Friday, August 04, 2006

Cuba's Divided Dissidents Keep Low Profile

The Washington Post

As Growing Confusion Surrounds Castro's Move, Activists Are Avoiding Risks

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 4, 2006; Page A14

MEXICO CITY, Aug. 3 -- Cuba's tiny, fragmented dissident movement has fought for decades to end political imprisonments and restrictions on free speech under Fidel Castro.

But Castro's ever-more mysterious illness and temporary handover of power to his brother, Raúl Castro, have not led to a surge in dissident activity. There have been no big speeches. No rallies. No fiery calls for change.

Instead, prominent dissidents seem just as confused as many of their countrymen about what is happening and what it means for them.

"At this point, all of this is not having an impact on the dissident movement, none whatsoever," Vladimiro Roca, once one of Cuba's best-known political prisoners, said in a telephone interview from his Havana home. "We just don't know anything. And we have no way to mobilize."

Even the most vocal dissidents have been holding back. Oswaldo Payá -- founder of the renowned Varela Project, which included a petition drive for free speech and amnesty for political prisoners -- has called for calm.

Neither of the Castro brothers has been seen in public or on television since the Cuban government announced late Monday night that Fidel Castro had undergone surgery for intestinal bleeding.

Some Cuban exiles believe Fidel Castro is dead or dying, though Cuba's National Assembly president, Ricardo Alarcon, has said in two U.S. radio interviews that the 79-year-old dictator's recovery is progressing well.

U.S. intelligence analysts say they believe the Cuban government account of Fidel Castro's condition "since they chose not to paint the rosiest picture possible," one intelligence official said Thursday. Raúl Castro's low profile is to be expected, the official said, because he and his brother have often gone weeks without appearing in public.

The Cuban Communist Party only added to the confusion Thursday by publishing a weeks-old speech by Raúl Castro on the front page of the state-run Granma newspaper.

In the speech, Raúl Castro said: "Only the Communist Party can be the worthy heir of the trust Cubans have placed in their leader."

Cuban government officials estimate that active dissidents amount to less than half a percent of the island's 11 million residents, and they accuse the international media of giving the dissidents disproportionate attention.

High-profile dissidents don't dispute the government's estimate, but they say their numbers are low because of widespread fears of government harassment and imprisonment.

On Thursday, President Bush, in the first statement issued by the White House on Cuba since Fidel Castro ceded power, said the United States was prepared to support efforts "to build a transitional government in Cuba committed to democracy, and we will take note of those, in the current Cuban regime, who obstruct your desire for a free Cuba."

Roca, who says he was jailed for distributing a flier calling for free elections, drew international attention when he was freed from prison a week before former president Jimmy Carter's historic 2002 visit to Cuba. The release was derided as largely symbolic because his five-year sentence for sedition would have expired two months later.

On Thursday, Roca said that he had no plans to speak publicly or conduct dissident meetings because there would be "tremendous risks" for anyone who attended.

The muted reaction among dissidents is partly a result of their fragmentation. More than 100 small dissident groups are believed to operate in the country, but they are riven by ideological disputes and are often suspicious of one another because many of them have been infiltrated by government spies.

"If the movement was united and was open to everything, maybe this would be an opportunity -- but we have so many differences," Laura Pollán, a well-known human rights advocate, said in a telephone interview Thursday from her Havana home.

Pollán is a leader of "The Women in White," a group of political prisoners' wives who march every Sunday in Havana wearing white dresses and each carrying a single flower. Pollán's husband, independent journalist Hector Maseda Gutierrez, is serving a 20-year prison term after being accused of mercenary activity, Pollán said. In reality, she said, he was punished for speaking and writing about human rights and political freedoms.

The announcement of Castro's surgery also placed dissidents in a difficult position because they do not want to be perceived as celebrating his illness or possible death, Pollán said. Alarcon, the National Assembly president, has chastised Cuban exiles in Miami for holding street celebrations after the announcement.

"From a human perspective, we have no ill wishes toward anyone," she said. "We don't wish for the death of Dr. Castro, even though he has brought such suffering to us and to the Cuban people."

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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