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Three women born under Fidel Castro’s
rule work to open a flow of ideas
across the Florida Strait.

Photos By Barbara Gutierez, Tom Stepp, Andrew Innerarity, and courtesy of the Cuban Heritage Collection


Three Cuban women shared their personal struggles, the reality of life in Cuba, and the challenges of being dissidents in search of political reform in their homeland while visiting the University of Miami last year. Each left her mark among faculty, students, and area residents. A January 2013 change in Cuba’s immigration law, eliminating the mandatory exit permit, paved the way for blogger Yoani Sánchez; Rosa María Payá, daughter of deceased Cuban political activist Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas; and Berta Soler, leader of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), to visit UM’s Cuban Heritage Collection and the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS) for the first time. Their message was clearly the same: The Castro regime must end.

“They represent a very brave group of people, the dissidents in Cuba, and they are the first ones allowed to go out and spread the message about oppression and repression in Cuba,” says history professor Jaime Suchlicki, director of ICCAS. “They are talking to the world, to the media.”

Their visits, along with presentations to elected officials and international organizations, Suchlicki notes, have helped to intensify the analysis of and dialogue about the internal situation in Cuba and human rights.

“They provided insight into how the Cuban dissidents are thinking, and we used it as an opportunity to highlight their presence to the Cuban-American community,” he says. “Everybody wants to change the system in Cuba, and we need to work with them.”

The travels of these three outspoken women have included stops in Washington, D.C., Brazil, New York, Brussels, Spain, and the Czech Republic with the intent of opening the eyes of many around the world to the reality of Cuba, the repression instilled by Raúl and Fidel Castro, and the fact that changes touted by Cuban leaders are little more than an effort to refresh the government’s public face.

“It’s the same dog with a different collar,” Soler said of the Cuban government during a brief conversation with Miami: The University of Miami Magazine before her April 27 press conference at ICCAS. The changes, she added, “don’t resolve the economic necessities of the people.”

Wearing the traditional white garb of the Damas de Blanco, Soler insisted Cuba is still a country where people go hungry and are imprisoned for expressing dissent. The organization was founded by wives and mothers of 75 political prisoners who were arrested during a spring 2003 crackdown on dissidents. Today, the group’s marches take place after Sunday Mass in virtually every major city on the island.

cuban dissidents

Soler and her family live those sanctions firsthand. Her husband, Angel Moya Acosta, founder of the Alternative Option Movement, was arrested in 2003 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Soler later waged a very public campaign, including writing a letter to Fidel Castro, urging him to allow surgery on her husband’s herniated disc. After two days of protest in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, Moya received the operation and was released from prison. In March 2012, Soler and Moya were detained along with three dozen other dissidents when they held the weekly Damas de Blanco walk ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba.

“We traveled to denounce what the Cuban government sells,” explained Soler, who took the helm of the Damas de Blanco in 2011 upon the death of its founder, Laura Pollán, “to show the international community firsthand the reality of the Cuban people, of the political prisoners, of the Damas de Blanco, and of the human rights activists.”

At every stop on her trip, Soler, born in 1964, emphasized the need for “moral, spiritual, and material help” for dissidents on the island.

Visiting the U on April 12, five days before Soler, was Rosa María Payá. Born in 1989 into a dissident family, Payá is urging international organizations to open an independent investigation into the suspicious car crash that killed her father in mid 2012. Subject to increased threats, harassment, and vigilance since her father’s death, she made it very clear that any changes have been within the Cuban population, not the government.

“In Cuba there has been a change, but it has nothing to do with the changes of the government. It has to do with changes that are occurring in the hearts of Cubans who are convinced Cuba needs change,’’ she told The Miami Herald editorial board. “This effort by the Cuban government to sell its reforms as democratic changes, as the beginning of an opening, is what we call cambio fraude (fraudulent change).”

Barely two months after returning to Cuba from the U.S., Payá and six relatives fled back to Miami out of fear of increased persecution. They have since settled in South Florida but have not sought political asylum.

Like Soler and Payá, Sánchez is trying to build bridges between Cubans in the U.S. and their counterparts on the island. “We cannot allow ourselves to keep being divided,” Sánchez said in a speech at Miami’s iconic Freedom Tower, a memorial to Cuban immigration in the United States. She added, “Cuba must have a free press. Otherwise we just sign a blank check for the next person who comes along.”

Sánchez visited the Coral Gables campus in April and again in October.

“Information to me is like a breath of fresh air,” said Sánchez, who writes the award-winning Generación Y (Generation Y) blog and sends out a constant stream of Twitter messages about daily life in Cuba to hundreds of thousands of followers.

cuban dissidents

“To see her in person was precious,” says Caridad Tabares, a graduate student in journalism, who attended the April event. “I follow Yoani on Twitter, and she’s so vocal. It takes courage to come outside and say what you need to say and then go back.”

Tabares, who asked Sánchez what journalists outside Cuba could do to help fellow journalists on the island, was surprised by Sánchez’s response.

“It was impressive to hear her talk about how technology is helping them be innovative,” says Tabares. “They’re doing whatever they need to get the word out.”

Sánchez pointed out that underground blogs, digital portals, and illicit e-magazines have a growing presence in Cuba, with information passed around on removable computer drives. She highlighted the need for thumb drives, hard drives, computers, and mobile phones.

“Information circulates hand-to-hand through this wonderful gadget known as the memory stick,” said Sánchez, “and it is difficult for the government to intercept them. I can’t imagine that they can put a police officer on every corner to see who has a flash drive and who doesn’t.”

Technology also took center stage during Sánchez’s personal tour of the UM Libraries’ vast Cuban Heritage Collection, home to more than 50,000 Cuba-related books and documents. Librarian associate professor María R. Estorino, the Esperanza Bravo de Varona Chair of the Cuban Heritage Collection, showed Sánchez the collection’s website and digital library. She also gave her five blank flash drives and five loaded with digital materials as well as interviews from the Luis J. Botifoll Oral History Project.

“Yoani was very interested in our collection and in how we’ve grown it to what it is today,” says Esperanza de Varona, the collection’s recently retired director.

During her initial visit, Sánchez, who was born in Havana in 1975, saw letters written by Fidel Castro when he was imprisoned in Isla de Pinos during the early days of the Cuban Revolution and copies of the newspaper the Castro brothers, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos put out while they were in the Sierra Maestra range. She also looked at a portfolio of poems, songs, and drawings compiled in 1922 by Cuban prisoners accused of being anarchists and newsletters published by Cuban rafters detained at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in 1994.

“Having Yoani, Berta, and Rosa María visit [the University of Miami] was very important, as was everything they had to say,” says de Varona. “Their message was clear: The bottom line is that their permission to travel abroad is simply the Cuban government pretending to show that they are opening up.”

While it’s difficult to understand the Cuban government’s motivation to let dissidents travel abroad, notes Suchlicki, it’s still too early to tell if the visits are backfiring on the Castro brothers.

Since January, some 20 Cuban dissidents have visited South Florida, the majority of them holding press conferences and/or meetings at UM, among other sites. Most recently, famed hunger striker Guillermo Fariñas Hernández came to UM on August 6. “It’s recognition of the importance of the institute, and it gives UM a bigger presence for when things change in Cuba,” says Suchlicki. “We gave each of them [the Cuban dissidents] a significant amount of information about transitions in other parts of the world, thinking material.”

During her visit, Sánchez also met privately with about 20 academics at ICCAS, discussing the future of Cuba following a post-Castro transition, how to improve the flow of information into the island, and her impressions of how change will evolve in Cuba. Like Soler and Payá, she thinks some changes will come, “but none thinks these will come quickly or easily,” adds Suchliki. “All of them feel the change should be towards a democratic system.”

Most of those who participated in or attended the events featuring Soler, Payá, and Sánchez praised UM faculty and administrators for presenting them.

“It shows the world that UM is taking a bold step in its educational mission,” says senior trustee Carlos de la Cruz, J.D. ’79, who was born in Havana in the 1950s.

Further, it underscores UM’s commitment to diversity, notes journalism student Tabares, and opens the door for the U to be an important player once there is a change in Cuba. “I don’t know how much longer the Castro regime will be in place,” Tabares says, “but hosting [activists like Sánchez] opens the door for a dialogue where UM can be a conduit to bring in professors, analysts, and speakers. UM can help open lines of communication.”

Follow the Cuban Heritage Collection on Facebook and Twitter. For the CHC’s “Human Rights Oral History Project” interview of Berta Soler, click here; for the interview with Rosa María Payá, click here.