Cuban Dissidents: Some in the Trenches, Others Applauding / Ivan Garcia


Iván García, 27 January 2015 — The shifting political landscape of the Middle East is probably more complicated. No doubt it is. But given the spectacular diplomatic about-face on December 17 between Cuba and the United States — two sparring nations huddled in their respective trenches since the Cold War — the White House was not expecting a significant faction of the island’s dissident community to train its guns on the red carpet President Obama had rolled out for Cuba’s military strongmen.

Disagreements are healthy. Nothing is more harmful than fake unanimity. But if you read the proposal from the Forum for Rights and Freedoms — released by an opposition faction led by Antonio Rodiles, Berta Soler, Ángel Moya, Guillermo Fariñas and Félix Navarro — and compare it to the four points of consensus agreed upon by other dissident groups, the differences are minimal.

The independent journalist Juan González Febles, director of the journal Primavera de Cuba (Cuban Spring), believes the disagreements are ideological rather than programmatic. “Individualism and the lack of historical memory is a key factor in certain dissidents’ categorical rejection of other opposition proposals,” he observes.

On Thursday, January 23 these divergent opposition views came out into the open. At a lunch attended by a dozen dissidents and Roberta Jackson, the U.S. official leading the team negotiating the reestablishment of a future embassy with the Cuban regime, the conflicting viewpoints caused a minor earthquake.

The adversary is no longer just the Castro brothers. Obama is now also in the crosshairs. The faction criticizing the steps taken by Washington is balanced out by those with a different opinion.

The schism is obvious. At 1:00 PM on Thursday a faction led by veteran opposition figures Elizardo Sánchez, Héctor Maseda and José Daniel Ferrer abruptly called a press conference.

Antonio Rodiles had previously announced a 2:00 PM press conference with independent Cuban and foreign journalists. José Daniel considers the differences to be ones of degree. “When you read the document they released, there are points of agreement with our document. We all want democracy, political freedom and amnesty for political prisoners,” he says.

Elizardo Sánchez believes that 90% of the local opposition agrees with no less than four basic points. “It’s an exaggeration to say these differences are the cause of arguments. But when you ask why not hold a joint press conference, it misses the point,” he says.

Each faction claims it represents the majority. “Those of us who agree with the changes initiated by Obama make up 70% of the dissident movement,” says Ferrer.

From the other side of the fence Antonio Rodiles paints a different picture. “Almost 80% of the opposition harbors significant doubts and does not support this new process,” he notes. “The United States is betting on neo-Castroism. Avoiding the issue of human rights and ignoring the dissident movement in the negotiating process is a doomed strategy.”

Guillermo Fariñas believes the United States is ignoring long-time dissident leaders such as Oscar Elías Biscet, Antúnez and Vladimiro Roca along with recent activists such as Sonia Garro and a significant segment of the exile community.

The new landscape undeniably confers independence on any group that questions the Obama-Castro negotiations. The Cuban regime has long accused opponents of being “mercenaries in the service of Washington.”

Like logs on the fire is how Josefina Vidal, the likely Cuban ambassador to the United States, characterizes dissidents, whom she says do not represent the Cuban people. “In Cuba there are a variety of mass movement organizations which are Cubans’ true representatives,” she notes.

The new scenario has clearly split the dissident community between those in favor and those opposed. To reach people and become an important player will require a 180-degree turn. Each faction will argue in favor of its approach and will come up with its own roadmap. The challenge is daunting.

The military regime, however, retains an ironclad control over the media. Through fear it has managed to keep a large proportion of the population — fed up with the disastrous economy — out of the fray, passively watching the game from the sidelines.

As a sign of protest against Obama’s policy, Berta Soler and ten or so opposition figures boycotted a farewell cocktail party hosted by Roberta Jacobson at the U.S. Cuban Interest Section in Havana.

But although dissidents such as Elizardo Sánchez and José Daniel Ferrer support the new measures, General Raúl Castro is not counting on them. They are out in no-man’s land.