VANESSA ARRINGTON | Associated Press
Two years after a government crackdown crippled Cuba’s political opposition, competing projects for democratic reform on the communist-run island are generating deep mistrust and bickering in opposition ranks.
Rivalry between projects by well-known activist Oswaldo Paya and former political prisoner Martha Beatriz Roque is also sharpening disagreements over what role the United States should play in promoting change on the island.
Roque, who is planning an opposition congress for the spring, says the National Dialogue, Paya’s new endeavor to organize citizens into small groups to discuss a future Cuba, doesn’t go nearly far enough. And unlike Paya, she thinks it is perfectly all right to seek assistance from the U.S. government.
Paya refuses to participate in Roque’s congress, which aims to bring opponents from both on and off the island to a huge gathering May 20. He says he doesn’t trust the organizers because they have tried to sabotage his own efforts.
Veteran activist Vladimiro Roca said the differences come from a culture that has grown divisive under a controlling government. Paya and Roque have clashed on a personal level for a long time, said Roca, who nonetheless expressed optimism that the dissident movement would work through these latest challenges.
“I think the opposition has gained quite a bit of experience and knowledge,” said Roca, who went to prison in 1997 to serve a five-year sentence for his political activities. “We are not as far along as we were in March 2003, but we are back in motion.”
Before the crackdown, opposition groups were attracting new followers and launching initiatives such as the Varela Project, a democracy drive led by Paya seeking civil liberties such as freedom of speech and the right to business ownership.
But when the government rounded up 75 activists beginning on March 18, 2003, and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years, the movement was “paralyzed,” Roca said.
Some leaders such as Roca, Paya and Elizardo Sanchez, a human rights advocate, were spared. But many who worked with them, along with well-known activists such as poet Raul Rivero and Roque, an economist, were arrested.
Roca said the opposition didn’t begin to recover for at least a year. A major, unexpected force was the “Ladies in White” - a group of political prisoners’ wives fighting for their husbands’ release who have held public protests practically unheard of in Cuba.
The release for medical reasons of 14 of the original 75 prisoners, including Rivero and Roque, opened a new page in the movement, though most of the 14 - Roque being a notable exception - have been quiet since their release.
While some play down the bickering, saying such divisions are natural in any movement, others say it’s creating deep fissures.
“There are more personal differences than political ones, and that tends to poison things,” said Manuel Cuesta Morua, spokesman for the dissident group Arco Progresista, which has said it will not participate in the congress. “It has really damaged the opposition.”
The setting is clouded by suspicions over whether some in the opposition ranks are government infiltrators. At the 2003 crackdown trials, state security agents who posed as dissidents revealed their true identities and testified against activists.
“After 15 years in the opposition, you begin to sniff them out,” said Roque, whose conviction was clinched by testimony from a trusted assistant who turned out to be an undercover agent.
Another division revolves around U.S. involvement in the Cuban opposition. U.S. policies aimed at choking Fidel Castro’s government have separated dissidents into two camps: those who embrace American assistance, and those who don’t.
In Washington, Adam Ereli, the deputy State Department spokesman said the United States seeks a rapid and peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba, and supports all Cubans who seek this outcome.
“The Cuban people deserve a government committed to democracy and the full observance of human rights,” said Ereli.
Roque and two other dissidents recently addressed a U.S. congressional committee by telephone, praising the policies of President Bush while sharply criticizing Castro.
The call, made from inside the offices of the American mission in Havana, was an audacious move that could land the three - Roque, Felix Bonne and Rene Gomez - back behind bars.
Roque doesn’t rule out the possibility, saying that organizing the dissident congress could also lead to prison. “I leave the house with my toothbrush inside my purse, just in case,” she said.
Philip Brenner, a professor of international relations at American University in Washington, said dissidents working with the U.S. government take unnecessary risks that undermine their credibility.
“They are seen (among the Cuban people) as being unpatriotic. They go too far,” he said.
“The people who are not aligned to the United States understand the limits of dissent in Cuba,” he said, and are working gradually to create space for civil society.