Activist’s Case Hints at What Changes and What Stays the Same in Cuba

MIAMI — The activist José Daniel Ferrer García made his desperate plea by hand.

“On hunger and thirst strike,” Mr. Ferrer, one of Cuba’s most well-known dissidents, scrawled on a piece of paper smuggled out of prison. “They have done everything to me.”

Mr. Ferrer, 49, has been jailed since Oct. 1 on what human rights activists say is a trumped-up assault and battery case. In his note, he described being dragged, cuffed by his hands and feet, and left in his underwear for two weeks to be nipped by mosquitoes and the morning chill.

“My life is in grave danger,” he warned.

Mr. Ferrer’s detention renews the spotlight on Cuba and the lengths it goes to against dissidents under President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Nineteen months after assuming the presidency amid high hopes for reform within Cuba and abroad, Mr. Díaz-Canel leads a government that bears a striking similarity to the Castro dynasty that preceded him, critics say.

“Let’s not think power changed hands,” said Javier Larrondo of Prisoners Defenders, an advocacy group in Spain that has been closely tracking Mr. Ferrer’s case. “Power is in the same hands.”

Since he took office, Mr. Díaz-Canel has unsuccessfully sought to improve living conditions amid widespread gasoline shortages and crippling United States sanctions. While Cuba has expanded internet access, enabling Cubans with new 3G cellphone service to post daring complaints on social media, Mr. Ferrer’s case has come to represent what can happen when they complain too much, particularly as access to the internet gives birth to new class of independent media.

Mr. Ferrer had been in custody for nearly two months when his family was notified of the formal charge against him. The announcement came after criticism of his detention from across the political spectrum in the United States, including from former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The European Parliament last week approved a joint resolution calling for his “immediate release.”

In a very unusual statement in the official Communist Party newspaper, Granma, the Cuban government described Mr. Ferrer as a “salaried agent at the service of the United States” with a history of beating his wives. His former partners posted videos denying the latter accusation.

As a community organizer, Mr. Ferrer, who is from Santiago de Cuba in the country’s east, helped collect thousands of signatures for Project Varela, a referendum demanding greater political freedom that was presented to the Cuban National Assembly in 2002. That movement’s leader, Oswaldo Payá, died in a car accident 10 years later. Many believe he was murdered.

Mr. Ferrer was caught up in the 2003 crackdown on dissidence known as the Black Spring, and served eight years in prison. He was one of the few members of a group of 75 political prisoners who refused an offer of release in exchange for exile in Spain.

“José Daniel Ferrer could read and understand the streets of Cuba,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division. “My sense is that is the precisely the reason they fear this guy more than anybody else.”

Mr. Ferrer emerged from prison to found the Patriotic Union of Cuba, known as UNPACU. The organization distinguished itself by tapping into social discontent born of Cuba’s frequent food shortages and other hardships.

“He has a feeding center where he provides lunch to the elderly and disabled,” said Martha Beatriz Roque, a prominent dissident who is close to Mr. Ferrer. “The dictatorship is not in agreement with that, because that implies leadership.”

Over the past two years, dozens of dissidents have gone into exile, including several who met with President Barack Obama in Havana in 2015 and all 13 members of a lawyers’ group called Cubalex. The exodus left anti-government activists with no legal assistance.

“I think that we, opponents, are not having our best moment,” Ms. Roque said.

The president is also grappling with tough challenges from Washington. The Trump administration has imposed a series of sanctions, choking its fuel supply and curtailing travel.

Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat and academic in Havana, said Mr. Díaz-Canel has been too slow to enact measures to bolster the economy, but disputed that repression against government critics was a problem, however.

“Nobody is jailed in Cuba because of their opinions, no matter what people think,” Mr. Alzugaray said. “Succeeding Fidel and Raúl is not easy. When you are the guardian of a legacy you have a problem: There’s expectation of change, and there is also expectation of continuity.”

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