WASHINGTON — The peaceful Cuban dissidents who receive the most attention in the U.S. were largely unknown to Cubans seeking to emigrate, American diplomats in Havana found in a survey taken in 2008, according to a classified State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks.
Nearly half of the 236 people surveyed could not identify any of seven dissidents included on a list of 20 significant Cuban political and cultural figures, the survey found.
But more than two-thirds recognized the name of Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile wanted in Cuba in the 1976 bombing of a passenger plane that killed 73 people and a string of bombings of island tourist sites in 1997 that killed an Italian citizen.
The results of the survey, though unscientific, highlighted the impact of the Cuban government's media monopoly, the diplomats concluded, noting that official news media regularly pound away at Posada as the country's public enemy No. 1, while almost never mentioning those who seek a peaceful shift toward democracy.
The low recognition of dissidents is "emblematic of a society that has been starved and force-fed information for years," the cable noted, and "speaks volumes about the success the regime has had in controlling the information received by Cubans."
The month-long survey of Cuban adults who visited the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana to apply for refugee status was intended to test their awareness of the dissident movement, said the dispatch, dated July 9, 2008, and classified "confidential."
"One might assume ... that refugee applicants are more likely than the average Cuban to be aware of and receptive to the message of Cuban dissident/opposition figures," noted the cable.
Yet respondents identified an average of only 1.5 of the seven dissidents on the list, or fewer than one in four, according to the dispatch, which is part of the huge cache of State Department documents obtained by WikiLeaks and passed to McClatchy and other news organizations.
Posada was recognized by 67 percent of those surveyed — and that's only those who identified him as a "terrorist" or "freedom fighter," according to the cable. Many more knew the name, but described him only as a "Cuban American" or a "Cuban living in exile," identifications considered too vague to be counted, the cable said.
Posada was acquitted earlier this year by a federal jury in El Paso, Texas, of lying to federal agents about his role in the 1997 bombing and immigration violations. He now lives in South Florida.
The most-recognized peaceful dissident was Martha Beatriz Roque, at 43 percent, the cable noted, apparently because of her many years in the opposition and because at the time of the survey Cuban news reports were blasting her for receiving cash from Miami "terrorists."
Following her were: Oswaldo Paya of the Varela Project, which calls for political reforms, with 29 percent; Jose Luis Perez Garcia "Antunez," one of Cuba's most active dissidents, with 22 percent; and Oscar Elias Biscet, a black physician released in 2011 after eight years in prison, with 19 percent.
Dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe followed with 18 percent; Ladies in White leader Laura Pollan had 16 percent; and Roberto de Miranda, a member of the Varela Project, was recognized by 5 percent of those surveyed.
Getting only 2 percent was blogger Yoani Sanchez, who had been writing the Generacion Y blog for about one year then but already had been named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential persons in the world and had received Spain's prestigious Ortega y Gasset journalism prize.
"She writes on the Internet, to which few Cubans have access," the dispatch noted.
Cuba's 90-year-old ballet idol Alicia Alonso was by far the most recognized name on the list, with 92 percent of those surveyed correctly identifying her. "Ballet is huge in Cuba," the cable noted.
The dispatch noted that Ricardo Alarcon, president of the legislative National Assembly of People's Power, was recognized by 75 percent, and Carlos Lage, at the time vice-president of the executive Council of Ministers, was recognized by 76 percent.
Yet many respondents identified Alarcon and Lage only as "politicians," the cable added, indicating that many Cubans may "tune out completely or pay minimal attention to the massive propaganda efforts the regime substitutes for news."
The dispatch concluded with an assessment that for a country "proud of its high literacy rate — the result of a half century of highly touted and much admired literacy campaigns — the Cuban people who participated in this informal survey, at least, seem remarkably uninformed."
That characterization even extended to sports. Recognition was just 19 percent for baseball pitchers Livan and Orlando Herandez, who fled Cuba for the U.S. major leagues in the 1990s. "Baseball is the number one sport in Cuba and widely played and watched," the cable said.
Cuban boxer Mario Cesar Kindelan Mesa, who won gold medals at the Olympics in Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, was recognized by just 26 percent, even though boxing, the cable said, "is a very popular and important sport in Cuba." A world chess champion from the 1920s, Jose Raul Capablanca, did far better, with 64 percent.
(Tamayo reports for El Nuevo Herald in Miami.)
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