Christian Science Monitor
In the past year, Nereida Rodriguez Rivero says she has been punched in the mouth, almost thrown from a moving bus, and stabbed on the street in her otherwise sleepy rural hometown.
In May, government agents took all the books out of the independent library that she continues to restock and run out of her humble home.
But – as is often the case in Cuba – the punishment for her dissent isn’t limited to her alone.
Her feisty daughter Yuricel Perez Rodriguez was summarily fired from her position at a state-run children’s library last year. “They said I wasn’t safe for children, because I took books to [political] prisoners,” says Ms. Rodriguez.
But this mother-daughter duo won’t being backing down.
“If you show fear, they will eat you,” says Ms. Rivero, a regional head of the Latin American Federation of Rural Women (FLAMUR), a Cuban group dedicated to pushing for political rights. “They won’t swallow me whole.”
Most experts agree that Raúl Castro is already cautiously moving toward a freer economy. But few expect to see any significant changes in Cuba’s totalitarian political system in the near future.
Only a handful of dissidents, such as Rivero, are willing to take on the risk of fighting for basic freedoms. While these spirited few – many of whom are now women – don’t wield much clout, they insist that more people are quietly asking them how to get involved.
“People are showing up asking us to help them more and more,” says FLAMUR’s country director, Belinda Salas Tapanes. “They come to us for networking. We don’t have much more than that to help them.”
Indeed, dissidents such as the women involved in FLAMUR – who last year collected more than 10,000 signatures demanding that the Cuban peso be the only unit of currency, thereby eliminating the present two-currency system – have few resources. Lacking the right to organize freely, they surreptitiously meet in crumbling apartments and speak quickly on tapped phone lines.
“At this point civil society is very weak,” says Pedro Freyre, a Miami-based Cuban-American attorney and expert on embargo law. “The population’s expectations have been beaten down so much that there’s no spirit of rebellion. No one wants to be shot.”
“There are a number of Cuban Gorbachevs around,” he says referring to the Russian reformer who helped ease political and economic restrictions before the Soviet Union’s collapse. “They just don’t want to stick out their necks right now.”
Raúl’s first move as official leader of Cuba in February was to surround himself with a core group of well-known hardliners that critics call a “gerontocracy.” At the top of the list is staunch party ideologue José Ramon Machado Ventura, who Raúl named first vice president.
“It speaks volumes that Raúl’s second-in-command is older than he is,” says Mr. Freyre. “They’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
“Cuba doesn’t have any short- or long-term plan for democracy,” says Dan Erikson, a Cuba expert with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, pointing out that suppression of civil liberties is still written into Cuban law.
But, despite the historic apathy fueled by the fear of imprisonment or worse, the passing of the mantle from Fidel to Raúl has stirred people’s expectations – and created anxiety within the highest ranks.