By Anthony Boadle | Reuters
HAVANA - A year after President Fidel Castro launched a massive roundup of dissidents in Cuba, his pro-democracy opponents are divided and in disarray, but not defeated.
With many activists behind bars, few resources and no access to the media, dissidents complained on Thursday of constant intimidation by agents of the island’s communist government.
Their leaders said they were slowly recovering from the arrests that began on March 18, 2003, and summary trials in which 75 dissidents were imprisoned for up to 28 years.
“In spite of continued repression, the government has not achieved its main objective of eliminating the opposition,” said Social Democrat Vladimiro Roca.
“We were very battered, but we are recovering from this blow,” said Roca, a former MiG fighter pilot and son of a founding father of Cuban communism.
Relatives of the prisoners held meetings in their homes, wearing white T-shirts with pictures of their loved ones, to mark the anniversary and call for their release.
“The government accused them of conspiring with the United States, but they were just defending the rights of the Cuban people and committed no crime,” said Gisela Delgado, whose husband Hector Palacios, 62, was sentenced to 20 years.
Authorities last year glorified as heroes a dozen spies who had infiltrated the dissident movement and served as witnesses during the trials.
Oswaldo Paya, who started the Varela Project, a grass-roots effort backed by 11,000 signatures urging a national referendum on basic rights, including the right to open a business, said his nationwide campaign continues.
“The government is afraid that Cubans have begun to lose their fear,” Paya said in an interview.
“It bragged about penetrating the dissidents and presented its spies. But this was a moral defeat for the regime, which is using repression and propaganda to stop Cubans learning about a peaceful road to change that Cuba badly needs,” he said.
With 50 Varela Project activists locked away, Paya said he has slowly rebuilt civic groups across Cuba and in September presented 14,384 more signatures to the National Assembly.
The government has ignored the petition, which has never been published; few Cubans know about it and ever fewer are heeding Paya’s calls for national dialogue on a transition.
Western diplomats say most Cubans are too concerned with surviving the economic hardship Cuba has suffered since the demise of Soviet communism to worry about civil rights.
“Cubans are more interested in economic freedom than political freedom,” a European diplomat said.
U.S. diplomats, whom Cuba accused of fostering dissent by providing government opponents with cash, radios, tape recorders and access to the Internet, said the dissident movement has shown resilience under pressure.
“Independent journalists are still writing, independent librarians are still lending books, rights activists are still advocating adherence to international human rights standards, and democracy advocates are formulating programs for political, social and economic reform,” said the top U.S. diplomatic in Havana, James Cason.
State Department officials told Reuters in Washington on Thursday that the United States has barred 300 Cubans involved in last year’s crackdown, including judges, prosecutors, witnesses and police, from entering the United States.