ONE OF the very small openings permitted in the past year by Cuba’s rulers, Raul and Fidel Castro, has been a relaxation of travel restrictions so dissidents can leave the island and bring firsthand accounts of their work to Europe, the United States and Latin America. When we met not long ago with Jorge Luis García Pérez, known as Antúnez, who spent 17 years in Cuba’s prisons, he spoke freely of the need for radical change in Cuba.
Antúnez is a leading Afro-Cuban dissident and voice for democracy and change. “Castro’s totalitarianism cannot be reformed,” he told us. “With totalitarians, you do not negotiate. Rapprochement only strengthens the dictatorship. We want to be totally free — we don’t want to accept it piecemeal. We want a democracy that we deserve.” He added, “I won’t be silent. I won’t leave.”
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Since his return to the island in December, Antúnez has been trying to organize opposition to the Castro regime. On Feb. 5, the regime struck back. The security forces arrived at his house in the town of Placetas in the central province of Villa Clara and painted over anti-government statements that dissidents had scrawled there. He was detained for nine hours, computers and other materials were seized from the house, and his wife also was detained when she and other activists went to a police station to demand his freedom. All were later released. Antúnez went on a hunger strike Feb. 10 in protest of his treatment.
Attacks, harassment and detentions are a day-to-day reality for Cuba’s dissidents, and they speak volumes about what kind of regime the Castro brothers preside over. Minuscule movements toward economic liberalization should not convince anyone that the brothers have decided to relax their grip. To the contrary, they are looking desperately for ways to hang on to power.
The Associated Press announced last week that seven photographs of Fidel Castro were being removed from its archive. The photos were distributed by a government entity during the recent Latin America and Caribbean summit in Havana, a shameful look-the-other-way exercise by hemispheric leaders. The AP, which retransmitted the photos, found upon close examination that they had been digitally altered — the modern day version of Stalinist airbrushing — to remove what appears to be a hearing aid in Fidel Castro’s ear.
With or without his hearing aid, we doubt that either Fidel Castro or his brother Raul, the current president, is listening to those who demand freedom and democracy. We know there are strong desires by some in the United States to normalize relations with Cuba after a half-century of stalemate. A new Atlantic Council poll underscores the sentiment. Understandably, there is impatience — including in the Cuban diaspora — for change. But the harassment of Antúnez suggests once again that the Castro brothers do not intend to change. They should not be rewarded or fortified, not as long as Antúnez and other dissidents suffer. We share Antúnez’s vision of a Cuba that is really free — and not just airbrushed to make the regime look better.