A government supporter (right) chants as members of the dissident group Ladies in White hold up images of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a prisoner who died of a hunger strike, on the anniversary of his death Feb. 23 in Havana.
On Friday, authorities in Cuba will put U.S. contractor Alan Gross on trial. He's facing a 20-year prison sentence, accused of trying to set up satellite Internet networks in a plot to undermine the government.
Fidel and Raul Castro have been in power longer than any ruler in the Middle East, but Gross's trial and other recent events on the island are a reminder of the differences between Cuba and Libya or Egypt.
Social media sites have been powerful organizing tools in the Middle East, but they are of little use to the small opposition movement in Cuba, the least-connected country in the hemisphere. When some activists tried to organize a protest through Facebook last week, no one showed up.
Long-time Castro critic Elizardo Sanchez argues that while Middle Eastern governments are autocratic, Cuba's system is totalitarian.
"This is a government with an enormous capacity for social control," Sanchez says. "The Cuban people aren't ready to rise up like they did in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya."
Cubans are too intimidated by the regime, and they are almost entirely dependent on it for their economic well-being, Sanchez says.
'I'm Going To Keep Fighting'
Through an agreement with the Catholic Church and the Spanish government, Cuba has been emptying its jails of political prisoners. Eight months ago, there were more than 50 jailed Cubans who were considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. Today, there are five.
But the former prisoners are not likely to lead an anti-Castro uprising anytime soon. Of the 70 who have been released so far overall, only about 10 remain on the island. Most chose to go to Spain.
Every Sunday outside a Havana cathedral, the Ladies in White march and chant "Freedom!" It's the only act of public protest tolerated by the government. For years the group's members have demanded the release of their jailed husbands and relatives. Now many of the men are out, like Angel Moya Acosta, freed last month after eight years.
"I'll keep fighting alongside my brothers here in Cuba for freedom, rights and justice," Moya said at a recent protest. "I won't stop denouncing the Cuban regime and teaching others about human rights."
Within minutes, Moya was arguing heatedly with a Cuban state television crew, and the shouting match spilled over into the street.
As the film crew yelled pro-Castro slogans, Moya, the Ladies in White and a handful of others chanted "Zapata lives!" and waved photocopied pictures of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a prisoner who died of a hunger strike a year ago.
Several passing cars slowed to watch, but no one stopped to join the protest.
An 'Act Of Repudiation'
Even Jonathan Farrar, the top U.S. official in Cuba, acknowledged in a leaked 2009 cable that Cuba's dissidents are divided and have little following on the island. Whenever they do try to demonstrate elsewhere, the government's response is swift. But instead of guns and tanks, pro-government crowds surround protesters and scream obscenities and insults at them in what are known as "acts of repudiation."
On the Feb. 23 anniversary of Zapata's death, more than 100 teenagers and university students swarmed the Havana home of Laura Pollan, a leader of the Ladies in White. They threw an egg at her door, and stayed for more than five hours, calling her ugly, crazy and worse, with puerile songs and chants that seemed like something out of a nasty summer camp.
Plainclothes state security agents stood by, doing little to hide their role in both facilitating the event and making sure things didn't get out of hand. Law student Alejandro Gonzalez had shouted himself hoarse.
"We're young Cubans who support the revolutionary process and are against these mercenaries who are paid by the U.S. government," Gonzalez said.
A new documentary on Cuban state TV features wiretapped phone calls of conversations between dissidents on the island and Miami exiles, showing their alleged political and financial ties to militants the government considers terrorists.
The star of the program is a journalist and contributor to U.S.-funded Radio Marti who has worked with dissidents for years. As it turns out, he's really Agent Emilio, an undercover Cuban security official.