'People are complaining openly in Cuba and this has never happened before'
Leading dissident Antonio Rodiles has been arrested more than 50 times
this year, but he says he has moments of optimism about political change
Wednesday 10 August 2016 12.40 BST
Two days before he was due to meet the president of the US, Antonio
Rodiles was arrested by the Cuban police.
But this was nothing new – as a democracy activist in Cuba you get to
know the police pretty well. Rodiles estimates that he has been arrested
more than 50 times since the beginning of the year.
I met Rodiles in his house in Havana, shortly after the US president's
historic visit. He was eventually released and met with Obama, who spent
two hours with prominent Cuban dissidents and anti-Castro civil society
leaders. "It was a good meeting, but it doesn't mean we will have a good
result," Rodiles says. And yet, despite plenty of negative experiences,
the activist admits that these days, he has moments of optimism.
Rodiles, a native Cuban, has been openly critical of the Castro
government since his return from the US in 2010. A qualified physicist,
he spent 12 years away from Cuba until he turned to political activism,
concerned and frustrated by the lack of civic liberties in his country.
His activism is mainly about reclaiming public space and intellectual
freedom. Last year he launched #TodosMarchamos (we all march), an
initiative to exercise the right to freedom of expression and take back
the streets from the government – there's a saying in Cuba "esta calle
es de Fidel" (this street belongs to Fidel).
On a smaller scale, every Thursday Rodiles hosts meetings at his house –
an organisation called Estado de SATS – an open space to present art
exhibitions, independent films and debates. They are "a kind of therapy
session for activists," he says.
"There's no space like this in Cuba. It's so important to have these
kinds of events. People can come here and speak openly without limits.
They can say they hate Fidel or even, well, we haven't had anyone say
they like the Castros, but they could do that here," he jokes.
And these meetings are poignant. Ex-political prisoners are given a
microphone to share their thoughts on the future of Cuba and openly
discuss their experiences of their restricted life. It seems to be a
lifeline for those who think differently to the Cuban communist
ideology; and it is perhaps now more important than ever to continue
these discussions. The invitation to meet with Obama was a recognition
of their work.
This all comes against a backdrop of rising repression. "In general the
repression is increasing," Rodiles says. "The regime is more violent,
more comfortable. People care more about economics than promoting human
rights in Cuba."
According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National
Reconciliation, there were 8,500 cases of arbitrary detention in 2015
and more than 2,500 in January and February of this year.
"We are suffering more arrests. They [state security forces] are beating
us hard," Rodiles says, his voice measured and calm. It seems he has
become desensitised to this violence. If you search Antonio Rodiles
online, you will find an image of him with reddened eyes wearing a
bloody shirt, his face almost fully covered by a bandage on his nose
which was broken, along with his eardrum, in a brutal beating by
security agents last year. He says he was on his way to the Sunday
protest organised by opposition movement Damas de Blanco (Ladies in
White) in July 2015 when he was attacked – the protest he still attends
every week. "The opposition movement needs to show people you can't be
afraid. That's the main goal."
In a political sense there may be no change. "The regime is more
legitimate after the change in relations with the US," he says. In his
view, the growing rapprochement, which began in December 2014, has given
the Castro government greater international credit, legitimising a
regime that continues to repress dissent. "Economic changes won't bring
political changes; now human rights and the promotion of democracy are
not the priority of the discussion."
But for ordinary Cubans and their understanding of their rights, Rodiles
is more hopeful. "People are more frustrated, more tired, and so they
are more engaged. It is like there's a small hole [in the power of the
regime] and as that hole increases things move faster."
He moves to show me a YouTube video by Estado de SATS of a recent
demonstration in central Havana. A couple of activists walk down a busy
street throwing pro-democracy flyers in the air, shouting "Libertad!"
(freedom). After a few moments they are taken away in police cars, but
this is when Rodiles gets excited. "Look, look at the people pick up the
papers. They are taking papers and reading. For us, this is amazing.
People are feeling less afraid."
More Cuban people, Rodiles tells me, are talking about change, speaking
in the streets about their frustrations, and more interested in a
"People are complaining openly and this has never happened before.
Little by little people are realising more government broken promises.
When you start to break that order you start to break the system. People
need to feel as though they have the right to be a human being, and
after that you're ready to face the regime."
Rodiles rises abruptly from his chair – it's a Thursday and he needs to
get ready for the the Estado de SATS meeting. Today they're showing
Richard Attenborough's Gandhi. Perhaps he sees something of himself in
the civil rights leader. "I don't do this because I'm brave," Rodiles
says. "I do it because I feel tired of these people."
Source: 'People are complaining openly in Cuba and this has never
happened before' | Global Development Professionals Network | The