Ten years after arrests, Cubans split on pace of change

Ten years after the "Black Spring" arrest of 75 Cuban dissidents, some in the opposition perceive signs of greater openness while others see a regime that is merely changing tactics to improve its image.

Political opposition is still illegal, with regime opponents routinely denounced as US "mercenaries," but the regime has backed away from mass arrests in recent years, handing down reduced sentences and loosening a travel ban.

The situation has improved since Fidel Castro's government arrested 75 members of the opposition in a three-day period in March 2003 known as the "Black Spring," accusing them of "conspiratorial activities" and handing down sentences of six to 28 years on charges of working for a foreign power.

Several of the prominent dissidents were released on parole in subsequent years for health reasons, and the remainder were freed in 2010 and 2011 after unprecedented talks between President Raul Castro and the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile the Ladies in White, a group founded by wives and relatives of the 75 prisoners, have faced less harassment during their weekly Sunday marches.

"The human rights situation remains very unfavorable in Cuba, even though the government has taken a series of steps and introduced changes in order to improve its image," activist Elizardo Sanchez told AFP.

Others take a more positive view, pointing to the government's increasing tolerance for some political activities.

"If we consider that there is no legal opposition, then the situation has not changed at all, and yet many of these groups are still operating more or less publicly without a repeat of the sanctions of 2003, and that's positive," Orlando Marquez, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Havana, told AFP.

Since taking over from his brother Fidel in 2006, Raul Castro has introduced a raft of economic reforms aimed at shoring up the island's state-run economy while maintaining his communist party's firm grip on power.

In a landmark move, the government dropped the requirement for an exit permit this year and has allowed prominent dissidents -- including blogger Yoani Sanchez and Ladies in White leader Berta Soler -- to travel abroad, where they have criticized the government on a world stage.

As recently as 2005, The Ladies in White won the Sakharov Prize, a prestigious European award for political dissidents, but were not allowed to leave Cuba to collect it.

But during a visit to Spain earlier this month Soler downplayed the reforms, telling AFP in Madrid that "repression has worsened" since 2010, saying 1,280 members of her organization had been detained in 2012.

"The police drag us around, beat us, pull our hair, scratch us and humiliate us," she said, referring to members of the Ladies in White.

"They simulate executions with a gun to the head and leave us dumped at dawn on the road or the beach, tied up with belts," she said, adding that men had been jailed for five or six months at a time without trial.

According to statistics compiled by dissidents, the number of political prisoners currently being held in Cuba has dwindled in recent years from more than 300 to around 50. The government does not release such figures.

Jose Daniel Ferrer, a member of the Group of 75 who was sentenced to 25 years but freed after the talks with the church, told AFP that although prison terms have grown shorter the arrests and convictions continue.

But another prominent member of the group, Hector Palacios, is more optimistic.

"I think a lot has been gained since (the Black Spring). It's unthinkable that this kind of government could change overnight, but we are now much stronger and and government is much weaker," he told AFP.