Cuban dissident ‘titan’ slams normalization while in Tampa
(Cuban dissident Jorge Luis García Pérez, known as “Antúnez,” speaks
Saturday in Miami’s Little Havana at a rally against the U.S. push to
normalize relations with Cuba. The Associated Press)
By Paul Guzzo
Published: January 14, 2015
TAMPA — There was more at stake than a photo op when Mayor Bob Buckhorn met Cuban opposition leader Jorge Luis García Pérez in Tampa on Tuesday.
To hear the man who arranged the meeting, it was meant to help preserve the safety of this leader known in Cuba as Antúnez.
If the Cuban government knows the 50-year-old Antúnez, who continues to live on the island nation, has friends in high places in the United States, it may be less likely to punish him for what he says, said Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa lawyer long active in the movement to overthrow the Castro regime.
“This is a protective measure,” Fernandez said. “And it might not be enough.”
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Antúnez’s visit comes as the U.S. moves toward normalizing relations with Cuba, with the announcement last month by President Barack Obama that he will reopen an embassy in Cuba and further ease travel and trade restrictions imposed five decades ago with the rise of Castro’s communist rule.
Antúnez’s message to Buckhorn and later to a small gathering at Fernandez’s law firm: The U.S. is ignoring those who are behind bars for supporting its fight against the regime while harboring others who have tortured the imprisoned.
And he is naming names. Among them is Crescencio Marino Rivero, living in Miami since 2012 and a colonel in Castro’s law enforcement agency, the Ministry of the Interior. Rivero directed a prison in the Cuban province of Villa Clara, where Antúnez served part of his 17-year sentence for criticizing communism.
Antúnez said Rivero continues to travel back and forth to Cuba, often taking appliances purchased in the U.S. for friends, family and high-ranking government officials.
Antúnez said Rivero once tortured him by sticking bamboo shoots in his nose, hoping he could force him to speak out against those who oppose the government.
“This nation allows his entry despite our concerns,” said Antúnez, speaking through a translator.
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Rivero has been labeled a persecutor before. In 2012, U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both South Florida Republicans and supporters of the Cuban opposition movement, sent a letter to then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton documenting what they called “ruthless” behavior by Rivero, including beatings and denial of medical treatment for prisoners.
They asked for Rivero’s immediate expulsion from the U.S. but were denied.
The State Department did not immediately respond to queries about Rivero.
Antúnez acknowledged the freeing of 53 political prisoners in Cuba under Obama’s initiative but said there are many more who must be freed.
Among them is Ernesto Borges, a KGB-trained counterintelligence officer who has been in a Cuban prison for 16 years for attempting to hand over secrets to a U.S. diplomat.
“He showed courage to break with tyranny to disclose to the U.S. the existence of a network that was placing 26 agents in the U.S.,” Antúnez said. “He is rotting in jail, and this does not seem to be a concern of the president of the United States.”
The U.S. government says the prisoners whose release it won under the recent deal had all been jailed for peacefully exercising freedom of expression and assembly.
And some of those released told The Associated Press they are confident that the decrease in tensions between the two nations will improve life in Cuba and enable activists to push for further changes.
Said one, rapper Angel Yunier Remon Arzuaga, also known as “The Critic”: “It’s a hard blow against the regime when they themselves have to let out people when they supposedly had proof that they’d committed crimes.”
Fernandez, the lawyer, refers to Antúnez as the “Cuban Nelson Mandela” and insists he would be elected president in a democratic Cuba.
Antúnez was arrested in 1990 for denouncing communism during a demonstration in Placetas, a city in the Villa Clara province.
He was sentenced to six years, but it was extended because he refused to wear a prison uniform and later escaped to visit his dying mother.
Since his release in 2007, he has continued to oppose the government, supported financially by friends, family and backers of his cause on and off the island.
For his work, he said, he has been arrested, temporarily confined and beaten.
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Lengthy imprisonment of political opponents in Cuba has been replaced by short-term confinement meant to disrupt activism, said Luis Martínez-Fernández, author of “Revolutionary Cuba: A History,” published in 2014 by the University of Florida Press.
There were 8,899 short-term detentions of dissidents and activists in 2014 — four times as many as in 2010, according to a recent report by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
Antúnez said his latest confinement was in June.
“Antúnez is a civil titan,” said Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, who challenges the Cuban government in the magazine “Voces,” published in the U.S. and available as an Internet download in Cuba.
Pardo Lazo left Cuba after he, too, temporarily was incarcerated.
“He is man of an extraordinary courage and bounty,” said Pardo Lazo, “despite all the violations and violence that the Cuban state has put upon him during more than two decades.”
Antúnez said allowing him to travel to the U.S. is no sign of change in the Cuban government.
Rather, he said, it is his government’s way of fooling the world into thinking criticism there is tolerated.
The government allows only a select few to spread their message to the world: opposition leaders with international visibility who cannot be ignored.
When he returns home in February, he said, he could be jailed again.
“This could be my last trip here,” he said. “So I have to make it worth it and keep talking.”
Family obligations brought him to the U.S. in late 2014, and he was here on Dec. 17 when Obama made his historic announcement.
It is a move Antúnez does not welcome.
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He has heard the argument, increasingly accepted across Florida and the U.S., that it is time to change U.S. policy because the embargo is not working. He disagrees.
The embargo is working, Antúnez insists, by preventing the Castro regime from amassing more riches.
“The more resources a dictatorship enjoys, the higher the level of repression is within the country,” he said. “And the stronger the dictatorship, the stronger the repression.”
With or without U.S. money flowing into Cuba, Antúnez said, the citizens will remain poor because the government is only concerned with lining its own pockets.
“Yes, we are hungry for food,” he said. “But we are hungrier for freedom.”
The idea that freedom will follow the increasing U.S. presence on the island made possible by normalization makes him laugh.
What’s more, Antúnez said, the United States should not presume to understand the true meaning of images showing dancing in the streets of Cuba after news of the improved relations.
Many people play both sides of the divide, he said, afraid to anger either.
Those in Cuba who openly oppose the communist government, he added, have long seen the U.S. as their partner in this fight. Now they feel abandoned.
Antúnez also disagrees with certain other U.S. policies, such as the so-called “wet-foot dry-foot” rule that allows any Cuban who reaches U.S. soil to pursue permanent residency a year later.
This has slowed the building of a critical mass for revolt against the regime, he said, by letting opponents simply flee.
“Many choose to leave,” he said. “Not me. I will not be silenced, and I am not leaving Cuba.”
Mayor Buckhorn spent most of his 20-minute meeting with Antúnez listening. He said the next time the opposition leader needs a place to share his message, he can count on a warm welcome in Tampa.
“I’ll always support your cause,” Buckhorn said. “I believe in what you are doing.”