By Vanessa Bauzá | Orlando Sentinel
HAVANA—At one end of the Havana hotel’s Internet cafe, Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, former rebel fighter-turned-counterrevolutionary, sips a cafe con leche and reflects optimistically on possibilities for a democratic change in Cuba.
At the other end, his sons, ages 13 and 11, surf the Web, absorbed by the computer’s blue glow, and order a Coke in Spanish heavily tinged with American accents.
Father and sons are like bookends in Cuba’s recent history.
As the guerrilla comandante of the Second National Front, Gutierrez Menoyo helped overthrow the Batista dictatorship in 1959. A few years later, he broke with Fidel Castro, led a new, armed insurrection with an exile paramilitary group and spent 22 years in Cuban prisons for trying to topple the man he helped put in power.
Prison beatings left him blind in his left eye and deaf in his left ear.
But Gutierrez Menoyo, 67, doesn’t dwell much on this past of bloodshed and betrayals.
He emerged from Cuba’s Boniato prison in 1986 a pacifist and—to the shock of his most die-hard supporters—one of Miami’s most eloquent champions of dialogue and reconciliation.
Now, back in Havana on vacation for the first time in three years, he takes his sons to visit his old house on Linea Street in the Vedado neighborhood, the stately Colon Cemetery, where his brother and other revolutionary rebels are buried, and his uncle’s home in the fishing village of Cojimar.
Thin, with a long face and slicked-back gray hair, Gutierrez Menoyo continues to advocate for a peaceful transition to democracy despite Castro’s recent crackdown on dissent and the firing-squad executions of three ferry hijackers.
“I may have suffered a very harsh jail sentence, extremely harsh,” he said. “But I have three sons, and as harsh as it was, it does not give me the right to inculcate hatred or vengefulness in my sons. I want them to be raised with love.”
In 1995, he became the only exile leader and former political prisoner to meet with Castro and ask for a “legal space” where dissent would be permitted in Cuba.
He also asked that his group, Cambio Cubano, or Cuban Change, be allowed to open an office in Havana and asked for the elimination of visa requirements for Cuban-Americans who visit their homeland.
He is still waiting for all of the above.
Some criticize his agenda as unrealistic and call him a pawn for Castro. But the aging former warrior, now almost blind in both eyes, sees a possibility for change, born, if nothing else, from necessity.
“In the end, he [Castro] will realize that to reintegrate in the world we live in today, you have to concede freedoms and a legal space to the opposition,” he said. “It’s not easy, but there is a reality: The country will reach a moment when it will not have any choice but to concede a legal space to an opposition, which does not destabilize [the country].”
Gutierrez Menoyo blamed the arrests and harsh prison terms of 75 peaceful dissidents on the “meddling, challenging attitude” of the top American diplomat in Havana, who had been host for and attended opposition meetings.
He said dissident groups in Havana should keep their distance from the U.S. diplomatic mission so as not to play into Cuban accusations that they are in service of a foreign power.
But he added that Castro’s government underestimated the international condemnation for the arrests and executions.
“They thought they could take measure without the world raising its voice,” he said, chain-smoking Camel cigarettes. “But the world has changed . . . it grows tired of the situation in Cuba.”
Gutierrez Menoyo returns to Cuba periodically.
On this trip, he said he noticed widespread disenchantment stemming from salaries averaging $10 a month and the feeling many Cubans have that foreigners are granted more rights than they are.
“I see this as a moment of tremendous deterioration . . . that requires the revolutionary process to be reinvented if it is expected to survive,” said the man who has reinvented himself more than once.
“You have to come to the conclusion that the word revolution is not synonymous with lack of freedoms.”