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KULTURA LIBERALNA > Pytając > Baseball in Havana

Baseball in Havana

Baseball in Havana

When global human-rights activists dream, many of these dreams must be set in Havana. The capital of Cuba, stuck between the old and the new era of dictatorship, is on track to the citizen-led change. What about the dreams people of Havana dream? Omar Lopez of the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba tells Anna Mazgal about frustration, hope, and Polish inspirations for the nation’s future democratic rebirth.

* * *

Anna Mazgal: Can you visit Cuba now?

Omar Lopez: No. I cannot. Cubans are the only nation in the world that need a permission to go out and to enter their own country. Since I was declared the enemy of the state, I have never been allowed to enter Cuba. My mother and father died there and I couldn’t go. That is a very hard blow as you can imagine. After leaving 18 years ago I never saw my father again. I saw my mother once, when she came to visit me in the States.

How did you leave?

I was a human rights activist. I was arrested 11 times within the last seven months I spent in Cuba, for one day, for two days. Once you are under such harassment your own family starts pushing you out. So I was facing the oppression from the regime and also my family started asking me to leave. At the end of the day you cannot stand that kind of pressure. I applied for a US visa as the politically persecuted, which was easy for me to demonstrate.

You used to live in Havana, right?

Yes, I was based in Havana and so was all my activism. I miss it very much. I dream of Havana every night. There is something intriguing about the fact that one way or another all of my friends came to live in the US, mostly to Miami. As a group we used to play baseball in Havana. And when we all got to Miami we reestablished the link and we play baseball every Sunday. People are quite amazed: in the States you do not have friendships like that, lasting for 30 or sometimes 40 years. We have been friends since the elementary school and here we are, playing baseball every Sunday. This is our oasis in the exile.

How would you map your activities in the context of efforts supporting democratic changes in Cuba?

The Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba is a branch of Cuban-American National Foundation. CANF is the largest organization of Cubans in exile with around 16.000 members at the best moment in the United States, chapters in Puerto Rico and Mexico. CANF was founded 25 years ago upon the concept of lobbying for measures against the Cuban regime inside the US. It was the first Cuban organization that separated itself from supporting the path of violence, which used to be the way to counter the regime back in the eighties. The Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba works with people inside the country. I myself was one of the founders of human rights movement in Cuba back in 1988.

Was the non-violence approach a strategic decision of the movement?

Exactly. CANF was precisely founded on the principle that the path to achieve freedom and democracy leads through non-violent means. We would use lobbying and human rights to empower people to promote the change inside Cuba. We need to understand that it was logical that the community in Cuba had resorted to violence against the regime, because the regime had been so violent toward its enemies. Only in the first 2 years of the revolution, 7 thousand people were executed. In Miami there are many people that had lost someone from their family that way. It was also a part of a bigger picture in the decade of violence in Latin America in the sixties. But CANF said, no, we are going to do this in a different way.

So how do you help the people in Cuba from the United States?

The idea is to do things for Cubans but also with them. To conduct strategic non-violent action you need knowledge, and this is what we provide Cubans with. Being a human rights activist myself, when I was living in Cuba I was in contact with the CANF. In fact, I broadcasted my first announcement from Cuba through the radio station of the Foundation. Now we send humanitarian aid, means of communication, laptops, translated materials and handbooks on non-violence struggle. Including documentaries: about Solidarity movement in Poland, Odpor! in Serbia and Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

I understand that living in a country with so many human rights violations can make non-violent methods hard to accept. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the response to your efforts may be mixed?

I believe this approach has succeeded. The changes in the attitude of the Cuban exile community happened also inside Cuba. In the seventies the violence was so overwhelming, the Cuban government practically exterminated the guerilla forces. Then in the eighties the Cuban Committee for Human Rights emerged. It was the opposition based on the new concept and I became a part of that. All we had was the notion of what nonviolence is. We didn’t have the strategic approach, no tools and no means to learn how to effectively practice nonviolence. We believed it basically means to make a stand against the government. What we do now through the foundation is providing knowledge and helping them get organized.

How are Cubans organizing?

Now we have this campaign called “Con la Misma Moneda”, with the same currency. You see, people in Cuba receive their salary in Cuban pesos. But they cannot pay with it, so they need to change Cuban pesos into the convertible pesos at the rate of 30 Cuban pesos per 1 convertible. So at the end of the month a person earning, say an equivalent of 600 dollars, ends up with 20 dollars. The campaign calls for the right of Cubans to be able to pay with the pesos they earn. Having learned how to structure such campaign, the Cubans have been able to collect 30 thousand signatures under the petition in 3 years. It is outstanding concerning the conditions. We also see people moving from passive to non-violent approach and saying openly “I am against the government, I have my rights”. A few weeks ago we helped activists with an exercise to present a demand to the National Assembly on freedom of movement and right to own private property. They were able to collect letters to be sent to the delegates and reach 57 out of 128 Cuban municipalities. It was a good exercise that enabled them to work as a network. There are several organizations within Cuba and we think it is very important that they collaborate.

And what is the response of the regime? Has it softened since Fidel Castro stepped down?

No, not at all. We are dealing with the same repression, violence and more people being jailed. Raul Castro took over and he announced some measures but these were only cosmetic ones. Cubans were not allowed to enter hotels for example. Raul allowed this but still, they need to pay with Cuban convertible pesos. An average worker would spend a year’s salary to rent a hotel room for one day. So it doesn’t mean anything, does it? The same thing is with buying DVDs and TV sets at state-owned stores – you still need to pay with convertible pesos.

That probably brings a lot of frustration to those who had hoped for some change?

Yes. A few months ago Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a Cuban political prisoner, died in a hunger strike. 82 days of not eating. In order to demand release of 26 political prisoners, Guillermo Farinas had declared himself on a hunger strike. The Cuban regime conformed to the international pressure and they released the prisoners. They didn’t recognized officially that this was the reason, they described it as the result of negotiations with the Catholic Church. But still the Cuban penal code penalizes the freedom of expression and the freedom of association. Unless these laws are changed we are still facing the growing number of people going to jail.

So it seems that what really is helping is the international community keeping an eye on Cuba and pressing for changes? Do you think we handle these issues properly or is there more to be done?

Definitely, more could be done. The major challenge is to focus on strengthening activism inside Cuba and supporting internal opposition. The international community is looking more towards the government, they are expecting the change to come from that direction. Well, that ain’t gonna happen. History teaches us that the change has to come from within the society, from the bottom up. When the regime feels that kind of pressure only then they will be pushed towards change. Just like it happened in Poland, in Serbia and in the case of many other totalitarian regimes. The focus should be internal and the Cubans need to be provided with access to information, including access to the Internet. Some embassies, including the Polish embassy, allow that. The flow of the aid should go to the opposition in Cuba, also in order to legitimize that opposition. When foreigners go to Cuba, they should meet with the opposition and dissidents. Legitimizing the government only is the major mistake.

Speaking of Poland, I know that in your work you use a lot of experiences from the Polish Solidarity. Can you explain how are these relevant to you?

Solidarity proved that if people organize and push nonviolently for a common goal, it is possible to defeat communism in a nonviolent way. Solidarity broke down the thinking that communist regime in an invincible one. Not only did it open a window of hope, but also showed a path for people like me, living under the same conditions in Cuba. In the 80’s, I used to carry a page of Time Magazine in my wallet, with a picture of Lech Walesa in front of Gate # 5 at the Gdansk shipyard. The gate was decorated with a Solidarity banner, and the picture caption said: “there is a fire in the country”, with a statement from Lech Walesa. I carried that picture as if it was an amulet. It gave me strength and confidence.

Do you see any changes in the attitude towards Cuba under the current US administration?

The thing about the US policy is that there is a lot of rhetoric about Cuba but no concrete actions. You see that from one president to another, from the Republicans to the Democrats. The Cuba question is a part of the internal US politics in the sense that every president feels he needs to be close to the Cuban community when the elections are coming. Cubans living in the US could visit Cuba only once a year and send only 300 USD a quarter to support their families. Recently Obama administration announced an ease of restrictions to US citizens traveling to Cuba. This is a good thing, we are in favor of people visiting and increasing people to people contact. This was something that the Bush administration, trapped in the hard-line rhetoric, didn’t allow. The thing is, Fidel Castro was in power for more than 50 years so we can see that this sort of rhetoric had not been successful, we now need a new approach. With the Obama’s administration we hope that we can increase direct assistance to the dissidents. However, the US is not going to provide change in Cuba directly, just as the international community isn’t.

* Omar was interviewed on August 22nd 2010, during the World Assembly of the CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation that annually gathers activists from all around the world to discuss how they can act together for a more just world.

** Omar Lopez is a Cuban dissident, he works for the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba.

*** Anna Mazgal is a member of „Kultura Liberalna” editorial board and an expert of  Ogólnopolska Federacja Organizacji Pozarządowych (OFOP). She represents OFOP in the Civil Legislation Forum.

„Kultura Liberalna” nr 90 (40/2010) z 28 września 2010 r.

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Nr 90

28 września 2010