News Column

Ladies in White Returning to Cuba Re-energized

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When Berta Soler, leader of Cuba's dissident Ladies in White, returned to the island last month after her first-ever trip abroad, she felt ready to resume the grinding struggle against the communist government.

Soler had received a hero's welcome in the United States and Europe. Large audiences had applauded her denunciations of the Castro system. And her group had secured new supporters, contacts and more than $65,000 in prizes and donations.

Guillermo Farinas, also on his first trip abroad as a dissident, said he has gained "spiritual, material and ideological oxygen," as well as a new and better understanding of Cuban exiles and even a good book on transitions to democracy.

After Cuba eased its travel regulations in January, more and more dissidents have been not only traveling abroad but also returning to the island well-rested, with more energy and ambitions, more supporters and contacts abroad and access to more cash.

Before the changes, most dissidents could not leave the island except on one-way tickets. The government stamped "Final Exit" on their migration documents and did not allow them to return except for rare humanitarian visits.

Regis Iglesias, one of 116 political prisoners freed and virtually forced into exile in Spain in 2010 and 2011, said he applied to return one year ago to resume his work for the opposition Christian Liberation Movement. Havana has not answered his request.

Compare Iglesias to Soler, who returned to Havana on May 27 after a 78-day international trip and immediately announced bold plans to expand the activities and membership of the Ladies in White, which now stands at about 230.

"I feel stronger. I am stronger," Soler said, because during the trip, she could "talk to other people, I could denounce the government. We went out looking for moral, spiritual and material support and we go it. ... This gives me tremendous strength."

Cuban exiles promised to arrange scholarships for children of dissidents who are often denied the schools of their choice, added the 50-year-old lab technician. And several nongovernmental organizations around the world offered their support in various ways.

Soler said that during her trip, the Ladies in White also gained access to their roughly $22,000 share of the Sakharov prize won in 2005, their $20,000 Vaclav Havel Prize won this year and $24,000 collected by Cubans in Miami, New Jersey and Puerto Rico. Cuba did not allow the women to leave the island in 2005 to collect the Sakharov prize.

She declined further comment on the money, but clearly it will be a tremendous help to the dissidents, who are often fired from their government jobs, in a country where the average state employee officially earns about $17 a month.

Soler noted also that she and fellow Ladies in White Belkis Cantillo and Laura Labrada felt "rejuvenated and re-energized" when they received standing ovations during their appearances before several exile audiences in Miami last month.

Havana blogger Yoani Sanchez, meanwhile, tweeted earlier this month that her ambitions for Cuba's future expanded so much during her own three-month trip abroad that her return home had been "like trying to return to a place where I once fit, and now feels tight."

"I am back. With an energy that the daily hassles will try to diminish, but which will still be enough to launch new projects," Sanchez, who has said she wants to launch a newspaper, wrote separately on her Generacion Y blog.

She has not said whether her trip helped to gather financial or other support for what would be the only newspaper not state-controlled. But her Twitter account gained more than 100,000 followers during the trip, bringing her total to more than 500,000.

For his part, Farinas said he has felt "much more enthusiasm and ambition" during his current trip abroad and expects to be in Brussels soon to pick up the Sakharov Prize and roughly $67,000 in prize money that the European Parliament awarded him in 2010.

He was in Poland last week, attending a seminar on nonviolent resistance along with a half-dozen other Cubans in Gdansk, birthplace of the Solidarity labor movement that pushed the Communist government out of power in 1989. Farinas said he will also be taking back to Cuba a Spanish-language copy of a book on the kinds of changes that dissidents are seeking in Cuba, titled "From Dictatorship to Democracy" and published in 2002 by dissidents in Burma.

Cuba's new migration system not only allows most dissidents to leave and return, but also permits all Cubans to stay abroad up to 24 months without losing their residency. To return after that period, they must obtain prior permission from Havana.

About 20 dissidents have traveled abroad so far, a half-dozen have returned and more are getting ready to travel. A few were denied permission to travel because they were sentenced to lengthy prison terms but were paroled for health reasons.

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Soler, Sanchez, Farinas and Pardo also agreed that their trips abroad brought them closer to Cuban exiles, long portrayed by Castro's propaganda as "worms," rabid capitalists and even bloodthirsty vengeance-seekers.

"But you come here and you find, and have a respectful conversation with, (anyone) from a member of the brigade that landed in the Bay of Pigs to someone who wants to make capital investments in Cuba right now," Pardo said.

The dissidents also said their international exposure should give them added protection from government repression. But that, they acknowledged, is only a hope.

Havana eased the travel restrictions for its own interests, the dissidents argue, and not to give the opposition a break. The changes might brighten Cuba's image abroad, they say. More Cubans abroad would mean more remittances sent to relatives on the cash-strapped island.

But if the dissidents' travels become too troublesome for the government, Pardo said, Havana can always change the rules again to keep the dissidents in or block their return, or even turn up the repression.

"We have been seeing a little ray of hope in our hearts, that we're ready for something good to happen," Pardo said. "But the government cannot allow itself to be tolerant. The physical repression could grow worse."

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(c)2013 The Miami Herald

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