Political prisoners in Cuba

Obama vs. the dissidents

Obama vs. the dissidents
By Jackson Diehl Deputy Editorial Page Editor June 12

There are two ways dictatorships can end, says Óscar Elías Biscet. “One
is a revolution of the superstructure, where the top changes itself. The
other is a change from the bottom up,” like those that introduced
democracy to Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and, most recently, Tunisia.
Cuba’s leading dissidents are sure about their choice. “We want to build
a a civic, nonviolent movement that will overturn this regime and bring
democracy to Cuba,” says Biscet.

President Obama has bet on the other side. He has spent the past several
years cultivating the regime of Raúl Castro, on the theory that normal
diplomatic relations and increased commerce will lead, eventually, to
greater freedom for Cubans. In announcing the opening, he went so far as
to say that neither Cubans nor Americans should wish for the “collapse”
of the Castro regime.

Last Wednesday, as Biscet arrived in Washington for the first time in
his life, U.S. envoys from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security
and the State Department were meeting in Havana with Obama’s chosen
interlocutors — regime security officials, including those from the
notorious Interior Ministry, which oversees domestic repression. Biscet,
who got to know the Interior Ministry well during the dozen years he
spent as a political prisoner, was meanwhile explaining why Obama’s
strategy is more likely to entrench than transform Cuban Communism.

“This was a great move for Castro,” said the 54-year-old doctor, who was
awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2007,
while he was in prison. The rapprochement with the United States, he
said, provided Cuba with a vital economic prop at a time when it was
losing the support of imploding Venezuela. Meanwhile, “when people see
Obama greeting Castro in the way that he did, it gives a totalitarian
regime global legitimacy.”

Obama’s policy has had the effect of stranding the most pro-American,
pro-democracy people in Cuba — the activists who have spent their lives
fighting the system, at enormous personal cost. While the regime
collects U.S. cooperation and dollars, repression of the opposition has
sharply increased; according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights,
there were 6,075 political arrests during the first five months of this
year, the highest number in decades.

This month two of the most important dissident leaders, Biscet and José
Daniel Ferrer, were allowed to leave the island for the first time. Why
did the Castros abruptly grant them this permission to travel? “They are
feeling strong,” said Biscet. “They think that at this point we won’t
get that much attention.” Both nevertheless came to Washington to make
their case. After all, congressional Republicans are still listening;
they just passed legislation that would restrict the blossoming
U.S.-Cuba military contacts.

Biscet and Ferrer have a lot in common: They were both arrested in the
early 2000s, during a sweeping crackdown on the opposition, and
sentenced to 25 years in prison. When a Vatican-brokered amnesty of
political prisoners began in 2010, they both remained behind bars,
because they refused to go into exile. Finally released in 2011, they
both launched grass-roots political movements. Biscet heads the
Havana-based Emilia Project, which he says has collected 3,000
signatures on a manifesto calling for democracy.

Ferrer, 45 and based in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, heads the
even larger Cuban Patriotic Union, which runs its own social services
and distributes DVDs of the news and information banned in Cuba’s public

They differ, however, on Obama’s initiative. Biscet is implacably
opposed, though he still calls the United States “a beacon of liberty.”
Ferrer avoids condemnation, which he calls “political suicide,” given
the broad support for the opening among ordinary Cubans who desperately
hope for change.

Ferrer nevertheless has a similar view of Obama’s initiative. “They run
the risk that the regime will be the one that comes out the winner,” he
said during a conversation a week before Biscet’s visit. “They are
making it possible that any change in Cuba will not end in democracy,
but in something like the Russia of Vladi­mir Putin.”

So what do they the dissidents want? They don’t ask for another radical
change of U.S. policy; only for measures that would help their fledgling
political movements. Foremost is information — more U.S. broadcasting,
more Internet access, more of everything that can provide Cubans
uncensored news. “The control the regime has over the media is the
greatest obstacle for people to wake up and channel their rebellion,”
said Ferrer. Said Biscet: “Broadcasting TV Martí from an airplane was
very expensive, but people watched it.”

That will be news to those in Washington who ridiculed U.S. broadcasting
to Cuba and cheered Obama’s cultivation of the Castros. Their bet was
that Cuba’s Communists would be better partners than its pro-democracy
dissidents. So far, they’ve been wrong.

Source: Obama vs. the dissidents – The Washington Post –

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