José Daniel Ferrer, the man behind Cuba’s largest opposition group
Irreverent youth, activist in the Christian Liberation Movement’s early days, political prisoner and now leader of Cuba’s most active opposition group, José Daniel Ferrer is probably one of the biggest headaches for the island’s government.
One of the 75 political prisoners jailed in the 2003 crackdown known as Cuba’s Black Spring, Ferrer, 45, was one of the last to be freed in 2011 under a parole that barred him from leaving the country. He arrived in Miami last week, after the government gave him a one-time permission to travel abroad.
After his release Ferrer founded the Cuban Patriotic Union, UNPACU by its Spanish initials, which he estimates now has more than 3,000 members and sympathizers, mostly in Santiago de Cuba and other parts of eastern Cuba although it also has members in Havana, Camaguey and the Isle of Youth.
How he managed to gather those 3,000 supporters — a number that is small in an island of 11 million people yet is significantly large compared to other dissident organizations — is a question with more than one answer.
He is a clearly charismatic leader, and even in prison he managed to persuade the jailers to improve the quality of the food or rush an inmate to a nearby hospital. His love for politics, he told el Nuevo Herald and Miami Herald editors on Thursday, grew as he listened clandestinely to foreign radio broadcasts. He described himself as a voracious reader, and more than once quoted Chinese strategist Sun Tzu’s book, The Art of War.
Czech leader Vaclav Havel was another idol.
“When I completed my military service in 1991, I got a copy of Vaclav Havel’s book, The Power of the Powerless, and I understood that we could topple the dictatorship,” he said. “Until that time, the question of whether I would leave [Cuba] or stay was in the air. But the fall of the Communist bloc and this book encouraged me to start the struggle.”
What’s more, Ferrer has organized UNPACU for maximum efficiency, and the movement now has a structure and way of operating that look much like those of a political party. Although Cuba bans all but the Communist Party, Ferrer acknowledges that turning UNPACU into a political party is one of his goals.
Members have concrete and clear goals to meet, and they are checked regularly. One important part of their work is face-to-face contacts, trying to persuade others to join the group. They receive training to do just that.
If anything distinguishes UNPACU from other dissident groups in Cuba, it is that ability to move beyond street protests.
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