BY FRANCES ROBLES | Miami Herald
Dozens of angry Cubans shouting insults and pounding their fists in the air surrounded dissident Guillermo Fari�as one recent afternoon, demanding to know: Did he have the nerve to denounce Fidel Castro in front of them?
Outnumbered and his heart thumping with fear, the psychologist and dissident journalist said, he dropped to his knees on a street in his hometown of Santa Clara in central Cuba.
‘I got on my knees and said, `Down With Fidel!’ ‘’ the 43-year-old Farias claimed in a telephone interview from Cuba. “They started kicking and beating me, bruising my back, arm and head. They stopped when they saw I would not lose my dignity and say things I didn’t feel.’‘
Farias was a victim of an old-time Cuban government tactic that’s back with a vengeance: ‘‘acts of repudiation’’—mob attacks by Castro supporters against critics of the government, first used in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift, which brought more than 125,000 refugees to South Florida. Dissidents on the island say they have logged more than 50 such attacks in the past six months alone.
While the government paints them as spontaneous acts by committed socialists, Cuba-watchers say they are part of a concerted campaign by the Cuban government to quell opposition. Dissidents also have reported evictions, detentions, random acts of violence, 40 arrests and some confrontations with semi-official groups of tough men known as Rapid Response Brigades.
The flood of incidents against dissidents underscores a tenuous time in Cuba, as the government openly struggles to combat corruption and grapples with a fragile economy and a rising number of migrants headed to sea. Experts say it may also be a response to an increase in dissidence. A December report by the International Republican Institute recorded 1,805 acts of civil disobedience in 2004, up from 959 in 2002.
‘‘We are seeing levels of oppression we haven’t seen in 20 years in Cuba,’’ said Caleb McCarry, the U.S. State Department’s Cuba transition coordinator. “It’s a clear indication that the dictatorship fears the Cuban people.’‘
Ramon Colas, a former dissident who now lives in Mississippi, said five independent libraries—where Cubans can find books not approved by the government—have been hit with acts of repudiation in two months.
In October, the Roman Catholic Church denounced an attack against one of its deacons, who was beaten up on his way to church. And Juan Carlos Gonzalez, a dissident who is blind, said in September that he had faced 15 acts of repudiation in a single month.
Dissidents said that although no one has been killed, several people have been injured and some have suffered broken bones.
‘‘These are organized by the government. . . . You can find the police cars three or four blocks away,’’ said dissident Carlos Rios, who claimed he was beaten by a mob Aug. 27. ‘They try to provoke you into saying something like `Down with Fidel!’ so then they can lock you up in jail for six months.’‘
The wave of attacks against government opponents began July 14, when dissidents gathered to commemorate a 1994 disaster in which 37 would-be migrants trying to flee Cuba aboard a tugboat died in a struggle with other Cuban government boats. Hundreds of counterprotesters disrupted the July event, and at least a dozen dissidents were arrested.
Two weeks later, Castro mentioned the incident during one of his speeches.
‘‘The people, angrier than before over such bold-faced acts of treason, intervened with patriotic fervor and didn’t allow a single mercenary to move,’’ he said. “And this is what will happen whenever traitors and mercenaries go a millimeter beyond the point that our revolutionary people . . . are willing to accept.’‘
Human rights activists say the speech gave a green light to members of the Cuban Communist Party and State Security to harass dissidents more than ever.
‘‘A group of dissidents was going to meet, but we’re not going to allow that on Mondays, not Tuesdays or Wednesdays,’’ Jose grave; Enrique Oliva, a Communist Party delegate, told the EFE news service in October while disrupting a meeting of the Progressive Rainbow opposition group.
To be sure, the increase in harassment pales in comparison to the sweep against government opponents that occurred in 2003. That year, Castro jailed 75 political activists and sentenced them to decades in prison. Fourteen were later released for medical reasons.
Perhaps in response to the increased activity, the government is now engaging in a publicity campaign to smear its opponents. Government TV programs often center around allegations that the dissidents are mercenaries on the payroll of U.S. exile groups and U.S. diplomats in Havana.
The Cuban Interests Section in Washington and the international media representatives at the Foreign Ministry in Havana did not return calls seeking comment.
‘‘There is no country in the world where the empire’s mercenaries enjoy the privileges they do in Cuba,’’ Castro said in the July speech.
‘‘The much publicized dissidence or alleged opposition in Cuba does not exist except in the overheated imagination of the Cuban-American mob and White House and State Department bureaucrats,’’ Castro said.
But the tactic may be backfiring. A week after a Palm Sunday repudiation act against about 30 members of Ladies in White—wives, daughters and mothers of jailed political prisoners—the number of women participating in the group’s weekly march more than doubled.
‘‘They thought that would silence the opposition,’’ group member Miriam Leiva said by phone from Havana. “They thought nobody would find out, so we started hitting the streets, and we haven’t stopped.’‘
Human rights activists in Cuba say that although the acts of repudiation are rising in number and intensity, they also carry a bit of good news: Neighbors who were once a staple of such attacks now rarely participate.
‘‘These people were with the [Communist] party,’’ said Ernesto Roque, an independent journalist, who said he was pushed and shoved by a group of government supporters recently. “These are old, retired communists. Finding a young person to participate is difficult.
“It’s a beautiful message: At least the youth, I’m convinced, are not interested in this.’‘
But Fari�as, the psychologist turned independent journalist, said the dissidents nevertheless live with fear.
‘‘I have been jailed three times and beaten,’’ Fari�as said. “Sure, I’m afraid.’’