By Anthony Boadle | Reuters
With Fidel Castro’s poor health making change in Cuba seem closer than ever, a leading dissident called on Wednesday for fractious opposition groups to patch up their differences and get ready before the ailing leader is gone.
Sociologist Hector Palacios urged Cuba’s liberals to unite around a platform for a gradual and peaceful transition from communist rule to multi-party democracy. Its first demand was the release of 250 political prisoners and the abolition of repressive laws used to put Castro’s critics behind bars.
“Opposition numbers have multiplied, despite the difficult conditions in Cuba,” the dissident said at a crowded news conference in his small Havana apartment.
“We do not have to wait for Fidel Castro to die to grow. We are growing every day,” said Palacios, who was paroled in December after serving almost four years of a 25-year prison sentence for his opposition activities.
It was the third call to unity in recent months by pro-democracy groups, who are still recovering from a crackdown that landed 75 of their more active members in prison in 2003.
Last week, Cuba’s best-known dissident, Oswaldo Paya, head of the Christian Liberation Movement, called on the National Assembly to allow open elections and guarantee freedom of expression.
Cuban dissidents sense the time has come to organize, said Social Democrat Manuel Cuesta Morua, who has made two pleas for unity since April.
“When that power opens up it will be like a dam when you lift the floodgates and the water is freed,” he said.
Palacios said opposition unity had been hard to achieve due to what he called a police state that has infiltrated dissident groups and “divided those who unite.”
Hector Palacios (3rd L) gestures during a news conference with fellow dissidents in Havana September 5, 2007. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa
When Fidel Castro is gone, Cubans will demand political change and not just economic reforms that his brother has promised to revived the battered economy, Palacios said.
Cuba labels all dissidents “counter-revolutionaries” and “mercenaries” on the payroll of its arch-enemy, the United States. They are not well known in Cuba, where they have no voice in the government-controlled media.
Paya, Palacios and other prominent dissidents such as human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez and economists Martha Beatriz Roque, Vladimiro Roca and Oscar Espinosa Chepe, issued a call to “Unity for Freedom” in April, deeming Cuesta Morua’s initiative too moderate.
“The opposition is less divided than before, but it is still divided,” Cuesta Morua said. “Unity is not around the corner.”
(Additional reporting by Esteban Israel)