Meeting Castro's opponents

A postscript from Havana, where I made a recent trip to attend a Cuban-American conference reviewing the CIA-organized Bay of Pigs invasion 40 years ago April 17.

Working in West Europe during the years after World War II, I learned that the people of the Netherlands, Belgium, and France showed restrained enthusiasm for their compatriots who had spent the war years in comparative comfort abroad. New leaders arose from the resistance forces, impatient with those who had not shared their experience.

The rule of Fidel Castro, of course, is not like a Nazi occupation. Yet I wondered whether there were indigenous opposition forces, not necessarily on the same wavelength as the Cuban-American community in Miami so intent on installing its own government once Castro was gone.

As Castro talked almost nonstop at our conference, portraying a Cuban population enjoying a welfare state and healthcare despite the American trade embargo, I wondered whether he spoke for all Cubans. So one evening I took time off from the festivities in the world-class conference hotel and went to a meeting that had been arranged for me, never mind how, with four anti-Castro intellectuals.

Three of the four had served prison terms for sedition, for disseminating "enemy propaganda," for "rebellion," although their opposition was entirely peaceful. The most seditious thing the Dissident Working Group had done was to urge Cubans to boycott legislative elections and to encourage foreign investors not to invest in Cuba until human rights abuses stopped.

As to conditions in Cuba, they reported that the dollarization of the economy in 1993 had created two classes of Cubans: those with dollars and those without. Pharmacies sell only for dollars, and so those without dollars stand outside pharmacies begging those with dollars to buy them medicine.

Almost all basic commodities are rationed. One showed me a ration book that allowed for meat once a year.

The worst, she said, was emigration control. For $150 you can get an emigration permit, but not if you intend to return. Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello, an economist, was refused permission to go to Miami to visit her dying brother because she insisted on returning.

They disagreed about whether Castro could win a free election, one guessing he would get no more than 30 percent of the vote, another putting it at over 50 percent, mainly the older people. All spoke of indoctrination of children in the schools.

As to how many active anti-Castro dissidents there are, it's hard to say, maybe several thousand. Castro's tactics of infiltrating these groups made the true number hard to measure.

I have interviewed many underground anti-Communist dissidents in Eastern Europe, who always asked me to protect their identities. These four urged me to give their names. The others are: Rene Gomez Manzano, a disbarred lawyer; Felix Bonne, an engineer; and Raul Rivero, a journalist and poet.

Before I returned from Marta's tiny, bare apartment to the luxury of the hotel, they gave me a souvenir. It is a shirt-pocket-size booklet titled La Patria es de Todos, "The Homeland Belongs to All of Us." It says that the function of government is to serve the public, not the interests of a dictator.

Seditious, all right.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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