Independent Cuban dissidents to Uncle Sam: No, gracias!

This July 30 Chicago Tribune story is suddenly much more relevant, since Fidel ceded executive powers—just one day after it appeared! The existence of groups like Elizardo Sanchez’ Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation (about which more below) is anathema to the dogmatists on either side of the Havana-Washington/Miami divide.

U.S. aid unproductive, some Castro foes say
HAVANA – The Bush administration’s plans to send an additional $80 million over the next two years to support Cuba’s struggling opposition movement is being criticized by the very people the money is intended to help.

While some dissidents applaud the increase, many opposition leaders say the decade-old program is ill-conceived, poorly managed and has failed to weaken President Fidel Castro’s grip on power.

Since the program began in 1996, the U.S. has allocated more than $50 million to supply opposition activists everything from food to laptop computers. The money also has been used to train Cuba’s independent journalists, bankroll Web sites and magazines critical of the Castro government, and fund seminars and academic studies related to Cuba.

Earlier this month, U.S. officials announced they would spend an additional $80 million over the next two years to continue the effort, which they described in a 93-page report as having strengthened Cuba’s internal opposition.

But critics such as Elizardo Sanchez, an activist who heads the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation in Havana, described the increased support as “counterproductive” and said authorities already are using the July 10 announcement to harass the dissidents.

“This is putting gasoline on the fire,” he said. “This is fuel for the Cuban government’s propaganda.”

Sanchez said the U.S. aid program is characterized by “a lot of inconvenient rhetoric from Washington and few practical results.”

Vladimiro Roca, another prominent opposition leader, complained that only a small fraction of the assistance actually reaches the dissident community.

“What arrives here to us is very limited,” Roca said. “Fundamental things have to change.”

One initiative cited by Sanchez and others as ill-conceived is the Georgetown University Scholarship Program, which received a $400,000 grant to provide family and friends of dissidents two years of study at U.S. community colleges.

The idea was for young Cubans to experience life in a democracy and then take their new knowledge and affinity for democracy home to Cuba.

In 2003, Georgetown selected 20 students out of 400 applicants. Castro wouldn’t allow them to participate.

The Cuban leader has long denounced U.S. government-funded programs as violations of Cuban sovereignty.

“(President Bush) shouldn’t even think that we would cooperate with a plan aimed at … (training) agents of subversion and destabilization to serve his interventionist and imperial ends,” Castro said.

Only one of the 20 students has managed to leave Cuba to begin studies. The students left behind are frustrated and disappointed.

“I was so happy when I was chosen,” said Flavia Ribot, 21, as she proudly displayed her acceptance letter to Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wis. “I thought it was a great opportunity.”

Despite the program’s failure, U.S. officials are allocating $10 million of the additional $80 million to fund more scholarships for Cubans to study abroad.

The plan also calls for more funding for “on-island university training from third countries,” even though Cuban authorities closely track U.S. assistance and have expelled foreigners associated with such programs, according to interviews and U.S. government documents.

One U.S.-funded project begun in 2000 called for Cuban farmers associated with the opposition to travel abroad for technical training while volunteer experts would visit Cuba to provide additional assistance.

But Cuban authorities deported the first volunteer to fly into Havana and would not allow the Cuban farmers to leave the country. The project, run by the Washington non-profit ACDI/VOCA, fizzled.

“We put to rest any notions of trying to send volunteers to the island or bring … leaders out for overseas technical visits,” the non-profit reported a year later. “These activities were found to be unviable.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which manages most of the U.S. government money aimed at supporting political change in Cuba, declined to comment. In the past, agency officials have described its Cuba program as well-managed and effective.

Caleb McCarry, Bush’s top adviser for Cuba, said recently that the additional $80 million will help “empower and support Cubans as they lead the way toward a democratic transition in their country.”

Asked why the U.S. is expanding a scholarship program for Cubans that has been paralyzed, McCarry responded, “This is a serious offer to support young Cubans, economically disadvantaged Cubans.”

But Jorge Olivera, a dissident journalist in Havana, said it is “impossible to think that they can implement this program. It’s an illusion.”

Because of Castro’s opposition, USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy, a non-profit funded primarily by the U.S. Congress, have no presence on the island and channel taxpayer money primarily through U.S.-based groups.

USAID officials say their policy prohibits the agency and its grant recipients from sending cash to individuals or groups on the island, though the National Endowment for Democracy has provided money to dissidents through non-profits.

Much of the U.S. assistance goes to Cuban-American organizations in South Florida. There, food, clothing, medicine, shortwave radios, digital cameras and other items are stockpiled, packed into duffel bags and carried by volunteers or professional smugglers into Cuba for distribution.

The overhead costs of such an operation can be high.

One non-profit funded by USAID, Accion Democratica Cubana, spent only $88,059 on humanitarian aid out of $366,758 in total expenses, according to its 2004 tax report.

Juan Carlos Acosta, the group’s executive director, attributed the high overhead to the price of telephone calls to Cuba, which can cost up to $1.20 a minute but are the best way to communicate with Cuban opposition leaders.

He said the group also is hiring more professional smugglers because tightened travel restrictions put in place by the Bush administration mean there are fewer volunteers traveling to Cuba. Acosta spent about $120,000 on smugglers and other shipping costs in 2004, records show.

While Cuban authorities intercept some of the aid, most items slip through and end up in the hands of people such as Laura Pollan, wife of imprisoned activist Hector Maseda.

Pollan said one U.S.-backed group, Plantados, provides $50 a month to the families of political prisoners. The money enables Pollan to supplement her husband’s meager prison diet with milk, cheese and coffee.

Another U.S.-backed non-profit, Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia, or GAD, provides imprisoned activists sandals, mosquito netting, soap and vitamins as well as food and other items.

GAD even sent Pollan’s husband a new set of bifocals when his glasses broke 18 months ago.

“Without this help we’d have a lot of problems,” said Pollan, 58. “I don’t work. Imagine it. Life would be extremely difficult.”

For his part, Roca has received a laptop computer from GAD. Acosta supplied him a scanner and printer, along with medicine for an enlarged prostate gland and other aliments.

But while Roca expressed gratitude, he said that not enough assistance has reached the island to strengthen the opposition movement, which still is reeling from Cuban authorities’ decision to imprison 75 activists in 2003.

Roca said USAID should eliminate its prohibition on sending cash to the Cuban opposition to ensure that more aid reaches the island rather than being gobbled up by U.S.-based groups.

Others suggest the U.S. should cut back on the millions of tax dollars spent on academic studies and conferences in Miami and elsewhere and instead improve the delivery of humanitarian supplies.

“We need more food and medicine,” Olivera said. “We are being suffocated.”

The Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation is linked to a Democratic Socialist Current, founded some 15 years ago. This story by your trusty blogger from the Fall 1993 edition of On Gogol Boulevard, news service of the anti-authoritarian solidarity organization Neither East Nor West, is archived at Spunk Library:

Cuban Dissidents Reject Washington/Miami Control

by Bill Weinberg

Rolando Prats Paez of the Havana-based dissident group Corienta Socialista Democratica (Democratic Socialist Current) recently scored a media coup with a New York Times op-ed piece calling for lifting the US embargo of Cuba – a view which is heresy for the monolithic Miami-based right-wing exile establishment dominated by Jorge Mas Canosa’s Cuban American National Foundation. But Prats says what his group stands for is “ni Castrismo ni MasCanismo” – they reject the autocracies of both Fidel Castro and his rightist arch-rival.

The Democratic Socialist Current finds harsh challenges to this iconoclastic position from both sides. Their literature is produced and copied entirely by typewriter, and distributed by a hand-to-hand network, as samizdat was in Eastern Europe. Yet the group sees accepting support from foreign governments or outside interests as a threat to its basic principles.

In 1991, members of the Democratic Socialist Current launched the General Cuban Workers’ Union (UGTC by its Spanish acronym) to provide legal and political support for employees in dispute with state managers. Among the founders was Vladimiro Roca, a Cuban Air Force fighter pilot and economist who is also the son of Blas Roca – longtime head of Cuba’s Communist Party and a titanic figure in the nation’s history. Vladimiro’s 1991 press conference announcing that he was joining Democratic Socialist Current sent shockwaves throughout Cuba’s political establishment.

Within a year, the UGTC leadership had been hijacked by a group working in cooperation with both the Cuban American National Foundation and the American Institute for Free Labor Development, the AFL-CIO’s international wing which has already gained control over worker and peasant movements in El Salvador, elsewhere in Latin America, and now ex-Communist countries. But Roca and others who remained loyal to the Democratic Socialist Current would have none of it. They split and formed the UGTC-I. The “I” stands for “Independiente”. Independent from what? “The United States government,” chuckles Rolando Prats.

Democratic Socialist Current founder Elizardo Sanchez is also president of the unofficial Comision Cubana de Derechos Humanos y Reconcilacion Nacional (Cuban Commission for Human Rights & National Reconciliation). His human rights activities landed him a two-year prison term in 1990 – and won him recognition as a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International. Released three months before his term expired, Sanchez was recently allowed to leave Cuba for a speaking tour in Europe and the Americas–a move which can be credited to international pressure. However, since his release, Sanchez has been targeted for violent harassment in Havana by the pro-government “spontaneous” street mobs known as the Rapid Reaction Brigades.

More radical anarchist and anti-militarist groups linked to the semi-taboo punk youth culture also exist in Cuba – such as Movimiento Pacifista Solidaridad y Paz (Solidarity & Peace Pacifist Movement), several of whose members were sentenced to prison after a protest at the Department of State Security in 1991. However, the absence of a scene in which young people can meet and network in a free atmosphere has prevented such small and marginal groupings from developing into a real movement. With Cuba’s deep economic crisis – the result of both the US embargo and the collapse of the Soviet bloc – even bars, clubs and restaurants have been shut down. Virtually the only ones which continue to function are those which cater to the tourist trade–which only take foreign currency and are effectively off-limits to Cubans. Meetings in people’s homes are promptly reported to the authorities by the state-controlled neighborhood watch groups, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs).

UGTC and UGTC-I continue to exist as rival alternatives to the official state-controlled workers’ organizations in Cuba. Both remain small and marginalized. Prats calls UGTC-I an “auxiliary force for groups trying to open a political space in Cuba.”

Unfortunately, the US left is as blind as the elites of Havana and Miami to the existence of Cuban political forces outside of the two ossified opposing blocs. This blindness is likely to play into the hands of Mas Canosa and his ilk when cracks finally start to emerge in Fidel’s grip in power. Elements such as UGTC-I and the Democratic Socialist Current which insist on charting an autonomous course deserve the solidarity of like-minded stateside activists.

Democratic Socialist Current can best be reached through their Miami contact: Tony Santiago, 1040 SW 27th Ave., Miami, FL. 33135.=20

There has apparently been some factionalism within the ranks of the left-dissidents, which is unfortunate given how marginal they are. This dissident communique from July 17, 1996 is archived at CubaNet:

New Socialist Opposition Party Established in Cuba


A social-democratic party has been established in Cuba to demand the democratization of the country.

According to the party’s president, Vladimir Roca, a well-known leftist opponent of the Castro government, the organization will struggle for the fundamental civil rights inherent in any State of Law. Roca granted an exclusive interview to the Independent Cuban Press Agency in Havana.

“The Cuban Social-Democratic Party (PSC) emerges within the international social-democratic movement and shares its goals and ideological principles”, said Roca. “It distinguishes itself from the Cuban Democratic Socialist Current (the principal leftist opposition group inside Cuba) in that our immediate goal is not the establishment of a democratic socialist state in Cuba, but rather peacefully and legally pressing for a transition to a democratic society and a state of law.”

Roca, who presides over the party’s organizing committee, adds that “the basic idea is to open up a political space where we can demand of the Cuban government, and not just of the Communist Party, that democracy be established.”

According to Roca, the PSC will energetically work in alliance with all the opposition organizations inside Cuba to seek solutions to the country’s current problems and to strengthen the role of a unified political opposition. One of its most pressing plans is to seek the government’s legal recognition as a non-governmental organization (NGO).

When asked if he really thought that the government would register the new political party, Roca replied “No, I don’t think they will accept our petition. But we’re going to do it anyway, and we’re going to keep insisting constantly for recognition. We’re going to press the matter every possible way that the current Constitution technically allows it.”

The famous human rights activist went on to state that an important element in the PSC’s platform is the struggle for economic freedom for all Cubans, especially self-employed workers. He criticized the government’s policy of punishing these workers with tax increases, harassment by the political police, and raids.

He emphasized that in this phase of Cuba’s struggle, the key point is to strengthen the people’s organizations, usually referred to as the civil society, so that the people can begin to hold the government accountable for its actions. The party’s goals will include subordinating the State to civilians, as opposed to the current situation where the government is subordinate only to a small, all-powerful clique.

When asked how the PSC regards the human rights question, Roca stated that “one of the party’s founding principals is the struggle for full human rights. That is why it’s so critical that we win the rights to free speech, free press and freedom to associate and to establish independent organizations. Without these four basic freedoms for all Cubans, one can’t even speak of a process of democratization here.”

APIC: “Do you preside over the new Social Democratic Party?”

Roca: “Not exactly. What we have right now is the Organizing Committee for the Party, of which I am president. Within that group is a 5-member Executive Committee, but the Party’s over-all governing body won’t be established until we hold our first Party Congress. We deeply respect intra-party democracy.”

APIC: “Why has this group split from the older Cuban Democratic Socialist Current?

Roca: “We issued a statement this week about that. The CDSC’s current leadership has decided to ignore the rights of Cubans living in political exile, which is something that is strangely in accord with the policies of the Cuban government, which has always categorized exiles as not being part of the Cuban nation. But such discrimination is in violation of the spirit of the Cuban Council (the national front of opposition groups in Cuba, to which the CDSC belongs). The Council clearly states that the Cuban nation is one and indivisible and all Cubans must participate in the tasks of national problem-solving. As a result of this, Council supporters abroad have started to question the validity of the current CDSC leadership, because the organization’s statutes have been violated, an injustice is being committed and the will of the members has not been respected.”

APIC: Last question: Do you have any hope for a political opening in the near future in Cuba? Will the government allow the internal opposition to join the political process?

Roca: “No. In the short and medium term, I don’t see the government allowing the opposition to participate politically in any way. On the contrary, they are acting with gross intolerance. They are proceeding with their campaigns of repression, maybe not against all the dissident groups but certainly against a majority of them.”

Asociacion de Periodistas Independientes de Cuba — Association of Independent Journalists of Cuba

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