Connect to share and comment

Cuba's opposition, on a plane to Spain

Analysis: After amnesty, a tough path for Castro opponents.

Cuba political prisoners
A Cuban refugee, with Spanish and Cuban flags in her hair, waits for the arrival of seven political prisoners at Barajas' airport in Madrid, July 13, 2010. (Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)

HAVANA, Cuba — Just as the Cuban government’s political opposition is getting out of jail, it seems to be at risk of disappearing altogether.

Of the 52 political prisoners Cuban authorities have freed or pledged to release as part of a landmark agreement with the Catholic Church and Spanish diplomats, only about 10 intend to remain on the island, according to activists. The rest are likely going to Spain, with a smaller number possibly going to the United States and elsewhere. At least 15 freed prisoners and their families have already arrived in Madrid.

Critics have depicted the arrangement as a kind of forced exile, but Spanish authorities and church leaders insist the prisoners are choosing to leave Cuba voluntarily. Their claim seemed to gain credence after some of the freed activists said they would seek Spanish citizenship, signaling their intention to stay.

While no one is publicly questioning the dissidents’ decision to leave Cuba, especially after their grim descriptions of prison conditions on the island, the likely departure of so many activists highlights the political challenges for Cuba’s small, fragmented opposition groups. At the moment when anti-Castro activists are enjoying their highest public profile in years, their release from jail brings new attention to their deficiencies as a political movement.

“We have to remake our agenda,” said Hector Palacios, a former prisoner who was paroled for health reasons in 2006. “If our goal was freedom for the political prisoners, then obviously we need to focus on new goals, like democratizing the country, and improving human rights,” he said.

Cuba’s dissidents lack a single, unifying leader, or a common political platform. Their ranks have been thoroughly infiltrated by Castro government agents. And though their confrontation with the Cuban state is followed closely by the island’s foreign press, the activists have no access to Cuba’s state-controlled media, so they remain virtually unknown to most Cubans.

In recent months, the dissidents’ cause has been dramatically elevated by the weekly marches of the Ladies in White, a group of women composed of the prisoners’ wives and relatives, and the lengthy hunger strikes of dissidents Orlando Zapata Tamayo and Guillermo Farinas. The former died in February after an 86-day fast, bringing a wave of condemnation upon the Castro government. Farinas ended his protest after the amnesty announcement, having surviving 135 days on a hospital IV drip.

With the Ladies’ marches no longer drawing foreign TV cameras and Farinas’ hunger strike finished, the activists will need to find new ways to promote their efforts.

“The risk is that the world’s attention will shift away from Cuba, so our goal is to keep Cuba visible,” Farinas said in a phone interview from the intensive care unit where he remains hospitalized.