By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
Wearing his best shirt and clasping hands with his wife and two young sons, Diosmel Rodriguez Vega entered America with a strained smile that melted into tears as supporters surrounded him at Miami International Airport. After the hugs and cheers, a throng of journalists pressed forward to interview the slight, bespectacled man. The exiled dissident didn't mince words. "I had no intention of abandoning my country," he said as he made his way through the terminal that August afternoon in 1997. "The government said I was persona non grata and that I couldn't continue living in Cuba. They told me I had to leave."
The previous month state security agents had arrested the 44-year-old Rodriguez at his home in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba and taken him to prison. But the authorities couldn't send the former army accountant and onetime government statistician off to anonymous detention, the fate of many political prisoners; Rodriguez had already made a name for himself in the foreign press.
An outspoken critic of the Castro regime, he had organized scores of followers in 1993 who handed out leaflets urging voters to boycott that year's presidential elections. For "distributing enemy propaganda," he was sent to Santiago's infamous hilltop Boniato prison, where Castro himself once served time for rising up against Fulgencio Batista. But in prison Rodriguez attracted even more media attention. From 1993 to 1996 he went on a dozen hunger strikes, one of which lasted 40 days.
So in July 1997, authorities kept him in custody for just a week before telling him he had fifteen days to pack his belongings, obtain U.S. visas for his family, say goodbye to relatives and friends, and leave Cuba forever. "They said I was a suspicious person, that I was spreading false rumors abroad that there was an outbreak of conjunctivitis in Santiago," said Rodriguez, making sure reporters took note of the inflammation in his younger son's and wife's eyes. In fact he'd written articles on the outbreak of dengue, another extremely contagious disease, for an exile-run Internet news service in Miami. Then he added: "They said nothing about the resistance, even though it's becoming the largest movement on the island."
Rodriguez held his little boys tightly. His wife, overwhelmed by the barrage of cameras and microphones, told reporters she was nervous and hoped now the family would have a little peace. But the dissident still had his mind on rebellion. One day, he said, he would return home. "What we have done is nothing less than create a tremendous resistance against the government ... and lay the foundation to create true social justice."
That resistance, which forced the Rodriguez family into exile, threatens to strike at the heart of Cuba's economy: Private farmers in three provinces have organized independent collectives and are refusing to do business with the government.
How did a military man come to lose faith with communism and persuade farmers across the country to join him in nonviolent rebellion? His views began to shift in the Seventies, after he'd graduated from Santiago's Oriente University, he said in an interview late last year. Rodriguez was among the hundreds of thousands of Cubans sent to Angola in support of the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola during that country's civil war. By day, as accountant Rodriguez reviewed army expenditures, Cuban soldiers were brought back from the fields limp and bloody, he recalls; by night the generals and bureaucrats swilled Havana Club and smoked Cohibas sent from the island especially for them.
When he returned home to Santiago in 1980, Rodriguez left the army and became head statistician of the province's Ministry of Construction. But the pay, about thirteen dollars per month, was barely enough to live on. So like many accomplished Cubans, he quit his government post to take a less prestigious but better paying job. He found work as a state-licensed taxi driver, earning more in a week than he did per month in his previous position. "As a taxi driver, I was exposed to a lot of people," he recalls. "I got to learn the way they think -- everyone from professionals to marginal people -- and that helped me develop my political ideas." He also credits the U.S. operated Radio Marti, as well as a steady stream of anti-Communist articles in newly critical Soviet newspapers that made it to Cuba in the late Eighties. In 1989 he quit the Communist Party altogether. "I started to question the system," he explains. "There's a point when you can no longer be passive. You have to act."
Three years later he organized a small political party, the Followers of Chibas Party, named after Eduardo Chibas, the senator who in 1951 committed suicide following a national radio address to awaken Cubans to his calls for social justice. Rodriguez and fellow party members began distributing thousands of leaflets in Santiago, first before the December 1992 provincial elections and then in advance of the February 1993 presidential vote. But the government seized the pamphlets and threw Rodriguez into prison. When they released him in 1996, he was blackballed from employment and forced to rely on relatives to stay alive. Unrepentant, he resumed his political activities, reorganizing and renaming his party. He drafted a new platform, the "Popular Program of National Salvation," which called for democracy, free markets, and a return to the ideals laid out in Cuba's 1940 constitution.