Otto Reich: Winds of Change in Cuba
Winds of change are opening doors that have been closed in oppressed countries for half a century, not only in the near East but also in the Caribbean. In central Cuba, one recent day seemed like any other until those winds blew through the main entrance at government-run Radio Placetas. The station is owned and operated by the Castro regime, as are all radio stations in Cuba. Consequently, the station transmits only programming approved by Cuba’s ruling Communist Party, broadcasting a predictable and monotonous replication of life under a totalitarian regime.
The fresh winds this time took the human form of three young black Cuban women, who opened the doors and demanded to be heard: Yaimara Reyes Mesa, Yris Tamara Perez Aguilera and Donaida Perez Paseiro. Miriam, the station director, rushed to confront them. It is rare for citizens to demand air time in Castroite Cuba. In a calm and respectful voice, the three women insisted that the station air an opinion different from the government’s official line about the recent death of dissident Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia, who perished at the hands of police in the nearby city of Santa Clara a few days before.
“We are Cuban citizens, we live in this city. Don’t we have a right to be heard?” said Yris. “This station only transmits the policies of the Party and the government,” replied Miriam, the director, shocked that anyone would dare try to access the microphones of a “public” radio station for any unapproved message. “Then we will remain here until we are heard,” countered the dissident Donaida.
Whipped into a fury by the station’s ever-present Communist Party delegate, employees surrounded the three protesters with hostile shouts of “Whatever you tell us to do, Fidel, we will do…” (Pa’ lo que sea, Fidel, pa’ lo que sea). The unlikely heroines were unmoved; “We will not leave until the public knows that Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia was beaten to death by police.” And remain they did, until police arrested them.
Yaimara, 29, Yris, 35, and Donaida, 39, are members of the Rosa Parks Feminist Movement, a nonviolent protest organization that advocates for the re-establishment of civil rights for all Cubans. They were protesting the death of Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia, a 46-year old activist and former political prisoner who died after being beaten by police in a park in the provincial capital of Santa Clara on May 8 of this year. The beating took place after dictator Raul Castro sternly warned the illegal but increasingly active opposition groups during the April closing of the Cuban Communist Party Congress: “…it is necessary for us to clarify that we will never deny the people the right todefend their Revolution, since the defense of independence, of the conquests of socialism and of our plazas and streets will continue to be the first duty of all Cuban citizens.”
This was Castro’s order, in Orwellian doublespeak, to police and paramilitary forces to attack freedom activists anywhere and anytime they saw fit.
After long imprisonments of peaceful dissidents led to international condemnation of the bankrupt, half-century-old Castro dictatorship, and failed to stem the rising tide ofpublic defiance, brutal street violence seems to be the regime’s principal recourse to stem a rising tide of popular resistance. The regime has reason to fear: Yris, Donaida and Yaimara are said to be the tip of an iceberg of grassroots opposition to the dictatorship. Young, black and from impoverished provinces, they are representative of the 93.1 percent of young Cubans who, according to a recent public opinion poll commissioned by the International Republican Institute,would vote in favor of changing Cuba from “the current political system to a democratic system with multi-party elections, freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”
Shortly after being released from her arrest for the Radio Placetas sit-in, Yris joined other civic activists in a public march in her city. Violently intercepted by Regime police, Yris was thrown to the ground and beaten unconscious. After her release, before the pain of her injuries had begun to fade, she cried: “I will not renounce the struggle for Cuban freedom.” The march concluded a twelve-day cycle of protests organized across Cuba by the National Civic Resistance Front (FNRC).
Street protests like those by the FNRC were unheard of in a country where fear has ruled for decades. Their newfound frequency indicates that discontent against the Castro regime is overtaking fear, and motivating veteran activists to find freedom through nonviolent resistance. As distracted journalists and academics focus on Raul Castro and his purported plans of pseudo-reform, they would do well not to ignore Cuba’s growing Resistance and its will to bring about democratic change. At this time of year the winds in the tropics can be unpredictable and strong. And after 52 years of abuse, old and weak doors may not stand for long.
Otto J. Reich, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant, is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state and ambassador to Venezuela. Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat is national secretary of the Directorio Democratico Cubano in Miami.