“Our actions can make people lose their fears” / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar and Jose Daniel Ferrer

José Daniel Ferrer during the interview. (14ymedio)
José Daniel Ferrer during the interview. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 20 January 2015 — Few could imagine that this activist, born in the east of the country and leader of Cuba’s most numerous opposition organization, is also a compulsive reader and an avid collector of famous quotes. Conversing with José Daniel Ferrer is like a trip that starts with a pamphlet cast in the streets of Palmarito del Cauto, then jumps to the best texts about the French Revolution, and ends in the pages of some modern psychological treatise.

Yet, the biggest pleasure of speaking to a man like him is to see him behave as if he were free, despite the police surveillance and the years he has spent in prison. During a quick visit to Havana, Ferrer answered some questions for the readers of 14ymedio about the current situation of activism in Cuba and the new stage that is opening up for dissidents.

Escobar: How does the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) view the negotiations between Washington and Havana?

Ferrer: This process, which started after 18 months of secret talks, will be very positive in bettering the difficult life conditions of our people. However, the final result will best be appreciated as the announced relaxation of policies is implemented and also in the way that it is put in practice. If it is applied in an intelligent manner and is consistently complemented by solidarity and support to the independent civil society, it will yield better results than the prior policies.

Escobar: And the embargo?

Ferrer: Our people and the international community have in great part been critical with regards to the embargo, which by now has lasted for more than 50 years. In all this time, and especially following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the Cuban government has placed the blame for our economic woes on the embargo, and has even used it to justify repression within the country. Obama’s policies delegitimize these justifications. Additionally, they are in tune with the sentiments of Cubans and of the international community.

Escobar: During your encounter with various American members of congress, you expressed the gratitude of your organization’s activists who had been released from prison as a result of the negotiations. Can you give us more details about them?

Ferrer: Of the 38 political prisoners that were freed between the days of January 7 and 8, 28 of them were members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, in other words more than 70%. Of the 10 who were not members of UNPACU, 4 have already reached out to us and vocalized their desire join our organization. However, 14 of our activists are still imprisoned, 10 of them affiliated with our branches in eastern provinces and the other 4 belonging to organizations that are associated to our own.

“As soon as they find out about someone who has chosen not to make their dissent public, they threaten them with removing them from their jobs or even worse things.”

 Escobar: What type of activism does UNPACU carry out?

Ferrer: Our organization is not just a group of audacious and courageous activists that protest peacefully on the streets. That mode of operation, that type of battle, is just the tip of the iceberg. Our strategy includes a great variety of means of peaceful combat, including seminars, courses, disseminating leaflets when the wind is favorable, putting up posters in public spaces… even better if it’s at the headquarters of the People’s Power (Poder Popular) or the offices of the Communist Party.

In a society that has been paralyzed by terror for many years, our actions can make people lose their fear.

Escobar: Do you see a disjunction between street activism and other forms of dissidence?

Ferrer: Discrete activism also greatly annoys the regime. They, through their intelligence apparatuses, know where we meet and with whom despite our greatest efforts. As soon as they find out about someone who has chosen not to make their dissent public, they threaten them with removing them from their jobs or even worse things. This is especially true when it’s someone who, because of his or her training or talent, could be a strong protagonist. But, if that person chooses to defend their rights, then the threats can be greater. That’s the proof that they fear these forms of activism more than the others.

Escobar: It has transpired that the organization you lead has lost alliances with other groups. Is that true? And if so why is that?

Ferrer: Many factors come to play here. In the first place, when other organizations merged with the Patriotic Union of Cuba, the oppressive bodies of the government also multiplied their efforts to divide us. Another issue is that some leaders believed at certain points that the best way to accelerate the process of non-violent combat was by uniting with UNPACU and later they changed their minds. Be it because attacks multiplied or because there were also instances of disagreement, some chose to return to their prior situations.

In fact, the relations between these groups and us remain good. Our disposition to cooperate remains. If we had to choose what was more important, for everyone to come under the same name and things not run as smoothly as they should, or that each keep their organization’s name and that things work better, we would choose the latter. We have separated but we did not become enemies.

“Some activists and opposition leaders object to reestablishing relations between the two countries and also disapprove of dismantling the embargo.”

Escobar: And has Obama’s announcement of December 17th deepened those differences?

Ferrer: With regards to the recent changes in policy announced by the Cuban and United States governments, there are some who believe it is a mistake. Some activists and opposition leaders object to reestablishing relations between the two countries and also disapprove of dismantling the embargo. However, we have to find what unites us. They want the same as we do: the democratization of the country and that Cuba respect human rights. They want us to be a just and prosperous nation “with all and for the good of all*.” The difference is in the means, not the objective, which we hold in common.

Escobar: So, you propose finding consensus points?

Ferrer: Yes, we would work together to reach that common end, including those who disagree with us today on topics like the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States. We hope that they too understand that they can cooperate with us.

*Translator’s note: A quote from José Martí who is honored by both the Castro regime and its opponents.

Translated by Fernando Fornaris