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Monday, April 25, 2011

The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Cuba

The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Cuba

Carl Gershman, President
The National Endowment for Democracy

Remarks given at the Cuban American National Foundation.

I am delighted to join you today to take part in the inauguration of the Jorge Mas Canosa Freedom Fund. I am honored that you have asked me to say a few words on this important occasion. Though I was not an intimate associate of Jorge's, I knew him well enough to appreciate the strength of his character, the depth of his commitment to freedom and democracy in Cuba, and the force of his determination to liberate the land where he was born. He died before his dream could be realized. But I am sure that there is not a person here who does not believe with deep conviction that Cuba will one day be free, that the heavy weight of despotism will be lifted from the backs of the Cuban people, and that the long night of totalitarianism will ultimately give way to the morning sun of liberty.

We believe this not because the biological clock ticks, even for Castro, but because the aspiration to freedom is part of human nature -- it defines human nature -- and no individual or idea or man-made system can alter the course of history or the destiny of mankind. Certainly Cuban communism, which today appears more tattered, cynical, and corrupt than ever before, will not be able to defy indefinitely the established norms of international behavior and the irrepressible will of the Cuban people. The worldwide ideological collapse of communism has removed the Castro regime's only claim to legitimacy. It now stands naked before the world not as the embodiment of a revolutionary idea but as a pathetic anachronism, a group of demagogues who cling ever more desperately to power as they become increasingly irrelevant to the new shape of the world at the end of the twentieth century.


Nothing more clearly demonstrates the bunker mentality of the Castro regime than its behavior since the Pope's visit to Cuba. According to The Economist magazine, within hours of the Pope's departure, groups of "special brigade" police were on every street corner harassing young people strolling in the park, and Castro's brother and armed-forces chief Raul declared emphatically that there remained only two alternatives for the country: "Socialism or death!"


The Pope urged that "the world open itself to Cuba" and that Cuba "open itself to the world." There has certainly been evidence of the world opening itself to Cuba. Spain finally named an ambassador to Havana and proposed that Cuba be given permanent observer status in the Lome Convention negotiations. Italy's foreign minister visited Cuba, the first such visit in thirty years, as did a number of prime ministers from the English-speaking Caribbean, while Guatemala and the Dominican Republic established full diplomatic relations with Cuba. The United States lifted its ban on direct flights and remittances to Cuba, and the United Nations Human Rights Commission voted to end the seven-year mandate of the Commission's Special Rapporteur on Cuba.


These and other initiatives by the international community were not reciprocated in any way by the Cuban government. Castro used the occasion of a visit by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien in April to declare that U.S. officials should be tried for war crimes because of the sanctions, which he equated with a holocaust. Just in case anyone missed the point, he declared after seeing Chretien off at the airport that "We are not going to change. We are going to continue defending our cause and our socialism."


Similarly, the Brazilian foreign minister Luiz Felipe Lampreia visited Cuba in June to discuss the island's "reintegration into the international community" and, in particular, a possible joint declaration on human rights similar to one Brazil issued with China. After the visit Lampreia said that "Cuba is not ready for dialogue," and that the government had exhibited a "great rigidity...and no disposition whatsoever to discuss the issue of human rights."


In the words of a Vatican official, "The world is opening to Cuba, but Cuba is not opening to the world, as the Pope requested."


According to a report just issued by the Center for a Free Cuba, the Cuban regime has either stonewalled or regressed on each of the Pope's eight specific appeals:


First, on education, it has rejected the Vatican's request for Catholic schools.


Second, on human rights and freedom of expression, the government has declared that the country's totalitarian legal structures will not be altered and that no form of "counter-revolution" would be tolerated. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, in its recently issued annual report, stated that "Despite the implicit promises made to Pope John Paul II that there would be more space for freedom of expression, Castro continues controlling all the press and harassing independent journalists, who are routinely arrested, jailed, beaten or forced into exile, especially before major political events."


Third, on political prisoners, in response to the Pope's appeal for their release and reintegration into Cuban society, between 82 and 96 prisoners had been released by the end of February. But this was not even a token gesture since roughly an equal number as had been released between January and April had been jailed or were in the process of being tried during the same period, and the majority of those released had already served most of their terms and were not among those arrested in the 1996 crackdown on the dissident umbrella group Concilio Cubano or in the wave of repression that occurred during the spring and summer of 1997. Moreover, according to human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez, government harassment and denial of employment still forces ninety percent of released political prisoners to seek asylum abroad.


Fourth, on abortion, the government has ignored all of the Pope's appeals and recommendations to reform practices, including sending teenagers away from their homes to the fields for "work study," that have given Cuba one of the highest abortion rates in the world.


Fifth, on dialogue and reconciliation, the government has not only ignored a number of dissident groups that took up the Pope's call for dialogue, but actually took repressive measures against one such group, a movement of independent farm cooperatives that tried to hold a national meeting in the eastern province of Guantanamo.


Sixth, on freedom of religion, the government has blocked the Church's access to the media and ignored its request to start a radio station. A printing press shipped to Cuba for Church publications was refused an import permit, and recognition has been denied to many small parish-based publications, leaving them subject to harassment and forced closings.


Seventh, on the entry of foreign priests and autonomy for lay Catholic groups, the regime has let the backlog of priests and missionaries waiting for visas grow from 86 in January to 110 in May; it has expelled a U.S.-born priest, the Rev. Patrick Sullivan, as a warning to others not to try to foster human rights, and forced a second priest to leave; it has adamantly insisted that Caritas, the Church's humanitarian relief agency, conduct its work in coordination with the government; and its warehouses continue to reject requests by parishes to purchase powdered milk for soup kitchens. In short, regarding the issue of greater latitude for the Church to carry out its pastoral mission, a Vatican official said in May that "Up to now, nothing has changed in Cuba."


Eighth and last, as we have already seen, the regime has rejected the Pope's appeal to open Cuba to the world.


As a result of Castro's post-visit crackdown, the Pope took the unusual step of summoning Cuba's thirteen bishops to Rome to discuss the situation. Prior to the meeting, Cuba's Cardinal Jaime Ortega stated that "in the life of the nation as well as with reference to relations with the Church, one could have the impression that the Pope's visit to Cuba has been like a parenthesis that opened and closed without major effect."


Following the Pope's departure from Cuba, Elizardo Sanchez said he feared that the Pope's visit, in retrospect, would be seen to have had more in common with the Prague Spring of 1968, in which the democratic aspirations of Czechoslovakia were crushed by Soviet tanks, than with the Pontiff's visit to Poland in 1979, which initiated the process leading to the downfall of communism a decade later.


I disagree with this analysis. It is a mistake to view the Prague Spring as a failure, or for that matter the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Such outpourings of resistance to communism should more properly be viewed as stages in a struggle. The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski explained this to me in 1987, before the downfall of communism. Such failed uprisings, he said, are not really failures since they prepare people for future struggles, which will be waged from a higher level of experience, organization, and consciousness. The Soviet crackdown in Czechoslovakia, like the crushing of Solidarity in 1981 (which occurred, we should remember, after the Pope's visit -- it was not a smooth process of change), concealed the bankruptcy of communism which had made its downfall inevitable if not imminent.


The very same thing is happening in Cuba today. More than any single event in the last forty years, the Pope's visit showed that the Cuban regime is isolated and bankrupt. For the first time, Cuban citizens saw their jefe maximo defer to someone else. For the first time they heard a world leader of vastly superior stature to their strutting caudillo openly criticize the government. For the first time the plazas were filled with Cubans who had gathered to hear someone who was not a state official speak of peace, reconciliation, liberty, truth, and development -- not socialism or death!


While the dictatorship in Cuba still exists, its character has changed fundamentally. Whereas in the early years of the revolution it used repression offensively to reshape the Cuban society and personality, it now exercises repression for purely defensive reasons -- to hold onto power, to shut out the world, to prevent change. It still has the power to repress, and the will to do so, but it has lost the power to persuade -- notwithstanding the recent foolishness of Jack Nicholson who is not as adept at politics as he is at acting.


Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, and economist and a leader of the Domestic Dissidents Working Grop, a coalition of 14 of the largest dissident groups in Cuba, was arrested a year ago following a press conference where the group released an important statement, "The Homeland Belongs to All," a response to the official platform of the Fifth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party. In a letter hand-written on toilet paper and smuggled out of the country, she describes a re-education session in which the woman officer insisted that "you oppositionists are just five or six...as opposed to 11 million." To this she responded: "If that is so, a question arises: If we mean nothing to the political stability of the system, why then are we repressed? Why are we jailed?...Why is it necessary to imprison our ideas?" Why, indeed?


In fact, by most accounts the government's ability to control Cuban society has diminished. The growing number of cases of open arrest and detainment are an indication of the government's weakness, its lack of authority. No longer can the Cuban government wipe out a dissident group by simply arresting its leaders. The opposition is far more widespread than that now. Moreover, the dissident movement is no longer restricted to Havana. According to an analysis prepared by the Cuban Democratic Revolutionary Directorate, a group supported by the NED's International Republican Institute, almost sixty percent of the nonviolent civic resistance actions in Cuba in 1997 took place outside of Havana in the central and eastern provinces of Villa Clara, Camaguey, Santiago de Cuba, and Guantanamo.


This is just one indication of the deepening and broadening of the movement of nonviolent civic resistance in Cuba. According to the same report, the resistance has changed from being composed fundamentally of human rights and political groups to include social and professional associations. Significantly, the reporting on civic resistance is done by independent Cuban journalists, signifying the increased activity of this sector which is vital to the development of a civic conscience on the island. In just the thirteen months covered by the report, ten new organizations or initiatives were begun with a social or professional orientation, including press associations, independent cooperatives and farmers. The leadership of these groups represents a new generation born after 1959, and it consists of a growing number of women. There is also increasing evidence that dissidence has spread beyond the intellectual community to ordinary workers, as in the cases of a hunger strike in Santa Clara and a fisherman's strike in Caibarien, both of which received support from the local populace, and the protest of over 200 private transportation operators in Santiago last October.


Whereas some years ago open denunciations of the government consisted largely of radio broadcasts from outside the island, today the resistance takes the form of direct civic action including hunger strikes, popular protests, sit-ins, labor strikes, conducting seminars and religious services, leafleting, and even presenting candidates in government-controlled elections.


What has happened in Cuba is nothing less than the emergence of civil society -- non-political groups, professional associations, communities, and parishes taking action into their own hands. As we know from the experiences in Eastern Europe, these processes of civic opposition are often a decisive factor in sparking broader opposition and building bonds of community and trust that are often destroyed by years of living under a totalitarian system.


It is hardly surprising that Castro, faced with such a growing opposition from Cuban society, has tried, ever more stridently, to focus international attention on the alleged sins of the United States Government and the Cuban exile community in this country. It is necessary to his survival, and to whatever legitimacy he still maintains in some sectors of opinion, to try to portray the issue of Cuba as a struggle between his government and our government, not between his government and the Cuban people -- anything to deflect attention from the real issue, which is the Castro dictatorship's increasing resort to repression, and the Cuban people's growing consciousness of its dignity, the injustices to which it is subjected, and its entitlement to the same basic human rights that others in the world enjoy.


The Pope's visit did not liberate the Cuban people, because only the Cuban people can do that, which it will. What the visit did was to give momentum to a process of national rebirth that had begun before the visit and will not now be aborted by Castro's repression. This process will take time. This may disappoint and frustrate the friends of Cuba who want to see the Castro dictatorship fall immediately. But it is important to understand that the Cuban nation that is being reborn will be strengthened by virtue of its suffering and struggle and, thus, better prepared for the difficult work of building a democratic Cuba in the post-Castro era.


In this respect, the goal of the Jorge Mas Canosa Freedom Fund -- "to reaffirm democratic principles, protect human rights and educate new generations in the appreciation of these values" -- is exactly on target. It is necessary to extend support to all worthy efforts that foster a process of peaceful transition in Cuban -- to begin now to help lay the foundation for a new Cuba that is free and democratic. This means helping to nurture the seeds of civil society that are beginning to grow in Cuba, to provide books and other forms of information that the regime tries to control, to extend moral and material support to prodemocracy initiatives, and to broaden the consensus in the United States, in Latin America, and throughout the world in favor of a free Cuba.


It also means cultivating in all our actions of solidarity the values of nonviolence, tolerance, and transparency that are exemplified by the emerging movement of civic resistance in Cuba which, even as we meet today, is forging through its efforts and ideals a new nation. In this way, Castro's legacy of hatred will not just be left behind. It will be transcended. And as a result, Cuba will proudly take its place among the nations of the world as a free people, at peace with its neighbors and with itself.

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