Dissidents in Cuba are not easy to find

Published Sep. 20, 1990|Updated Oct. 17, 2005

To be a human rights activist in Cuba is to be a bug under a microscope. The government keeps track of what you say on the telephone and who visits your house. Gung-ho foreign journalists want you to make political statements and tell them when you are going to overthrow Fidel Castro. Cuban-Americans in Florida praise you and call you a traitor by turns.

Since there is practically no organized political opposition inside Cuba, human rights monitors fill the gap whether they like it or not. They make regular visits to foreign embassies, give declarations to the press, and nearly all of them are veterans of Cuba's prisons.

Almost all the people who would form anti-government political groups are in Cuban prisons or have left Cuba altogether _ usually for Florida. Several of Cuba's most prominent anti-Castro figures, in fact, have gone almost directly from prison to Miami. Just a few are still in Cuba, keeping up a small, embattled human rights and political movement that is more well-known abroad than in Cuba.

Self-described political figures are people like Roberto Luque Escalona, otherwise known as the Cuban Social Democratic Party. He calmly admits that there are no other members in the party, and says it is because he wants to avoid government harassment.

Cuba has another minuscule internal organization: Sendero Verde (Green Path). The leaders of this ecological and pacifist group, Orlando Polo and his wife, Mercedes Paez, ran the Life Naturist Association, a vegetarian society, until police closed down its headquarters last August.

The formation of the Cuban Democratic Party was announced last month by a group of Cuban exiles in Managua, Nicaragua, who described it as a clandestine, armed movement. The exiles stressed that the party was an internal group, not supported by exiles. Since the 1959 Cuban revolution, there have been innumerable armed groups attempting to overthrow Castro. Many of the attempts, like the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, have been underwritten by the United States.

Why aren't there any other groups between the vegetarian pacifists and the coup-plotters?

One reason is that so many government opponents are gone. Over the last decade, hundreds of political prisoners have left Cuba for the United States under a special U.S. program that grants them quick visas. And after a brief softening in 1987 and 1988 that allowed human rights and political activity to grow, Cuba has cracked down on the activists still here.

Cuba has, at least nominally, a Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a Cuban Human Rights Party, a Marti Committee for Human Rights, a Cuban Committee for Human Rights, and a Jose Marti Association of Independent Defenders of Human Rights and Reconciliation.

The first group is by far the best known. Its chief spokesman is Gustavo Arcos Bergnes, who still limps from a wound he got in 1953 as one of Fidel Castro's guerrilla fighters. He spent two years in prison for guerrilla attacks, then became a weapons-buyer and fund-raiser for Castro's movement. After the revolution Castro named him ambassador to Belgium and several other European countries.

But Arcos became disillusioned with Castro's emerging communism, began to say so, and was arrested in 1966. He was released four years later. From 1981 to March of 1988, Arcos served yet another prison term.

Like nearly all other Cuban dissidents, Arcos has tried to leave the country, but now he says he intends to stay. With the emigration of several other Castro critics and former prisoners, Arcos has become Cuba's most prominent dissident.

Last spring, Arcos sparked a tremendous battle by calling on Castro and Cuban-Americans to join in a dialogue on Cuba's future.

Armando Valladares, a Cuban-American who is now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations human rights commission, called Arcos a traitor.

For Valladares and other Cuban-Americans associated with the right-wing Cuban-American National Foundation, talking to Castro would be like talking to Satan, and Arcos was suggesting a pact with the devil.

The dispute also trod on the delicate subject of what will happen after Castro. If the revolutionary government falls, many Florida Cubans hope to go back and take over where they left off. The Cuban-American National Foundation has begun drafting a constitution for post-revolutionary Cuba, and several of its backers have faintly concealed political ambitions.

But many Cubans in Cuba say the changes should be led by Cubans inside Cuba, who have known the country during its last 30 years.

"I don't know what happened to Valladares," said Jesus Yanez Pelletier, another former political prisoner and a member of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights. He pointed out that Valladares has almost no firsthand knowledge of revolutionary Cuba.

Valladares spent 22 years in prison, from his arrest as a civil employee of Castro's revolutionary government until his release in 1982. He then left the country.

Jose Alfredo Mustelier Nuevo is still in Cuba, but he desperately wants to go to Florida. He was one of the last of Cuba's plantados _ people who were imprisoned at the beginning of the revolution and spend decades in captivity.

Mustelier was sentenced to 25 years for illegal possession of firearms and attempting to leave the country illegally.

He was also accused of plotting an armed coup against Castro from within the armed forces, of which he had been a member.

Mustelier and other plantados suffered years of miserable prison conditions because they refused Cuba's "re-education" for political prisoners. Last March, after 20 years and five months, he was released. He now lives in his family's cavernous Havana house and waits for his wife to be granted one final document so the two can leave.

In the meantime, life in Havana, has been like a dream. "The emotion came .


. when I arrived at this house and five family members were missing," he said. "I sat at this table and felt I had had breakfast here yesterday."

Then I went out into the street," he said. "I got to the Coppelia (a downtown park). Same Coppelia, same trees, same cinema, maybe even the same movie they were showing 20 years ago," he said. "Even the same street light."