By Luther Campbell
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"To me it doesn't compute," he continues, "that in a country without liberties that there are already 500, even if they only have three or four people. Five-hundred [opposition] organizations in a country where there is a dictatorship? You don't know who is who."
At the trials of Cuban opposition figures last week, several purported dissidents turned out to be Cuban government agents. As of press time, Cuban judges had sentenced more than 40 dissidents to terms ranging from ten to twenty-seven years in prison, according to news reports from Havana.
Just a month ago, the dialogue front was looking downright rosy. Even the Cuban American National Foundation had come out in favor of it, as long as the talks didn't involve Fidel or Raul Castro. Never mind that MINREX didn't invite any known foundation members to the conference because the Cuban government still considers the foundation a terrorist organization. Hard-line anti-Castro organizers reacted to the foundation's move by setting out to prove just how unpopular dialogue really is. They organized the March for Dignity through Little Havana on March 29. Talk show host Armando Perez-Roura appealed to listeners of Radio Mambí, WAQI-AM (710), that he needed them on SW Eighth Street more urgently than ever. "Dark forces who answer to unspeakable interests are trying to weaken the moral resistance against the Castro tyranny, in the name of pardon and reconciliation for those who have never repented for all the disgraces that they have brought upon our fatherland for more than 40 years," he proclaimed in one promo. "Cuban! Say no to dialogue and shady dealings." After initially billing the march as pro-dignity and anti-dialogue, Perez-Roura later added support for President Bush and the war against Saddam Hussein to the cause.
But the march turned out to be more like a Fourth of July parade with a Cuban-American twist than a fearsome show of force. Perez-Roura and others estimated 50,000 had attended. A state-of-the-art survey conducted by a private aerial photography firm counted 5360. A Schroth & Associates opinion poll conducted in February found 56 percent of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade and Broward backed the participation of exiles in this weekend's now-defunct dialogue. A Bendixen & Associates poll in January found 61 percent believe forgiveness and reconciliation is "an important basis for the process of transition toward democracy in Cuba."
In a letter to Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez-Roque, The Time Is Now contingent put forth several specific areas it wanted to discuss. Among them were proposals to lift restrictions on travel to and from the island; eliminate rules barring Cuban nationals from using tourist hotels; allow exiles to retire, buy or lease property, and receive medical services and social security payments in Cuba. Also on the list was legalization of nonpolitical and not-for-profit exile groups wanting to open offices in Cuba. (Which would still be illegal under the U.S. embargo.)
As the conference dates approached, dialogueros who didn't participate in the 1994 or 1995 meetings were enthusiastic precisely because they expected real dialogue on these issues. "There seems to be an understanding in Cuba that these types of meetings have to be more of a dialogue than a one-sided presentation," observes Silvia Wilhelm, executive director of Puentes Cubanos (Cuban Bridges). "That is how you really get to a more realistic relationship between those who live abroad and those on the island." Puentes Cubanos specializes in taking U.S. citizens on people-to-people educational trips to Cuba. (Wilhelm could not be reached for comment after the dissident crackdown.)
Alfredo Duran, a Bay of Pigs veteran who has been advocating a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba since the Seventies, did not attend the previous meetings either. "I didn't like the format," explains Duran, who is also part of The Time Is Now group. "It was basically sitting there listening to what the [Cuban government] organizers were saying. Not enough exchange."
The only memorable achievement from the last two meetings was the vigencia de viaje, a two-year visa for Cuban expatriates. A vigencia lets Cuban Americans avoid the hassle of having to obtain an entry permit each visit.
The dialogueroshad set their sights much higher this time, with the proposal to throw out visa requirements altogether. "Right now we as Cuban Americans have to apply for a visa to enter Cuba, and that's very unusual for most citizens of the world when they elect to live somewhere else and they try to visit their country of birth," Wilhelm observes.
Cuban Americans are also annoyed about routinely having to part with several hundred dollars each time a relative in Cuba applies for an exit visa. The government grants them arbitrarily and they are prohibitively expensive for most islanders. "At the end of the day a relative abroad ends up paying that bill," Wilhelm gripes. Noting the irony that both Cuba and the United States restrict their own people from traveling to the other country, Wilhelm adds, "I think citizens of all countries, including the citizens of the United States, should be able to travel abroad."
Few Cuban exiles have better motives not to talk with the Cuban government than Gutierrez Menoyo, which is what makes his presence at such discussions all the more significant. He was the leader of the Escambray Front, the second-largest guerrilla force in the war against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. When the biggest, Fidel Castro's July 26 Movement, took power and began tilting toward the Soviet Union, Gutierrez Menoyo left Cuba in 1960 and founded Alpha 66 with Antonio Venciano. They staged armed raids against Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces in 1961 and 1962. But in 1964 Castro forces captured Gutierrez Menoyo when he and three other Alpha 66 members landed on the northeast coast of Cuba, intending to organize an armed insurrection. By the time of his release from prison in 1986 he had lost vision in one eye and hearing in one ear from beatings by prison guards.