Montreal Gazette,

May 14, 2002

Cuban dissidents gaining clout
But Castro critics face police harassment, job loss, and even prison

Lending someone a book does not seem like such a big deal. That is, unless you live in Cuba, where just about any dissent is discouraged and often severely repressed. And in Cuba, operating a private library is considered to be dissent.

"Our organizers and customers are constantly visited by the police," said Raydel Ramirez, director of the Biblioteca Independiente Luis Orlirio Mendes Pérez which operates in the Pinar del Rio province in Western Cuba. "They follow us, threaten us and tell us our activities are illegal."

However a small but growing number of Cuban dissidents, are increasingly willing to face the consequences of standing up for their rights. Last week a group headed by dissident Oswaldo Paya, dumped a petition - known as the Varela Project -- signed by 11,000 people on the doorstep of the Cuban legislature.

The petition calls for a referendum under the country's constitution on whether Cubans favor increased human rights, amnesty for political prisoners, the ability to create and run businesses and a new electoral law that would allow multiple candidacies in elections, as opposed to an up-or-down vote on party supplied nominees.

Among the project's biggest supporters are the country's independent library operators, who would like the freedom to operate without state interference.

The Biblioteca Independiente does not look like much. It's consists of two shelves full of books and magazines - maybe 350 in all - set up in Ramirez's living room.

But many of the titles offered - such as Spanish translations of Francis Fukuyama's The Great Disruption, and Thomas Friedman's Lexus and the Olive Tree - are rare commodities in Cuba, placing the books in great demand. And Pinar del Rio, like most of Cuba is poor, so access to books is a big deal.

But according to Ramirez, it's not the book titles that most upset the Cuban police. "It's the fact that we are independent," Ramirez said. "They don't want anyone thinking differently here."

But many in Pinar del Rio do think differently. The province is home to a devout Catholic community and is a nesting ground to a small cradle of anti-government activity, fanned on by the church-produced independent monthly magazine Vitral, which regularly publishes anti-government articles.

According to Florentino Quador, president of the Pinar del Rio branch of the Maximo Gomez National Civic Mouvement, a center-right group critical of the Castro régime, those willing to speak out against Cuba's autocratic policies, economic under-performance and human rights abuses remain in the minority.
"Nobody knows for sure how much support Castro has, because people cannot express their ideas," Quador said. "Most Cuban's will say one thing and think another. Police repression is very severe in Cuba, and people are afraid to speak out."

But Quador, a big supporter of the Varela Project principals is not one of them. "We are not just dissidents, we are Castro opponents," Quador said.

"You want to know what we believe in?" Quador, said, throwing a copy of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the table. "That's what we believe in."

But both Quador and Ramirez have paid heavy prices for their opposition. Neither have full time jobs and both operate outside the mainstream Cuban economic and social systems under constant police harassment. During the January José Marti remembrance week celebrations both were ordered under house arrest, so they would not cause trouble.

"We don't go to parades, we don't vote in elections and we don't participate in Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) activities," Quador said. "We run our own private businesses to pay our expenses."

As hard as it is for Quador and Ramirez, many government critics have faced much worse. Cuban dissidents are routinely imprisoned for speaking out against the government. According to Human Rights Watch, an international monitoring agency, inmates are frequently malnourished and stuffed in overcrowded cells without appropriate medical attention.

Independent reporters are an especially favorite target. According to Reporters Without Borders, Cuba is the only Latin Americans country where journalists are systematically sent to jail.

The organization has asked former U.S. president Jimmy Carter -- who is currently touring Cuba -- to intervene on behalf of four currently imprisoned journalists; Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, Carlos Alberto Domínguez, Carlos Brizuela Yera and Lester Téllez Castro.


Photo caption: Raydel Damirez, is considered a dissident for running a small independent library in the Cuban province of Pinar del Rio, and has been subjected to police threats, harassment and house arrest.



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