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After Arab Spring, Cuban Dissidents Look For 'Spark That Ignites The Whole Country”

Blogger Yoani Sanchez and dissident Guillermo Fariñas can taste the wave of the Arab uprising from the shores of Cuba. But the Castro regime shows no signs it's wobbling just yet.

Jean Arnaud Mistral

HAVANA/SANTA CLARA – Inconspicuous under her sunglasses and dark blue raincoat, Yoani Sánchez moves and talks at the speed of light. From time to time, she looks over her shoulder to make sure that no Cuban state security agent has followed her into the cafeteria where we are sitting. She says that, for security reasons, she will not be able to be here long. At 35, this world famous blogger (the Spanish language version of her blog gets as many as 15 million visitors each month) knows that the Castro regime has her number.

The latest government attack came on March 21, when a broadcast on the official Cubavision channel accused Sánchez of being part of a "cyber war" waged by the American enemy with the aim of "demonizing" socialism. "This is a new form of invasion ..., not with bombs but with algorithms and bytes," ran the broadcast. The response from the embattled blogger did not take long, in the form of an ironic tweet sent through her cell phone: "I'm so happy. The alternative Cuban blogosphere is finally present on state television, although it is to insult us!

Today in the cafeteria, Sánchez seems tired. Rather small and slender, she came accompanied by her sister, who tells her they should be on their way. "We Cubans are not allowed free access to the internet, so I have to outwit the authorities and post new messages on my blog through foreign friends who enter and leave the island."

The authorities have good reasons to fear Sánchez. Her blog is translated into 20 languages, from Bulgarian to Korean, she has been recognized by foreign press outlets and human rights organizations, and she is regularly invited to international conferences, such as last February in Spain for a conference on "Ibero-American e-networks." But the Castro regime systematically denies her the right to leave the island. "My passport is filled with all these pretty but unnecessary visas," she smiles while throwing back her long black hair. She says she was twice abducted, in November 2009 and February 2010, in a van and then beaten in a police station. "Since now I am protected by my international fame, the regime continues to attack me by means of defamation."

If the Castro brothers think of Sánchez as a threat, it is not only because she paints an unflattering portrait of the island nation to the outside world, but for the fact that her discordant voice has resonated among the Cuban population. "I can see that whenever I walk in the streets: people come to talk to me, they quietly congratulate me and sometimes even kiss me. I enjoy a real wave of sympathy."

In Cuba, all information is carefully controlled, and no media other than state-controlled outlets are authorized to publish or broadcast. Most of the island's citizens know nothing about political prisoners, who number 105 people, according to Amnesty International, or the 3,000 to 5,000 active dissidents who exist according to the International Federation for Human Rights.

Why then are so many people able to recognize Yoani and a handful of other dissidents in the streets? "Basically because the internet is so porous," says a dissident based in Havana. "The regime is very worried about this situation, especially after the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. The government has spent millions of dollars for a state-of-the-art system allowing total communication blackout in case of riots."

Even if the system is not yet flawless, many of the 11 million Cubans cannot benefit from these "leaks' because of the lack of computers. But pirate satellite dishes (sometimes hidden in buildings' garbage cans!), and those who do have access to the Internet and e-mails -- expatriates, embassies, doctors, companies – help spread the information behind the government's back.

So groups of bloggers and Internet users can convey the information that official TV channels or radio stations prefer to keep silenced. The benefits obtained by the ‘glorious revolution" which took place 52 years ago have lately been contradicted by talk about countless families from the eastern part of the island living in great poverty; or about health centers that are shedding their clients because the best doctors were sent to Venezuela; about the high level of corruption among senior military, or about the growing number of people who commit suicide by jumping off high buildings.

An earthworm named Coco

Other regions and cities are also experiencing this form of silent contestation. Santa Clara, a large town situated 270 kilometers east of the capital, is home to another dissident giving the government a hard time. Even more than Sánchez, Guillermo Fariñas is perceived as a major threat; he is often depicted as the toughest of gusanos (or earthworms), and authorities refer to him as a "counter-revolutionary pursuing the aims of American imperialism."

A journalist and a columnist, "Coco" Fariñas has relentlessly spoken out about the anger in the countryside, about food shortages and about the people's exasperation with censorship. He has also set up networks of former political prisoners, disgruntled officials who were silenced, and peasants forced to sell their crops to authorities for mockingly low prices. Just like Sánchez, "Coco" Fariñas has been spreading, with the help of a foreign embassy, these voices of revolt​ on the Internet.

The last thing that the Castro regime would need is for Fariñas to become a martyr. Winner of the Sakharov Prize last year, this very stubborn gusano has held a total of 23 hunger strikes. The latest in 2010 almost killed him. For five months, Fariñas refused to eat or drink, and had to be given intravenous feeding by force. The reason for this rebellion was the death of Zapata Tamayo in February 2010, a death authorities blamed on his hunger strike. "Tamayo died because he was denied water," says Fariñas whose own 135-day hunger strike resulted in 52 dissidents being released in July 2010. Eleven more have been released since them.

"Coco" Fariñas receives us in his modest yellow house in number 615 calle Aleman on the outskirts of Santa Clara. He has recently been detained for three days by Units 3 and 4 of the National Revolutionary Police (PNR) of Santa Clara. With his shaved head, long emaciated body, he speaks slowly and with difficulty. His health is hanging by a thread: he suffers from a thrombosis in his jugular vein, another in the left forearm as well as from a weak heart and lungs, consequences of his repeated hunger strikes.

According to him, the situation is ripe for a new revolution. Everywhere he looks, he sees signs of the government losing its grip. "They present the economic reforms as a sign of openness, but in truth the regime has no choice," Fariñas says. "During my arrest, military and party officials showed me their sympathy, something that was previously unimaginable."

Between two bouts of coughing, he whispers: "I know perfectly well that the system does not care one bit about my hunger strikes, as long as I stay alive. What they fear are people taking to the streets. If that happens, would they dare shoot them down? That is the question."

In Havana, a dissident named Elizardo Sanchez is more doubtful: "It is true that the regime still hasn't forgotten the popular uprisings of 1994. But the repressive apparatus is still very strong. In a little more than fifty years the number of prisons on this island has sprung from 14 to 200. We are talking about a real gulag here. There are 80,000 prisoners in those prisons, but their capacity is one million. The regime can also count on a control body of senior military officers, modeled on the East Germany's Stasi."

But this is not enough to break the optimism of "Coco" Fariñas's, who dreams of an Arabic spring on the Cuban island. "Cuba is like a field where it has not rained for months. I'm waiting for the spark that ignites the whole country."

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Ceslava.com

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