By Todd Benson | Reuters
A coalition of moderate Cuban dissidents called on Thursday for the country’s opposition groups to unite and come up with a common proposal for a transition to democracy on the communist island.
With Cuban leader Fidel Castro temporarily sidelined from office while he recovers from health problems, the dissidents said they saw a window of opportunity to join forces and push for a constructive dialogue with the government.
Cuban dissidents Manzano, Bonne, Roque and Roca address the media at the residence of Parmly, head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana
“First, it’s absolutely fundamental for us to decide how we’re going to arrive at a democracy,” Manuel Cuesta Morua, a leading social-democrat dissident, said at a news conference with foreign media in a run-down building in central Havana.
“The challenge is to build a consensus from all the different proposals that already exist.”
Cuesta Morua is a founding member of the Alliance for Dialogue and Reconciliation, a coalition of moderate dissident groups leading the push for unity among a political opposition that is small, fragmented, riven by rivalries and frequently infiltrated by government operatives.
Opposition groups are outlawed but often tolerated in Cuba, a one-party state ruled by Castro since a 1959 revolution.
Almost a dozen groups have drawn up proposals for political change over the last decade. The coalition hopes to gather them in the coming months to find common ground to lobby for a gradual shift toward democracy.
“Today more than ever it’s apparent just how divided we are,” said Fernando Sanchez, president of the opposition Democratic Solidarity Party. “It’s time to try to come up with a single alternative for change that is backed by all the opposition.”
Castro was forced to hand over power temporarily to his younger brother, Raul Castro, in July 2006 when he had intestinal surgery.
The Cuban government, which declined to comment on the coalition’s call for dialogue, has insisted there will be no change to the political system.
There have been calls for unity among Cuban dissidents before. But those efforts failed, derailed by personal rivalries and differing political visions.
When Cuesta Morua and Sanchez founded their coalition in April, some dissidents distanced themselves from the initiative, saying unity did not require a formal pact.
Some of those dissidents met separately on Thursday with foreign media at the residence of the head of the U.S. Interest Section, which handles Washington’s dealings with Havana in the absence of formal diplomatic relations and an embassy.
They said that serious dialogue with the Cuban government could only happen once all political prisoners were freed.
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, another opposition group, estimates that about 280 dissidents are in prison for political reasons.
The government denies there are political prisoners on the island and says the jailed dissidents are “mercenaries” on the payroll of its long-time ideological foe, the United States.
Washington has enforced an economic embargo on Cuba for 45 years.
“Cuban dissidents are not mercenaries. We’re fighting peacefully for democracy in our country,” said Martha Beatriz Roque, a former university professor and hard-line dissident who has served jail time.