Why women now lead the dissident fight in Cuba

Only a handful of political activists are willing to risk fighting for basic freedoms. But more ordinary Cubans, they say, are asking how to get involved.

Alfredo Sosa – Staff
A FEISTY FAMILY: Yuricel Perez Rodriguez (l.) wanted to be a librarian "like Laura Bush." She was fired. Her mom (r.) is also a Cuban dissident.
Alfredo Sosa -staff
NO BACKING DOWN: Belinda Salas Tapani is one of dozens of Cubans campaigning against government policies. Her husband, at right, was jailed for two years for his political protests.
Alfredo Sosa
NO POLITICAL PUSSYCAT: Norvis Ortero Suarez lives in a tiny Havana apartment with her two cats. She has been jailed briefly for fighting the political system and helping other dissidents during the past seven years.
Alfredo Sosa
DISSIDENT AND TURKEY FARMER: Nereida Rodriguez Rivero runs her own unofficial library in a small town east of Havana. She also raises turkeys to help feed political prisoners and expectant mothers.

In the past year, Nereida Rodriguez Rivero says she has been punched in the mouth, almost thrown from a moving bus, and stabbed on the street in her otherwise sleepy rural hometown.

In May, government agents took all the books out of the independent library that she continues to restock and run out of her humble home.

But – as is often the case in Cuba – the punishment for her dissent isn't limited to her alone.

Her feisty daughter Yuricel Perez Rodriguez was summarily fired from her position at a state-run children's library last year. "They said I wasn't safe for children, because I took books to [political] prisoners," says Ms. Rodriguez.

But this mother-daughter duo won't being backing down.

"If you show fear, they will eat you," says Ms. Rivero, a regional head of the Latin American Federation of Rural Women (FLAMUR), a Cuban group dedicated to pushing for political rights. "They won't swallow me whole."

Most experts agree that Raúl Castro is already cautiously moving toward a freer economy. But few expect to see any significant changes in Cuba's totalitarian political system in the near future.

Only a handful of dissidents, such as Rivero, are willing to take on the risk of fighting for basic freedoms. While these spirited few – many of whom are now women – don't wield much clout, they insist that more people are quietly asking them how to get involved.

"People are showing up asking us to help them more and more," says FLAMUR's country director, Belinda Salas Tapanes. "They come to us for networking. We don't have much more than that to help them."

Indeed, dissidents such as the women involved in FLAMUR – who last year collected more than 10,000 signatures demanding that the Cuban peso be the only unit of currency, thereby eliminating the present two-currency system – have few resources. Lacking the right to organize freely, they surreptitiously meet in crumbling apartments and speak quickly on tapped phone lines.

"At this point civil society is very weak," says Pedro Freyre, a Miami-based Cuban-American attorney and expert on embargo law. "The population's expectations have been beaten down so much that there's no spirit of rebellion. No one wants to be shot."

"There are a number of Cuban Gorbachevs around," he says referring to the Russian reformer who helped ease political and economic restrictions before the Soviet Union's collapse. "They just don't want to stick out their necks right now."

Raúl's 'gerontocracy'

Raúl's first move as official leader of Cuba in February was to surround himself with a core group of well-known hardliners that critics call a "gerontocracy." At the top of the list is staunch party ideologue José Ramon Machado Ventura, who Raúl named first vice president.

"It speaks volumes that Raúl's second-in-command is older than he is," says Mr. Freyre. "They're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

"Cuba doesn't have any short- or long-term plan for democracy," says Dan Erikson, a Cuba expert with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, pointing out that suppression of civil liberties is still written into Cuban law.

But, despite the historic apathy fueled by the fear of imprisonment or worse, the passing of the mantle from Fidel to Raúl has stirred people's expectations – and created anxiety within the highest ranks.

"The government is worried about a Tiananmen Square situation," says Brian Latell, former CIA analyst assigned to profiling Fidel and Raúl, and author of the book, "After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and Cuba's Next Leader."

Although few expect a popular uprising akin to that of the Chinese demonstrators who were famously gunned down for protesting political repression in Beijing in 1989, the Cuban government is cautious. "Raúl recognizes he's in uncharted waters," says Mr. Erikson. "He's moving with extraordinary care and keeping close tabs on dissidents."

"Raúl is a very smart administrator by nature, but he needs to step very carefully," says Freyre. "The ability of the man on the street to pressure the government has increased substantially after Fidel."

'Economic apartheid'

One of the issues that Cubans complain most about is the country's two-currency policy, which Ms. Tapanes, Rivero, and fellow advocates call "economic apartheid."

Cubans get paid in pesos. But tourists, state-owned hotels, and other services that cater to foreigners use "convertible pesos," or CUC, which are worth 25 times as much as pesos. Most consumer items, beyond basic food and clothing, must be purchased with CUCs. But most Cubans cannot afford such purchases because government salaries are paid in regular pesos.

"Raúl made changes, but the problem is that until they reform the two currencies system, the changes won't do any good," says Tapanes, explaining that few can afford cellphones or to stay in a tourist hotel. "The only people that can do anything are the ones who get [US dollar] remittances from family in the states – or prostitutes [paid by tourists]." People are so desperate, she says, that even "regular" married couples now agree that the wives – and the husbands – will sell themselves to cash in on Cuba's booming sex tourism trade.

Last month, several FLAMUR women were arrested for attempting to pay in pesos at a tourist restaurant, where only CUCs are accepted, as a form of protest. Last week, they tried the same thing at a pharmacy.

It was campaigning for a single currency that got Rivero punched in the mouth last August, she says. She was handing out T-shirts with the slogan: "Con la misma moneda," meaning "with the same money." This prompted three men, who she says were government-paid thugs, to attack her on a city bus and attempt to throw her out into traffic. She lost two back teeth, she says, opening wide to show the gaps.

Why one woman fights

Twenty women work for FLAMUR in Havana, communicating openly by phone despite government surveillance. Norvis Ortero Suarez, who lives in a tiny apartment with her two cats, Luna and Mami, is one of them.

"We're always under surveillance," says Ms. Suarez calmly, explaining that she works with other women to bring political prisoners food, medicine, books, and moral support. But, at times, she becomes the prisoner. "Sometimes they'll lock me up for a day or so."

But few of Cuba's political prisoners are women.

"The government has shown a real reluctance to lock women up for long periods of time," says Erikson. Why? "It could be two things: 1) The government is afraid of aggravating international opinion or 2) women are seen as less of a threat to the system."

But don't tell Suarez she's not a threat.

"I was always a rebel. I've fought injustice since I was a child," she says. "What we learn in school is completely different from the reality. Life is very repressive. Police can ask for paperwork at anytime, for no reason."

"Seven years ago, I exploded and decided to fight the system." It was during the "special period" of dire economic hardship after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were food, water, and gas shortages. "It was like 10 years of being at war."

"I'm very worried about getting locked up," she says. "But I try not to think about it, otherwise nothing will change."

'Ladies in White'

On the other side of Havana, Laura Pollán's phone never stops ringing. In hushed tones, she talks with colleagues about recent arrests of other dissidents or events planned for that week. She never knows who is listening. Every conversation ends with the admonition, "Be careful."

She is a leader of the "Damas de Blanco" or "Ladies in White," a group of relatives – mostly wives, mothers, and sisters – of dissidents who were jailed in a sweep of arrests five years ago in what has since been dubbed "Black Spring."

Pollán's husband, Héctor Maseda, a journalist, was arrested with 74 others in March 2003 for "acting against the integrity and sovereignty of the state." Among other things, he had spent the previous decades organizing newspaper clippings by subject: environment, economics, politics, social issues, and circled the contradictions in public discourse.

"In the 50s, they [Cuba's current top officials] were revolutionaries; now they are counterrevolutionaries," says Pollán. Her husband, and other dissidents – who are so often dubbed the right-wing puppets of the US – are the real revolutionaries today, she says. "They are the ones who want to change the system."

It is hard. She works alone in her house, on a tiny computer, her dog at her side. She is 60, her husband is 65. "We are senior citizens. We need each other's compassion and understanding," she says.

Police briefly arrested her in April after they broke up a peaceful protest in Havana, and since then state security agents have installed a security camera and floodlights in front of her home, which is also the main office for the Ladies in White.

Digging deep for faith in change

Back at Rivero's rural home, she's slowly restocking her library after the government took away all her books. Her daughter, Yuricel, who was inspired by US first lady Laura Bush (a former school teacher and librarian) to become a librarian, is out of work and blacklisted. She says she was fired for handing out books provided by the US government.

Rivero's still so angry with the government that she rejects the food vouchers that all Cubans get. Instead, she's made it a point to be self-sufficient by growing enough food to feed herself – and to donate to others.

With a sudden move, she grabs one of the turkeys that strut around her backyard among the plantain, mango, and avocado trees. She raises and cooks the birds to help feed expectant mothers when they go to the hospital to deliver. "Hospital food is horrible," she explains.

Rivero and other dissidents say it's hard to envision a Castro-led regime rolling back political restrictions, given the repression they've experienced. But they say that they wouldn't be battling the system if change wasn't possible.

"Raúl's Cuba is already very different than Fidel's," says Tapanes. "I think change is already happening and Raúl is implementing China-style reforms. But I'm not happy with that. The change has to be radical."

Raúl's recent economic reforms are "not change," insists Suarez. "But I have faith that there will be change. That's why I'm fighting."

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