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Cuba's opposition tries to plot fresh course

Paul Haven And Andrea Rodriguez

When dozens of Cuban intellectuals and commentators were jailed in a notorious crackdown on dissent, their wives united in 2003 to form the Ladies in White, a dissident group focused on a simple, compelling goal: freedom for their loved ones.

Every week since then, the Ladies have marched through a leafy Havana neighborhood after Sunday Mass, wearing white and holding up gladiolas. They have been met, on some occasions, by rowdy pro-government crowds shouting caustic insults.

The ground shifted under the Ladies and the broader Cuban dissident movement when a deal between President Raul Castro and the Roman Catholic Church freed the last of their husbands this year and sent many into exile in Spain. It cleared Cuban jails of peaceful political detainees designated by Amnesty International as "prisoners of conscience."

It was the Ladies' greatest victory, but it also robbed them of their founding cause and removed many of the opposition's most important voices from the island.

Now, the Ladies and the rest of the island's dissident community stand at a crossroads, as they struggle to redefine themselves and connect with a public that has never appeared particularly receptive to their message.

In interviews with The Associated Press, opposition leaders acknowledged the obstacles, but said they intend to keep pressing for greater freedom, and are even raising the stakes by expanding their activities outside the capital.

"We are going to continue. We are fighting for freedom and human rights," said Ladies founder Laura Pollan.

The small, fractured Cuban opposition has been unable to duplicate the popular uprisings rocking the Arab world, or even the street protests jolting developed countries such as Greece, Spain, and Britain. And while political freedom may still be lacking in Communist Cuba, which has been ruled by one Castro or another for more than 50 years, the government has undercut the opposition movement by allowing increased economic opportunities and promising more reforms.

"The opposition finds itself in a process of redefinition, and frankly it has been a chaotic process but not a failed one. What they lack is a model, an overarching program," said Manuel Cuesta, a historian and longtime opposition activist. "The opposition has a challenge, not only to have a plan for the country, but to connect with the people."

Cuesta said some opposition leaders have started to refocus on a political plan. Oswaldo Paya, for one, issued a manifesto in July calling for a national dialogue and a multiparty political system.

"It is a conspiracy to say the dissidents don't have a plan," Paya told the AP. "We do."

But whether their message will resonate with ordinary Cubans is another question.

While people on nearly any street corner will admit they're unhappy with everything from the lack of housing to the government, few speak of the dissidents as a viable alternative.

"I don't think that there could be an Arab Spring in Cuba," said Ricardo Gonzalez, one of the political prisoners freed in 2010 after he accepted the government's deal to go into exile in Spain along with his family. "Every region and every country is different."

Even the United States has expressed frustration with Cuba's opposition, which it has long sought to bolster. A U.S. diplomatic cable from April 2009 revealed by the group WikiLeaks described the Cuban opposition as old, riven by petty rivalries and hopelessly out of touch.

The opposition can also point to few concrete successes in changing government behavior, although the freed dissidents credited their wives with helping push for their release.

An informal survey by the AP this week of 30 Cubans in the capital found that only five, or 17 percent, could identify Ladies in White founder Laura Pollan. Faring little better was Guillermo Farinas, who spent 134 days on a hunger strike last year that garnered international media attention and won him Europe's most prestigious human rights prize. Only nine Cubans asked said they knew who he was.

Three people surveyed knew the name of Yoani Sanchez, who has gained a following for her searing blog about life on the island and is perhaps the best known opposition figure outside Cuba.

Human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez, a de facto spokesman for the opposition, acknowledged the movement remains marginalized and unknown to most Cubans, a fact he blames on the state. Cuban authorities exert a tight grip on the media, and while some form of Internet access is theoretically possible, most Cubans cannot afford it.

"The government controls all the newspapers, all the radio stations and all television, and it has an enormous ability to control society," said Sanchez, who is unrelated to the blogger. "When we try to establish a connection with the people, the electrician comes, that is to say the government, and cuts the wires."

In recent weeks, the Ladies in White have focused their protests on the eastern part of the country, including Cuba's second-largest city, Santiago, prompting confrontations and dozens of short-term detentions.

Sanchez said there were 2,221 short-term detentions in the first eight months of 2011, nearly double the same period in 2010. The numbers were impossible to independently verify, and the government had no comment. State-run news media has routinely accused the dissidents of exaggerating about action taken against them.

A report on state website Cubadebate this month noted that several names on Sanchez's list of detained dissidents in fact belonged to Bolivian and Peruvian sports personalities, as well as an 18th century painter. Sanchez acknowledged the mistakes, but said his people were tricked by security agents posing as members of the opposition. The government considers all dissidents to be mercenaries paid by Washington to stir up trouble.

Sanchez says the opposition has moved east in search of what could be a more receptive audience, due to worse economic conditions than in the capital. He likened the discontent there to dry grass waiting for a spark.

The next flare-up could come Saturday, when Catholics honor the Virgin of Mercedes, the patron saint of prisoners, which has traditionally been a day of protest in Cuba. The dissidents say they will march.

Already, pro-government blogs have denounced the planned demonstrations. One, Cambios en Cuba, called on pro-government youth to confront the Ladies, whom it calls the "the tip of the spear for invasions and massacres" orchestrated by the U.S.

As the Ladies have stepped up their activities in recent weeks, they have focused their message on a demand that about 50 other prisoners be freed. Most of these lesser-known detainees were arrested for politically motivated but violent crimes such as sabotage and hijacking, which disqualifies them from consideration by Amnesty as "prisoners of conscience."

Pollan, the Ladies' founder, told the AP that the group will keep marching until every prisoner is free.

"As long as this government is around there will be prisoners," she said. "Because while they've let some go, they've put others in jail. It is a never-ending story."


Associated Press writers Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana and Jorge Sainz in Madrid contributed to this report.


Paul Haven can be reached at

The Associated Press