EspañolCuba’s democratic opposition will make its debut at the seventh Summit of the Americas this week, as the Caribbean nation meanwhile makes its first appearance in the heads of government meeting at the Organization of the American States (OAS).
At least 10 members of movements demanding democratic reform in the island have traveled to Panama City for the event on the invitation of the Youth for Democracy Latin-American Network. One of their main goals is to increase international pressure on the Castro regime to allow free and fair elections in Cuba — for the first time in almost seven decades.
The high costs of attending the official summit have kept the majority from taking part in the main event. Nevertheless, the group of activists are holding and participating in a range of rival and complementary discussions and workshops to hammer their message home.
“We couldn’t file the lengthy and complicated form to register. It would have cost around US$200 and the monthly wage in Cuba is $20,” explains 29-year-old Eliécer Ávila, member of Cuban opposition movement We Are More.
But for Ávila, even opposing the Castro regime in civil-society fora represents a success. He told the PanAm Post that as the region’s gaze now turns to Cuba at the OAS Summit, now is the best chance in decades for Cubans to denounce their experience of communist rule.
You’re the leader of the We Are More movement. What are its objectives?
We are a movement comprised of a group of people, regardless of their ideology, that believe certain changes are necessary. For example, both communists and non-communists believe that Cubans need unregulated internet access, that a $20 monthly wage is insulting, and that we must have access to all means of information around the world, which in Cuba we’re banned from watching or listening to.
We have received lots of threats. Some of us genuinely thought that we wouldn’t be able to leave the airport.
With these ideas, we’ve agreed on a set of demands regarding the economy, education, health, the army, and governance. Based on these demands, we’re calling on Cuba’s young people to join us and push to make the reforms a reality.
It’s not the time for divisions: we believe now is the moment to achieve a democratic change, and afterwards everyone would be able to exercise their own political liberty as they understand it.
Do you think the parallel forums will really affect the outcome of the heads of state summit?
We should thank Panama’s authorities for this historic opportunity. I can’t remember any other summits with an equal willingness to listen to both the Cuban government and independent civil society. We come to Panama in the spirit of dialogue, inclusion, debate, and to share and get to know the youth of the rest of Latin America — their problems and lifestyle.
We come with the intention to show that Cuban’s can do more than only complain, that we can also collaborate, despite government claims that we want to sabotage the summit. They are only trying to silence our voice here.
If we look back to recent history, the only ones who have sabotaged, attacked and slandered people, and taken their microphones are those mobilized by the Cuban government when a dissident attempts to talk respectfully and professionally.
Consider the case of Yoani Sánchez. When she left Cuba for the first time after 21 denied requests, the Cuban embassy organized a mob of young people against her wherever she went.
I believe Panama should not be concerned about us, but about those serving the Cuban government.
#cuba: He coincidido con dos cubanos de la delegación oficial. En ambos casos, saludos respetuosos.
— Eliecer Avila (@eliecer_cuba) April 7, 2015
“I’ve come across two Cubans from the official delegations. In both cases, we have greeted respectfully.”
So, disseminating your message throughout the Americas is already an achievement?
The fact that we can express ourselves here disarmed in some ways the government’s discourse that we’re on [the United States’] payroll, or people with no culture, goals, or ideas; that we have no proposals. This campaign of defamation, not only within Cuba but in the whole continent, has been supported by a lot of deceived countries, who have backed the Cuban government.
I think that debunking these myths via huge participation is very important for the image of those of us who want to become involved in Cuban politics: we say this openly, without any problem. The We Are More movement seeks to become a political party and compete in democratic elections. The problem is that it’s currently illegal to do so.
Do you have any other activities planned in Panama?
Besides this forum, we will take part in panels and activities beyond politics. There’s going to be a collective exhibition of Cuban artists, they’re called “artivists” because they use art as a means of political activism. We are also hosting a concert with Cuban musicians censored on the island, where they don’t have a place to express their art, and they’re going to play songs inspired by everyday life in Cuba.
Have you faced any inconvenience for attending the summit?
We have received lots of threats. Some of us genuinely thought that we wouldn’t be able to leave the airport. We flew via Costa Rica several days in advance, and stayed at a friend’s home there, to avoid being detained in Cuba.
When we arrived in Panama, the local authorities held us for two hours, and we were interrogated. We realized they had totally wrong information about our intentions in the country. When they verified that we were decent, honorable people, and that all of our planned activities were within the spirit of the summit, they let us in and they apologized.
Furthermore, the Foreign Ministry issued a public apology for the inconvenience. It’s my duty to report what happened, but we have moved on from it. Today, we are here to contribute to the summit.
Sabrina Martín contributed to this article.
Translated by Adam Dubove. Edited by Laurie Blair.