Dialogueros

Caught between Iraq and a hard-line place

Just like President Castro said, you're either with us or you're against us. In his latest big move in the 44-year-long chess match that is U.S.-Cuban relations, the comandante en jefe ordered the arrests of about 80 dissidents for, among other things, meeting with the top enemy's chief diplomat: the head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, James Cason. In Cuba such meetings are tantamount to conspiring with the enemy. In a word, treason. That's not far from the rationale the United States Justice Department used when it recently put five of Castro's spies in solitary confinement under Special Administrative Measures, or SAMs. SAMs keep prisoners who are loyal to a foreign government from acting on behalf of that government while in the slammer. The agents, who Cuba says were in South Florida to monitor exiles who might be plotting terrorist attacks targeting the Castro regime, are serving from fifteen years to life in prison.

Indeed a statement released by Castro's office on March 19 and published in the government newspaper Granma suggests a new maxim for understanding Cuban political economy: It's the spies, stupid. Cason's meetings, the statement charged, were part of the Bush administration's "hostile and aggressive policy toward our country, with the close cooperation and support of the terrorist Mafia and the extreme right in the United States." The statement then declared that "popular indignation" was growing in Cuba over the "cowardly and cruel form of vengeance" U.S. authorities were taking against the five.

But tit-for-tat diplomacy aside, how would it look for a revolutionary government to be disciplining its own errant citizens while sitting down to discuss reconciliation with several hundred Cubans from South Florida? Fairly confounding. Whatever the motive, last Friday Cuba's Ministry of External Affairs (MINREX) postponed the first major encounter between Cuban expatriates and Cuban officials since 1995.

Steve Satterwhite
After making it safe for dialogueros in Miami, Alfredo Duran and Silvia Wilhelm must wait for Havana and Washington to settle down
Steve Satterwhite
After making it safe for dialogueros in Miami, Alfredo Duran and Silvia Wilhelm must wait for Havana and Washington to settle down
Max Lesnik advocates freedom of expression, nonviolence, and if you're the U.S. government, staying out of Cuba's business
Steve Satterwhite
Max Lesnik advocates freedom of expression, nonviolence, and if you're the U.S. government, staying out of Cuba's business
Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo shows Fidel a gun from Batista's army on January 8, 1959; now he wants to show him a peaceful path to democracy
Steve Satterwhite
Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo shows Fidel a gun from Batista's army on January 8, 1959; now he wants to show him a peaceful path to democracy
E pluribus non sequitur: A Little Havana demonstration linked support of the war in Iraq with opposition to dialogue in Cuba
Steve Satterwhite
E pluribus non sequitur: A Little Havana demonstration linked support of the war in Iraq with opposition to dialogue in Cuba

Had history taken a different course such encounters might have become commonplace by now. But when Castro ordered a Cuban MiG pilot to destroy two Brothers to the Rescue planes in February 1996, he killed four pro-democracy activists and shattered a fragile diplomatic rapprochement occurring between Washington and Havana. It wasn't until a year ago that MINREX officials contacted Cuban expatriates to begin planning the Third Meeting of the Nation and Emigration. As of this month MINREX had invited about 700 people from 59 countries (though most reside in the United States). The dialogueros, as Miami's pro-violence, anti-Castro activists long ago dubbed anyone espousing negotiations with Cuba, would be traveling to Havana with unprecedented support from Cuban-American public opinion. The cancellation came just one week before the April 11-13 event was scheduled to begin.

MINREX, in a written statement explaining the decision, cited the international tension caused by the war against Iraq and "the deterioration of relations between Cuba and the United States, as a result of the increase in hostility and provocations against our country." Further atmospheric agitation was "the complex situation created by ... the violent hijacking of Cuban planes and vessels to emigrate illegally to the United States." The hijackings, the statement noted, were "a direct consequence of the incentive created by the Cuban Adjustment Act." That is the federal law that grants U.S. residency to Cuban nationals if they make it to American soil. (Those intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba.)

Nonetheless, the statement continued, the Cuban government remains committed to fomenting "a fuller and more direct exchange" between Cubans abroad and Cuban authorities, as well as more "normal" and "fluid" relations between émigrés and Cuba. It concluded with an almost sentimental appeal for Cubans inside and outside Cuba "to work together for independence, social justice, and the well-being of the homeland." A new date for the conference has not been set.

One controversial issue dialogueroshad planned to raise was elimination of the visas Cuba requires for Cuban expatriates who travel there and of the exit permits for Cubans residing on the island. "I think Fidel is scared," speculated one dialoguera attending the first Miami/New York Latin Funk Festival this past weekend. Scared that emotions provoked by the crackdown on dissidents might spill into the convention center hallways, she imagined. She also suggested the comandante probably didn't want the exit visa proposal on the table at a time when desires to leave were so strong that exit by hijacking seemed to be making a comeback. Six men armed with knives commandeered a Cuban DC-3 Aerotaxi to Key West on March 19. A Cuban man with what turned out to be fake grenades hijacked a Cubana de Aviación plane to Key West on March 31. And two men with guns hijacked a ferry boat in Havana Bay on April 2. "Every time there is a little opening, he slams it shut," the dialoguera complained.

Max Lesnik, the 71-year-old founder of Alianza Martiana and director of Radio-Miami.com, thinks the cancellation decision was understandable. He had planned to go with about 60 members of his group, which he describes as "an umbrella organization" of conservatives, liberals, social democrats, socialists, and independents. The group's current president, Jorge Zayas, published the newspaper El Avance Criollo until Castro's upstart revolutionary government closed it down in 1960. What unites them is their opposition to the U.S. embargo on Cuba. "The Alianza Martiana is based in the political thought of José Martí, which transcends ideologies," explains Lesnik, who calls himself a social democrat. "That is, Martí was a pro-independence Cuban who favored Cuba's sovereignty from Spain and the United States in the Nineteenth Century."

Lesnik thinks the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba bears much of the blame for the crackdown, and hence the cancellation. "The problem is that everything is escalating, starting with an attitude of open provocation by elements of the opposition when they go to the U.S. Interests Section invited by Mr. Cason," chides Lesnik, who says he has met with Fidel Castro about fifteen times over the years. "In the context of a country like Cuba, which knows that the United States maintains a list of enemies [that includes Cuba], one who visits the embassy of an enemy country is the same kind of traitor Cuba has always had. The government of the United States is using opposition figures inside the island. Cuba looks at that as meddling in its internal affairs and sees the people who do that as foreign agents."

Cuba's top diplomat in the United States didn't meddle when he visited Miami in February, Lesnik counters. "When the chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington came to my house and met with 150 Cubans, he came to talk about the Nation and Emigration [conference]. He didn't come here to say the American system wasn't good," Lesnik huffs. "He didn't come here to incite us to conspire against the American system. He didn't come here to speak ill of the United States or the American system." Interests Sections are supposed to improve relations between governments, Lesnik adds. "I'm not going to say if Cuba's system is good or bad. It's Cuba's system. I'm not going to say if the American system is good or bad.... The American system is a problem for Americans. Not for the Cuban ambassador in the United States."

Other Miamians planning to attend were less accusatory but concurred that this was not a propitious time. "I was glad it was canceled because under this kind of atmosphere ... this [meeting] wasn't going to go anywhere," offers lawyer Antonio Zamora, president of the U.S./Cuba Legal Forum. "It was going to be a waste. I think the conference is a very big thing and should be given proper coverage and proper attention." Zamora is part of the other main Miami contingent that had planned to attend the conference: the 50-member host committee of a symposium called "The Time Is Now to Reassess U.S. Policy Toward Cuba." The event, held at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables on March 28, 2002, marked the first time an anti-embargo, pro-dialogue group had overcome the fear and loathing of hard-line culture and staged a high-profile public event in the geographic heart of el exilio. (See "Heretics in the House," New Times, April 11, 2002.)

Zamora allowed that some invitees probably would have stayed away because of the crackdown on dissidents. He opted not to opine on the arrests, saying he had to travel to Havana this week for a conference that a group of American lawyers had organized to discuss new rules allowing Cuban nationals to receive inheritance money from deceased relatives in the United States. (Previously U.S. law blocked the transfer of inheritance funds.) Zamora had agreed to give a speech on U.S.-Cuba relations, but that was before leaders in Washington and Havana had driven them down to their current volatile nadir. "Just my luck," he sighs. "I thought it was going to be easy. I was going to talk about just a few things. Now that's a hell of a topic. I don't know what I'm going to do."

The Cuban Committee for Democracy, which advocates a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba, issued a statement deploring the actions of both the U.S. and Cuban governments. Several of its members, including CCD founder and Democratic Party activist Alfredo Duran, had planned to attend the conference. The statement said the U.S. Interests Section had engaged in "insurgent and provocatory" actions, while the Castro regime's arrests of dissidents were "a direct violation of the civil rights of Cuban citizens" for expressing their opinion.

The cancellation forced 68-year-old Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo to put on hold his seventeen-year quest for "legal space" for opposition groups. For him a short postponement of the talks was probably just as well; he was recovering from an emergency hernia operation. Gutierrez Menoyo, a guerrilla commander allied with Castro's army in the fight against the Batista dictatorship, spent 22 years in Cuban prisons for opposing Castro's embrace of the Soviet Union. After his release in 1986 he formed the political group Cambio Cubano, which advocates democracy through a peaceful process of dialogue.

Gutierrez Menoyo first demanded legal reforms in a speech at the 1995 meeting and planned to do so again this time, even though MINREX hadn't made any room on the official agenda to discuss reforming Cuba's one-party socialist state. "Legal space," as he envisions it, would allow him to open Cambio Cubano offices across Cuba and begin a legal opposition movement. Without this "legal space," he contends, a truly democratic opposition movement in Cuba cannot enter a "serious stage."

He is following Castro's crackdown carefully. In a New Timesinterview this past January, Gutierrez Menoyo said it wasn't credible that all of the estimated 500 opposition groups inside Cuba were legitimate. "Of those 500 I am certain that there is a huge number created by Cuba and a huge number created by the CIA, or that receive money from here. That's why I say that this phase isn't serious." The Cambio Cubano leader says that during his legal trips to Cuba over the past decade, there have been many traps set by Cuban intelligence agents posing as dissidents to catch him in an illegal conspiracy.

"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.

After Gutierrez Menoyo went into exile in 1986, he took a path less traveled. He announced the creation of Cambio Cubano and proclaimed that the only intelligent and realistic strategy for ending the dictatorship was a peaceful one, via dialogue and negotiation. The words "dialogue" and "peaceful solution" didn't sit well with the prevailing opinion leaders of el exilio, who were well into their third decade of acrimonious calls for armed struggle against the Castro regime and the assassination of the tyrant himself.

"When we came out with the proposal for a peaceful solution with Cuba, in the first year we received 300 letters with threats and insults, which we saved and have in storage," Gutierrez Menoyo notes. "When my wife went to the gas station in many places they said, 'No, you're not using gasoline here.' What kind of democracy is that?" His children, he adds, were shunned by classmates whose parents had told them to stay away from the Gutierrez Menoyo kids.

But he weathered the mudslinging and now the mud has all but washed away. "Many people on the street greet us, they hug us, and they say, 'I support what you are proposing.' Today we don't receive any threatening or insulting letters. Which means people have realized that to promote extremist intolerance represents nothing more than to follow a policy from the caveman days."

Gutierrez Menoyo thinks it could be a year before this weekend's canceled meeting is rescheduled. But when it is he will still be holding the wild card. "When I go, I go to reclaim the freedoms of the Cuban people," he proclaims. "Whenever I go it creates annoyances for the government. But there is a reality. If they only invite people who sympathize with them the meeting won't have any value. So they have to swallow my presence."

You will not find him conspiring with any head of the U.S. Interests Section or even with a dissident group that receives funding from the United States. "We speak a language of peaceful change and not one of conspiracy," he emphasizes. "Open. We can talk about it in a hotel as well as in front of the police."

"That legal space is more important than any project," Gutierrez Menoyo submits, with a tacit reference to the Varela Project. He thinks that the Varela Project has already served its de facto propaganda purpose: to generate international support for a democratic civic movement. "We wouldn't open an office. We would open offices in all the municipalities," he assures. "Because it's gotten very tedious that the Communist Party of Cuba is the only one that has the right to have offices in all the municipalities."


Amid all the mess, lawyers from the United States and Cuba have been quietly normalizing relations in legal circles. Antonio Zamora's U.S./Cuba Legal Forum has been closely involved for the past several years. With tens of thousands of people traveling between the United States and Cuba, legal matters are bound to arise. Zamora says he got the idea for the group while listening to a Miami radio talk show about three years ago. "Somebody was calling hysterically about his cousin who had killed somebody in a traffic accident [in Cuba] and had been arrested and was in prison," Zamora remembers. "And I realized that the advice the person on this radio talk show was giving this person was all wrong."

So Zamora called a lawyer he knew in Havana, who provided a more factual account of the incident. The caller's cousin was a Cuban American who had traveled to Cuba to visit relatives and rented a car. He had hit two people one night while they rode a scooter without any lights. "There was nobody killed," Zamora learned. "There was a couple of people with broken legs and that kind of thing." Because the driver of the scooter didn't have a driver license or lights, Zamora adds, "it was relatively easy for the lawyer down there to post bond and get this guy off the hook."

Zamora offers another example: "Somebody arrives [in Miami] from Cuba, gets run over by a car, the person dies, and there's a lawsuit filed by a relative here against a rent-a-car or insurance company." This actually happened, he says, and a New York court awarded the wife and children of the victim two million dollars. Because they live in Cuba, however, they cannot receive the money, owing to the U.S. embargo.

The U.S. government's legalization of agricultural sales to Cuba will only bring more hunger for legal normalcy. "It's perfectly normal for an American attorney to try to find out how the Cubans view contracts and the whole process of the transportation of products to Cuba," Zamora says. "What happens if the products are bad? What if we send a whole bunch of corn, or some cereal or chicken down there and it's spoiled? What happens?" The U.S./Cuba Legal Forum, he says, could better help answer such questions if the Cuban government allowed it to set up shop on the island. If MINREX came through, however, Zamora would still need to obtain permission from the U.S. government. The U.S. embargo prohibits such activities.

With Zamora in Havana trying to keep a flicker of dialogue alive, other members of The Time Is Now have begun to concentrate on a crackdown by the U.S. Treasury Department, which enforces the four-decade-old trade embargo on Cuba. In its own series of arcane chess moves last month, the Bush administration simultaneously eased and tightened the embargo. While unblocking inheritance money so that it can get to heirs in Cuba, it banned people-to-people educational exchanges between the United States and Cuba. It will now be illegal for U.S. citizens to take other U.S. citizens on educational trips to Cuba, unless such visits are "related to academic coursework."

That was a slap in the face for Silvia Wilhelm. For years she has led groups of U.S. citizens to seminars at the University of Havana, the Ministry of Culture, and the Ministry of Health. Under the new Bush administration regulations, those trips would now be illegal. "We're really going to fight the people-to-people ban," says Alfredo Duran. He says he will probably take his protest to members of Congress, the State Department, and the White House.

In Cuba, meanwhile, the smoke has yet to clear from Castro's incendiary siege on illegal dissident spaces. Gutierrez Menoyo believes that over the long run the situation can only get hotter. Regardless of the next Nation and Emigration meeting, the former guerrilla commander is sure that one of Castro's next historic chess moves will be talks on legalizing an opposition group -- one like Cambio Cubano that doesn't have any ties with any foreign governments, of course. Why? "Because Cuba needs to reinsert itself into the Western world, to participate in globalization, and have access to international credit over the long term," he asserts. "Because of a series of needs Cuba will have to take a serious step toward democratization. Not what we are glimpsing now.

"They have to take those steps sooner or later, even if they don't want to," Gutierrez Menoyo continues. "They didn't want dollarization and they had to accept it. They didn't want foreign investment and they had to accept it. They didn't want visits from the [exile] community and they had to accept it. They don't want democratization and they will have to accept it."

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