Another interpretation of what is going on in Havana.

By Manfred Ertel

Cuban President Raul Castro has begun releasing 52 imprisoned dissidents. Is this the hoped-for signal of liberalization? Critics of the regime do not believe that a sea change is in the works. Instead, they fear it is just a tactical move designed to weaken the opposition.

The meeting point is in a rundown apartment building on an arterial road in southeast Havana, a place where tourists don’t go. The plaster is peeling from the walls, the windowpanes are cloudy and the wooden window frames are crumbling. There are no signs on the doors and no mailboxes. Even the rusty sign that reads “Ernesto Che Guevara” has seen better days and is missing a corner.

The door opens into the host’s “apartment,” a tiny, 80-square-foot room with a kitchenette, filled with two massive refrigerators from the 1950s, an old table, two chairs and a tattered armchair and couch.

The room next door is just as cramped. Juan Carlos Gonzalev Leiva, 45, sits on the bed to allow his visitor to sit on a chair in the room. Leiva is blind. An illness left him with impaired vision at birth, and he lost his sight completely in the early 1990s.

Leiva, a lawyer, is one of Cuba’s best-known dissidents. He is the general secretary of a human rights group, a sort of umbrella organization that represents about 70 opposition groups in the country, totaling more than 2,000 members, and about 50 political prisoners.

Leiva organized a nationwide meeting of dissidents. He criticized Fidel Castro publicly and in private letters. In one letter, he even described Castro as a “mass murderer.” In early 2002, the head of state and party leader had had enough and ordered Leiva locked up in a prison run by the secret police. He was sentenced to a four-year prison sentence, of which he served two-and-a-half years in prison and the rest under house arrest.

“They tortured me, beat me and humiliated me,” he says, “I didn’t think I was going to get out of there alive.” He still has the scars on his legs to prove it.

A laptop, fax machine and printer — not the most up-to-date models but better than nothing — are on a small table next to the visitor’s chair. Leiva still manages part of the Cuban opposition from this small room.

New Signals from Havana

The opposition made headlines earlier this month. In a surprising move, President Raul Castro yielded to pressure from the Catholic Church and the appeals of Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and agreed to the release of 52 political prisoners, who will now be allowed to leave the country with their families. In fact, they probably have no choice but to leave Cuba. The first 11 arrived in Madrid last week, and the rest are expected to follow over the next few weeks.

At about the same time, Raul’s seriously ill brother Fidel made his first television appearance in four years. Fidel Castro is still officially the first secretary of the Cuban communist party, which makes him the party’s top leader. With a faltering voice, but otherwise in surprisingly good health, the Máximo Líder, who is almost 84, discussed the “dangerous events in the Middle East” and the threat of a nuclear war against Iran.

Five days earlier, the Comandante en Jefe paid a surprise visit to the National Scientific Research Center in Havana, followed by appearances at the Center for Research on the World Economy, the national aquarium and the Foreign Ministry. Five appearances in about a week — an astounding feat for a man the world had all but written off. Since then, the opposition and observers are trying to make sense of all the new signals coming from Havana.

The 52 prisoners are the last of the so-called Group of 75, who Fidel Castro had imprisoned in the spring of 2003 for “counter-revolutionary activities.” In what would be his last spectacular blow against the opposition, the dissidents were given prison terms of up to 28 years.

Western diplomats believe that Raul’s decision to release the dissidents should be viewed as a signal. “He is showing Fidel that his time has finally run out,” says a European Union representative in Havana. Fidel’s demonstrative appearances last week, the EU official argues, are his response to this affront.

Forcing the Europeans’ Hand

But the release of the dissidents could also be a message to the Europeans, who have not been entirely sure what to make of the new president since he officially assumed office in February 2008. Raul is believed to be less of a fundamentalist and more of a pragmatist than his brother Fidel. “He is not someone who is out to change the system, but he does show an understanding for the problems,” says one of the Europeans in Havana.

At first, Raul Castro sparked hopes that reforms could be on the way. But so far his fellow Cubans have seen little change, except that they can now own mobile phones and computers with limited Internet access.

Europe, however, wants to see clear signs of liberalization, as a precondition of more intensive cooperation with Havana, especially “progress in the area of human rights and political freedom.” European governments reached this conclusion long ago, in December 1996, and the same conditions are still in place today. However, Castro has forced the Europeans’ hand by releasing the dissidents.

Faced with a catastrophic situation in Cuban agriculture, Raul Castro is urgently in need of aid from Europe. The sugarcane harvest this summer, once an important source of foreign currency, is the worst since 1905. It is even about half a million tons shy of the harvest in 2009, when hurricanes wreaked havoc on the country.

Cuba is now forced to import more than 80 percent of its food, while foreign investment and exports have declined dramatically. At the same time, the sugar island is practically bankrupt and has had to reduce imports of food products and spare parts by at least a third.

Tens of thousands of well-trained young Cubans are leave the country every year to earn money for their families elsewhere. The numbers would probably be even higher if the government let them go. For this reason, EU diplomats expect more signals from Raul on July 26, a Cuban national holiday: more privatization in agriculture, more freedom to buy homes and a relaxation of restrictions on travel abroad.

Dissident Leiva isn’t quite ready to believe that the country is opening up, even though he hopes that Raul is truly the pragmatist many take him for. He is pleased about the releases, because he knows what imprisonment means in Cuba. “I will not to go to prison again,” he says. “I would rather die.”

But Leiva sees the humanitarian gesture as primarily a tactical move. Once the 52 released prisoners have left the country, the opposition will have been all but silenced. The men will be accompanied by their families and wives, the “Damas de Blanco,” who have drawn the world’s attention to conditions in Cuba with their Sunday protest marches.

‘Change Will Be His Downfall’

A Western envoy in Havana also calls the prisoner release a “tactical stroke of genius that will eliminate 99 percent of critical voices in one fell swoop.”

The release has at least convinced Guillermo Fariñas, a prominent journalist and psychologist, to stop his hunger strike. His friends now hope that he will survive the consequences of his campaign. To protest the death of fellow dissident Orlando Zapata, who died in late February after an 85-day hunger strike, Fariñas stopped eating the next day.

Yoani Sanchez, 34, the world-famous blogger, and other members of the opposition convinced Fariñas, who was in a hospital in Santa Clara in central Cuba, to end his hunger strike. Now Fariñas plans to wait until November to see what Raul Castro’s next steps will be.

It is difficult to meet with Yoani Sanchez these days. Telephone calls are suddenly cut off the minute the caller introduces himself as a foreign journalist. In fact, her phone is usually not working at all. She is not permitted to have Internet access and she needs the help of foreign friends to publish her blogs. She is bugged, monitored and hampered in her professional life.

“Raul is playing for time,” says Sanchez. “For him, every new day is another day in power.” She has no faith in the government’s supposed easing of restrictions. “We’ve been hearing this for the last three years, on every national holiday,” she says. “Raul knows that Cuba needs change, but he also knows that change will be his downfall.”

Sanchez and her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, 63, a journalist and also a dissident, believe that the power struggle between brothers Raul and Fidel is far from decided. “The president has the spurs on his boots,” says Escobar, “but Fidel still holds the reins.”

Sanchez is a cheerful young woman, despite all the harassment by the secret police. She laughs a lot as she sits in a small bar in Havana, talking about her fight against the regime and how she gets around the Internet ban.

Her blog is now translated into 20 languages. “Of course I’m afraid,” she says, “but I have nothing to hide. I have no weapons. My weapon is my own free opinion.” She has faith in international public opinion, which, she says, is the only thing that helps in Cuba and against the regime.

Sanchez is convinced that Raul Castro’s concession only came as a result of pressure from the global public. The death of Zapata, Fariñas’s hunger strike, the “Damas de Blanco,” who she thinks should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Internet activities of opposition members — Sanchez believes that all of these things have dealt a severe blow to the regime’s image.

“Raul was about to lose face,” says Sanchez, by which she means that he stood to lose face as a statesman. But then she corrects herself and says: “But that’s just a mask.”

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

via Dissident Releases: A Power Struggle for Cuba’s Future? – SPIEGEL ONLINE – News – International.