CubaNews / September 2004
By Larry Luxner
For someone who spent five years in a filthy Cuban jail, Vladimiro Roca Antúnez doesn’t seem very worried about openly criticizing Fidel Castro.
CubaNews caught up with the 61-year-old dissenter one recent Saturday morning as he relaxed on his porch in suburban Havana. For nearly two hours, Roca — founder of the Partido Socialdemócrata de Cuba (PSDC) — picked apart all that was wrong with the Castro regime and why his country urgently needs democracy.
“Here in Cuba, there’s dissent and there’s opposition,” he explained. “A dissident is someone who dissents from the official political line, but within the system. There are dissidents within the Communist Party because they’re not in agreement with the PCC’s positions. I really consider myself an opositor be-ause I’m opposed to the system of government we have. I am not in agreement with the system, and I’m struggling to change it."
He adds: “Whether you like it or not, the revolution took place, and immediately after, many of those who struggled for the revolution turned against it because they felt betrayed, because none of the promises that Fidel Castro made were kept.”
Roca is well-known for being one of the sons of Blas Roca, secretary-general of the Partido Socialista Popular, the old communist party of the late 1950s. He trained as a fighter pilot in Czechoslovakia in 1960, but performed poorly and was dismissed from active duty a few years later.
He then studied economics and worked at the Ministry of Foreign Investment and Cooperation (MINVEC), but was accused of being a heavy drinker and wasting time during work hours. In the early 1990s, he allegedly became involved in the trafficking of art and jewelry.
Roca then became an associate of Elizardo Sánchez for a short time until they broke over financial issues and he founded the PSDC.
In 1997, after he and three other dissidents engaged in a campaign to expose the operations of foreign companies in Cuba, in an attempt to deter investment, he was charged with jeopardizing national security and sentenced to five years in prison.
The other three — René Gómez Manzano, Félix Bonne Carcassés and Marta Beatriz Roque — were freed, though the latter two were eventually jailed again on other charges. Roca said he first tried to change the system from within the Party, but then went public after realizing that wasn’t possible.
“When I began the party, I was fired from my job [at MINVEC] and had to sell my Lada. After that, I began selling dishes, fine crystals, paintings and a collection of watches in order to remain in Cuba. That’s how it was until 1997, when I was sent to prison in Cienfuegos for five years,” he said. “In 2002, when I got out, I received a $50,000 prize from the Parkinson Fund of New York, which is what I’m using to live on.”
The truth is, Roca doesn't live so badly. He and his wife Magaly reside in the relatively upper-class Havana neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado, where the dissident spends his time writing papers, talking to foreign journalists and surfing the Internet, to which he has legal access. Roca’s party even has its own web page at http://pscuba.org, which now accepts credit-card donations online.
Yet Roca concedes that “the PSDC doesn’t have any legal space to operate because the government doesn’t permit the registration of political parties, so it’s a party in name only."
Roca told us the government has staged two hostile actos de repudio in front of his house. The first one took place in February 1992 and involved about 400 people; the second one happened nine months later. Since then, there have been no such protests “because the government couldn’t organize any people from my barrio.”
Nevertheless, he said, “people who know I live in this house pass by here with curiosity. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a cage. But in my neighborhood, I don’t have any problems.”
Asked why the Castro regime tolerates him, Roca looked quizzically at us. “There is absolutely no tolerance. I was put in prison for five years for doing nothing. The official reason was sedition, but I never promoted violence nor made protests.”
Roca says his own PSDC has 35 members, and that there are 300 to 400 similar dissident movements throughout Cuba. Most are small, he said, with 10-30 members each. Roca says the most important of them are Movimiento Cristiano de Liberación (led by Oswaldo Payá of Proyecto Varela fame); Partido Solidaridad Democrática (Fernando Sánchez) and the Partido Liberal Democrática (Héctor Maceda).
Virtually all those groups were victims of the Castro regime’s March 2003 crackdown. “The dissident movement suffered a brutal blow. The jailing of the 75 dissidents destroyed almost the entire leadership,” he told CubaNews. “For many days, I was sitting on this porch, doing nothing, waiting for them to come and get me.”
Roca said he’s applied to travel abroad three times, and each time he was denied permission. The first was to visit a daughter living in Tampa; the second time was in 2003, to visit Mexico, and the third time was to attend a pro-democracy event in Colombia.
“I cannot set foot anywhere in Latin America,” he complained, and added that for this reason alone, he does not support the U.S. travel ban against Cuba.
“The Castro government violates my right to travel, so I can’t [support the idea of] the American government doing the same thing,” he said. “On the other hand, even if Americans could travel here, it wouldn’t influence anything. For how many years have we been receiving tourists from democratic countries, 14 years? Has it made any difference?”
One thing that would make a difference, he said, would be to drop the embargo entirely — but there isn’t enough pressure by big business to do so, he says.
“The embargo, according to my analysis, helps Fidel stay in power. He needs an enemy to keep the people in a state of war, even though it’s a fictitious war,” Roca told CubaNews. “In the first place, the embargo has been maintained for so many years principally because the big U.S. multinationals don't have interests in Cuba. If it were lifted, trade between Cuba and the United States would be $2 billion a year. This is roughly the same level of trade that takes place between the U.S. and Canada in one day.”
Meanwhile, he says, average Cuban citizens continue to suffer, and the regime does little to alleviate their suffering.
“Far from trying to solve the country’s serious economic problems, the government is dedicated to what it calls the ‘battle of ideas.’ This is an enormous propaganda campaign to justify all the disasters and errors the government has committed.”
In Roca’s opinion, the three most serious failings of the Castro government have been in housing, transport and food supply.
“There are many other problems, but these are the three basic ones. If they wanted to resolve them, they could have done so, and let people work for their own future. But the reality is that they don’t want to solve the country's economic problems,” he said.
“They want the people to be working constantly. It’s a strategy: as long as you’re kept busy fixing your house, looking for food and figuring out how to get around, you don’t think about changing the government. You’re preoccupied with just getting by.”
Specifically, Roca accuses the government of “using construction materials to build escape tunnels in case of war” instead of giving those resources to the people. Regarding transportation, he says “you can find eight buses parked together, doing nothing because they belong to the state company, while everybody has to walk. Their excuse is there’s not enough gasoline.”
And when it comes to food, says Roca, “they don’t allow the campesinos to produce freely. In Cuba, nobody dies of hunger, because our land is very fertile. Nevertheless, the land doesn’t produce anymore because they’ve used so much fertilizer.”
Roca said his organization took an informal poll in 1996 among residents of Havana and the provinces of Pinar del Río and Villa Clara. The poll, with a 10% margin of error, showed that 47% of the respondents wanted to leave Cuba — a percentage he said would be considerably higher today.
Interestingly, Roca doesn’t include himself in that group. “I don’t want to emigrate,” he says. “They want me to leave, but I don’t want to go. It’s my country. I was born here.”
Roca told CubaNews he was encouraged after the UN narrowly voted in mid-April to condemn Cuba for human rights violations.
“From our point of view in the opposition, the UN vote is important because it gives moral support to our struggle. But the vote won’t change the human rights situation in Cuba. In four years it hasn’t done anything.”
He continued: “I’m convinced that Fidel doesn’t care about the well-being of the people. In fact, I think it would bother him if people were better off. Fidel is not a comandante, but a pretty diabolical person. Many intellectuals, especially those on the left like Carlos Fuentes and Jorge Semprun who were captivated by his charisma, have abandoned him."
Asked what might happen once Castro is gone from the scene, Roca hesitated a bit.
“I don’t like to speculate on things like that. But in similar situations, like after Stalin died, the system endured for many more years,” he said. “We also have the example of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. I do think that after Castro dies, it’ll be much easier and faster to make changes than when he was alive.”
Before leaving, we asked Roca about the Castro regime’s insistence that the five Cuban men serving sentences in U.S. federal prisons for spying are innocent and must be returned. Roca replied that the entire volverán campaign to “free the five” is a media circus aimed at distracting the Cuban people from their everyday problems.
“The government hasn’t told the truth about this. They say the five were in the U.S. on a mission against terrorism, and this is false. They were found guilty of espionage by a jury independent of the government,” he said, noting that the court which convicted the men didn’t even use all the evidence it had against them.
“Prison is horrible. I don’t wish that on anybody. But they committed a crime against the laws of the U.S. and they have to pay,” he said. “On the Internet, I saw a photo where one of them is imprisoned, and compared to the cell where they kept me, it’s a five-star hotel.”