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Cuban Authorities Detain Dissidents Ahead Of Free Speech Rally


Cuban authorities detained several dissidents this week. Officials took them into custody before a free speech rally that was planned in Havana's Revolution Square. Such detentions are common in Cuba, but they're prompting new scrutiny now because of the timing. They come soon after President Obama normalized relations with Cuba. Marc Frank is a journalist in Havana. He's covering this story. Welcome to the program, sir.

MARC FRANK: Hello, good morning.

INSKEEP: So what did the dissidents plan to do?

FRANK: Very simply, they planned to set up a microphone and a speaker in front of the headquarters of the Communist Party and the Cuban state and let people go up to that mic and just speak out on how they felt about the country and its future.

INSKEEP: Just like an open mic event in effect, only to a political cast to it.

FRANK: Yeah, exactly. That basically was the plan.

INSKEEP: Had anything like that happened in Cuba before?

FRANK: There are demonstrations all the time in Cuba. It's very rare that somebody would come in, basically from Miami, and announce that they're going to do this. And of course, the moment is what's really different from the past.

INSKEEP: You said it was unusual someone would come in from Miami and do this. Who were these dissidents?

FRANK: Well, Tania is an artist, lives some in Cuba and mainly in Miami. People now go back and forth. They can have residences in both places. But she's not really well-known in Cuba at all. And she was joined by a number of fairly well-known dissidents, at least outside of the country - Yoani Sanchez, a blogger, and a few others. One of the things that did happen, though, is that text messages were sent from somewhere in Miami to a lot of cell phones here, including mine, basically saying that there's going to be an event at the Plaza de la Revolucion, and there'd be free beer.

INSKEEP: Now, is the timing of the protest or, for that matter, the timing of the arrests in any way connected to the recent U.S. restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba?

FRANK: Yeah, I mean, the promoters of the protest said they were basically testing what this thaw in relations or potential thaw meant. And - so, yeah, it's very clearly time, at a minimum, to see what the Cuban reaction would be. And the Cuban reaction was, as it always is around here, temporary detention, and that was about it. Only 12 people showed up at the site when the demonstration was planned. Meanwhile, there's about 20, 25 people who are either being temporarily detained or basically detained in their houses.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about a subtlety here. Clearly this incident demonstrates that there are severe limits to free expression, free speech in Cuba. But what is it that the government itself says? Does Cuba proclaim that there is free speech and free expression in that country?

FRANK: No. Cuba has always said, we repress opposition because it's always funded or backed by our enemies in the United States or in Miami. And we consider it to be an attempt to overthrow us, so we have the right to repress it. That's basically their position.

INSKEEP: And I want to ask also about the Cuban dissident community, if you can call it that. We've heard from some of them who were very unhappy that the United States decided to normalize relations with Cuba, even though the U.S. says this is a way to try to open up the country. How widespread is that unhappiness with the U.S. as far as you can tell?

FRANK: Within the dissident community, it's very clear about a third oppose the normalization and two-thirds have said they support it with conditions, which are that, you know, continued support for them as we go forward - so about a third. In terms of on the island, it's unanimous. Everybody is overjoyed. There's almost nobody who opposes it. Everybody is thrilled.

INSKEEP: Marc Frank is a freelance journalist in Havana, also author of the book "Cuban Revelations: Behind The Scenes In Havana." Thanks very much.

FRANK: No, a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.