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Obscure dissident Manuel Gutiérrez strives to be heard
CubaNews / August 2004

By Larry Luxner

On the outskirts of western Havana, where the stately palms of Miramar’s Quinta Avenida give way to the run-down tenements of Santa Fe — sits the crumbling house of Manuel Gutiérrez.

From here, the 53-year-old activist runs a little-known group called Consejo Cubano Defensor de los Derechos Civiles (Cuban Council to Defend Civil Rights).

Few Cubans have ever heard of Gutiérrez, who claims that his 11-year-old group has 100 members. This claim can’t be independently verfied, though Vladimiro Roca, one of Cuba’s best-known dissidents, concedes that his own Partido Socialdemócrata de Cuba has only 35 members. Roca says there are 300 to 400 dissident movements in Cuba, most of them consisting of 10 to 30 activists apiece.

“Our goal is to rescue civil society,” Gutiérrez told CubaNews. “Even though repression has always been maintained during 45 years of the regime, last year’s wave of repression was the worst ever. The government understands that it is ideologically lost. So it’s trying to accuse the Cuban opposition of receiving help from foreign governments in order to break them.”

Gutiérrez, surrounded by walls of peeling paint and accompanied by his two cats and two dogs, says “there must be more than 50 groups” like his own, though it’s very hard to get accurate numbers.

“What we do is demand that the government comply with its own laws,” he said. “We denounce them when they don’t.”

For example, he said, the police recently tried to evict a neighbor, Hilda Machado Prieto, from a house in Santa Fe, because some family members had spent about $20,000 in remittance money to make improvements.

“They had all their documents in order, but they were kicked out,” he complained. “These people had built a very nice house. In any other country, this would be normal, but here it’s considered illicit enrichment. So the police put them out on the street.”

To try to stop the eviction, Gutiérrez and about 1,000 other people staged a noisy street protest that made headlines on CNN and at least two Miami TV stations.

“We always tell people to defend themselves with lawyers,” he said. “In this case, we told the owner to take her case to court. She won, but they didn’t give her back the same house. They gave her an even better one, so she wouldn’t protest anymore.”

Gutiérrez, a specialist in sports and physical education, is an admirer and confidant of Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, the 69-year-old former Cuban exile who spent 22 years in prison for plotting to overthrow Fidel Castro, but who recently moved back to Cuba to start his own opposition party (the two men are not related).

Another man Gutiérrez admires is Oswaldo Payá, founder of the Varela Project. “I support the project and help them. Oswaldo and I have a close friendship,” he said. Those warm feelings don’t extend to Elizardo Sánchez, one of Cuba’s most prominent human rights activists.

“Since 1992, we have tried not to have any contact with Sánchez. I don’t like his conduct,” said Gutiérrez. Last month, Sánchez angrily denied government accusations that he was actually a state security agent who had infiltrated the dissident movement.

Asked why Gutiérrez opposes the Castro regime, he speaks forcefully and without fear.

“The government says this is the revolution of José Martí, but really it isn’t,” he told us. “Martí never supported the idea of an absolute party, and even less the control of everyone’s opinion. I’m not afraid of anyone. I’m totally transparent. What I tell you is exactly what I tell the government.”

He added: “When someone joins the opposition, he must maintain that position with friends as well as enemies. If they throw me in prison, that’s OK. I was never afraid of being in prison. I feel free whether I’m in my house, in the street or in jail, because I don’t follow the government line.”

As a result, says Gutiérrez, he hasn’t held a steady job since 1991. He’s been imprisoned several times, for periods of a month or more, the last time in 1997, when he was jailed in Villa Marista. In addition, his two daughters, 26-year-old Elit and 14-year-old Yenit, have been harrassed by authorities and prevented from studying what they want in school.

“They said I was collaborating with a foreign power,” said Gutiérrez, noting that “when I became an opositor, the government took my job away.”

Since then, Gutiérrez has survived by fixing bicycles, growing fruit trees and raising pigs and chickens in his yard.

He also spends time maintaining his own private “Biblioteca Pedro Somellán” — a library which he named after a martyr of Cuba’s War of Independence against Spain. It contains nearly 4,000 books, including many forbidden volumes about democracy, human rights and free-market economic systems.

Even so, this little out-of-the-way library, which is not part of Cuba’s unofficial network of 105 or so independent libraries, has never been raided or shut down by the authorities.

“There’s a certain tolerance which permits this,” explained Gutiérrez. “The libraries that have been shut by the government are those that have books which personally atttack Fidel. We, however, see no point in attacking Fidel, though we believe this government has to be removed because it is made up of chusma (rabble) and ladrones (thieves).”

Gutiérrez discounts allegations by the Cuban government that the 75 activists, independent journalists and librarians it jailed last year had collaborated with the United States. Even if they did, he said, that doesn’t justify throwing them in prison.

“It’s possible that some of them received help. But when you talk about collaborating with a foreign agent, you have to remember that the Cuban government had always collaborated with the Soviet Union and received help from them. So if someone should be blamed, it should be the Cuban government.”

He adds that “when the revolutionaries were struggling against Batista, they extorted money from businessmen, landowners and others. They threatened to burn their farms if they didn’t give money to the guerrillas.”

In any case, he said, Castro and his fighters gladly took money from Latin American governments as well as from Washington.

“Even the U.S. government helped Castro get rid of Batista,” he pointed out.

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