Posted on Wednesday, 10.02.13
Shifting tactics, dissidents help average Cubans
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
When about 200 owners of horse-drawn carts in the Cuban city of Santa
Clara gathered recently outside a government office to protest their
stiff taxes, dissident Guillermo Fariñas and a dozen other democracy
activists stood with them.
The cocheros, who transport people and cargo, broke up peacefully after
their protest on Sept. 11. Fariñas, winner of a top European prize for
human rights, and the other dissidents were carted away by police, and
freed later that day.
More than a simple protest, the event reflected a new strategy for
Cuba’s dissidents, learned in part from Poland’s Solidarity labor union
in the waning years of that country’s communist rule: If you want to win
more popular support, tone down the push for a political opening and
back the common people in their demands for economic and social change.
Opposition groups say they are now offering medical help and
transportation for the ill, food and laundry for the elderly, education
and entertainment for children and vocal support for squatters and
illegal street vendors harassed by government inspectors.
“The idea is to do things so that the people can perceive us as their
defenders,” Fariñas said. “We’re going to relegate the political demands
because we need more popular support before we can really push them.”
What real impact the new strategy will have, if any, is uncertain in a
country where the government regularly jails dissidents and brands them
as “mercenaries” financed by the U.S. government to undermine the
The U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, in a 2009 dispatch to Washington,
wrote that it perceived “very little evidence that the main-line
dissident organizations have much resonance among ordinary Cubans.”
That’s all changing now, said Fariñas and José Daniél Ferrer, who
founded the island’s most active dissident organization, the Cuban
Patriotic Union (UNPACU), in 2011, just days after Ferrer was freed
after serving eight years in prison.
“We decided at that time that we had to combine the political message,
the nonviolent struggle in the streets for democracy and human rights,
with the social work,” Ferrer said in a telephone interview from his
home in the eastern town of Palmarito de Cauto.
“We want to make it clear that we’re not only defending the elemental
rights of citizens, but that we are accompanying everyone who needs our
support,” he added.
Fariñas said the strategy took on a more-detailed shape in June, when he
and several other government critics, including a Catholic lay activist,
a Baptist pastor, a blogger and a rapper, traveled to Poland for 15 days
of training at the Lech Walesa Foundation.
During a meeting with Walesa, former president of Poland and leader of
Solidarity, they asked how the dissident labor movement had managed to
gather 10 million members in a country of 19 million people ruled by a
hostile Polish communist party.
“Walesa told us that we were very valiant, very good, but we focused too
much on political demands and should concentrate much more on the social
problems,” Fariñas said by phone from his home in the central city of
So when the 200 cocheros met in front of a local government office to
demand that their taxes be reduced, Fariñas said, he and the other
dissidents decided to go there and show their support. The cart owners
are waiting for a response to their demands.
Asked whether the dissidents and cocheros had reached any sort of
relationship as a result of the protest, he declined to comment.
Fariñas, awarded the European Parliament’s 2010 Sakharov prize for
Freedom of Conscience, is UNPACU’s official spokesman.
Fariñas and Ferrer were glad, however, to talk about other UNPACU
efforts to align themselves with the social and economic needs of common
Five physicians and seven nurses who belong to UNPACU-run Health for
All, a program to deliver healthcare and medicines to those in need —
not just dissidents — and, when necessary, quietly refers them to other
friendly doctors who can help, Ferrer said.
Two dissidents who own vehicles also volunteer them as ambulances for
health emergencies, he added. Government ambulance services, the only
ones officially available on the island, have deteriorated significantly
in recent years as vehicles break down and are not repaired.
Two other UNPACU teams are helping neighbors fix up homes damaged when
Hurricane Sandy hit eastern Cuba last year, while others are supporting
residents of neighborhoods who are demanding connections to potable
Other dissidents are providing whatever food they can to the neediest,
Ferrer said, and doing the laundry for and cleaning the homes of elderly
neighbors who can no longer take care of themselves.
UNPACU members also have mounted protests as police and government
inspectors harassed or arrested unlicensed vendors, usually workers at
street kiosks that can sell food and clothing at prices cheaper than
those in state stores, he said.
Fariñas said a small group of activists protested in a Santa Clara plaza
last week to demand that officials in the state’s food rationing system
provide the legally required special diet for a young girl with an
And after nine dissidents protested high prices in a Santa Clara market
last week, one participant said the event was intended to show other
Cubans that it is important to speak out against abuses, the U.S.
government’s Radio/TV Marti reported.
Videos filmed by dissidents, meanwhile, highlight issues that have
nothing to do with politics, such as the thousands of homes left
unrepaired after Hurricane Sandy and the poor who pick through garbage
dumps in the city of Santiago de Cuba.
The social programs, Ferrer said, are designed “to make it clear to
people that the government really lies when it says we are enemies of
society, that we’re against health and education .?.?. that we are
virtually poisoning the water.”
“They have the control of all the mass media,” he said, “so our actions
must carry a political message.”
Source: “Shifting tactics, dissidents help average Cubans – Cuba –