Cubans Don’t Need Permission to Be Free

Cuban lawyer René Gómez Manzano says public disapproval of the Castro regime has grown in the last 20 years.
Cuban lawyer René Gómez Manzano says public disapproval of the Castro regime has grown significantly in the last 20 years. (Cubanet)

EspañolRené Gómez Manzano is a well established voice within the Cuban dissident movement. Born in Havana in 1943, 16 years before the start of the revolution, Gómez Manzano is a lawyer, freelance journalist, and currently a member of the Coordinating Council of the Patriotic Union for Cuba party (UNPACU).

As far the Cuban regime is concerned, the UNPACU is an illegal organization, and Gómez Manzano has been arrested and imprisoned several times. In fact, Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience on three separate occasions.

Nevertheless, he simply calls himself a lawyer, even though the Castro regime has revoked his license to practice law on the island.

To my surprise, Gómez Manzano published an article on August 20 claiming the headline for a report I wrote for the PanAm Post about Cubans gathering in Puerto Rico was false.

When I contacted the attorney to question why he took issue with the headline, he politely replied — with exceptional quickness considering the connectivity issues on the island — 24 hours later.

What’s wrong with the statement that Cuban dissidents gathered in Puerto Rico in search of a plebiscite?

It was not the plebiscite that brought us together, but the need for the Cuban democratic opposition to reach a consensus, to unite. Once we gathered, each organization presented their proposals, requested support, and representatives then agreed on which projects they would support. They included the idea of the plebiscite, among others.

I personally disagree with this idea. I don’t see the logic in holding a referendum to see if people want to have elections, only to then have elections.

Amnesty International has previously called you a “prisoner of conscience.” Do you agree with that description?

Yes, I think it’s appropriate. The organization sets a very positive example in this regard, although I must admit that with some other dissidents they have been somewhat conservative in declaring them prisoners of conscience.

The main reason why I was given this distinction is simply because my fellow dissidents and I were sent to prison for having opinions that differ from the regime’s, and we expressed them.

The regime tends to downplay the acts of those dissidents who haven’t received much media attention, or who have been arrested under turbulent circumstances. They send these dissidents to prison and claim they are common criminals.

The regime tries to conceal this as much as possible. Sometimes the international organization plays it safe and is reluctant to recognize these people as prisoners of conscience as well, even though their condition is only being kept from view.

What does it mean to be a Cuban dissident?

I would say that the vast majority of the Cuban population, over 80 percent, are dissidents. However, most are crypto-dissidents; they hide their beliefs.

Sometimes you take public transportation, and there it is: people expressing their dissatisfaction with the status quo. It’s completely natural, because the economy is a disaster here. But they are reluctant to express their beliefs, because repression is widespread, and for over 50 years they’ve been taught that government is untouchable.

Are people more open about their disapproval of the government than they were 20 years ago?

Yes, of course.

I have a dear friend, who was telling me the other day that he conducts a sort of sui generis poll every year. He takes a ride on one of those horse-drawn carts holding between eight and 10 other passengers in Santa Clara city, taking care to find one with a military officer on board. During the ride, he experiments by expressing himself against the government.

Fifteen years ago, no one dared to agree with him. Instead, people used to condemn him and the officer would put a stop to the chatter. Nowadays, the officer looks away, and people now tend to back him up on what he is saying.

The results of the poll are clear.

You were a vocal critic of the Varela Project. Why?

The fundamental problem is that they were demanding a number of things that really did not make sense. For example, a referendum to ask people if they wanted to have the right to free elections. I say we don’t need to ask anyone about that.

Anyone who wants to exercise that right has the right to already. You don’t need to ask anyone if they want to have rights. All human beings have rights. We are all born free.

For those who claim the need for it to be addressed in legislation, we already have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which proclaims and recognizes these human faculties.

What was the outcome of the event organized by dissidents in Puerto Rico?

I think the event in Puerto Rico went well. We all gathered around a central idea and reality: the need for a united force that oppose the totalitarian regime and that want a democratic Cuba.

This was a pending issue for the Cuban opposition, and it was achieved in Puerto Rico. I must say that the organizers, the United Cubans of Puerto Rico, did an excellent job. The response was magnificent. We are moving forward and that is of utmost importance. We approved the Declaration of San Juan.

There was a need to come together, and in this first step, the result was a cooperative, friendly environment.

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