HAVANA – Arelys Blanco can’t quite find the words when asked what it’s like to go up against Cuba’s socialist government.
“We go through a lot of pain. Repression, abuse, I don’t even know how to describe it,” she said.
And Blanco, 22, doesn’t expect things to get any easier now that the United States and Cuba have re-established diplomatic ties after more than five decades of hostility. The historic thaw only helps the Cuban government, she said.
“The people are not going to benefit at all. We will continue to be mired in misery, in sadness.”
The vast majority of Cuba’s 1.5 million 20-somethings want nothing to do with politics. But some, like Blanco, have joined the political opposition with hopes of bringing democratic change to Cuba.
“I’m a girl who has never agreed with the regime that’s running this country,” Blanco said. “My dream is that Cuba be free, that there’s a total change.”
Blanco is a member of Ladies in White, one of Cuba’s most visible opposition groups. Members dress in white and march on Sundays in Havana and other cities.
Many Cubans watch the demonstrations with a mixture of curiosity and indifference. They seldom rush to join in or show their support.
“I am sure that the majority of people are with us, the Ladies in White, but they are afraid,” Blanco said. “They’re immersed in fear.”
Cuban officials contend that the group has little support in Cuba. They portray the Ladies in White as “mercenaries” who take their instructions from the U.S. government.
Most Cuban opposition groups rely on funding from the U.S. government or U.S. government-financed organizations.
The State Department refuses to release information about democracy aid recipients, citing a need to protect them from retaliation.
Ladies in White does not discuss its funding. Berta Soler, a Ladies in White leader in Havana, said she is grateful for the support of exiled Cuban “brothers” in Miami.
These “brothers,” she said, paid for the group’s new headquarters, a two-story home in the Havana neighborhood of Lawton. But she said they told her she was not obligated to release details of the transaction.
The U.S. government has given Cuban exile organizations millions of dollars in federal grants over the past decade.
Directorio Democrático Cubano received $8.9 million in grants from 2008 to 2013, tax records show. Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia received $5.8 million from 2007 to 2013, and the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba received $4.1 million from 2009 to 2013.
The U.S. government began operating democracy programs in Cuba in the mid-1990s. Since then, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department has spent more than $284 million for such work.
The State Department plans to spend another $20 million in 2016 to strengthen Cuban civil society and support human rights activists and victims of political repression and their families.
The U.S. government also finances Radio & TV Martí, a Miami-based operation that produces news and information about Cuba. The cost: More than $700 million since the early 1980s.
That brings the cost of the Cuba programs to more than $1 billion.
Supporters of the programs say it’s not enough. A House Appropriations Committee bill proposes boosting State Department funds for Cuba democracy programs from $20 million to $30 million in 2016.
Cuban officials have demanded that the U.S. stop trying to undermine their government.
President Obama told reporters in April, “We are not in the business of regime change.”
Gustavo Machín, deputy director for U.S. affairs at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, isn’t convinced.
"You have to appreciate the words of the president...but you have to see what happens in practice,” he told reporters on July 16. "We recognize the statement by the president, but you have to see the practical impact of what happens, don't you?"
The State Department in February requested $528,000 for a new program called Cuba Outreach Initiative, which will operate out of the American embassy in Havana. Officials want to develop new contacts with Cubans and expand education and cultural exchange programs.
A budget document said the State Department hopes to take advantage of a “unique political window of opportunity" in the hemisphere.
Blanco said U.S. government support is especially important now because Cuban authorities have stepped up their campaign against Ladies in White and other groups, routinely arresting members after they march on Sundays.
While on the streets, Blanco said she passes out photos of political prisoners “so that people find out and know why we’re fighting.”
She was arrested on June 14 and again on July 6. She said uniformed police – both male and female – hit her with their hands while yelling, “Long live Fidel!”
Dellice González, 29, a mother of three, was also detained for several hours, then released.
“They don’t want us to march. They’re very worried about Ladies in White because we have the truth. They’re afraid that people will learn the truth,” said González
She said her confrontations with the police bring her closer to other members of Ladies in White “We’re like a family.”
González joined the group nine months ago and said she’s met many Cubans who support the organization.
“Many people ask to take photos with us. They ask for copies of the (United Nations’) Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They support us, but many are afraid.”
Asked about the future of Cuba, González said, “As long as the Castros are in charge here, there’s no future for me or my children or anyone.”
But she said she refuses to leave Cuba because “my goal is that this change, so my children can live here.
“Why should we leave our own country? We’re all Cuban. There’s no need to leave. We can keep fighting so this changes.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Arelys Blanco's first name.