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Assessment: Cuba
March 2008

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

No Tears of Joy

    It is hardly strange that Raul Castro’s modest attempts to modernize the communist system have not brung tears of joy but rather a stronger striving for freedom among Cubans. Legalizing the sale of personal computers and household appliances to ordinary Cubans in March coincided with reports from Havana about Cuban students quizzing a high-ranking official about shortcomings in the communist system.

    Students at the University of Computer Science in Havana videotaped a confrontation with Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the National Assembly. Students grilled the top official about all the restrictions on their lives, why they could not travel abroad, stay at hotels, earn better wages, and use Google and Yahoo internet search engines, and why a worker has to work two or three days to buy a toothbrush. Alarcón was evasive. He said he did not have the expertise to address issues regarding the Internet. But when asked why there are restrictions on Cubans traveling abroad, he said: “I wish all Cuban could go and get to know the world outside. I think it would be the end of the ideological battle in this country.” Alarcón suggested, however, that if everyone were allowed to travel, there would not be enough airspace for the planes.

    Mr. Alarcón’s remarks about “not enough airspace” vividly illustrate how the Cuban political elite experiences socialist paradise. Government bureaucrats at the upper reaches of the communist system know well the advantages of freedom to travel and what it means to see the world. But so far, this civil right, like many others, remains unattainable for most citizens, and is the focus of Cuban dissidents’ peaceful struggle.

    In early March, the Cuban National Liberal Party demanded that the Raul Castro government comply with the spirit of two human rights documents that the Cuban government signed on February 28 at the United Nations and that the government publish the full texts of the two texts, the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights in the official press. The statement of the party was signed by its chairman León Padrón Ascuy and released in Havana.

    The statement also calls for the immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners; abolition of Law 88 (nicknamed the “gag” law) and other laws that allow the government to imprison people on such vague grounds as “dangerousness”; and revision of the Penal Code and compliance with U.N. rules for the treatment of prisoners.

    The opposition party welcomed the signing of the human rights covenants, but expects the government to make other, deeper changes that will put an end to the erroneous policies imposed on the Cuban people for the last 50 years, just as they disappeared in the former Soviet Union.

    Demands for democratization in Cuba are even coming from political prisons, which the authorities have tried to isolate completely. Prisoner of conscience José Daniel Ferrer García has called upon Cubans to join the non-cooperation campaign against the communist regime. He made his appeal to mark the fifth anniversary of the Black Spring, a crackdown in 2003 in which 75 pro-democracy activists, including himself, were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. Ferrer García told Radio Martí, which he found a way to speak to by phone, that the people of Cuba want and deserve to live in freedom. He said he did not see any obstacles for the government to hold free elections in Cuba.

    While it is logical to expect that politicians from the free world would back Cuban dissidents in their demands, Cuban oppositionists found themselves voicing frustration with EU Aid Commissioner Louis Michel, who returned to Brussels after a trip to Cuba without meeting any pro-democracy activists. The leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, told Spanish news agency EFE that if Michel’s visit was intended to herald a fresh start for relations between Cuba and the EU then it reflects “an utter disregard of ethical principles” and the rights of the Cuban people. Michel’s democracy-free visit engendered other strong responses. Former political prisoner Oscar Espinosa Chepe criticized the commissioner for ignoring Cuban society and listening only to what the government was saying.  Miriam Leiva, of the Ladies in White, worried that Michel was preparing to compromise EU policy in exchange for some easy concessions, such as the release of a number of political prisoners.  Martha Beatriz Roque, a leader of the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in Cuba, told EFE that Michel’s visit had ignored the voice of Cuban civil society while yielding meager results.

    There is a strong belief among peaceful oppositionists, however, that Cubans will achieve freedom no matter how zealously European politicians “of easy virtue” try to oblige the ruling Cuban communists. Continuous acts of defiance and peaceful protests are the best proof of it.

    In March, several peaceful pro-democracy groups and librarians marked another anniversary of the Independent Libraries in Cuba Project begun in 1998. The event was held at the Leandro de Jesús Peñalver Library. Minerva Pérez of the Federation of Latin American Rural Women (FLAMUR) said that everyone had gathered to pay respect to the founders and activists in the Independent Libraries Project, which allows Cubans access to books that are censored by the regime. José Hidalgo of Concentración Democrática praised “people in exile” for their continuing help and support for independent libraries and remembered the “founders of the Project who are no longer with us for various reasons.”

    On March 15, a Saturday, the Ladies in White group was subjected to an “act of repudiation.” Security forces, led by a high-ranking state security officer, blocked a group of 32 Ladies in White and forced them to take another route as they marched towards the Interior Ministry. He told the women that future marches through the Plaza de la Revolución in downtown Havana were forbidden. In another incident, a plain-clothes mob spat on them while they walked through the streets of Havana during the group’s “Week of Action.” There was no police interference, however, when the Ladies in White marched several times down Havana’s central streets from March 14 to 19. Normally, the Ladies in White march along Fifth Avenue, or Embassy Row, in the more remote Vedado section of the city.

    Resentment of the communist regime has spread beyond dissident circles and become the prevailing public sentiment in the country. When newly-elected First Vice President José Ramón Machado Ventura arrived on March 15 in Aguada de Pasajeros, in the province of Cienfuegos, he was greeted with a large number of CAMBIO (Change) stickers posted in parks, streets, walls, the city hospital, and other public places. These stickers signify the peaceful protest of Cubans against the Castro regime, according to Juan Alberto de la Nuez Ramírez, a provincial representative of the Cuban Human Rights Foundation and the Council of Human Rights Investigators in Cuba.

Alexander Podrabinek
Moscow, March 2008