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Assessment: Cuba
January 2008

Assessment: Cuba is published bi-monthly by PRIMA-News in Moscow in cooperation with the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, based in Washington, D.C.


Cuba 2007: A Year of Expectations

The public mood and political life in Cuba in 2007 may be summed up in the words, “awaiting change.” The word “Cambio” (Change) is etched on plastic bracelets that some Cubans are wearing now as a popular symbol of discontent. “Cambio” is printed on wall stickers that anti-Castro activists are posting at night. “Cambio” is what Cuban dissidents are chanting during their protest actions. “Cambio” is what Cuba watchers and foreign journalists are whispering in search for the slightest sign of this expected change.

The past year, however, has not brought anything that could clearly indicate a turn to democratization in Cuba. Sign’s of the regime’s collapse are there to see as the communist system Fidel Castro built up has clearly weakened along with its creator. Having long lost its revolutionary glare and ideological fervor, the totalitarian regime has been trying until recently to keep a tight rein on the situation through intimidation and repression. And while these tactics still work in general, there are many cases when it fails. No longer isolated incidents, such cases are rapidly growing in numbers. The organized anti-communist opposition movement numbers now many thousands of Cubans and no acts of harassment and intimidation stop them in their peaceful activities to struggling for a free Cuba. What’s more, the Cuban repressive machinery seems to be unable to maintain tight surveillance over growing dissent and outbursts of political initiative.

The Cuban authorities have become tolerant of peaceful marches held by a group of wives of political prisoners on Sundays near Saint Rita, a church in Havana. They do detain foreigners who join the female protesters but usually it is to justify their already determined deportation from the country.

A minor detail shows the lassitude and indifference of the repressive machinery, if not the start of democratization in Cuba.  On January 24, seven Cuban dissidents were distributing copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Havana. Police and state security officers followed them all the way through, but did not impede. Meanwhile, four dissidents were detained for an attempt to hold a similar action just a couple of weeks ago. What this fact indicates is certainly not a shortage of men in the police force, but that the regime is hesitating at times to arrest people. Especially, when prominent opposition figures (in this particular case, Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello) take part in a protest action.

There are plenty of examples of arbitrary actions of the government, as there are plenty of reasons to trigger them. As any degrading state system does, the Cuban regime might respond differently to one and the same actions by its citizens, with quite different consequences for the people involved. Cuba’s state security calmly watched dissidents distributing copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Havana, but took a tougher response to seemingly more minor cases of dissent:

Yaney Ruiz, a 24-year-old member of the Liberal Party of Cuba (PLC), was sentenced by the municipal criminal court in Santa Clara on January 23 to one year in prison for so-called pre-delinquent social dangerousness.

Dissident journalist Oscar Sánchez Mádam was arrested in Unión de Reyes, Matanzas province, on April 13 and on the same day sentenced to four years in jail on a charge of “pre-criminal social dangerousness.” The brief trial was held behind closed doors, without relatives or defense attorneys present.

Dissident lawyer Rolando Jimenez Posada, 36 years old, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in a secret trial in Havana. He was accused of divulging state security secrets and showing disrespect toward Fidel Castro.

Ricardo Rodríguez Borrero was arrested at Havana’s inter-provincial bus terminal in the early hours of October 3 for taking photos of vagabonds who sleep at rail and bus stations and other public places. Ricardo Rodríguez Borrero is vice president of the Colegio de Profesores de Cuba, or Independent Teachers of Cuba. He was taken to Zapata police station in Havana, where he was held for several hours and then released.

This “tolerance mixed with repression” towards dissidents’ actions divides world opinion about Cuba’s domestic policies. Those critical of the Cuban communist regime point to repression continuing. Those that sympathize with the Castro regime argue that opposition members are enjoying greater freedom of action. European Socialist Parties and businesses seeking commercial profits are in the second category.

In Europe, the ongoing love affair with Cuban socialism has been encouraged by Spain’s Socialist government, led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos’s friendly visit to Cuba and his flat refusal to meet with Cuban dissidents in Havana revealed a sincere disregard for freedom about people who are trying to uphold freedom in spite of brutal political repression.

Businessmen who are naturally far away from the domestic politics of the Zapatero government are taking every opportunity to gain profit from the Cuban regime. Even businesses in the United States, whose law maintains strict trade sanctions against Cuba, managed to open doors to the Cuban market. The U.S. law has allowed food sales to Cuba as an exception to the overall trade embargo, and in 2007 U.S. businesses remained Cuba’s main supplier of food and farm products, selling more than $600 million in agricultural exports to the island. U.S. companies in 35 states ship 1,600 types of agricultural products to Cuba. California, the top U.S. food producing state, has sent its first official agricultural trade mission to the communist-run island.

Cuban dissidents do not share the euphoria felt by leftists and pragmatic businesses in the West. Most of them look with skepticism at the younger Castro brother substituting for the elder, saying with good reason that they are one family. They don’t see any change for the better. Certainly, one may argue that big events are seen from a big distance. But, on the other hand, who but those inside can feel best the pulse of change?

Cuban opposition activist Osmany Osorio Herrera was detained on April 17 in Aguada de Pasajeros. He did not stage demonstrations, did not post anti-government stickers, and did not make a makeshift boat for crossing the Gulf of Mexico. He was just wearing a plastic bracelet with the inscription “Cambio” (Change). A State Security agent asked the dissident for his ID and then told him to take off the bracelet because the word “cambio” has an anti-revolutionary connotation. Osmani refused, and the police officers took him to the station where they forcibly took his bracelet off. After holding him for two hours, they returned his documents and told him to clear off at once. Such is the course of “change” in Cuba today.

Alexander Podrabinek
Moscow, January 2008