In one of her first public acts of opposition, Aymara Nieto Muñoz joined three other Cuban dissidents who rushed toward Pope Francis last fall screaming “libertad” as his Popemobile arrived for a scheduled mass at Revolution Plaza in Havana.
“In my heart, I was hurting,” Nieto said in an interview last week. “I was hurting watching my neighbors who didn’t have food for their children to eat. There is too much pain to see.”
Nieto is part of what Cuban opposition leaders say is a growing activist network that’s sprung up since President Barack Obama began warmer relations with the communist nation 15 months ago. They say people are more willing to speak out about their frustrations as they see an opening for change in new relations with the United States.
That growth is in part the reason for the step-up in the government’s crackdown on dissent that was evident during President Barack Obama’s 48 hours on the island. Dozens of activists were arrested before Obama’s arrival.
More Cubans screaming “freedom for the people of Cuba” were handcuffed and thrown into squad cars during a downtown protest two days after Obama spoke directly to the Cuban people about the importance of human rights and peaceful dialogue.
“The government, without a doubt, is afraid to lose control,” said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a group that tracks human rights and political repression in Cuba. “They’re afraid to lose control. That is why they repress so much at demonstrations. It’s an ongoing situation.”
The government, without a doubt, is afraid to lose control.
Elizardo Sanchez, Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation
Dagoberto Valdés Hernández, who runs the Catholic magazine Convivencia, said the increase in arrests reflects not only the government’s growing nervousness, but the fact there are more people to arrest.
“In the beginning, it was just a handful of people. Now, it’s thousands,” Valdés said. “So the repression has had to increase.”
Arrests for political disobedience now top a thousand a month. Sanchez’s human rights commission reported more than 8,600 politically motivated detentions in 2015 – a 315 percent increase from five year ago. In just the first two months of this year, there have already been more than 2,500 arrests.
The Cuban Patriotic Union, or UNPACU, the island’s largest opposition group, formed five years ago, already boasts more than 3,500 members and sympathizers.
Carlos Amel Oliva, 28, who heads the group’s youth wing, was detained for “antisocial behavior” in March after meeting with Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
In an interview, he said the organization has worked to organize in Habana Vieja, Calabazar and La Palma – impoverished neighborhoods where frustration with the government is high. The group also has opened five satellite offices for training, community support and planning demonstrations.
“This type of activism didn’t exist one year ago,” Oliva said.
It’s not correct to ask us about political prisoners.
Raúl Castro, Cuban leader
The group uses a clever mix of media to get its message out, including social media, leaflets and DVDs.
While only a small percentage of Cubans having access to the Internet, dissidents and activists use webpages – often on foreign servers – as a clearinghouse for alternative perspectives to government media.
The patriotic union also posts daily videos to its YouTube channel that feature interviews with everyday Cubans and often the group’s protests. Even in Cuba, many people have smartphones that record video.
The group also uploads those videos and other articles to DVDs and flash drives to be distributed in communities that don’t have easy access to the Internet.
Oliva said he supports the opening with the United States because he believes it will provide better technology and more resources for organizing.
The interplay between Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro also seemed to underscore the Cuban government’s concerns that the opening with the United States will feed growing dissidence. Castro went out of his way to criticize the United States on human rights and he rejected the idea posed by reporters that his government had imprisoned anyone for speaking out against the government.
“It’s not correct to ask us about political prisoners,” Castro said at the pair’s joint news conference.
They haven’t tolerated that historically, and they’re not any more tolerant of it now.
William LeoGrande, a Latin America specialist at American University in Washington
An article later in the state newspaper, Granma, by former leader Fidel Castro underscored the uneasiness.
“My modest suggestion is that he reflects and doesn’t try to develop theories about Cuban politics,” Castro wrote to Obama in the 1,500-word article. “No one should pretend that the people of this noble and selfless country will renounce its glory and its rights.”
William LeoGrande, a Latin America specialist at American University in Washington, said “fear” may be too strong a word to describe the Cuban’s government’s concerns about the new relationship, but he said it’s undoubtedly the case that Cuban leaders want to impress upon dissidents that the opening doesn’t mean they’ll tolerate activity they regard as subversive.
“They haven’t tolerated that historically, and they’re not any more tolerant of it now,” said LeoGrande, co-author of the book “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.”
“If anything they may be a little tougher on it now as a way to send a signal to not just dissidents,” he added, “but potential dissidents that they’re not making any more space for that kind of opposition.”
315 percent increase in the number of political motivated arrests in Cuba over the last five years.
Cuba released 53 political prisoners as part of the deal with the United States to re-establish diplomatic relations. But the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation counts at least 80 more.
They include opposition leaders, such as Reinier Rodriguez Mendoza, a commission member who was arrested last year and charged with “social dangerousness” after a protest in Havana’s Central Park. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
Many activists don’t see jail cells. Short-term detentions a few hours or days long are cheaper, but also very effective to promote fear, Sanchez said.
Another recent strategy, he calls, “preventative political repression.”
That tactic consists of government authorities blocking known activists from leaving their homes or streets during high-profile events. The effort can be as direct as posting someone at an activist’s front door to prevent anyone from coming or going.
During Obama’s visit, for example, a rotation stood outside Nieto’s front door 24 hours a day for three days, she said. They told her husband, who was also among the group that rushed Pope Francis, that if he left the house he’d be detained.
“Constantly, the patrol was changing,” Nieto said. “On Tuesday, at 6 p.m., they left, just like that.”
Obama’s plane had taken off for Argentina two hours earlier.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Havana’s Calabazar neighborhood.