists here, has also opened divisions within the island’s small, tight-knit dissident community.
While many here see opportunity in restored diplomatic ties and expanded U.S. trade and travel to Cuba, others charge betrayal.
Their disagreements mirror those in the United States. Critics, led by Cuban American lawmakers, charge that Obama has sold an end to five decades of estrangement with Cuba too cheaply. But the new policy has garnered bipartisan support from many in Congress, as well as from a wide range of U.S. business and human rights leaders.
As State Department officials met with their Cuban counterparts here late last month, activist leaders held competing news conferences. The Cuban Patriotic Union, or UNPACU, the island’s largest dissident organization, posted man-on-the-street interviews on YouTube.
“I think it’s positive,” said one man who, like the others, was unidentified. “The United States above all governments in the world can help alleviate the misery we have here. . . . I like President Obama. I think he’s a good guy.”
A woman in a pink sundress said no one here would benefit. “What’s going to survive is the [Cuban] government. We’re not going to see any change.”
Despite ongoing arrests and sharply limited freedom of expression and assembly, Cuba’s repressive system has lightened up somewhat in recent years. Cellphones and the Internet, though restricted and primitive, have nonetheless given dissidents new ways to communicate with each other and the world.
While dozens are still serving lengthy prison sentences imposed in decades past, the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation recorded 178 political detentions in January, virtually all of them lasting a few hours or days before release, the lowest level in years.
A decade ago, “10 people in the street” was a major demonstration, said Commission head Elizardo Sánchez, 69, “Now there are thousands of us.”
José Daniel Ferrer, 44, the executive secretary of UNPACU, thinks that the opening is good news for dissidents — provided the United States keeps up its human rights pressure.
Some of his organization’s 5,000 members have doubts, he said. But “only 200 to 300 are thinking of leaving” the group to protest its approval of the U.S.-Cuba agreement.
One of them may be Felix Navarro Rodriguez, a farmer and teacher in his late 50s from Matanzas province in central Cuba.
Since the Dec. 17 announcement of a move to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations, which came after 18 months of secret talks, “only one side has benefited — the government of Cuba,” said Navarro, who like Ferrer was arrested during Cuba’s “Black Spring” of 2003 and held until 2011.
“What’s no secret is that the jails here are still full,” he said. “The United States has turned its back on these people.”
Beyond the in-your-face demonstrations of UNPACU, whose members march and distribute manifestos openly on the street, there are activist organizations here that eschew confrontation.
The founders of Cuba Posible, a Catholic Church offshoot, consider themselves facilitators. They publish a magazine and hold “dialogues” between the government and its critics over big issues such as constitutional and economic reform.
Although the government of President Raúl Castro does not endorse the effort, it has begun to tolerate some criticism and calls for change, as long as they do not challenge basic Communist Party control.
Many university professors, economists and other professionals — virtually all of whom work for the government — are privately disdainful of Cuba’s frozen political and economic systems. But few risk acting on their frustrations.
Educated young people chafe at the limited Internet and the lack of consumer goods, scoffing at the government’s insistence that the U.S. embargo is responsible. But political activism for many hardly seems worth the trouble in what remains a closed system.
Ferrer has his own theory to explain a relative lack of active political dissent over the past 50 years — the same “learned helplessness” that CIA interrogators tried to engender in terrorism suspects with extended isolation and harsh treatment.
Restrictions on civil and political liberties here have been so tight, and the internal security system so pervasive for so long, he said, that many Cubans have lacked the motivation to speak out and “don’t see an exit.”
“We were all born into this system,” Ferrer said.
For some, the only exit has been to leave. Since the normalization announcement, and rising fears that special U.S. treatment of Cuban exiles will dissolve, there have been spikes in the number of Cubans leaving the island, along with those who gain permission to travel abroad and never return.
Antonio Rodiles, 44, is one who did come back. After studies in Mexico and the United States, he returned to Cuba in 2010 to campaign for Cuban ratification of international conventions on civil and political rights, and he founded State of SATS (the term is a Scandinavian theater reference). The organization hosts interviews and panel discussions among dissidents, intellectuals and cultural figures that are posted online, along with news and articles written by Rodiles and others.
Although most Cubans have no Internet access, material is distributed via downloads from laptops, flash drives and connecting cables that Cubans string from house to house.
In late 2012, Rodiles was roughed up and arrested by state security personnel when he went to their headquarters to inquire about a detained colleague. He was released after 19 days.
Like Navarro, he is scornful of the secret negotiations, about which activists here and Cuban exiles abroad were neither consulted nor informed. The Obama administration, Rodiles wrote after the announcement, clearly considers Cuba’s activists “incapable of assuming our own political responsibilities, anchored in the past and wishing that foreign governments would come and make the necessary changes.”
Yoani Sánchez, 39, also came back, returning from Switzerland to become Cuba’s best-known blogger on political issues and human rights, at least among overseas readers. Most of what she produces is often blocked here. Her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, is one of a number of activists who have been briefly detained since the Dec. 17 announcement.
But Sánchez sees promise in the new relationship with the United States.
“What I’ve perceived on the streets is a sense of hope in a country that had lost it. There are people who think this will bring Internet, or economic improvements,” she said. “Everyone has their own hopes. It’s been positive, but there’s still much, much more to be done.”
Sánchez describes the activist community as pluralistic, rather than divided. “Within the Cuban government, there are lots of people who don’t agree with each other, too. But they can’t say so openly.”
Some activists welcome criticism from American lawmakers such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who will chair a congressional hearing on the issue Tuesday. But others dismiss U.S. opponents as self-serving and out of touch with Cuban reality.
“I think that to the extent they try to stimulate the opposition here, they’re endangering the Cuban people,” said Miriam Leiva, an activist and independent journalist whose articles are published on U.S.-based Web sites. “The people who know what’s going on here are the people who live here.”
Leiva worked for the Foreign Ministry until 1992, when she was fired, she said, for “expressing my ideas.” She helped found the Ladies in White movement among families of political detainees when her husband, government economist and diplomat turned dissident Oscar Espinosa Chepe, was arrested during the Black Spring. He was released 19 months later for health reasons, and he died in 2013.
Leiva still supports the Ladies in White, although she disagrees with its current leader, Berta Soler, who has criticized the opening with the United States and has refused to meet with U.S. officials here.
“Not everybody here agrees with everything,” Leiva said. “The reality is that so far the situation in Cuba hasn’t changed. There is great repression and tension. But, yes, there is hope.”
Ferrer, the UNPACU leader, began dissent early, listening to shortwave broadcasts from the BBC and Voice of America as a child in rural Santiago province on Cuba’s southern shore. That led to making tape recordings of broadcasts, spreading the word with an old typewriter and carbon paper, attending and organizing protests, and finally his 2003 arrest.
“Everybody has their own story,” he said of Cuba’s dissidents. “Some are looking for an escape route, principally to the United States. Others have wanted to look for liberty inside Cuba. But the majority opted not to confront” the powers that be.
Ferrer said he and others are trying to temper Cubans’ enthusiasm about the opening with the United States — reminding them that it is not the end of their problems.
“Lots of Cubans are very excited and think their problems are going to go away,” he said. “We’re telling them, you might get another slice of bread, but if you don’t fight for your rights, it’s going to have a bitter taste.”
The U.S. government, Ferrer said, has a role to play by continuing to show solidarity with the dissidents. And when the tourists start to come, “tell them to bring printers and ink cartridges. . . . Bring a DVD with the latest truthful news about Cuba and give it to the first Cuban you see. That’s a way to help.”