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The BBC's David Schweimler
"Cuba accuses the dissidents of being counter revolutionaries"
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Monday, 19 March, 2001, 19:44 GMT
Cuba's local dissidents speak out
protesters in Havana
Last year's UN vote was met with official protest
By Daniel Schweimler in Havana

A motion condemning Cuba's human rights record is set to be one of the key items on the agenda for the United Nations Human Rights Commission's current meeting in Geneva.

We need to make a hole inside this government to live, to think, to talk...This is my country and my country needs what we do

Marta Beatriz Roque, dissident

Last year, Cuba lost a similar vote, provoking outrage from President Fidel Castro who said the United States had bullied, cajoled and bribed other nations into condemning his country.

When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 many of his opponents fled, mostly to the United States. And many dissidents have continued to leave the country since. None are allowed back.

But some dissidents stayed in Cuba, such as Marta Beatriz Roque: "We need enough space in our society and we are working for this. We need to make a hole inside the government to live, to think, to talk," she said.

"We need to be here. Me in particular. I don't want to live out of my country. This is my country and my country needs what we do."

Working for change

Marta Beatriz Roque, prominent dissident
Marta Beatriz Roque: committed to fighting for freedom in Cuba

Many of these dissidents who have stayed in Cuba have been imprisoned. Marta Beatriz Roque herself was released last May after three-and-a-half years in jail.

The dissidents form a number of disparate groups across the island and they are small in number.

They are rarely mentioned in the state-controlled media and do not have their own newspapers, magazines or radio stations. They are constantly monitored by the Cuban security forces.

More than 100 groups, some representing just a handful of people, are trying to gather 10,000 signatures in order to change the Cuban constitution.

Cubans crossing the Florida straits
Once politics forced Cubans to flee, now economics are the main spur
They want greater freedom of speech, association and movement and the chance to hold elections.

One of those behind the move and possibly the best known of the dissidents still in Cuba is Elizardo Sanchez. "The majority, like the majorities in Czechoslovakia or Bulgaria or the Romanians or the Soviet Union want to know that change is possible in the near future. A light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

"Something that tells them they might be able to live happier lives with greater prosperity."

I'm not for or against foreign investment or the tourist industry, what I'm against is the discrimination against Cubans."

Oscar Espinosa, dissident
The 40-year long economic embargo imposed on Cuba by the United States has hit the island's economy hard.

Many expected the economy to fold in the 1990 after the collapse of the Soviet Union which propped up the Cuban economy.

Two-tier economy

But President Fidel Castro defied the expectations of many and survived. One change he allowed was the use of the US dollar alongside the Cuban peso.

Fruit and vegetable markets sell only in Cuban pesos. But those who have dollars spend their dollars in modern supermarkets.

It has created a two-tier economy in which foreigners and Cubans with access to dollars can buy more expensive but better quality, imported goods.
Flats in Havana
Since 1990, living standards have fallen dramatically

But most Cubans can buy only in pesos which gives them access to a much more limited range of goods.

According to dissident economist Oscar Espinosa, it has created growing resentment.

"The government knows that when a person is free economically, or at least a little freer economically, then he has greater political freedom. So that's why it's trying to close those openings." he said.

"There is a contrast because the foreigners here have all the opportunities...every day the foreign investments are growing... I'm not for or against foreign investment or the tourist industry, what I'm against is the discrimination against Cubans."

Embargo "an abuse"

The Cuban government appears nervous about the UN vote and has attacked
Fidel Castro
President Castro rejects criticism of his government's human rights record
the countries that backed last year's motion, such as the Czech Republic and Argentina.

While dissidents in Cuba say the state is increasing pressure on them, Cuba accuses the dissidents of being counter-revolutionaries in the pay of the US.

The Havana Government has always said the greatest abuse of human rights is that caused by the US embargo which stops books reaching Cuban schools and medicines reaching the sick.

For Cuba to defeat the motion would provide a massive boost to that argument. The dissidents in Cuba are meanwhile looking to the UN for support in their lonely battle,

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See also:

06 Feb 01 | Americas
Freed Czechs home from Cuba
10 Oct 00 | Americas
Cuba jails exiles for 'rebellion'
24 May 00 | Americas
Third Cuban dissident freed
18 Apr 00 | Americas
Cubans protest UN censure
21 Oct 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Castro's fading Cuban dream
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