Antonio Rodiles: Life as a dissident in Castro’s Cuba – Full interview | VIEWPOINT

Roger: Antonio Rodiles, opposition leader
from Cuba. Great pleasure to have you here in Washington. I think it’s extraordinarily
important that the people here in the United States, and for that matter around the world,
continue to care about what’s happening in Cuba and be more and more informed. You’re
a physicist. How does a physicist come to be facing this immovable object of the Cuban
regime? Antonio: I think it’s because of a logic thought. I went to Cuba after sometime –
I was living outside in Mexico and U.S. – because I was realizing that I want to be in my country.
I want to see – I want to get old in my country. When I go back, I realize that it is impossible
to live in this kind of country. It is impossible to live in a place where the government want
to control everything, where you cannot speak out, where you cannot meet with your friends
and say whatever you want. And then my ultimate conclusion was, I need to get involved in
a kind of movement to change the country. And then we start with a project that is called
Estado de Sats where we start to organize debates, exposition, we start to show independent
movies. And there are some things that always happen in totalitarian regimes. If you want
to be free, they try to stop you or at the same time they push you to be more involved.
They say you cannot do this and then you have two options. Okay, you stop to do this or if
you could try to continue, they are going to start to arrest you, they are going to
start to harass you. And then this is pushing you in their way to be in the opposition movement.
Then that’s happened with me. I’ve seen that many people have faced exactly the same reaction.
They get a little involved, and at the same time, the secret police or the political police
push you to be more active in your activities. Roger: Tell us a little bit about a historic
meeting you had with President Barack Obama in Havana recently. Tell us a little bit about
your exchange, his reaction, whether that gave you hope as someone advocating change
in Cuba. Well, I think
that the historical meeting was a good opportunity to tell directly to the President what we
see is happening right now in our country. I think we are facing really a critical situation.
Almost after 60 years, the regime is trying to change in order to transfer the power to
their family. Here we are facing a kind of tropical dynasty from Raul Castro to his son.
We want to give the clear idea to the President that we are really concerned about that, that
the regime can’t do that. We want to stop this plan. And that’s why we were talking
with him about what we think that we need also as a Cuban opposition, and also as
Cubans in order to avoid that and to take our country in the direction of a real democracy,
and to establish in our country a rule of law. Roger: Before you tell us what his reaction
was, I think this is extraordinarily important. The impression that the American people…was
given, is that the President’s change in policy, his engagement of the regime, increased the
chances of some sort of economic and political opening, and increased the chances of a transition
beyond the Castros. But you’re actually talking that in recent months really – since the President’s
initiative – the Castros introduced this plan B; this dynastic transition. That’s, I think,
extraordinarily important. What was the President’s reaction when you raised these issues with
him? Antonio: He was listening. He was listening to all the people that were in the place,
especially Berta Soler. I know her personally. She is a fighter for freedom, too. And she’s
also inside of the Forum for Rights and Freedoms, the political platform where we are together.
She was giving also a strong message about the violation of the human rights. And he
was listening to all the messages from all different people and he was mentioning that the compromise
that the U.S. has with the promotion of the human rights, the defense of the human rights. But
we insist that we need more support to face the reality, that the government is…to face
the way that the government is behaving in Cuba. They are completely focused to finish
with the opposition movement. They are completely focusing the plan of the dynasty transfer
of power. And we are in total compromise to stop that. I think he understood. But for
sure, they already have one agenda. I think that it is important to read for the reality
what is happening, and then, from that, to change it if is the necessity. And I think that it’s
important that the President can listen, that probably they have some plans, they have some
idea of what they want to provoke in the Cuban society. But right now, we understand that
the regime is the one that is taking more advantage of the new policy. We need a change
in that. We need that the real benefits from this new policy be the Cuban people, and we
are focused to engage the American government to be involved in the kind of change that
is to provoke a real change to democracy in Cuba. Roger: Essentially you’re asking the
President to keep his word, asking the American people to keep their word. The President spoke
when he was in Havana in a broadcast that the regime let out. In very profound, terms
the President made an intense defense of democracy, human dignity, the necessity of empowering
the Cuban people so they can build a better life for all of the people in Cuba, and for
that matter, to mend with the Cuban diaspora that lives in Miami. But again, very stout
defense of democracy and this voice being heard throughout the island of Cuba. Tell
us a little bit about the reaction of the Cuban people. Did this build hope in the Cuban
people in a way that you think will be a meaningful…have a meaningful corrosive effect on the ability
of the regime to keep things under control? Antonio: To be honest, in my case, I was expecting
more. Well, this is my case; I am involved in the political process and I am part of
that process. My colleagues that are also involved, we expect that the President will
be talking clearly about the position movement, about the repression that we are suffering.
But at the same time, we understand that the speech was a good speech for most of the Cubans.
They got the message, they saw for the first time 60 in years – almost 60 years – to see
a president from a democratic country talking about democracy, talking about freedom. And
people received in a really good way this message. I think that part of the visit was important.
And I think that, for sure, it’s going to have an impact in the Cuban society. Even
though we are expecting more actions. We are expecting more legal action. We are facing
really a repressive situation right now. The regime is behaving more violent every day,
especially against women. They decide to beat everybody that try to speak out, to say what
they think. And honestly, we need more engagement from the international community in the issues
of democracy and promotion of human rights. Roger: Right. And these words, “Stalinist
dictatorship,” “totalitarian dictatorship,” repression. They all sound political science,
clinical but I think the American people don’t understand that if they were to Google your
name – Antonio Rodiles – in images, they would see you looking very differently than you
do now because frankly the regime beat the hell out of you. And Berta Soler, same thing.
And Google “ladies in white images.” And on a weekly basis, dragging women down the
street because they want to go to mass or they want to talk about human rights or beating
you senseless. I think right around the President’s visit, what are the costs that people like
you pay for standing up to this regime? Antonio: It’s difficult to explain because you were
talking about the physical cost that we are paying, but we pay also another kind of cost.
They are interacting over our family, they want to make pressure over our families, the
psychological pressure, too. They always are sending the message that they have the control
of our life. I can explain you the difference that we feel when we get outside of the country
and we land here in U.S. and we can visit our friends and talk. And we don’t feel that
something is watching everything that we are doing, listening everything that we are doing.
It is difficult to explain when you are leaving inside of a totalitarian country what do you
feel when you go to a free country. But at the same time, we feel that it is necessary
to keep moving in the direction of… Roger: Right. And point of fact, you’re in a hurry
to get back to Havana, right? Back to Cuba? Antonio: Yes, in a few days, we are going to be back
in Havana. But when we are visiting free countries and we go back, we go with more strength.
We feel more engaged to fight for the freedom of our country. And I think that even if the
way is a hard way, I think…I’m completely sure that we are going to win and soon we
are going to have a democratic Cuba for everybody. Roger: Right, well, I think the President
was dead on when he said, “If you want to see what Cuban people can do, look at South
Florida.” Antonio: Exactly. Roger: In Miami. And I think that is a very compelling point.
When we organized this event and spoke about it publicly, I received a message from a Cuban
American – very earnest, sincere message – saying, “I hope you’re not too tough on the President’s
opening to Cuba.” Because quite frankly, he’s trying to extend some economic opportunity
to these poor people. Let me ask you, does the Cuban regime keep people poor as a means
of control? Because lot of people just think that…well, that’s socialism. Guess what?
It doesn’t work. But I’m firmly convinced, (give away the ending here) that it is a means
of control. Yes, socialism doesn’t work. You have a sugar harvest at 1918 levels or whatever
it is. But I think also if you have 11 million Cubans, most of them, vast majority of them
just thinking about, “How am I going to feed my kids today?” it makes less likely that
they’re going to be involved in opposing the regime. It’s probably a little bit of both,
but what are your thoughts? Antonio: I think that there is a kind of synergy in this logic.
There is a kind of synergy in what you are mentioning. In one hand, you have that the
government knows that if the people are living in a miserable condition, if the people are
poor, they don’t have time, they don’t have the tools to face the regime. But at the same
time, when you have a totalitarian regime and the main goal of everything is to keep
the power, those dynamics also provoke misery in the country. And I think that this is something
that is like a cycle. They want to keep the power and this is provoking misery and at
the same time the misery provoke that they easily keep the power. This is something like
a cycle. And for sure, we need to break that. Roger: The very definition of the vicious
cycle. And what role can we play? The President’s proposition now is, if we can extend new alternatives
for partnerships with the Cuban regime, that it will gradually change. That it will allow
a little more economic space. We’re only a year or so into this proposition but have
there been meaningful, irreversible openings by the regime or has the regime actually – we
know they have in terms of violent repression – but on the economic side, have they actually
ratcheted down, reduced the opportunities for the Cuban people? Antonio: The regime
is clear. It’s so clear in what they want to do. And they even are speaking about that.
But the logic is completely focused in to transfer the power to their families. I think
they are focusing that they know that to do that they need…it’s the moment to give the
idea that they are going to make certain change. Because they cannot keep the same style of
communist totalitarian regime. But at the same time they are moving carefully in order
to don’t lost the power. I am completely sure, they have been talking about that. They are
not going to give really economic opportunities for the Cuban people because they know that
if they start to move in that direction, sooner or later they are going to lose the control.
And they are completely afraid also about the Cuban-American community that is just
90 miles from Cuba. Then they are so clear in what they need to do. And they sometimes
try to create a kind of fantasy that they can move forward and make certain reforms.
But if we know exactly the nature of the regime, we are complete. We know also that they are
not going to move in the direction that can provoke a real change in Cuba. Roger: Absolutely…I try not to question the President’s good faith, his willing, his interest in bringing
about change. I do question his judgment about whether he understands who he’s dealing with.
And as you say – and this dynastic transition is is a new angle that I think it has
to be discussed more. As long as he’s keeping the power in the family – to Raul Castro’s
son or Fidel Castro’s son – that they’re willing to sort of generate a little more economic
opportunity as long as it’s absolutely under the control of the family and the regime.
For example, the hotels. The President’s emphasizing flooding Cuba with American tourists. It’s
actually filling up the hotels, the vast majority of which are run by the military. Is that
correct? Where does those tourists’ dollars go? And how does the regime go about sort
of restricting contact of Cubans with tourists? Antonio: Well, I’ve seen that many people
ignore that the person that is controlling the holding company, at the same time having
relation with the foreign companies and with the tourist sector. The person that is controlling
that is the son-in-law of Raul Castro. They now want to have the monopoly of the tourist
sector. And it is important to say also that the so-called “paladares” – small
restaurants, the ones that can have more contact with the tourists – most of them are related
with the power, in one way or another. And if you have in Cuba a business that have certain
profit, you at the same time need to behave yourself. You cannot be talking too much because
they have the tools to close your business. It is important to mention that in Cuba, the
people that are in that so-called cuentapropistas… Roger: Self-employed. Antonio:
Exactly. Self-employee. They don’t have a legal entity. They don’t have property rights.
They don’t have a license to import and export. Then always they’re moving between the legal
and illegal system. Roger: And always vulnerable to the state. Antonio: Exactly. I think they
build it in that way because they want that the people feel that they are vulnerable to
the system. Roger: Absolutely. And they have a system of vacuuming cash out of people’s
pockets. The tourists come in, they tip – and Americans are better tippers than Canadians –
and that’s great. But the system, you were saying to me earlier, that the taxes on the
income of the self-employed – it sounded astronomical. Antonio: Yes. I always like to mention, how
it’s working, the tax system in Cuba. It is important to say that in the income tax, after
they have a kind of progressive way… Roger: Aggressively progressive. Antonio: Yes. And
when you are over $2000 per year, you need to pay 50% of your income and this is completely
amazing. Then who can say that we are going to have a new class of micro businesses,
and medium and small businesses, when you need to pay that taxes? It is impossible to grow
with this kind of taxation. Roger: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Cuba’s future?
Antonio: I’m completely optimistic because of the people in Cuba. We have seen in the
last time that the reaction of the people is different. Before, we were accustomed to
see the police repressing the activists in the street, nobody complained, nobody say
anything. Sometimes even some activists go to the street to try to have contact with
the people and the people were afraid. And we are facing now a completely different situation.
There is a lot of videos showing that sometime the police is coming to arrest a human rights
activist or political activist. And people go there and they try and they
avoid that these people be arrested by the police. And also there are lot of videos also
showing a small protest in the street. Sometimes they throw information and people go and they
need to tell you that information and to read. And these scenarios completely different.
This scenarios completely different and that’s why we are optimistic. I think that people
are too tired of these regime. And I completely sure that soon we are going to see a different
dynamics inside of the country. Roger: Tell me, to sum up here, how are you able to move
in and out of Cuba now? There was a time when it was total isolation. It seems to be that’s
one thing that has changed where the government is allowing people to come and go and not
forcing them to stay in exile. Antonio: I think with this change, they have been sending
a signal from the beginning. And the signal is, “You can go outside, you can speak, but
when you return to the country, we are the owner of the country. And be careful because
we can put you in jail, we can do whatever we want.” But at the same time, they need
to pay certain cost because they are forced to show a different face. They cannot be behaving
the same way that they behaved before. They need to say that this is not the previous
totalitarian regime. And that’s why some way they decide to take that step. I think and
at the end, for sure, people are receiving more information, more contact. And this is
going to, little by little, to make a change. Also because, as I mentioned before, the desire
to be free of the people cannot be stopped by that regime. Roger: Yeah. I agree with
you 100%. I saw someone who was a firm defender of President Obama’s opening policy of normalization
with Cuba and small opportunities for investment for outsiders. And she commented, “I’m afraid
that political freedom will have to wait.” And I was thinking, “Why is she afraid?” I
mean, it’s the Cuban people who pay that price. And why can’t these people, who want to invest
in Cuba, also say, “We want the rule of law, we want to be able to pay our workers, we
want to be able to choose our workers, we want to be able to…that our workers not
be under pressure from the regime, adequately compensated by us?” And so it seems like sort
of a cop-out, evading responsibilities, people that say, “I want to invest in Cuba but we’re
going to have to just wait for a change.” Is it fair for the Cuban people to have to
wait? Antonio: I always like to make a comparison. Can you imagine which will be the answer of
Rosa Parks if somebody said to her, “Don’t worry try, to buy your bus. Try to start with
your small business, and little by little, in some moment, you will buy your bus and
nobody’s going to care if you sit in the main seat or if you go to the back seat.” And I
think that nobody’s going to accept that. I want to be free. Roger: It’s a great example.
Antonio: I want to be free in my country. I cannot wait anymore. Many people have been
waiting for a long time. And I think that Cubans need to be free right now and we are
going to continue pushing for that. Roger: And with people like you coming and telling
us about the reality, I hope we can motivate the American people to care and make them
impatient for change and freedom in Cuba, too. Thank you very much, Antonio. Antonio: Thanks.
Thanks so much. Roger: Great pleasure. Antonio: Thank you. Roger: God bless. Antonio: Thank


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