Ivan Garcia, 5 November 201 5 — Daniela Sarmiento, 61, has exhausted all the legal options with State institutions to complete the process for a new home She lives with her three children in a house cracked because of a partial collapse or roofs and walls, putting their lives in danger.
“Since 1988, following the construction of a bomb shelter built by the government near my house, they damaged the foundations. Specialists of all kinds have come by here. They evaluated the housing as uninhabitable but no one resolved anything. I have written letters to the president of the country, the national assembly, the armed forces. But by case has no solution,” she says.
When you tell her there are dissident groups that can help her, the woman opens her eyes and says, “But can these people (the opponents) resolve anything if they are as much victims than we are.”
In El Calvario, a village of dusty streets and low houses south of Havana, the dissident attorney Laritza Diversent, since August 2010, has managed a legal clinic that has looked at around 140 files of humble people who have exhausted all legal paths.”
Because of the anachronistic Cuban laws, Diversent and her group of lawyers can not represent their clients. Their only option is to advise them.
“Eighty percent of the cases we serve are from people who are not dissidents. Very poor people who feel that the courts or state institutions do not represent them,” says Diversent sitting in her living room converted into an office.
Aside from the independent legal collectives and a few opposition strategies to connect to ordinary Cubans, dissident leaders live in another dimension.
Raul Castro’s autocracy has cleverly hijacked the opposition’s demands. The first factions of democracy activists arose in the mid 1970s, reclaiming spaces that the olive-green government has been discreetly implementing.
It wasn’t in a session of the monotone Cuban parliament, or in an editorial of the State newspaper Granma, or in a union debate, where the demand is made for niches for private work, access to the internet, the buying and selling of houses and cars, being able to travel abroad, or the elimination of tourist apartheid.*
It was peaceful opponents and independent journalists who raised their voices. In their writings and documents such as The Nation Belongs to Everyone. For demanding political openings and changes, hundreds of dissidents, alternative communicators and human rights activists have gone to jail or into exile, including 75 during the Black Spring of 2003.
Many of these demands are now part of the package that the government of General Raul Castro sold as “updating the Cuban economic model,” scoring a political victory and presenting himself as a reformer.
The unquestionable merits of the dissidence in Cuba cannot be ignored. It is a feat to be an opponent in a totalitarian society where those who think differently are repressed and there is no legal space to undertake their work.
They could be gentle grandparents, father or mothers who read the boring midday national press and care for their children and grandchildren. But the value of dissent in an autocratic society does not exempt them from being judged for their incompetence.
“Why,” I ask a neighbor who every morning complains about things in Cuba, “don’t you join an opposition group?”
“Apart from the fear, I feel that the dissidence in Cuba doesn’t meet my expectations I don’t seem them chatting with people in the community to learn about their problems. They don’t have a strategy to put the government up against the wall, they just denounce the repression, they could be important, but what affects all Cubans, whatever we think, is the low quality of life, a chaotic infrastructure, and seeing what we have to do just to find food every day. Political freedoms are paramount, but you can’t eat them,” he confesses.
Yamil, a Havana taxi driver, thinks similarly. “I believe it’s more about a media show than communicating with ordinary Cubans, and we are the most fucked. Most of them don’t even work. Ninety percent of the people in Cuba agree with the demands of the dissidents, but they don’t know how to win over the people Their work isn’t going in this direction.”
Raudel, a university student, makes a comparison, “In the street you see the religious denominations, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who are persecuted by the government, proselytizing house to house. The dissidents just meet, have discussions and travel abroad.”
In the last 25 years, except for Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas’ Varela Project that managed to get 11,000 signatures, the dissident strategies don’t count on popular support. The excessive role of some of them doesn’t help either.
Every opposition leader manages their projects as if it were their own property. The lack of transparency, intolerance, and shenanigans condemn them to a poor performance.
Eight of every ten Cubans want change and not just economic ones. People want more freedoms, But there are not many regime opponents who are doing the work of paying attention to them. It is a thankless task to walk under the sun without public recognition.
But that is the silent work that adds supporters, When they are able to call a march with 10,000 people the regime will take them into account.
They don’t have to convince the United States or the European Union about the economic disaster and the lack of freedoms in Cuba. They have to talk to their neighbors and tell them that a free and developed society depends on them.
Photo by Ernesto Garcia Diaz of the press conference convened by the United Democratic Action Roundtable (MUAD) last August in Havana.
*Translator’s note: Until recent years, ordinary Cubans were not allowed to step foot in tourist hotels, tourist beaches, and other tourist facilities (except as employees).