Far_far 2010-07-01 16:29:47
Veteran dissident still dreams of Cuban democracy after 40 years
By ANITA SNOW
Associated Press Writer
HAVANA – Gustavo Arcos Bergnes, the most veteran of Cuba’s opposition
leaders, still dreams of seeing his homeland shake off the communist system
that compelled him to break with Fidel Castro almost four decades ago.
The 78-year-old, who once embraced Castro’s nationalist ideas, is excited
about Friday’s planned assembly of hundreds of dissidents – even though poor
health will keep him from attending.
“I’d tell them, thanks to all of you for what you’re doing in the name of
everyone,” Arcos said of participants. “Thank you for your courage.”
Arcos is a founding member of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, formed
in 1978 and among the oldest surviving opposition groups created since
Castro came to power in 1959.
Known simply as “Don Gustavo,” the dean of Cuban dissidents is among
hundreds invited to the Assembly for the Promotion of Civil Rights in Cuba
to talk about peaceful action to create a democratic society.
Dissidents from on and off the island are expected, but it remains unknown
if the government will let the meeting go ahead.
Castro made a cryptic reference to the opposition Monday, saying the
“mercenaries” would receive “energetic and appropriate responses from the
The Cuban president complained that the United States continues to fund
groups dedicated to subverting his government.
“This is the empire’s answer: Money to foment destabilization,” he said,
adding, “money for terrorist acts, money for subversion.”
Even if authorities block the meeting, “This is going to keep going,” Arcos
said of the opposition.
Arcos said a wound received more than 50 years ago fighting alongside Castro
will prevent him from going.
“I haven’t left the house in months,” Arcos said in a weekend interview at
his walk-up apartment inside what was once a large, elegant two-story home.
He shares the high-ceilinged space with his wife, Teresa, and four noisy
green parrots kept in a metal cage on the terrace.
Arcos was shot in the right hip and left partially paralyzed during Castro’s
ill-fated 1953 assault on a military barracks in the eastern city of
Santiago that launched the Cuban revolution.
His sciatic nerve was damaged and has deteriorated over the years, making
walking difficult, especially up the one flight of stairs from the street.
Although Arcos’ memory sometimes now fails, he still recalls details about
Castro and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara as young men and events
leading to his sharp turn from loyalist to opponent.
Arcos was named ambassador to Belgium after the revolutionary triumph but
became disillusioned with the new government’s growing authoritarianism.
Returning to Havana in the mid-1960s, Arcos was accused of
counterrevolutionary activity and imprisoned for three years. He was denied
permission to leave Cuba following his release.
He was imprisoned again in 1981 with his younger brother Sebastian, also a
rights activist, for trying to leave the country illegally. Sebastian Arcos
died of cancer in 1997.
While the Arcos brothers were behind bars, the rights committee began
denouncing prison conditions.
Several months after Gustavo Arcos was freed in March 1988, he replaced the
committee’s executive director, who was forced into exile.
As his health worsened in recent years, Arcos took on a lower profile and
the committee’s offices in exile took on more central roles.
But Arcos stayed in touch with other dissidents inside Cuba, especially
Martha Beatriz Roque and Rene Gomez, both key organizers of Friday’s
Arcos also speaks frequently with Oswaldo Paya, a devout fellow Roman
Catholic who led a signature-gathering effort called the Varela Project,
which sought a referendum asking voters if they favored civil liberties such
as freedom of speech and the right to business ownership.
Paya, often at odds with Roque, will shun the Friday meeting.
Arcos would not discuss divisions among opposition leaders, saying his
relations with all of them were “fraternal.”
In recent years, Arcos has occasionally joined fellow dissidents for major
public events, such as meetings with American senators in 2000 and former
President Carter in 2002. He also was among veteran activists signing a
letter condemning an April 2003 crackdown on 75 opponents.
But now, with his health failing, Arcos fears he will not live to see a
Western-style democracy take root in his homeland.
“I do hope I will see the end of this, but I’m not sure if I will,” he said.
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