The weekly demonstration of a Cuban dissident group called the Ladies in White went on as usual in a Havana suburb this weekend, with women clutching pink gladioli and standing in protest under the watchful eye of the island nation’s security apparatus.
A leader of the group, María Cristina Labrada Varona, pointed at plainclothes agents posted around a park and signaled toward lampposts.
“You can see the state security cameras all around,” she said.
As the United States relaxes its economic stranglehold of Cuba, Labrada said, groups like hers are likely to suffer.
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“The repressive machinery will get stronger against the Ladies in White and against human rights activists,” she said. “To the degree that President (Barack) Obama lifts the embargo, they (state agents) will have more resources to repress us.”
Despite the celebratory messages coming from Cuba in the past week, not all Cubans are happy with the sudden warming of relations with the United States. Among those opposed are hardcore dissidents and relatives of political prisoners.
They view any softening of the 52-year-old economic embargo of Cuba as appeasement of the Castro brothers, who have ruled the island for five decades.
Like many of the Ladies in White, Labrada’s family has suffered firsthand the one-party state of the Castro regime and its severe allergy to political dissent.
“My husband was one of the first political prisoners,” she said. Her spouse, Egberto Ángel Escobedo, served 16 years in prison for dissent.
The surprise announcement Dec. 17 of the pending renewal of diplomatic relations, as well as U.S. pledges to relax the flow of travelers and hard currency to Cuba, would invariably strengthen the hand of President Raúl Castro, younger brother of Fidel Castro, leader of the 1959 revolution, the dissidents said.
“It’s going to be a blast of oxygen for the Castro brothers,” said Raúl Borges Álvarez, a 74-year-old former Interior Ministry counterintelligence officer who joined the opposition in 2000. “This is very beneficial to the tyranny.”
Just as Presidents Obama and Raúl Castro went on television in their respective nations Wednesday to explain the diplomatic thaw, the head of the U.S. Interest Section, or de facto diplomatic mission, Jeff DeLaurentis, met with a group of dissidents to explain the move.
“There were 12 or 13 of us there, and half of us were against any lifting of the embargo. One of those there said the attitude of Barack Obama was a betrayal of the Cuban people,” said Ángel Moya Acosta, head of a small opposition group, the Democratic Freedom Movement for Cuba.
Moya, who served seven years in prison, dismissed suggestions that ordinary Cubans would feel the benefit of the U.S. moves, which include permitting greater flows of remittances to the island, a relaxation of a broad travel ban for U.S. citizens and an easing of rules around sales of telecommunications and agricultural equipment.
“The American government can say whatever it wants. But it all depends on the will of the Cuban government,” Moya said.
As part of agreement, the two nations conducted a prisoner swap Wednesday involving three convicted Cuban spies jailed in the United States and the freeing of an intelligence asset working for the United States, who was serving a lengthy prison term in Cuba. U.S. Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross was also freed and allowed to return to U.S. shores.
Cuba pledged to release 53 other Cuban political prisoners but didn’t say when it would do so or provide names.
“They can free the 53 but they will round up another 60,” said Lázara Bárbara Sardiña Recalde, one of the leaders of the Ladies in White, which formed 11 years ago and holds weekly demonstrations.
Moya, who is the husband of one of the founders of Ladies in White, Berta Soler, said it is not in the nature of leaders like Raúl Castro to change course.
“A dictator neither yields nor backtracks,” he said. “Did you hear him speak (on Saturday to the National Assembly)? He didn’t say anything about freedom or rights.”
Moya said dissidents who keep track of political prisoners believe 114 are still in Cuban prisons.
The Cuban regime has repressed nearly all forms of political dissent during its 55 years in power, occasionally allowing small groups to form and even march in the streets, as the Ladies in White do, but repeatedly throwing dissidents in jail for lengthy terms.
Among those unlikely to be freed in accordance with Castro’s pledge to liberate 53 prisoners is the son of Raúl Borges, Ernesto Borges, who was detained in 1998 and is serving a 30-year sentence on espionage charges.
The father said the son served part of his time in a cell adjacent to Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, the U.S. mole in Cuba who was freed to U.S. soil last week.
The son, who like his father was an officer in the General Directorate for Counter-Intelligence in the Interior Ministry, decided to turn against the Castro regime while attending a KGB course in Moscow, the father said. Upon his return, he sought to enter the U.S. Interest Section to turn over the names of 26 Cuban spies but was intercepted by Cuban agents before doing so, the father said.
Borges said the Roman Catholic primate in Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, brought up his son’s case with Raúl Castro but was told the case was of personal importance to the Cuban leader.
“Ernesto has become a hostage of the dictatorship of the Castro brothers,” Borges said.