HAVANA — Dozens of uniformed and plainclothes police watch silently every Sunday morning as white-clad dissidents file into Mass at Santa Rita Church in a leafy Havana neighborhood of mansions overlooking the Florida Straits.
The officers stand by until the women shout “Freedom!” and try to sit on the street outside the church. The protesters are whisked off to police stations and empty schools, held for hours, released and driven home, to return the following week.
The well-practiced choreography of protest has become a feature of Sunday mornings in Cuba. Nearly 9,000 times last year, Communist authorities briefly arrested dissidents in shows of force that have become a flashpoint in the U.S. debate about President Barack Obama’s three-day trip to the island this month.
Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both sons of Cuban emigres, say the crackdown on demonstrations in Cuba shows that President Raul Castro has no intention of responding to Obama’s outreach with greater freedom for the Cuban people.
The Obama administration acknowledges that Castro has been slow to respond but says that’s not the point. After decades of U.S. efforts to foment democracy by backing Cuban dissidents and their demands for swift political change, the president’s trip will showcase a 180-degree turn in U.S. policy toward the island.
The United States is wagering that re-forging links between the U.S. and Cuba will do more to change Cuba’s single-party government and centrally planned economy than a half-century of confrontation. The U.S. is now trying to nourish an increasingly independent Cuban middle class that will someday successfully demand more rights from its government. It’s a strategy that will almost certainly take years, even decades, to prove a failure or success.
“The fact of the matter is we don’t have any expectation that Cuba is going to transform its political system in the near term,” said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, one of the architects of Obama’s Cuba policy. “Even if we got 10 dissidents out of prison, so what? What’s going to bring change is having Cubans have more control over their own lives.”
The Cuban government appears highly aware of the U.S. strategy, and highly resistant. It published an essay-length editorial about Obama’s visit across three pages of the Communist Party newspaper Granma on Wednesday declaring that “profound conceptual differences about political models, democracy and the exercise of human rights, social justice, international relations, peace and stability will persist between the United States and Cuba.”
While Obama’s agenda is still being worked out, it includes plans for a private meeting with dissidents. The focus of his trip will almost certainly be elsewhere, however. After punching a series of holes in the trade embargo on Cuba, the Obama administration is preparing to do away with some of the most important remaining limits on U.S. travel to Cuba and business with the island. During his March 20-22 visit, the president plans to make history by attending a Major League Baseball exhibition game, meeting with Raul Castro and addressing Cubans live on state television.
Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas whose father left Cuba, calls Obama’s policy a mistake. “I think the president ought to be pushing for a free Cuba,” he said last month.
For Rhodes and other members of the administration, the push to bring Cubans more control of their lives has focused almost entirely on economic improvements. In the year and a half since Obama and Castro announced that they would normalize the U.S.-Cuba relationship, Obama has authorized direct flights between the U.S. and Cuba, drastically loosened restrictions on travel to the island, allowed trade with Cuban state business, and permitted U.S. business to sell a wide variety of products to Cuba on credit, which had been barred.
Cuba has opened dozens of public Wi-Fi spots that have dramatically increased Cubans’ access to the Internet and welcomed cultural events, such as a concert last week by electronic music DJ Diplo and another later this month by the Rolling Stones,
“Cuba is just much more connected to the world than it was before,” Rhodes said. “The thing that is going to change the lives of the Cuban people for the better the most is the evolution of Cuba’s economy.”
Those arguments hold little weight for women like Ivoiny Moralobo, a former hairdresser who left her two children with her family on a recent Sunday to march with the dissident group Ladies in White. The marches began in 2003 when the wives and mother of political prisoners began publicly calling for their release. The group has been split by internal rivalries in recent years and is viewed with skepticism by many ordinary Cubans, not least because it uses funds from foreign donors — many anti-Castro emigres in the U.S. pay demonstrators $30 each a month, more than the average Cuban salary.
As soon as she sat on the street outside Santa Rita on a recent Sunday, Moralobo was picked up by female police officers and walked to a waiting patrol car. Her purse was confiscated and she was held in an empty school building for eight hours until she was dropped three blocks from her Havana home, she told The Associated Press. She said she was never given water but the police did offer her a dinner, which she refused.
The non-governmental Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation said there were 8,816 such temporary detentions in 2015, slightly down from 8,899 in 2014.
Activists say many detentions involve rough treatment, including beatings by police. They say abusive behavior is more common in the country’s eastern provinces, far from the international press and diplomats. The Cuban government says such allegations are nonsense.
What’s clear is that the dissidents have not built up broad-based sympathy in much of the country and are often met with criticism and even anger.
“It’s hard to take this every Sunday. Why do they disturb our peace? They like to offend. They should show us some respect,” cafeteria worker Aleida Gonzalez said as she watched Moralobo and other Ladies in White be arrested outside her home.
Even experts sympathetic to the dissidents’ broader complaints acknowledge they have struggled to connect with ordinary Cubans, particularly over the last year of rapid change.
“The dissidents have the challenge of going beyond denunciation to making proposals and getting closer to understanding and offering solutions to people’s basic daily problems, especially now that there’s more space and a new environment,” said Ted Henken, a Baruch College scholar who closely follows Cuban civil society movements and supports Obama’s policy.
A small group of dissidents announced this week that it was launching a new effort to persuade Cuba to open its electoral system by petitioning authorities rather than engaging in civil disobedience.
Members of the association of long-standing dissident groups and lesser-known lawyers and professionals said they had sent a letter to Cuba’s government-controlled parliament demanding changes ranging from permitting independent civil society organizations to legalizing political parties other than the ruling Communists.
“There need to be changes,” organizer Amado Calixto said. “We think the country is ready.”