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    Sudden U.S. Thaw Worries Cuban Dissidents

    Sudden U.S. Thaw Worries Cuban Dissidents

    HAVANA — Sitting in her brother’s spare apartment, near a blinking
    plastic Christmas tree, Sonia Garro was relishing her newfound freedom,
    happily trading her prison garb for a purple dress and flip-flops with
    bright pink plastic bows over the toes.

    Ms. Garro, a member of the Cuban dissident group known as the Ladies in
    White, had just spent, by her count, two years, nine months and 20 days
    behind bars. Her surprise release, a senior American official said, came
    as part of the secret negotiations that led to the historic agreement
    restoring diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

    But while Ms. Garro flashed a toothpaste-ad smile, thrilled to be
    spending Christmas with her 18-year-old daughter and other relatives,
    she had serious reservations about the deal. Like many dissidents, she
    was uneasy with the sudden rapprochement between Washington and Havana,
    including the softening of the longstanding economic embargo against Cuba.

    “A country that violates the human rights of its people shouldn’t have
    sanctions lifted,” Ms. Garro said. “Here there is no freedom of speech,
    there is no freedom of anything. This will give them more leeway to
    continue operating with the same impunity that they have always operated

    There have long been certainties in a dissident’s life in Cuba: the
    weekly marches of the Ladies in White; the hours, days, years spent
    behind bars; the crowds of government supporters and state agents at the
    doors of activists, hurling eggs, insults or blows.

    And until last week, many dissidents say, there was certainty in the
    United States, a predictable ally and defender of those who dared to
    protest openly against the Cuban government.

    Now, some say, President Obama has put an end to that.

    “He betrayed those of us who are struggling against the Cuban
    government,” Ángel Moya, a former political prisoner whose wife, Berta
    Soler, leads the Ladies in White, said of Mr. Obama’s decision to begin
    normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba. “There will be more
    repression, only this time with the blessing of the United States.”

    As the United States and Cuba enter a period of unprecedented dialogue,
    many dissidents who have stood shoulder to shoulder with American
    officials in condemning the Castros contend that Mr. Obama gave away too
    much — and got too little in return.

    As part of the deal with the United States, the Cuban government freed
    Alan P. Gross, an American government contractor jailed on the island,
    and agreed to release 53 prisoners who Washington said were being held
    for political reasons.

    Ms. Garro’s name was on that list, the senior American official said,
    and she was freed on Dec. 9 with two other prisoners — more than a week
    before the deal was officially announced.

    Many dissidents argue that the United States surrendered its leverage
    without extracting broad political changes, and they wonder whether
    American officials will continue to press as hard for reform now that a
    deal has been struck.

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    But experts say dissidents fear something else as well: that in an era
    of negotiation, dissidents who reject dialogue will become irrelevant.

    “The hard-liners here will have to either engage, or perish,” said
    Richard Feinberg, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Mr.
    Obama ended the posture of nonengagement “with a stroke,” he said,
    adding: “Obama had a conversation with Raúl Castro. Then why can’t they?”

    Cuban opposition groups have been prone to rivalries and failed to gain
    much of a following among ordinary Cubans, experts and other government
    critics say.

    In the meantime, a new wave of activists and critics has emerged — on
    and off the island — that is no longer governed by a simple polarity:
    pro- and anti-revolution.

    They are bloggers, artists, rappers, writers and economists of all ages,
    many of them Internet savvy. Even some who profess loyalty to the
    revolution write cutting commentaries on the failings of the system.
    Many of them believe that the end of hostilities will allow more debate
    and bring openings that could lead, eventually, to democracy.

    “Civil society in Cuba is a whole group of actors who have social and
    cultural roles and different political visions,” said Roberto Veiga,
    director of Cuba Posible, an organization that promotes political
    dialogue. “Last week’s announcement was a great gesture of détente, and
    we Cubans have to make the same gesture with one another.”

    Keen to signal that détente did not mean taking pressure off the Castro
    government, Mr. Obama said last week, “I share the concerns of
    dissidents there and human rights activists that this is still a regime
    that represses its people.”

    “I don’t anticipate overnight changes,” he added.

    Nor do the dissidents. Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Commission
    for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a group that tracks human
    rights in Cuba, said the system of political repression was too sweeping
    — and the government too entrenched — for any loosening of the embargo
    to ensure change.

    He and other critics contended that the police held dozens of activists
    for hours on Dec. 10, only days before the government announced the new
    relationship with the United States.

    Loosening the embargo might help more Cubans see that “the first cause
    of poverty and lack of liberty is not the embargo, it’s the totalitarian
    government of Cuba,” Mr. Sánchez said. Still, he said, he is “profoundly

    Antonio Rodiles, whose project, Estado de Sats, hosts political debates
    and publishes them on the Internet, said the American government had

    “This is a blank check for the Castros and their heirs in power,” he said.

    Mr. Castro, in a speech to the National Assembly last week, acknowledged
    the two countries’ profound differences over “national sovereignty,
    democracy and human rights.”

    “I reaffirm our willingness to discuss every aspect of these issues,” he

    Other activists, however, noted that the United States had complicated
    democracy movements in Cuba in recent years, and sometimes undermined
    their legitimacy, by pursuing its anti-Castro agenda. Dissidents have
    been sullied by rumors, and some evidence, that they get money from the
    American government or Cuban exiles, offering a pretext for crackdowns
    by the Cuban government.

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