Cuba's opposition, on a plane to Spain

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.

Trying to achieve unanimity among different anti-Castro groups isn’t a realistic goal, he said, since infiltration by government agents has generated so much distrust among activists. Instead, Farinas said, “It’s a matter of finding common themes that unite us. We need to continue to denounce the abuses that take place here every day.”

But if freedom for Cuba’s jailed activists gave a common cause to the disparate factions of Cuba’s opposition, it now risks pulling them apart. At least one member of the Ladies in White has suggested the group disband, having achieved its purpose, while its leaders have vowed to keep marching until all imprisoned activists are freed.

Government opponents are also split over whether to lend their moral support to new U.S. legislation that would lift restrictions on U.S. tourism to the island. Then there are deeper ideological differences about what a post-Castro Cuba should look like.

Several activists said their efforts should remain focused on freeing the 100 or so political prisoners who will still be behind bars once the first 52 are released. But that no longer seems like a far-fetched goal, either. In recent days, Cuban officials have said the amnesty will extend beyond the first group of 52 prisoners, and other dissidents who weren’t convicted of violent crimes will be considered for release.

In that case, about 70 of the remaining 100 political prisoners should qualify to go free, according to Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. All 100 would not be eligible, Sanchez explained, because the prisoner list includes some violent offenders, including a man convicted of a hotel bombing in 1997 that killed an Italian tourist. Sanchez considers him a political prisoners because he said the man's death sentence was politically motivated.

But even if the government does release most of those inmates, it’s unclear how many will continue working on the island to change Cuba’s one-party system. Most forms of public protest are banned, and the Castro government still considers the dissidents to be mercenaries and traitors because of the support they get from Washington and other foreign interests. Meanwhile, Sanchez said the government is shifting its tactics to rely less on imprisonment and more on temporary detentions, intimidation and harassment.

Even if most of the prisoners go to Spain, Sanchez predicted, new activists will rise up to take their place. “The situation here hasn’t changed,” he said. “We have the worst situation in the hemisphere in terms of human rights, political rights, economic rights, and cultural rights.”

“We still have a lot of work to do,” he said.