Why women now lead the dissident fight in Cuba
Only a handful of political activists are willing to risk fighting for
basic freedoms. But more ordinary Cubans, they say, are asking how to
By Matthew Clark and Sara miller Llana | Staff writers of The Christian
from the July 24, 2008 edition
Campo de Florido, Cuba - In the past year, Nereida Rodriguez Rivero says
she has been punched in the mouth, almost thrown from a moving bus, and
stabbed on the street in her otherwise sleepy rural hometown.
In May, government agents took all the books out of the independent
library that she continues to restock and run out of her humble home.
But – as is often the case in Cuba – the punishment for her dissent
isn't limited to her alone.
Her feisty daughter Yuricel Perez Rodriguez was summarily fired from her
position at a state-run children's library last year. "They said I
wasn't safe for children, because I took books to [political]
prisoners," says Ms. Rodriguez.
But this mother-daughter duo won't being backing down.
"If you show fear, they will eat you," says Ms. Rivero, a regional head
of the Latin American Federation of Rural Women (FLAMUR), a Cuban group
dedicated to pushing for political rights. "They won't swallow me whole."
Most experts agree that Raúl Castro is already cautiously moving toward
a freer economy. But few expect to see any significant changes in Cuba's
totalitarian political system in the near future.
Only a handful of dissidents, such as Rivero, are willing to take on the
risk of fighting for basic freedoms. While these spirited few – many of
whom are now women – don't wield much clout, they insist that more
people are quietly asking them how to get involved.
"People are showing up asking us to help them more and more," says
FLAMUR's country director, Belinda Salas Tapanes. "They come to us for
networking. We don't have much more than that to help them."
Indeed, dissidents such as the women involved in FLAMUR – who last year
collected more than 10,000 signatures demanding that the Cuban peso be
the only unit of currency, thereby eliminating the present two-currency
system – have few resources. Lacking the right to organize freely, they
surreptitiously meet in crumbling apartments and speak quickly on tapped
"At this point civil society is very weak," says Pedro Freyre, a
Miami-based Cuban-American attorney and expert on embargo law. "The
population's expectations have been beaten down so much that there's no
spirit of rebellion. No one wants to be shot."
"There are a number of Cuban Gorbachevs around," he says referring to
the Russian reformer who helped ease political and economic restrictions
before the Soviet Union's collapse. "They just don't want to stick out
their necks right now."
Raúl's first move as official leader of Cuba in February was to surround
himself with a core group of well-known hardliners that critics call a
"gerontocracy." At the top of the list is staunch party ideologue José
Ramon Machado Ventura, who Raúl named first vice president.
"It speaks volumes that Raúl's second-in-command is older than he is,"
says Mr. Freyre. "They're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."
"Cuba doesn't have any short- or long-term plan for democracy," says Dan
Erikson, a Cuba expert with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington,
pointing out that suppression of civil liberties is still written into
But, despite the historic apathy fueled by the fear of imprisonment or
worse, the passing of the mantle from Fidel to Raúl has stirred people's
expectations – and created anxiety within the highest ranks.
"The government is worried about a Tiananmen Square situation," says
Brian Latell, former CIA analyst assigned to profiling Fidel and Raúl,
and author of the book, "After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's
Regime and Cuba's Next Leader."
Although few expect a popular uprising akin to that of the Chinese
demonstrators who were famously gunned down for protesting political
repression in Beijing in 1989, the Cuban government is cautious. "Raúl
recognizes he's in uncharted waters," says Mr. Erikson. "He's moving
with extraordinary care and keeping close tabs on dissidents."
"Raúl is a very smart administrator by nature, but he needs to step very
carefully," says Freyre. "The ability of the man on the street to
pressure the government has increased substantially after Fidel."
One of the issues that Cubans complain most about is the country's
two-currency policy, which Ms. Tapanes, Rivero, and fellow advocates
call "economic apartheid."
Cubans get paid in pesos. But tourists, state-owned hotels, and other
services that cater to foreigners use "convertible pesos," or CUC, which
are worth 25 times as much as pesos. Most consumer items, beyond basic
food and clothing, must be purchased with CUCs. But most Cubans cannot
afford such purchases because government salaries are paid in regular pesos.
"Raúl made changes, but the problem is that until they reform the two
currencies system, the changes won't do any good," says Tapanes,
explaining that few can afford cellphones or to stay in a tourist hotel.
"The only people that can do anything are the ones who get [US dollar]
remittances from family in the states – or prostitutes [paid by
tourists]." People are so desperate, she says, that even "regular"
married couples now agree that the wives – and the husbands – will sell
themselves to cash in on Cuba's booming sex tourism trade.
Last month, several FLAMUR women were arrested for attempting to pay in
pesos at a tourist restaurant, where only CUCs are accepted, as a form
of protest. Last week, they tried the same thing at a pharmacy.
It was campaigning for a single currency that got Rivero punched in the
mouth last August, she says. She was handing out T-shirts with the
slogan: "Con la misma moneda," meaning "with the same money." This
prompted three men, who she says were government-paid thugs, to attack
her on a city bus and attempt to throw her out into traffic. She lost
two back teeth, she says, opening wide to show the gaps.
Why one woman fights
Twenty women work for FLAMUR in Havana, communicating openly by phone
despite government surveillance. Norvis Ortero Suarez, who lives in a
tiny apartment with her two cats, Luna and Mami, is one of them.
"We're always under surveillance," says Ms. Suarez calmly, explaining
that she works with other women to bring political prisoners food,
medicine, books, and moral support. But, at times, she becomes the
prisoner. "Sometimes they'll lock me up for a day or so."
But few of Cuba's political prisoners are women.
"The government has shown a real reluctance to lock women up for long
periods of time," says Erikson. Why? "It could be two things: 1) The
government is afraid of aggravating international opinion or 2) women
are seen as less of a threat to the system."
But don't tell Suarez she's not a threat.
"I was always a rebel. I've fought injustice since I was a child," she
says. "What we learn in school is completely different from the reality.
Life is very repressive. Police can ask for paperwork at anytime, for no
"Seven years ago, I exploded and decided to fight the system." It was
during the "special period" of dire economic hardship after the collapse
of the Soviet Union. There were food, water, and gas shortages. "It was
like 10 years of being at war."
"I'm very worried about getting locked up," she says. "But I try not to
think about it, otherwise nothing will change."
'Ladies in White'
On the other side of Havana, Laura Pollán's phone never stops ringing.
In hushed tones, she talks with colleagues about recent arrests of other
dissidents or events planned for that week. She never knows who is
listening. Every conversation ends with the admonition, "Be careful."
She is a leader of the "Damas de Blanco" or "Ladies in White," a group
of relatives – mostly wives, mothers, and sisters – of dissidents who
were jailed in a sweep of arrests five years ago in what has since been
dubbed "Black Spring."
Pollán's husband, Héctor Maseda, a journalist, was arrested with 74
others in March 2003 for "acting against the integrity and sovereignty
of the state." Among other things, he had spent the previous decades
organizing newspaper clippings by subject: environment, economics,
politics, social issues, and circled the contradictions in public discourse.
"In the 50s, they [Cuba's current top officials] were revolutionaries;
now they are counterrevolutionaries," says Pollán. Her husband, and
other dissidents – who are so often dubbed the right-wing puppets of the
US – are the real revolutionaries today, she says. "They are the ones
who want to change the system."
It is hard. She works alone in her house, on a tiny computer, her dog at
her side. She is 60, her husband is 65. "We are senior citizens. We need
each other's compassion and understanding," she says.
Police briefly arrested her in April after they broke up a peaceful
protest in Havana, and since then state security agents have installed a
security camera and floodlights in front of her home, which is also the
main office for the Ladies in White.
Digging deep for faith in change
Back at Rivero's rural home, she's slowly restocking her library after
the government took away all her books. Her daughter, Yuricel, who was
inspired by US first lady Laura Bush (a former school teacher and
librarian) to become a librarian, is out of work and blacklisted. She
says she was fired for handing out books provided by the US government.
Rivero's still so angry with the government that she rejects the food
vouchers that all Cubans get. Instead, she's made it a point to be
self-sufficient by growing enough food to feed herself – and to donate
With a sudden move, she grabs one of the turkeys that strut around her
backyard among the plantain, mango, and avocado trees. She raises and
cooks the birds to help feed expectant mothers when they go to the
hospital to deliver. "Hospital food is horrible," she explains.
Rivero and other dissidents say it's hard to envision a Castro-led
regime rolling back political restrictions, given the repression they've
experienced. But they say that they wouldn't be battling the system if
change wasn't possible.
"Raúl's Cuba is already very different than Fidel's," says Tapanes. "I
think change is already happening and Raúl is implementing China-style
reforms. But I'm not happy with that. The change has to be radical."
Raúl's recent economic reforms are "not change," insists Suarez. "But I
have faith that there will be change. That's why I'm fighting."
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