By ANITA SNOW | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
The wives of several dozen political prisoners still don white each Sunday to march silently for their husbands’ release, and a leading human rights group still issues its twice-yearly report on prisoners of conscience.
But eight months after Fidel Castro fell ill and four years after a broad crackdown on dissent, Cuba’s organized opposition generally has been much quieter as it waits to see how the island’s political situation develops.
“Cuba is a country in waiting,” said veteran rights activist Elizardo Sanchez. “What’s going to happen with El Comandante? What’s going to happen afterward?
“If all of the population is waiting, the dissidents have no reason to be running back and forth,” added Sanchez, whose Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation issues the list of political prisoners every six months.
Since Castro announced July 31 he had undergone intestinal surgery and temporarily ceded power to his brother Raul, the flood of open letters and strident statements that government critics send to international media have thinned to a drizzle.
Cuba’s “Ladies in White” walk holding flowers during a march in Havana, Sunday, March 18, 2007, to commemorate the crackdown that jailed 75 opponents of the Cuban government four years ago.(AP Photo/ Javier Galeano
The news conferences once held regularly by a host of tiny dissident groups are increasingly rare.
“The most optimistic thought they were going to see a series of Chinese-type reforms,” Sanchez said, referring to communist China’s mix of state-run market reforms with a strong one-party political system. “But what has been seen is an almost feudal-style succession; everything remains the same.”
The communist government is proud of how calm the country has remained since 75-year-old Raul Castro took over from his 80-year-old brother.
Although the elder Castro’s condition and exact ailment remain a state secret, he is widely believed to suffer from diverticular disease, which can cause inflammation and bleeding in the colon. It seems unlikely that Castro will return to govern full-time, but several top officials have recently indicated he is recovering so well that he just might.
Meanwhile, no major changes have occurred, and Raul Castro has given no strong indication he plans any reforms.
“Today, Cuba is living through an especially uncertain moment owing to Fidel Castro’s illness,” Miriam Leiva, one of the prisoner’s wives, wrote recently for a Web site outside Cuba called “Encuentro,” or Encounter.
That uncertainty is accompanied by fear of another crackdown like the roundup of 75 dissidents launched four years ago this week.
“We cannot rule out a new wave of repression,” Leiva wrote, “instead of the urgent changes required for the critical political, economic and social situation the people face.”
Leiva and the other women known as the “Ladies in White” were the only ones to publicly mark the crackdown anniversary over the weekend, with a small gathering at a home Saturday as well as their regular silent Sunday march.
Cuba’s three-day crackdown started March 18, 2003, just as the first U.S. military strike on Iraq was getting under way.
Governments and rights groups around the world condemned Cuba as it tried the dissidents as “mercenaries” working with Washington to undermine Castro’s socialist system and sentenced them to prison terms of up to 27 years. Both the dissidents and American officials denied the U.S. government paid opponents to harm Cuba.
Sixteen of the original 75 have since been released on medical parole. The 59 still behind bars are among the 283 political prisoners Sanchez’s commission says were held in Cuba at the beginning of this year - 50 fewer than those counted in January 2006.
Although the number of political prisoners has dropped, Sanchez said “low-profile repression” against opponents is up.
Fellow commission member Carlos Menendez was detained and questioned last week after using the Internet service at the U.S. Interests Section, the American mission here.
Ernesto Martini Fonseca, a coordinator of the Christian Liberation Movement, was detained earlier this month and pressured to abandon his opposition activities, according to a news release from the group.
“We don’t feel hatred, but we are not going to be paralyzed by the threats and repression,” Oswaldo Paya, the movement’s most prominent leader, wrote in the release. “The uncertainty, the fear, the overwhelming propaganda and the precariousness of daily life can paralyze the will and submerge many in hopelessness.”