HAVANA – When Minerva Alvarez gazed out of her window as dawn broke two weeks ago, she spotted something colorful lying on the bare concrete patio in her front yard.

Stepping out of her low-slung house, Alvarez walked a few steps, leaned over and picked up two small pamphlets. She recoiled when she saw a photograph of President Bush on one of them.

“I took it straight to my husband,” she said. “I didn’t want to read it.”

What Alvarez and scores of residents of her impoverished Havana neighborhood found at their doorstep was a pocket-size reprint of Bush’s Jan. 20 inaugural address in which he vowed to free the world of tyranny.

The speech and a second pamphlet containing the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights arrived anonymously in the dead of night and are part of an escalating U.S. government program to spur political change in this one-party state.

For decades, the U.S. government’s attempt to penetrate Cuba with information has had limited success. Cuban authorities routinely jam Radio and TV Marti, the anti-Castro broadcasts produced in Miami, and Internet access on the island is limited.

The clandestine, door-to-door leafleting is the latest in the Bush administration’s stepped up effort to reach citizens who have little access to public information outside Cuba’s government-controlled media.

In Zamora, a neighborhood of concrete homes and wood shacks packed tightly together, the pamphlets were met with dread, suspicion and curiosity. Although rumors about anything out of the ordinary usually spread like wildfire in Cuba, residents here have largely kept quiet about the mysterious pamphlets.

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Mitchel Hernandez, a 31-year-old gardener, found the pamphlets in a walkway leading to his home and tossed them out.

“I’m not interested in them,” he said, leaning against the side of a building. “These pamphlets don’t solve anything.”

But Emilio Roja said he put the pamphlets aside to read later. Shown copies of the two booklets, Roja flashed a nervous smile.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” the 40-year-old said. “Here everyone is afraid. If you have this, you can be put in prison.”

Danilo Barrero Perez, a 52-year-old construction worker, sidled up on his bicycle. He eavesdropped on the conversation, then moved closer.

“The idea is good that everyone can express themselves,” Barrero Perez said. “But who will talk to Fidel? We have had more than 40 years of the same thing.

“Fidel is like a horse with blinders on,” he added. “I read the Human Rights Declaration, and I signed the Varela Project. I am not afraid to say so, but nothing happens.”

Headed by opposition activist Oswaldo Paya, the Varela Project collected thousands of signatures in recent years to petition for democratic reforms. Cuban authorities ignored it.

“There are a lot of things that are not going well,” said Roja, who said he was a political prisoner in the 1980s. “Things have to change. I don’t have hope for myself but maybe for future generations.”

Halfway down the block, a 20-something man said he spotted the fliers in the early-morning darkness and thought they were children’s books. He brought them inside, turned on the light and saw the photograph of Bush.

“What is this?” he thought. He opened his front door and peered outside.

“The rumor is that Cuban state security are giving them out to see who is allied with the opposition,” he said.

The resident said he read Bush’s speech but was unmoved because he opposes the Iraq war and dislikes the president.

“If it was another person, it would have inspired me,” he said.

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Juan Dominguez, a 49-year-old seaman, said the pamphlets were just another tool for the U.S. government to impose its will on Cuba.

“I’m against these pamphlets,” Dominguez said as he repaired an old Russian motorcycle. “There is no reason for the United States to be involved in our affairs. We are a free country. We don’t go to the United States and hand out information.”

Several doors down, Lazaro Gonzalez, a 58-year-old ice cream vendor, said he backed Castro and called the United States hypocritical for distributing fliers about democracy and human rights.

“How many crimes have been committed by the Americans at the Guantanamo base?” Gonzalez asked, referring to the U.S. naval station in Cuba where hundreds of terrorism suspects are detained. “How many Iraqis have been killed? This is what Bush should be concerned about.”

Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy group, said the leaflets are designed more to irritate Castro than to cause change on the island.

Erikson said Cubans have become extremely “risk adverse” because they live in a police state. Cuban authorities have made clear that anyone associated with the U.S. government-financed program is a traitor who could be jailed.

“Cubans do not see it to be in their own interest to be accepting or reading these flyers,” Erikson said. “It’s not that people are not interested in democracy. But the U.S. is not the best messenger.”

Wayne Smith, a former top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, said exiles in Miami have periodically airdropped leaflets over Cuba since the 1959 revolution. He said the current effort apparently is the first of its kind involving Cuba and the U.S. government.

“Giving out copies of Bush’s speech and thinking it will change people’s minds is really stupid,” said Smith, a frequent critic of U.S. policy.

But the Zamora resident who handed out the fliers said he did it because he hates Castro and communism and doesn’t care if he ends up in prison.

“I’m fighting for freedom,” said Raduel Martinez Gomez, 25, who got a boxload of pamphlets, books and other materials from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, the country’s diplomatic seat absent full relations.

Martinez Gomez described how he grabbed two fistfuls of fliers and walked the bumpy, potholed streets of Zamora for six hours distributing them.

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When the police passed, he tucked them under his armpits or into his back pockets and waistband and continued.

Sometimes he hands the fliers directly to them. Some residents call him a gusano, worm, or escoria, scum. Others thank him and ask for more.

He said the pamphlets probably won’t bring an end to Castro’s government, but it makes him feel good to distribute them.

“If they throw them out or don’t read them, what can I do?” he asked. “I do it because I feel like I have to do it.”



(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): uscuba-leaflets


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