Monday, December 17, 2007

Cuban dissidents note subtle change in Raul Castro's policies,0,1074204.column

South Florida

Ray Sanchez

Cuba notebook

December 16, 2007


That organizers drudged up a dozen souls for a peaceful march on International Human Rights Day was a feat in itself.

In the days before last Monday's march and other unusual rights demonstrations here, state security agents had rounded up and jailed as many as 80 dissidents to prevent them from attending the events, according to rights observers. About 30 others in the provinces who had planned to participate were prevented from leaving their homes.

But rather than face long detention and lengthy prison terms, the dissidents were swept up by authorities and detained for hours or even days and then released.

Nearing its 18th month in power, Raul Castro's interim government appears to be flirting with a more restrained approach to dissent on the socialist island.

"The government was less subtle in the past," said Elizardo Sanchez, leader of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation. "The repression was pure and hard. Now they're being more cautious."

At the same time, Cubans are living through other subtle changes, including the screening of the Academy Award-winning film The Lives of Others. The film is about East Germany's dreaded Stasi secret police — a model for Cuba's own state security apparatus.

More than 1,000 Cubans waited for hours outside the Acapulco Theater for the film's debut during the Havana Film Festival last week. When the doors opened, the crowd stampeded for the seats.

"Something is changing in Cuba when this movie is being shown," said Cecilio, a 65-year-old independent journalist who attended the premiere, but did not want his last name used. "It means that at least some sectors of the government have an interest in changing old ways."

Many Cubans identified with the film: A captain in the German Democratic Republic's Ministerium fur Staatssicherheit that by the mid-1980s had recruited more than 100,000 East Germans to snoop and snitch on each other, pursues a playwright suspected of sedition.

When the film ended late Saturday, the audience exploded in a long round of applause.

"The movie captures nearly exactly a part of Cuban reality," said Sánchez, the human rights observer. "Many Cubans identify — not only the victims of the repression but the repressors themselves. We have our own Stasi, which is very powerful."

Days later, their work could be seen on the street. Minutes after Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque announced that Cuba will allow United Nations monitoring of its rights record, a dozen demonstrators staged a peaceful protest outside the UNESCO offices, a few blocks away from the foreign ministry.

Shouts of "Worms! Traitors! Mercenaries!" rained down on the 12 silent marchers, who were outnumbered by more than 100 furious government supporters and security agents.

The peaceful demonstrators, elbows locked, stepped into a clenched fisted and manhandling gauntlet on a warm December morning.

"Was this overkill because that is what they do automatically, or did the government expect that far more than a few dozen might have shown up for the demonstration?" Cuba analyst Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute, a think tank outside Washington, D.C., asked in his blog.

Last week, Cuba's state press dismissed the demonstrations as "street theater" orchestrated after "frenetic subversive activity" between dissidents and U.S. officials here. Cuba considers dissidents mercenaries in the employ of the U.S. Interest Section.

Ray Sánchez can be reached at rlsanchez@sun-sentinel .com.

Copyright © 2007, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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