Tamarindo Street in Havana is poor, even by Cuban standards. The buildings are dirty and crumbling, and the lively shades of pink, red, and green that originally decorated their facades have long since faded. Litter lines the sidewalks, and tired Cubans, clad in well-worn undershirts to avoid the oppressive summer heat, watch over the street from dusty balconies and plastic chairs carefully aligned in the shade.
Despite the cloud of despair that seems to hang over this Santa Suarez neighborhood and, indeed, over most of Cuba after forty years of Communism Tamarindo Street now offers a glimmer of hope for the island's 11 million inhabitants. On July 19, one week before the nation's annual Rebellion Day celebration, protesters here concluded a 40-day hunger strike calling for government recognition of basic human rights and the immediate release of all political prisoners.
"We needed to break the silence," says Rolando Muñoz, a 29-year-old activist who speaks with the determined, methodical eloquence of a born leader. The strike could be a major step toward a new era of nonviolent resistance against the Castro regime.
In a country starved for hope, the protest appears to have struck a chord. Every day, strike organizer Migdalia Rosado's tiny two-room apartment, located at 34 Tamarindo Street, was mobbed by curious Cubans and representatives of the foreign press.
"The reaction was marvelous, both within Cuba and internationally," says the 53-year-old Rosado as she looks up at the pictures of Jesus Christ, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. that still decorate her walls. "More and more people kept wandering by the apartment and nervously poking their heads in. Sure, they were scared, but eventually they came in and joined us."
All in all, more than 2,500 Cubans came to Tamarindo 34 to show their solidarity with the Havana dissidents, and dozens of spontaneous hunger strikes sprung up in cities and towns around the island. It was a collective act of defiance the likes of which the Castro regime rarely encounters.
Bolstered by the strike's success, Rolando Muñoz and some of his fellow organizers have launched a new Cuban dissident organization Tamarindo 34 Human Rights. The group will use nonviolent tactics inspired by Martin Luther King and the American civil rights movement to demand that Castro's government observe the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition, on the seventh day of every month it will sponsor a 24-hour fast in support of the hundreds of dissidents languishing in Cuban prisons.
"Our goal," says Muñoz, "is to show people that they have a choice, that they don't have to fear Castro. For forty years, he's taught everyone that they're weak, that they depend on him for their health, their livelihoods, their education. We want to teach people that they're strong, that they can live life without Fidel."
Muñoz remembers his own struggles with political conformity growing up in the 1970's and 80's. His grandfather's account of pre-Revolution Cuba was starkly at odds with the ideological education he received at the hands of the state, and his interest in politics was piqued by Radio Martí's broadcasts from Miami beginning in 1985. As a teenager, Muñoz had no choice but to cultivate two conflicting sets of moral beliefs one for official consumption at school, and the other for less-guarded moments at home.
"I never understood," he recalls, "how I always had to do and say one thing, while believing the exact opposite." While originally he shared with countless others the hope of escaping Cuba in search of political and economic freedom abroad, he came to realize that the solution was not to leave but to stay and fight. And so, despite the obvious dangers, Muñoz joined the active opposition to Castro's regime.
Since this fateful decision, his life has changed drastically. Where he was once a computer programmer, he now lives off the charity of friends and supporters public dissidents are denied jobs by the government, Cuba's only legitimate employer. Muñoz is also periodically sent to jail. He has been arrested close to a dozen times, for offenses ranging from holding a public prayer meeting and organizing a march on Martin Luther King's birthday, to passing out copies of the U.N.'s human rights declaration.
Muñoz explains that "when you decide to join the opposition against Fidel Castro, the government of Cuba cracks down on your whole life. As a counter-revolutionary, you lose trustworthiness in their eyes and so you can't get a job, can't get an education. It's an attempt to nullify you as a human being."
Even now, with his country badly in need of foreign capital and exchange, Castro has resisted pressure to trade internal reforms for international goodwill. Earlier this year, he embarrassed a Canadian government that has been notoriously friendly toward Cuba by defying Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's request that he free four prominent opposition leaders. Instead, he sentenced them to three-and-a-half to five years in prison.
This is not to say that Castro is entirely immune from foreign pressure. He has not yet taken any direct action against the Tamarindo 34 group, which Muñoz and others attribute to the international media's coverage of the hunger strike. Any crackdown now could disrupt this month's Ibero-American Summit, an annual meeting of Spain, Portugal, and Latin American countries, which is being held in Cuba this year for the first time. No one expects his tolerance of internal dissent to last for long.
Still, if there's ever been a chance for an opposition movement to gain a foothold in Cuba, the time is now. Since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, the island nation has been beset with crippling economic hardship and continual food shortages. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, daily caloric intake is ten percent less than it was in the 1940's, and meat consumption has fallen almost a third. It's no coincidence that there's been a recent barrage of immigrants landing on Miami's shores. Over 1,500 have arrived since the beginning of the year and that's not counting the hundreds intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard and forcibly repatriated.
Most Cubans don't hesitate to talk about their economic woes. Ivan Dominguez, a former professor of mechanical engineering who now drives a taxi cab, points to himself as an example of the shift many have made into the tourist industry the only hope of Cubans hungry for U.S. dollars. He tells of doctors and lawyers unable to survive on the monthly government paychecks of $15 or $20. "Now, instead, they're carrying bags, working in hotels as bellhops and waiting for tips from foreigners."
Furthermore, Cuba has become the sex-tourism capital of the Western hemisphere. At night, prostitutes can be seen cruising Havana's Malecón Boulevard; they hang like ornaments on the arms of wealthy Canadians and Europeans frequenting the city's nightspots. For most of these young jineteras, latching on to a deep-pocketed tourist is the only way to enjoy their own country's beaches and music clubs not to mention their last resort for putting food on the table.
Even Cuba's health care system, once the proud boast of Castro apologists around the world, has now taken deathly ill. Medicines continue to be in short supply; when they are available it's only in prohibitively expensive "dollar stores" inaccessible to ordinary Cubans. The latest trend in health care is medecina verde, "green medicine" the homeopathic and herbal remedies doctors now use to treat ailments from colds and bacterial infections to burns and scars. Antibiotics, meanwhile, have been replaced by acupuncture.
Yet despite the hardship and their disenchantment with the Revolution's promises, many Cubans remain emotionally attached to Fidel Castro himself. "We might no longer believe in the ideology of Communism," says Eldor Gutierrez, a 24-year-old busboy. "But we're still fidelistas."
And it isn't surprising why. As Gutierrez makes clear, the state's powers of coercion are as strong as ever. Cuban schoolchildren are still evaluated on the basis of their ideological fervor, and anyone hoping to continue in the educational system is required to assume an active role in state-sponsored revolutionary youth organizations.
William Jorge, a co-founder of Tamarindo 34 Human Rights, explains further: "They've been in power forty years," he says. "When lies are repeated for that long, over and over again, eventually they become the truth." Clearly, it will take more than economic woes to reverse decades of revolutionary propaganda.
And Big Brother Fidel never ceases his watch. Over 80,000 Committees for Defense of the Revolution nationwide keep tabs on every block; any signs of counter-revolutionary activity are reported to the Cuban authorities. "They've always got their eyes on you," says Adela Rumbarto, a nurse at her Havana neighborhood's local medical clinic. "Even when you think you're walking down the street and minding your own business. So you eventually conform there's no other way to put food on the table and keep your family safe." Eldor Gutierrez agrees. "Get angry? Why? There's no point to getting angry. You can't do anything about it."
The Tamarindo Street activists are well aware that this hopelessness and conformity are the most crippling legacies of Communist rule in Cuba. "Everyone is scared," says Migdalia Rosado. Rolando Muñoz sadly concurs: "It's Stalin's system," he says with a twisted smile, "but Fidel Castro has perfected it."
There are no illusions of a quick march to victory. Cuban democracy can never flourish, with or without Castro at the helm, until the people break free from the material and spiritual dependence that years of repression have so assiduously cultivated. The new generation of activists must therefore wage their peaceful war on two fronts fighting back against government repression while simultaneously tending to the despair that pervades every segment of Cuban society.
Despite the difficulties, Rolando Muñoz remains determined. "We're ready to teach the Cuban people to fight for their rights," he says, "to do things they haven't been allowed to do in forty years." If nothing else, the progress of the Tamarindo Street activists suggests that Castro's regime is vulnerable as never before. It's about time.