By Juan O. Tamayo, JTamayo@ElNuevoHerald.com
At least 18 members have quit Cuba’s dissident Ladies in White in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba. Top opposition leader Jose Daniel Ferrer has been accused of treating a black supporter like a slave. And Ferrer has split from his wife of 20 years.
The two most aggressive opposition movements in eastern Cuba appear to be going through a rough period in recent weeks, forced to deny serious allegations and even hanging up the phone on usually friendly Miami news media. But dissidents say their troubles are the work of infiltrators from the State Security apparatus in the communist-ruled island, tasked with fueling the jealousies and rivalries that have long riven the opposition, and creating new ones. “It is very, very clear that all of this comes from people who have a job to do for the political police,” said Ferrer, who served eight years as a political prisoner, was freed in 2011 and is now one of the island’s most respected opposition activists.
The group he founded, the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU), is the most combative dissident faction in Santiago. Earlier this year it forged a national alliance with Guillermo Fariñas, winner of the European Parliament’s $67,000 Sakharov prize.
Authorities meanwhile have repeatedly cracked down on the Santiago branch of the Ladies in White as they push to win the same right to stage public protests as their counterparts in Havana, who march along an avenue after Sunday Mass. At the root of the split within the Ladies in White is a push by several members to expel a woman repeatedly accused of being a State Security infiltrator and inventing gossip about infidelities by the group’s members or their husbands.
Group leader Berta Soler in Havana acknowledged that she and Santiago leader Belkis Cantillo opposed expelling the woman during a June 18 meeting in Santiago because it would be essentially undemocratic to drive her out without hard evidence. “We are learning each day how to live with infiltrators. It does not worry us,” Soler told El Nuevo Herald by phone from Havana. “We are not going to waste the time that must be used to continue working for human rights.”
In a statement issued June 30, Soler had declared: “We will not fall into the foolish game of you tell me and I tell you … There are no proofs that she is an agent … so she will continue being a member until it is proven.” That statement acknowledged that 18 Ladies in White in Santiago had resigned. Ferrer, who is married to Cantillo, said last week that the number of resignations had climbed to 27. Several calls to Cantillo’s cellphone went unanswered.
Ferrer said he separated from Cantillo after 20 years of marriage because of her attitude toward some of the Ladies in White who want to expel the alleged infiltrator. The women who resigned remain members of UNPACU, he said.
State Security agents have repeatedly infiltrated and in some cases founded opposition movements during the five decades of Castro rule, to spy on the groups and exacerbate the many rivalries and tensions that have historically hit the dissident movements.
Soler and Cantillo returned to Cuba in May after a lengthy trip abroad during which they received a hero’s welcome in the United States and Europe and collected more than $65,000 — a fortune by island standards — in prizes and donations.
The alleged infiltrator not only spread the gossip about infidelities but sold end-of-year school exams and offered to obtain U.S. visas for $3,000, two Ladies in White said, both crimes that real dissidents know too well would immediately land them in jail. “Since she joined us [in August] the bickering started. We have no doubts about her,” said Yelena Garcés, who with her sister Aimee led the group of women that resigned.
“We have no doubts that she and her husband work for the political police, and that their principal mission … is to divide” the opposition, Ferrer said by phone from his home in the small Santiago town of Palmarito de Cauto. Ferrer said UNPACU expelled the woman several months ago, but the Ladies in White remain “incapable of realizing that she … is creating problems.” El Nuevo knows her name, but will not print it because it has been unable to reach her for comment.
Some of the women who resigned said Soler made the dispute worse during the June 18 meeting by telephoning the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana to report their separation, a call they took as a threat to deny them U.S. visas. Soler told El Nuevo she would not comment on that allegation. Radio Martí reported last week that she hung up when one of its reporters asked her about it.
The Ladies in White was founded by female relatives of 75 dissidents jailed during a 2003 crackdown to demand their freedom. The government freed the last of the 75 still in prison in 2010-2011 — but forced most to go into exile in Spain. Only a dozen insisted on staying in Cuba to continue their opposition activism, including Ferrer and Angel Moya, Soler’s husband. The Ladies in White vowed to remain together to push for human rights and democracy.
Ferrer himself has come under harsh attacks from Raumel Vinajera, a former UNPACU activist now living in the United States who has accused him of being a “slave keeper” and stealing money donated for the opposition movement. A photo of Vinajera, who is black, holding an umbrella over the light-skinned Ferrer while the UNPACU leader speaks on a cellphone has been spread on the Internet, especially by Ernesto Vera, a Santiago lawyer and self-described dissident who regularly attacks UNPACU, the Ladies in White and blogger Yoani Sanchez.
Ferrer said the photo was snapped when it was raining and he went to his patio to get better reception on his cellphone. He added that police seized that photo and several others during a raid of his home in July of last year.