Cuban Dissidents Lose Hope

EITHER MANUEL Vásquez Portal was an idealist, a romantic hero who fought for freedom and democracy in a country where neither exist. Or he was a fool, for waging a public-opinion battle against a dictatorship where public opinion does not exist either.

Cuban Dissidents Lose Hope

EITHER MANUEL Vásquez Portal was an idealist, a romantic hero who fought for freedom and democracy in a country where neither exist. Or he was a fool, for waging a public-opinion battle against a dictatorship where public opinion does not exist either. Vásquez Portal had plenty of time to pore over the riddle. "One year, three months and four days in solitary confinement," the 53-year-old Cuban political dissident and journalist said during a recent interview in Havana. His conclusion? Only fools still believe the human rights situation could improve under 78-year-old Fidel Castro. "We have to wait for the biological solution."

With his mane of white hair, thick white beard and oversized glasses, the frail-looking Vásquez Portal looks more like a beatnik than a released convict. He was arrested two years ago, along with 74 other Cuban human-rights activists, charged with sedition and being a mercenary hired by foreign powers, and thrown in prison for 18 years. He was released for "health reasons," as the regime put it, last June, along with 13 other aging, ailing compadres (61 other detainees, most of them younger men, remain behind bars).

The arrests took place on March 19, 2003, as the world was riveted by the invasion of Iraq. "These dissidents played mostly to an outside audience," one European diplomat in Havana told Maclean's. "Most Cubans have never heard of them - and probably wouldn't believe people like them even existed here." Now that Vásquez Portal has reached a conclusion about the hopelessness of his own political activism, he wants out, badly - to the United States. "What can happen here?" he asks. "Nothing! Internal dissidents are powerless, and exiled dissidents could never invade the island in arms. There is no viable opposition, no reformers will be able to infiltrate the government and initiate reforms - there is no strong grassroots movement to do that."

Vásquez Portal lives in Havana, where, true to the clichés, music is heard from most windows, pre-revolution DeSotos and Packards spew clouds of black fumes, and the sun glitters on an ocean that is never far away. But his life is far removed from the fun spots. Tourists rarely venture into Alamar, the sprawling, workers' paradise suburb of peeling, pastel housing blocks, litter-strewn sandlots and sun-scorched streets where Vásquez Portal's apartment is, 10 km east of the postcard downtown. "Tourists come to Cuba for the good times, but for Cubans, the island is like a prison," he says. "People here don't have any choice."

Vásquez Portal was a journalist for the official Cuban press, but he resigned in 1998 and started writing editorials, demanding a free press and free elections, in CubaPress, an independent news agency launched by his colleague Raúl Rivero (who was also arrested in March 2003 and released last November). Their initiative was certainly courageous, but also foolish. Two years ago, "on March 19," Vásquez Portal recalls, "14 men from security came, searched my apartment down to the bugs' nests, and took me away." A few weeks later, he was in Boniato prison in Santiago de Cuba, 900 km away from home. Solitary confinement - "but I was not really alone," he says, "because there were bugs and spiders, rats and lizards, a tiny zoo."

The small, fifth-floor walk-up where he lives with his wife and the youngest of their four children is almost bare. They've started giving away furniture and appliances, before the government confiscates everything when they leave for exile later this spring.

If they can leave. Years ago, Vásquez Portal had been granted entry to the U.S., but the Cuban government kept denying him an exit visa. It finally arrived - several weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which prompted the U.S. to reconsider many of its immigration rules and procedures. Vásquez Portal now hopes to untangle the red tape and leave for Denver, Colo., sometime in May: learn English, find work, start a new life. "The road to exile is very difficult," he says, "because my roots, my family and friends and culture are all here. But I feel totally useless in Cuba, because there is nothing I can do to help my country. I wish the Cuban government would understand that I have the right to speak my mind, and to fight for my ideas, without being forced into exile."

The sweep of the 75 dissidents two years ago triggered protest and indignation among the usual suspects - Cuban exiles, and human-rights activists and watchdogs such as Reporters Without Borders. It also created a diplomatic chill - dubbed the cocktail war - between the Castro regime and members of the European Union when EU embassy officials began inviting Cuban dissidents to their receptions. But the human rights situation in Cuba has not fired the world's imagination. It certainly hasn't stemmed the flow of foreign visitors, mainly from Europe and Canada, which broke the two million mark for the first time last year.

"I don't understand why world opinion that supported liberation battles in Chile, Argentina, South Africa or Eastern Europe has remained vastly indifferent to the plight of Cubans," says Oswaldo Payá. "There is no perestroika here - repression is going on unabated." Payá, leader of the Varela Project - a petition making the rounds in Cuba, demanding more democracy and freedom - is the most famous and best-connected of all Cuban dissidents. So the first question to him is usually: why is he not in jail with the others? Payá stops just short of saying he'd rather have been arrested too. "I was not hiding," he says. "When the sweep began, I was here, waiting for them. There were journalists and cameramen at my door, waiting too." It's not clear whether Payá was spared by his relative celebrity abroad, or if by deliberately ignoring him the regime was trying to undermine his credibility.

So what now? Payá has reached the same conclusion as Vásquez Portal: nothing will happen while Castro is still running the island. "The thing today is to start working so change can happen without internal confrontation or civil war, without foreign intervention, and without the economic and social upheavals witnessed in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism," he says. And how can that be done when the regime has outlawed political meetings and parties? In a country where information is controlled, Payá says Cubans have to start from the ground up: "Our approach is to form discussion groups, where people can debate such issues as health care and education, civil rights, the future of the armed forces. Our objective is to create a transition program, and to facilitate a certain awareness of economic issues."

Over the past few years, there have been some slight changes in Havana. Smoking is now prohibited in bars and restaurants. Workers in the tourism industry have been asked to turn tips over to their employer. But the strict apartheid between tourists and locals is still enforced. They live in parallel worlds, have different currencies, are not allowed to mingle. The U.S. dollar has been banned, replaced by convertible pesos traded at par with the greenback - although Cubans say that has had no significant impact on the underground economy.

More houses are being restored in the old town. The pre-1959 American cars, held together with wire, tape and Santeria - Cuban voodoo - still ferry people about, but there are more new small cars and vans. O'Reilly Street, a major and decrepit shopping thoroughfare frequented mostly by locals, has been spruced up. "There is a bit more food and meat in the peso markets," one woman says. More Spanish-speaking visitors from Latin America are roaming the tourist spots.

Under the surface, though, Payá says things are bleak. "The gap between rich and poor has widened in the past two years," he notes. "The better-educated people are leaving the country. The majority of the poor have no choice but to work the underground economy, risking prison to make ends meet. Delinquency, corruption, inefficiency have increased. We suffer severe economic oppression while an oligarchy is preparing to reap the benefits of the post-Castro era."

But the plight of the dissidents - or agitating for change - does not seem to be on the radar for average Cubans. "Life is not easy here, and getting by does not leave them with much spare time for the fancy public debates we entertain in our richer countries," says one observer. But Vásquez Portal says someone was watching when he and the 13 other dissidents were released last summer. In January, countries of the European Union eased their chill, and resumed diplomatic relations with Cuba. Vásquez Portal is convinced that he and the others have been an unwitting bargaining chip. "I don't believe we were released for health reasons," he says. "There were men dying of TB and AIDS in cells neighbouring mine, and nobody cared about them." Whenever change does comes to Cuba, it will be too late for many.

Maclean's March 21, 2005