Cuban dissident leader tours U.S., Europe
July 12, 2016
José Daniel Ferrer, a former political prisoner and president of a dissident group called the Cuban Patriotic Union, speaks in Miami on July 6, 2016. Ferrer, 45, is touring the U.S. and Europe after being allowed to leave the island for the first time in his life.
(Photo: Alan Gomez, USA TODAY)
MIAMI — For the first time in his life, José Daniel Ferrer is traveling outside of his home country of Cuba.
The fisherman turned political prisoner turned dissident leader was recently granted permission by the Cuban government to leave the island. Ferrer, 45, used that opportunity to meet with officials from the U.S. government and the European Union and strategize with human rights activists from Prague to Brussels to New York City.
As his three-month voyage nears its end, Ferrer said he will return to Cuba armed with new tools to bolster an opposition movement that seeks to bring democracy to the communist nation. And that starts with a seemingly simple request: asking people to film five-minute videos showing what life is like for them.
Ferrer said part of the reason so few Cubans are active in dissident movements is that they have little information about the outside world. With little access to the Internet and the Cuban government controlling TVs and newspapers, Ferrer said Cubans are fed a constant stream of bad news from other countries, leaving most unable to comprehend how impoverished and oppressed they are.
He said he constantly hears Cubans wondering why anybody would want to move to Argentina, Spain or the U.S.
"That's like a Haitian saying, 'I hear the situation is really bad in France,'" he said.
That's why Ferrer is starting a project to get people — preferably Spanish-speakers — to explain the basics of their lives. He said people could simply explain their job, their income, their household expenses, their health insurance, their trips to the grocery store. Ferrer said he will take those videos, post them on his YouTube page and distribute them on the island, much as dissidents have been spreading news from the outside world on thumb drives and DVDs.
"That simple video would accelerate the democratization of Cuba so much," he said during a stop in Miami. "It would help them realize that the world is so much bigger than they think it is."
Ferrer was one of the 75 people who were arrested and sent to prison in 2003, a sweep known as the "Black Spring." The group was made up of dissidents, human rights activists and journalists. Ferrer was rounded up because of his work getting people to sign a petition requesting political reforms.
While in prison, he helped push for more rights for prisoners. After his release in 2011, he founded the Cuban Patriotic Union, a group that he says has more than 3,000 members.
Unlike leaders of other dissident groups on the island, Ferrer has welcomed the diplomatic and economic opening created by President Obama with Cuba. But Ferrer, who met with Obama and other dissident leaders during the president's trip to the island in March, said American politicians commit a "grave error" if they believe that increasing commercial activity with Cuba alone can lead to regime change. On the other hand, he said those who feel that strengthening the economic embargo the U.S. maintains on Cuba is not the answer either.
"Those are two extremes that don't lead to a solution," he said. "You have to find an equilibrium. And how do you find it? With legitimate good will and an understanding of what's happening in Cuba."
Ferrer said he welcomed the surge in tourists from the U.S., which will only increase when airlines begin regularly-scheduled flights to Cuba later this summer. But he had some advice for them.
"If you're coming to drink rum, find a young girl, get some sun, go to the beach and you don't care about the suffering of the Cuban people, then yes, you're helping the regime 100%," he said.
Instead, Ferrer said visitors should take time out of their trip to explore areas away from tourist hotels to learn about the reality Cubans face. He said those who are more adventurous can find dissident groups, not to give them money, but to share a meal with them — preferably roasted pig.
"It's not the pig, it's the gesture," he said. "When their neighbors see that someone came from the United States or Spain or Belgium, and you made this effort to support those who are pushing for democracy, those neighbors see that the world is not like what the government claims it is."
Ferrer said he's had no free time during his trip to explore new cities or do much sight-seeing. When he finally got a few hours to spare in the Czech Republic, he visited the grave of Václav Havel, the political reformer and former president who wrote "The Power of the Powerless," which Ferrer said inspired him to become politically active.
He said he enjoyed trying salmon for the first time. He said the ever-present Wi-Fi access has been staggering. But he did have one complaint: his trip to an American mall. His friends wanted to buy him new clothes for his trip, but Ferrer said he immediately grew tired of roaming the seemingly-endless rows of clothes and shoes.
"I told them, 'I'm no longer enjoying the free world,'" he said. "In Cuba, you have two options: white rice and black beans."