Each time Nelson Aguiar Ramírez was mistreated in a Cuban jail, where he was held since 2003 for speaking out against the communist regime, his wife Dolia Leal turned to the most potent weapon available to her.
She got on the Internet.
Within minutes, if not seconds, fellow Cubans, human rights organizations, political leaders and media organizations around the world got her accounts.
Now, in exile in the United States, Leal and her husband – both in their mid-60’s -- continue their human rights struggle on the Internet.
They are just two of the many long-time anti-Castro warriors who -- now gray-haired, slower-moving, and no longer harboring visions of Bay of Pigs-style assaults --are working to bring down the communist regime one tweet at a time.
“I go to the library or the senior citizens center, get on the computer, and I hear from people inside Cuba and others around the world who care about human rights in Cuba,” said Leal, who was one of the founders in Havana of the “Ladies in White,” a group of mainly wives and mothers of political prisoners.
“I hear from my fellow Ladies in White in Havana, and the ones who are in exile in other countries,” Leal said. “I hear about what is happening with political prisoners. Nothing would be known outside Cuba if not for emails and blogs and Internet videos. And I can tell the people in Cuba what is happening in Cuba – it is only from the outside that they can find out -- and that their fight for human rights has worldwide support.”
The ability of the Internet to pierce Cuba’s wall of secrecy showed itself earlier this year. That is when Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who along with Aguiar was arrested in 2003 as part of massive crackdown on dissidents, died after a months-long hunger strike. The world learned of the death within an hour, and international condemnation of Cuba’s imprisonment of dissidents soon followed.
“He was not the first dissident to die after a hunger strike,” said Luis Israel Abreu, a 78-year-old former political prisoner who has Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as a blog. “But it’s the first one that the world found out about. Pedro Luis Boitel died after a hunger strike in 1972, but people did not know, not even within Cuba. It took many months before any of us in exile even heard rumors about it.”
The Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), founded by Bay of Pigs veterans and former Cuban political prisoners, now uses Twitter, Facebook and blogs to wage its battle for a democratic and Castro-less Cuba.
“The flash drive has been a godsend,” said Omar Lopez Montenegro, director of human rights for CANF, which is based in Miami and exerts considerable influence in Washington D.C. on U.S.-Cuba policy. “We translate training manuals for the dissidents on how to put together a strategic battle for democratic reforms, and we send it in a flash drive. Right there, in a little device they can just put inside a pocket, they’ve got tons of information and they can pass the flash drive from person to person.”
It’s a long way from the days when paramilitary exile groups trained in New Jersey and the Everglades for commando raids in Cuba.
One of the oldest such groups, Alpha 66 -- whose website said “was created with the intention of making commando type attacks on Cuba” and “to maintain the fighting spirit of the Cuban people” – has a section on its page explaining that it decided to have a presence on the Internet “to give a voice to those Freedom Fighters who are risking their lives and to hold accountable those who are helping the tyrant.”
Cuban exiles have always tried to establish lines of communication with the dissidents in Cuba, usually by sending letters with people traveling to the island, or through telephone calls, though those frequently were monitored in Cuba. And often, calls dropped – the work, exiles believed, of Cuban authorities bent on cutting off the communication.
Then there was Radio Martí, the U.S. government’s news service beamed to Cuba. But Cuba often scrambles the signals.
It has been more difficult for Cuba to stop dissent over Cyberspace. But it doesn’t give up trying.
Few Cubans have computers, and those who do cannot get access to the Internet. So many Cubans on the island go to the few places where the Internet is available, and communicate with the outside world that way. There are Internet cafes, but well-known dissidents are banned from them, say dissidents who live in exile.
Threatened Voices, a website that advocates for online free speech, lists Cuba on its Top 10 countries that oppress bloggers. It reports that at least seven bloggers in Cuba have been “threatened or arrested.”
One of the most well-known dissident bloggers in Cuba is Yoani Sánchez, a 35-year-old who Time Magazine named in 2008 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Her Facebook page says: “For daring to speak of freedom, Ms. Sanchez faces daily harassment at the hands of Cuba’s communist regime and continues to live under constant threat and fear of physical harm.”
She has received numerous international awards noting her courage and devotion to liberty, but Cuba has refused to let her leave the island to accept them.
Montenegro, of CANF, said: “The days of absolute control and censorship are over. It’s a different world now.”