A Visit with Cuba's Persecuted
By Carsten Volkery in Havana, Cuba
Accusations, arrests, executions -- the Cuban revolution isn't known for handling its critics gently. The spectrum of punishments ranges from beatings to prison in GuantÃ¡namo, where prisoners are served mud soup.
We're On The Good Track? Don't say that to Cuba's dozens of jailed dissidents.
Oswaldo Paya sits in his living room in Havana's Cerro district. The door is locked and the window shutters are closed. Pictures of his three children hang on the wall next to a framed award certificate -- the Sacharov Prize the European Union's parliament awarded him for his commitment to human rights. Paya sways nervously back and forth on his rocking chair. He wipes his brow with a handkerchief. "It'll start in a moment," he says.
The Cuban national hymn blasts from loudspeakers outside as he gives an interview to European journalists. Paya gets up and peers through a gap in the shutters. Cuban flags hang suspended on the walls of the building opposite. A group of people stands in front of the building and yells insults in his direction. "You worm!" they holler. "Long live the Revolution!" Paya asks his visitors not to take any pictures. He doesn't want to provoke anyone. In the past demonstrators have vandalized his house, but this time there is no physical violence.
The Cuban version of the medieval pillory is called "Acto de Repudio" -- act of repulsion. Paya is Cuba's most well-known dissident and he often has to endure this kind of treatment. The government regularly drums together groups of people and urges them to pay visits to critical citizens and to brand them as counter-revolutionaries. Usually undercover policemen or other strangers are recruited for the purpose. Sometimes the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution pressures neighbors to do the job. "Afterwards a few of them come by and say they're sorry," says Jaime Leygonier, a journalist critical of the regime.
"The counter-revolutionaries are under control"
This method of alienating and humiliating dissidents helps nourish the culture of fear that enables Castro's regime to continue ruling the tropical island 47 years after the dictator took power. The harsh treatment of non-conformists isn't likely to change after the temporary transfer of power to Fidel Castro's younger brother Raul. In fact, the opposition's current options are even more restricted than they were before. Castro's so-called "Rapid Deployment Brigades" have stepped up their presence in order to intimidate would-be demonstrators.
CUBA: A VISIT WITH CUBA'S PERSECUTED
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True, some dissidents expect that Raul will implement economic reforms if Fidel should not return to office -- but only in order to stabilize the one-party rule of the Communist Party. Fidel's younger brother is a fan of the Chinese model: capitalism yes, but without political opposition, freedom of opinion or freedom of the press.
When Paya steps outside his door, he sees slogans on the walls near his house. One reads: "In a Place that is Under Siege, Dissidence Amounts to Treason." There is also the inevitable "Socialism or Death." Still, it's not so different from the US Interest Section on the Malecon promenade -- that building is surrounded by wall-sized posters that compare United States President George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler.
The Cuban Revolution doesn't handle its critics gently. "There are internal and external enemies," explains Mario Gonzalez, a high-school teacher and the president of a "Committee for the Defense of the Revolution" in Manzanillo, on the eastern part of the island. The committees provide the grassroots foundation for the informer state -- they're the first place an informer will go to if he wants to snitch on his neighbor. There are more than 2,000 of them in Manzanillo alone -- a town with 130,000 residents. The committee logo is a machete -- if need be, the revolution must to be defended by violence.
There are about 30 "counter-revolutionaries" in Manzanillo, according to Gonzalez. "They've been identified and they're under control." He refuses to explain what that means exactly. He's standing around a table under the open sky with some of his neighbors on Cuba's national holiday, July 26. There is a flower vase on the table, and a pink cake -- "el cake," as Gonzalez says. He and his friends are celebrating the revolution. A portrait of Fidel Castro hangs on a lantern post. Gonzalez isn't worried about what will happen if Fidel dies. "There are many Fidels among the people," he says. "The revolution will continue."
Lack of Western support
The Cuban opposition has a difficult time organizing. The only demonstrations worthy of mention are those organized by the regime. Nevertheless, last year, the first-ever conference was held in Havana for dissidents. Several hundred people attended, but the international press barely took notice. When Paya's Christian Liberation Movement presented a first draft for a democratic constitution in May, the public response was even weaker. Paya blames the cult of personality that surrounds Fidel. "Read the Western media and you'll get the impression Cuba has only one inhabitant," he complains.
Journalist Leygonier also complains about the lack of support from the West. He's worked as a freelance reporter since 1997. He can only publish his news items and commentary pieces abroad -- on the US-based website Cubanet.org. He receives five dollars for each piece -- but the pay doesn't arrive regularly. Since he, like the vast majority of Cubans, has no Internet access, he dictates his reports to Miami by phone. Or he uses the US Interest Section's Internet access, which has been specially set up for dissidents. The price for using the US-sponsored Internet cafe? He's accused of being a "mercenary of the USA" -- the standard accusation leveled at regime critics.
Despite their limited influence on the outside world, the dissidents believe that their strength is growing. In spring 2003, Castro ordered the most massive wave of arrests in years. Seventy-five political activists were sent to prison. A new opposition group was founded -- one that attracted considerable attention. The "damas de blanco" ("women in white") are the wives, mothers and daughters of those who were arrested. Every Sunday, after the church service, they march down Quinta Avenida in Havana's embassy district, demanding that their relatives be released. They dress entirely in white and carry pink gladiolas and white parasols -- symbols of peaceful protest -- and hence represent a serious challenge to the state's security forces.
More at: http://service.spiegel.de/cache/inte...430038,00.html