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Can Cuba's opposition deliver?

Can Cuba’s opposition deliver?

Cuba’s President Fidel Castro – the world’s longest-serving leader –
turns 80 on 13 August. This week, we are assessing his political life
and his impact on the Caribbean island.

Here, the BBC’s Elinor Shields asks whether Cuban dissidents can deliver
on their hopes for change.

Cuban exiles in Miami may be celebrating in the streets at the news of
Fidel Castro’s temporary handover, but dissidents within the island have
kept a lower profile.

“In Havana, people don’t speak; they whisper,” one wrote in a piece
posted on CubaNet, one of the main external dissidence hubs in Florida.

“They take refuge in their silent ally of four decades: the wait.”

The chance for a new era in Cuba may have finally arrived – but the
island’s small, split and scattered opposition faces many obstacles to
their calls for change.

‘Inside out’

A small number of activists and journalists have fought for decades to
end political imprisonments and restrictions on free speech under Mr Castro.

You can’t operate in Cuba without assistance from outside
Holly Ackerman

But public protests against the government are very rare in Cuba.

A few have taken prominent stands, such as democracy advocate Oswaldo
Paya, who has gathered thousands of signatures for his petition for a
referendum on whether Cubans favour such rights as freedom of speech,
free elections, and the ability to own private businesses.

But most work in a more clandestine manner, on an island where
dissidents face neighbourhood informants and state security agents – and
open dissidence may bring harassment or jail.

“Fear is everywhere in Cuba,” poet and journalist Raul Rivero told the BBC.

He was among the 75 dissidents handed long jail sentences in 2003 before
he was released following international pressure, and went into exile in
Spain.

“We now have a theatrical society whose script is written every day by
the official press.”

Observers say the 2003 crackdown dealt a heavy blow to human rights
activists and the independent press.

Its “clandestine situation has forced” Cuba’s press to function as one
“from the inside for the outside”, watchdog Reporters Without Borders says.

Analysts say dissidents must also rely on outside support to survive.

“You can’t operate in Cuba without assistance from outside,” Holly
Ackerman, a scholar at Duke University, told the BBC.

Infighting

Much of that assistance comes from Miami exile groups, who have received
millions of dollars in US aid.

But some Cuban activists say American support hinders their cause.

Mr Paya told the Associated Press that Cubans on the island would reject
any change seen to be imposed from outside, since the people in Cuba
were the ones who needed political and economic reforms.

The opposition is also hampered by personal and political differences
among some of the groups.

Dozens of small groups are believed to operate in Cuba – but they are
often suspicious of one another because many of them have been
infiltrated by government spies.

Prominent dissidents Martha Beatriz Roque and Mr Paya belong to rival
factions and often feud, with Ms Roque opposing reconciliation among
Cubans and Mr Paya seeking consensus and dialogue.

Some see this fragmentation as a factor in the dissidents’ response to
Mr Castro’s temporary handover.

“If the movement was united… maybe this would be an opportunity,”
human rights advocate Laura Pollan told the Washington Post.

“But we have so much differences.”

Where now?

Exiles and the Bush administration have urged Cubans to push for change
during Mr Castro’s illness, but there has been little reaction on the
island.

Some dissidents say they are fearful of retaliation in this period of
uncertainty.

But others see it as a defining moment.

Mr Paya told the Associated Press that Mr Castro’s illness had changed
Cuba forever by exposing the system to the influence of others – even if
only temporarily.

“This should be a moment of peace, serenity,” he said earlier this week.

“The time has come for us to really put our heads together.”
Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/world/americas/4776879.stm

Published: 2006/08/10 09:43:56 GMT

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