Young Dissident Risks His Life for Change in Cuba

Sunday, September 4, 2016
From The Miami Herald:

Young government opponent risks his life for change in Cuba

With the harsh sun of Santiago de Cuba reflected on his face and a few pounds lighter than his normal weight, one of the island’s youngest dissidents, Carlos Amel Oliva, recently traveled to Miami.

His goal: To thank exiles for the support he received during his four weeks on a hunger strike to demand that the Raúl Castro government respect the human rights of the island’s 11 million people.

His deliberate way of talking shows the determination of this 29-year-old Santiago native, who has traveled to many countries and even met with officials like Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama.

Oliva, who heads the youth wing of the opposition group Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU), went on a hunger strike to protest a string of State Security searches of his home and seizures of personal effects.

He suspended the strike only when he was on the brink of death, and he arrived in Miami in mid-August.

“When they humiliate you, when you find yourself in extreme situations like the ones we live in Cuba, that’s the only option for making your demands,” said Oliva. “The message that I wanted to send was clear. I am not playing at being a dissident. I am ready to give my life to make my country a different place, where the rights of people are respected.”

“I have no memory of the good years,” he added, when massive Soviet subsidies fueled the island’s progress until 1989-90. “I am from a generation that from the start saw only crises and power blackouts. I believe that view is closer to the reality.”

Oliva was raised in a “revolutionary” family that included a grandfather who joined Fidel Castro’s July 26 Movement and a distant uncle who was killed fighting alongside Castro’s guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra.

So how could a young man educated by the socialist system and member of a pro-government family wind up as a member of UNPACU, the largest opposition group on the island?

Oliva said the answer lies in his passion for reading.

“From the time I was little I always loved history, literature and politics. I looked for answers to my questions by reading,” he said. “That’s how I came to understand that many things needed to change in Cuba, even though no one talked to me about an organized opposition. I believed I should change the system from the inside, and made it my life’s work.”

Cuba’s compulsory military service was a watershed event. By that time he was a member of the Communist Youths’ Union (UJC), and later joined the University Students Federation (FEU), also controlled by the Cuban Communist Party.

“It’s not very difficult to be picked for a position of responsibility in those organizations. Young Cubans are apathetic about politics because they are tired of being manipulated. That’s why, if you show any interest at all, you get promoted,” he said.

Despite his excellent academic standing and the work he performed at the FEU, Oliva’s career came to an end. His parents won a lottery for a U.S. visa, and he dropped out of the university to prepare to leave the island in the midst of the so-called “Special Period” in the 1990s.

“The visa never arrived. They told us they would let us know, but the years went by and nobody contacted us. I realized later that perhaps this was God’s way of helping me find what I was looking for, an organization to change the country without having to leave.”

The first time he heard about the opposition in Cuba was the Heredia Project, launched by the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL), led by the late Oswaldo Payá. It sought to eliminate all the arbitrary laws that governed departures from the island.

“The first step was very difficult. You had to give your name and identity card number for a proposal that was to be presented to the National Assembly,” he said, referring to the legislature. That first step later led him and his father to join the MCL and then to help the group’s collection of signatures in favor of other initiatives.

After Paya’s death in 2012, the Oliva family felt the MCL was losing steam and joined an UNPACU branch near their home.

“Joining UNPACU meant a substantial change in the nature of our activism,” Oliva recalled. “Before that, we had never been summoned by Cuban State Security. After I joined, they summoned me and proposed that I work for them.”

Oliva quoted State Security officers as telling him, “Look, what we want from you is not to be an agent. Just tell us what is said in the hallways, and if someone is preparing a terrorist attack against the country.”

His refusal meant that he was twice blocked — in 2014 — from leaving Cuba. By then he was working on what would later become UNPACU’s Youth Front, which focuses on young Cubans and has more than 500 members.

“I did not allow them to blackmail me, and they finally gave me permission to travel abroad,” he said.

Last year, the youth leader made his way to Panama to take part in a conference of civil society groups on the margins of the Summit of the Americas.

But Panama authorities “treated me like a terrorist,” Oliva said, adding that the Cuban government had given authorities in Panama misleading information about him.

In Cuba, State Security agents have implemented a new tactic of humiliation and control: “They have searched my home, sometimes even armed with rifles, and threatened my family. And they frequently seize my materials,” he said.

He is grateful to all the people who sent him messages of support during his hunger strike. “It was a time to meditate and grow as a person,” Oliva said.

As he prepares to return to his homeland, Oliva said he has asked Guillermo Fariñas, another opposition leader, to halt the hunger strike he launched four weeks ago. Fariñas has been rushed to the hospital in his hometown of Santa Clara several times, and many supporters fear he will die.

“Many people asked me to stop my hunger strike and I did not understand it,” he said. “But now I understand that Cuba would benefit much more from having us alive and willing to fight for her.”