A leading Cuban dissident Wednesday described his homeland as in foment, with political repression on the rise, opposition to the Castro government growing and a fledgling movement toward capitalist outposts in the communist country that has left people puzzled.
In a wide-ranging question-and-answer session in Washington, José Daniel Ferrer García, who was imprisoned from 2003 to 2011, said he supported the opening with Cuba that President Barack Obama initiated in December 2014. But he acknowledged that other dissident leaders are against it and said the opposition movement was generally split.
He also decried the continued flow of people from Cuba, which saw some 38,000 arrive in the United States last year, more than twice as many as in 2013. He urged his fellow Cubans to stay home.
90 The number of public Wi-Fi hot spots in Cuba
“People feel that either you obey (the government) or you leave the country,” Ferrer said. “Our message is that there is a third option: You can enjoy freedom here if you fight for it.”
Ferrer’s news conference in Washington was part of a rare tour of the United States following the re-establishment of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic ties last year. His visit took him last week to South Florida, where he saw his mother and brother in Palm Beach for the first time since they left Cuba five years ago. While there, he met with the editorial board of the Miami Herald. A sister left Cuba more recently and lives in Austin, Texas.
After his Washington briefing, Ferrer flew to New York, where he met with Samantha Powers, the U.S. representative to the United Nations. He also was scheduled to meet with editors and reporters at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
He was expected to return to Washington to meet with lawmakers, State Department officials and leaders of Amnesty International, the advocacy group that declared him a prisoner of conscience during his imprisonment. He then will travel to Silicon Valley in California to meet with technology industry leaders. He said he would seek their help in expanding Cubans’ online access, which the Cuban government restricts by blocking websites and maintaining only 90 Wi-Fi hot spots on the island.
I don’t understand how officials from countries that are so strong economically, politically and socially can come and not meet with dissidents just because the government tells them they can’t.
Cuban dissident leader José Daniel Ferrer García
Ferrer expressed certainty that the Cuban government had allowed him and 10 other prominent dissidents to visit the United States because of pressure from the Obama administration.
Asked why the Cuban government allowed them to travel abroad, Ferrer gave a tongue-in-cheek response: “Perhaps they are hopeful that once we see how the free world lives, we’ll want to stay.”
He quickly added: “But they know we won’t.”
Ferrer, 45, is founder of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, a group he described as having 3,100 to 3,200 active members, mostly in eastern Cuba. Ferrer himself is from a small town in Santiago province, 550 miles southeast of Havana, Cuba’s capital.
“People are confused – will there still be socialist economics? It brings a lot of disbelief among the people,” he said of rumors that the Castro government will soon legalize small and medium-size private businesses. He said the government’s political crackdown was no surprise, and he refused to blame it on the Obama opening.
“We know that as soon as there are small gains, repression increases,” he said. “But it’s not because of U.S.-Cuban ties. It’s because the opposition has increased.”
Ferrer said Obama and other senior U.S. officials deserved credit for having met with dissident groups during the president’s historic visit to Havana in March. He said that willingness to offend the Castro government was in contrast to European leaders, who had failed to hold such meetings on their trips to the island.
“The U.S. officials were the first to meet with us,” Ferrer said. “I don’t understand how officials from countries that are so strong economically, politically and socially can come and not meet with dissidents just because the government tells them they can’t.”
Ferrer offered a warning to American and other foreign companies looking to open businesses in Cuba under liberalized investment rules.
“Be careful,” he said. “The Castros are never trustworthy.”
After leaving the United States, Ferrer planned to go to Europe for meetings with the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic, Sweden, the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, and the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose