BY FRANCO ORDONEX
TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
HAVANA — In one of her first public acts of opposition, Aymara Nieto Munoz joined three other Cuban dissidents who rushed toward Pope Francis last fall screaming “libertad” as his Popemobile arrived for a scheduled Mass at Revolution Plaza in Havana.
“In my heart, I was hurting,” Nieto said in an interview last month. “I was hurting watching my neighbors who didn’t have food for their children to eat. There is too much pain to see.”
Nieto is part of what Cuban opposition leaders say is a growing activist network that’s sprung up since President Barack Obama began warmer relations with the communist nation 15 months ago.
They say people are more willing to speak out about their frustrations as they see an opening for change in new relations with the United States.
That growth is in part the reason for the step-up in the government’s crackdown on dissent that was evident during Obama’s 48 hours on the island in March. Dozens of activists were arrested before Obama’s arrival.
‘Afraid to lose control’
More Cubans screaming “freedom for the people of Cuba” were handcuffed and thrown into squad cars during a downtown protest two days after Obama spoke directly to the Cuban people about the importance of human rights and peaceful dialogue.
“The government, without a doubt, is afraid to lose control,” said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a group that tracks human rights and political repression in Cuba. “They’re afraid to lose control. That is why they repress so much at demonstrations. It’s an ongoing situation.”
Dagoberto Valdes Hernandez, who runs the Catholic magazine Convivencia, said the increase in arrests reflects not only the government’s growing nervousness, but also the fact that there are more people to arrest.
“In the beginning, it was just a handful of people. Now, it’s thousands,” Valdes said. “So the repression has had to increase.”
Thousands of arrests
Arrests for political disobedience now top a thousand a month.
Sanchez’s human rights commission reported more than 8,600 politically motivated detentions in 2015 — a 315 percent increase from five year ago. In just the first two months of this year, there have already been more than 2,500 arrests.
The Cuban Patriotic Union, or UNPACU, the island’s largest opposition group, formed five years ago, already boasts more than 3,500 members and sympathizers.
Carlos Amel Oliva, 28, who heads the group’s youth wing, was detained for “antisocial behavior” in March after meeting with Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
In an interview, he said the group has worked to organize in Habana Vieja, Calabazal and La Palma — impoverished neighborhoods where frustration with the government is high. The group also has opened five satellite offices for training, community support and planning demonstrations.
“This type of activism didn’t exist one year ago,” Oliva said.
Many activists don’t see jail cells. Short-term detentions a few hours or days long are cheaper, but also very effective to promote fear, Sanchez said.
Another recent strategy, he calls, “preventative political repression.”
That tactic consists of government authorities blocking known activists from leaving their homes or streets during high-profile events. The effort can be as direct as posting someone at an activist’s front door to prevent anyone from coming or going.
During Obama’s visit, for example, a rotation stood outside Nieto’s front door 24 hours a day for three days, she said. They told her husband, who was also among the group that rushed Pope Francis, that if he left the house he’d be detained.
“Constantly, the patrol was changing,” Nieto said. “On Tuesday, at 6 p.m., they left, just like that.”
Obama’s plane had taken off for Argentina two hours earlier.