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Elizardo Sánchez: Dean of Cuba's dissident movement
CubaNews / July 2003

By Larry Luxner

Hanging over the porch at the home of dissident Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz is a faded color poster of Pope John Paul II with an inspiring message: “No Tengas Miedo — Don’t Be Afraid.”

Even so, says Sánchez, “I am always afraid. Fear is part of the Cuban reality, even for government officials. What distinguishes the dissidents from the rest of the population is that we do our work in spite of fear.”

The 59-year-old economist ought to know.

As founder of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN in Spanish), Sánchez has spent one-sixth of his life in prison for chronicling Fidel Castro’s human-rights abuses.

Through his anti-government activities, the former professor of Marxist philosophy has become perhaps Cuba’s best-known dissident. Some call him Cuba’s “official” dissident because he is so often quoted by international media — and a few Miami hardliners even accuse Sánchez of being a paid agent of Cas-tro because he opposes the U.S. embargo and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act.

CubaNews recently met Sánchez for a one-hour interview at his home along Avenida 21 in Havana’s once-fashionable Playa district.

Outside, the house is surrounded by a chain-link fence, while inside — hanging on the walls of his living room — are framed photographs of Sánchez with various world leaders including Jimmy Carter, French President Jacques Chirac, Sen. Edward Kennedy and Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar.

“I have lived in this house for 40 years,” said Sánchez, “and the police have been tapping my phones for 35 years. I don’t have access to e-mail or the Internet. For years, I haven’t slept well. If someone knocks on my door, I don’t know if it’s the police or not.”

Sánchez lives here with his younger brother Gerardo, on whom he relies heavily. His wife Margarita resides in Miami with their daughter María. He sees his family “only when the government permits me. Some-times they let me visit them, but lately they’ve blocked my right to travel.”

Sánchez and his fellow activists in the CCDHRN receive information directly from prisoners and their families, and feed that information to organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Unlike Oswaldo Payá and his Varela Project, Sánchez does not engage in grass-roots recruiting but is consistently focused on political prisoners and human-rights issues.

That’s a far cry from the late 1950s, when Sánchez — then affiliated with Cuba’s old Partido Socialista Popular — was a protegé of two veteran communists, Luís García Guitart and Ramón Calcines. After Castro came to power in 1959, Sánchez was hired by the Foreign Ministry, but he lost his job after criticizing Castro’s rejection of Soviet policies. Sánchez was caught up in the 1968 purge of old-guard communists, which got him blacklisted from other jobs.

“That was the point of no return, about the time when Soviet tanks entered Prague,” he said. “After that I was expelled from my job at the University of Havana, and I worked in factories and laundries. I was imprisoned for eight and a half years. They never physically tortured me, but I was a victim of psychological torture — solitary confinement, tiny cells, interrogations, darkness.”

Sánchez said he was also jailed in the mid-1980s for 10 months, simply for talking to two journalists from AFP and Reuters who were later expelled for interviewing him.

From the early ‘80s until around 1994, the Cuban secret police regularly raided the Sánchez residence, taking books and documents. The house has also been attacked several times by rock-throwing goons from outside the neighborhood.

“These actos de repudio were done by people who didn’t know me,” he said. “The government brought them in cars and buses from other places, on orders from the highest officials.”

These days, Sánchez is less easily intimi-dated. In fact, a visiting journalist for Swedish TV sat on a living-room sofa, patiently waiting to interview Sánchez as he finished telling CubaNews his life story.

At times, the dissident’s words were drowned out by the sound of barking dogs, and loud salsa music blaring from the radios of cars barreling down the street.

“Time has passed, and the government has given us a little space. Cuba has a totalitarian government. They have total control of the economy, the infrastructure and the media, but it’s a tropical totalitarianism. Cuba is not North Korea — not yet — and it’s not like Romania under Ceaucescu. Here, the government is a little more flexible.”

Or at least it was, until the recent crackdown in which 75 dissidents were arrested and sentenced to jail terms of up to 28 years. Two of the CCDHRN’s 16 members are also behind bars. Sánchez says there are now 100 “prisoners of conscience” among the 300 or so political prisoners languishing in Cuban jails.

“This was the most intensive wave of political repression in the last decade, and the most severe judicial process in the entire history of Cuba and possibly the Western Hemisphere,” he said. “Raúl Rivero was the most important poet of his generation. Never before have so many people been accused of crimes of opinion, or received such long sentences. All of them qualify as prisoners of conscience.”

Why Sánchez himself was not arrested and thrown in prison this time around remains a mystery to the dissident leader.

“I’ve visited the U.S. Interests Section and have been invited to [Interest Section Chief James] Cason’s residence 8 or 10 times,” he said. “I’m sitting here talking to you by pure coincidence. I should be in jail.”

So, for that matter, should Oswaldo Payá, though Sánchez points out that “in the case of Payá, to arrest him would reinforce his candidacy for the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Sánchez says the worldwide outpouring of anger at Castro’s crackdown on dissent — ranging from leftist intellectuals who previously supported Castro to the European Union, which last month announced a new wave of diplomatic sanctions against Cuba — has left the Castro regime in a quandary.

“I think this government has committed a grave error, a miscalculation,” he said. “They didn’t realize that world reaction would be so negative.”

Sánchez, who spent three months studying at the Washington offices of Human Rights Watch, suggests that while in the short term the arrests have dealt a severe blow to Cuba’s dissident movement, social tensions will continue to mount — providing a fertile breeding ground for fresh opposition to the regime.

“The government says we’re divided, but in reality their math is wrong,” Sánchez told CubaNews. “We’re multiplying, and we agree on more than 95% of the major themes.”

He added: “Fidel isn’t interested in reconci-liation with anyone. We formed a National Reconciliation movement in 1987, but just like the extremists in Miami, Fidel Castro opposes national reconciliation. His policy has been to promote hate among Cubans.”

Meanwhile, Sánchez — who has never personally spoken to Castro — struggles to keep the CCDHRN alive through press conferences, interviews with foreign journalists and support from various NGOs.

“The government doesn’t permit us to have offices, nor autos, nor access to the Internet, so our expenses are minimal,” he said.

“We have had some help from Europe. For example, the French government awarded us 120,000 francs in 1997. Spain’s La Fundación Hispano-Cubana gave us about $5,000. We have also received money from Cuban exiles, but not from the U.S. government.”

In fact, Sánchez’s refusal to accept cash from the U.S. Agency for International Development may be one reason he’s not in prison.

Another is that unlike Marta Beatríz Roque and many of the other 75 dissidents in prison, Sánchez does not have close ties with Miami exile groups. Nor does he support the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

“For more than 15 years, I have criticized the embargo, and later Helms-Burton. I think it’s wrong, and I think Washington has committed many errors in its policy towards Cuba since 1959.

Even so, Sánchez concluded, “the fundamental cause of poverty and lack of liberty in Cuba isn’t the embargo or Helms-Burton, but its totalitarian government, which is by definition a violator of human rights.”

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