Jewish World Review March 27, 2002 / 13 Nisan, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | HAVANA, Cuba -- Inside Avenida 21, No. 3014, a nondescript house in a Havana suburb, lives dissident Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz. Despite Cuba's greater engagement with the world over the last decade, "political repression has been increasing," says Sanchez.
There have recently been mass detentions after an invasion of the Mexican embassy grounds by students hoping to get visas. Independent journalists and human rights activists have been beaten, detained and jailed.
"This has been the highest level of repression in the last 10 years, maybe the last 20 years," Sanchez complains.
Vicki Huddleston, head of the U.S. Interest Section in Cuba, opines: "For me the most worrisome thing is that the situation will be shoved backward."
This brutality has not prevented many Cubans from risking their lives, freedom and property to fight for liberty. Sanchez is known as the dean of human rights activists and heads the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation. Of medium stature and with gray, receding hair, the 59-year-old Sanchez doesn't look like someone to strike fear in the Cuban government. But as Sanchez notes, while the regime took power in 1959 in a genuinely popular revolution against the corrupt Batista dictatorship, "the base of support of the government has been shrinking" ever since.
That would make any dictatorship nervous. Thus, he has spent more than eight years in prison, been detained around 24 times since breaking with the regime and seen his home assaulted by para-police thugs.
The policy of the Castro regime is simple, he explains: It violates "all political, economic, and civil rights." Although the government has devoted much of its limited resources to education and health care, they "form part of the official propaganda system."
There is some good news. During the 1990s, there were some 1,000 political prisoners. Today there are "only" 220, but that is still the highest in the Western Hemisphere and "one of the highest in the world in relative terms," says Sanchez. While it was once "very dangerous" for human-rights activists to meet with the foreign press, he now does so regularly without obvious retaliation. I know the regime "would like us to be dead, but they know that the political cost would be too high."
There has been some improvement in religious freedom, especially since the Pope's visit in 1998. The government doesn't interfere in the internal affairs of the church, but regulates any activity outside of worship.
Sanchez started as a 16-year-old student activist and member of the socialist youth organization. He later taught at the University of Havana on philosophy.
But by 1967, to him and several friends, "it became very clear that it had become a totalitarian government." Thus, he began "35 years of resisting the regime."
Despite all that he has gone through, he remains hopeful. "Change will happen in the short or medium term." No one knows when, but the "transition could start this very night." Even Cuban officials admit that the 75-year-old Castro won't live forever, and then, Sanchez believes, there will be a "power vacuum. And what happens next will be uncontrollable."
Some Cuba observers think the country may already have entered its transition, which might give the nascent opposition an opportunity to lead.
"These human-rights activists and independent journalists, doctors, and economists are beginning to mean something," explains Vicki Huddleston.
They are "beginning to give voice to this enormous frustration of the Cuban people."
Cuban officials dismiss the dissidents as being tools of America. Some of them have a hard time imagining dissent. Ismael Gonzalez, vice minister of culture, notes that "art is by its nature belligerent." But only "theoretically speaking," in his view, might that belligerence be expressed as criticism of the government. "Fortunately, we haven't seen that reality in many years."
Sanchez looks outside his own country for support, because only international pressure keeps him and many of his colleagues out of jail. However, he favors lifting America's embargo against Cuba.
Sanchez's argument is simple: "The sanction policy by the U.S. government has allowed the Cuban government to have a good alibi to justify the failure of the totalitarian model in Cuba." Moreover, contact with foreigners is likely to breed discontent. What of his personal future? He has family in the United States and when he traveled abroad in 1988 for the first time, "the government said that it expected me not to come back." But he did.
He notes: "This is my country. The solution is not that Cubans should just leave their country. I think we should stay here and change things."
In the end, Cuba's future will be determined by men and women like Sanchez. Americans can hope for reform in Cuba. Only Cubans can make reform happen. Vicki Huddleston emphasizes: "Decisions for Cubans have to be made by Cubans. They are putting their lives on the
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