The thawing of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States is having a little-spoken-about side effect – people on the island are feeling bolder about challenging the government, says one of Cuba's leading dissidents.
“Without a doubt, the people of Cuba grow weary,” said Jose Daniel Ferrer, leader of Cuba's largest and increasingly influential dissident group, in an interview with Fox News Latino. “It’s been too many years of misery and oppression.”
The change in relationship between the two countries has been accompanied by more outside sources of news and perspectives reaching Cubans long accustomed to state-run media.
“International and internal forces within Cuba have resulted in Cubans being exposed to more information, and that drives Cubans to feel more inspired and oppose the regime,” said Ferrer, who is visiting the United States after receiving a short-term permission from the Cuban government to travel outside the island. “Each time the size of disillusioned, frustrated people grows broader and so do the number of people who oppose and challenge the government.”
Ferrer does not criticize the many Cubans who have risked their lives trying to flee, most recently to Latin American in hopes of reaching the United States. That number has surged as more Cuban fear that improving relations between their homeland and the United States will spell the end of opportunities their northern neighbor gives Cubans to seek refuge there.
“The Cuban regime clearly drives the point home to Cubans that we in Cuba have only two options – you completely obey the regime, or if you don’t want to obey them, you leave,” he said.
“The third option (in Ferrer’s group) is we defend our rights, is we’re not leaving, we’re staying, and we are going to fight for freedom from inside Cuba, the freedom many Cubans choose to flee to seek.”
International and internal forces within Cuba have resulted in Cubans being exposed to more information, and that drives Cubans to feel more inspired and oppose the regime. Each time the size of disillusioned, frustrated people grows broader and so do the number of people who oppose and challenge the government.
- Jose Daniel Ferrer, Cuba dissident
“Many Cubans are afraid, they say either I leave now or I’ll never be free,” Ferrer added. “But to leave Cuba means they will not be able to push for that change. We believe Cuba is where we must be, where must stay, to effectively fight for change and a better future.”
While tens of thousands of Cubans have under cover of darkness fled the island in recent months – not to mention over the decades – Ferrer flatly refused the Cuban regime’s near-begging that he leave the island.
It’s not that Ferrer wasn’t facing the same hardships – and more – as his countrymen. He had gone through more, including arrests for opposition to the Cuban regime, beatings by government security forces, and 8 years in jail for taking part in a petition pushing for freedom of speech and other democratic reforms.
On rarely given permission to travel outside the United States, the leader of the Cuban Patriotic Union, Cuba’s most prominent dissident group, told Fox News Latino in a wide-ranging interview that he would not trade his political activism for life in exile.
“It’s a matter of dignity, a matter of moral obligation,” Ferrer told Fox News Latino about why he did not jump at the chance to leave a life he clearly found insufferable. “And that is why we stayed put.”
Ferrer was one of 75 dissidents rounded up by Cuban security forces in 2003 in what became known as Cuba’s “Black Spring.”
Ferrer, a former fisherman, was one of several sentenced to 25 years in prison. Under a deal pushed by the government of Spain and the Cuban Catholic Church, the Castro government agreed to free many of the prisoners after several years, but on the condition that they live in exile elsewhere.
About a dozen of the dissidents, including Ferrer, refused. In 2011, Ferrer and Felix Navarro Rodriguez, the only two of the 75 inmates who still remained in jail from the “Black Spring” sweep, were released.
“During the 8 years that we were in prison, the regime was always proposing that if we would leave Cuba indefinitely, they would release us and then our difficult conditions would come to an end,” Ferrer said. “I always said no because, remembering [Cuban revolutionary leader] Jose Marti, he said the freedom of a people always comes at a great price.”
“And you decide either to achieve it, or you resign yourself and that society to continue living without liberty.”
The focus on Cuba these days, for the most part, is on the parade of U.S. businesses looking to get a foothold there, and on American tourists clamoring to travel the long-forbidden Caribbean island.
Ferrer has said that there are differences in how Cuban dissidents view the restoration of U.S.-Cuba relations.
Some feel that the United States, for instance, should have demanded more concessions and promises by the Cuban government to make democratic reforms before moving ahead with such things as reopening embassies in each other’s nations and easing restrictions on trade and travel.
Others feel that Cuba would have continued to resist making changes, and that stalemate that has languished for decades would continue.
“It’s not divisions that we have among dissidents groups in Cuba over normalizing relations with the U.S., it’s just differences of perspectives,” Ferrer said. “We are not divided in the opposition movement; we are united in the daily struggle for democracy and the well-being of the Cuban people.”
He praised Obama for using his visit in March to essentially scold the Castro regime and making a point of reaching the Cuban people in a variety of ways, including doing a skit with Cuba’s most popular comedian, Panfilo.
“President Obama’s visit is without a doubt the most important visit we’ve had in the last half century,” said Ferrer, who was among a handful of dissidents who met with Obama at the U.S. Embassy in Havana during the president’s visit. “The impact was quite forceful.”
Ferrer said it was nothing short of “a stroke of genius” for Obama to humanize himself before the Cuban people by using Panfilo’s popular comedy show to reach out to the public.
“People watch and love Panfilo,” he said. “Brilliant move, that was.”
Ferrer will be traveling in the United States and Europe until July, then will return. He does so at considerable risk. Cuban authorities do not hide the fact that at any time, for any reason, they can return him to jail to complete the rest of the original 25-year sentence.
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.