Two days before he was due to meet the president of the US, Antonio Rodiles was arrested by the Cuban police.
But this was nothing new – as a democracy activist in Cuba you get to know the police pretty well. Rodiles estimates that he has been arrested more than 50 times since the beginning of the year.
I met Rodiles in his house in Havana, shortly after the US president’s historic visit. He was eventually released and met with Obama, who spent two hours with prominent Cuban dissidents and anti-Castro civil society leaders. “It was a good meeting, but it doesn’t mean we will have a good result,” Rodiles says. And yet, despite plenty of negative experiences, the activist admits that these days, he has moments of optimism.
Rodiles, a native Cuban, has been openly critical of the Castro government since his return from the US in 2010. A qualified physicist, he spent 12 years away from Cuba until he turned to political activism, concerned and frustrated by the lack of civic liberties in his country.
His activism is mainly about reclaiming public space and intellectual freedom. Last year he launched #TodosMarchamos (we all march), an initiative to exercise the right to freedom of expression and take back the streets from the government – there’s a saying in Cuba “esta calle es de Fidel” (this street belongs to Fidel).
On a smaller scale, every Thursday Rodiles hosts meetings at his house – an organisation called Estado de SATS – an open space to present art exhibitions, independent films and debates. They are “a kind of therapy session for activists,” he says.
“There’s no space like this in Cuba. It’s so important to have these kinds of events. People can come here and speak openly without limits. They can say they hate Fidel or even, well, we haven’t had anyone say they like the Castros, but they could do that here,” he jokes.
And these meetings are poignant. Ex-political prisoners are given a microphone to share their thoughts on the future of Cuba and openly discuss their experiences of their restricted life. It seems to be a lifeline for those who think differently to the Cuban communist ideology; and it is perhaps now more important than ever to continue these discussions. The invitation to meet with Obama was a recognition of their work.
This all comes against a backdrop of rising repression. “In general the repression is increasing,” Rodiles says. “The regime is more violent, more comfortable. People care more about economics than promoting human rights in Cuba.”
According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, there were 8,500 cases of arbitrary detention in 2015 and more than 2,500 in January and February of this year.
“We are suffering more arrests. They [state security forces] are beating us hard,” Rodiles says, his voice measured and calm. It seems he has become desensitised to this violence. If you search Antonio Rodiles online, you will find an image of him with reddened eyes wearing a bloody shirt, his face almost fully covered by a bandage on his nose which was broken, along with his eardrum, in a brutal beating by security agents last year. He says he was on his way to the Sunday protest organised by opposition movement Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) in July 2015 when he was attacked – the protest he still attends every week. “The opposition movement needs to show people you can’t be afraid. That’s the main goal.”
In a political sense there may be no change. “The regime is more legitimate after the change in relations with the US,” he says. In his view, the growing rapprochement, which began in December 2014, has given the Castro government greater international credit, legitimising a regime that continues to repress dissent. “Economic changes won’t bring political changes; now human rights and the promotion of democracy are not the priority of the discussion.”
But for ordinary Cubans and their understanding of their rights, Rodiles is more hopeful. “People are more frustrated, more tired, and so they are more engaged. It is like there’s a small hole [in the power of the regime] and as that hole increases things move faster.”
He moves to show me a YouTube video by Estado de SATS of a recent demonstration in central Havana. A couple of activists walk down a busy street throwing pro-democracy flyers in the air, shouting “Libertad!” (freedom). After a few moments they are taken away in police cars, but this is when Rodiles gets excited. “Look, look at the people pick up the papers. They are taking papers and reading. For us, this is amazing. People are feeling less afraid.”
More Cuban people, Rodiles tells me, are talking about change, speaking in the streets about their frustrations, and more interested in a different future.
“People are complaining openly and this has never happened before. Little by little people are realising more government broken promises. When you start to break that order you start to break the system. People need to feel as though they have the right to be a human being, and after that you’re ready to face the regime.”
Rodiles rises abruptly from his chair – it’s a Thursday and he needs to get ready for the the Estado de SATS meeting. Today they’re showing Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. Perhaps he sees something of himself in the civil rights leader. “I don’t do this because I’m brave,” Rodiles says. “I do it because I feel tired of these people.”
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