On March 18th – hours before the United States launched its military attack against Iraq – Cuban dictator Fidel Castro began a massive crackdown on human rights activists, independent journalists, and opposition leaders. After their arrests, 76 dissidents faced trials that lasted less than one day and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years.
Brian Dean is director of the Latin America and Caribbean program at the International Republican Institute in Washington, an organization that supports democracy and good governance worldwide. He compares the Cuban opposition to civil rights activists in the United States or democracy activists in the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe.
“They are the manifestation of a human rights movement,” he says, “and a peaceful struggle for democracy as pure in motive, deed and action as the struggle for racial equality in the United States, worker solidarity in Poland and similar struggles for basic inherent human rights throughout history. The moral support and encouragement for these brave democrats by an international solidarity network in the United States, Europe, and throughout the Western Hemisphere, including the Cuban exile community, is critical to keeping this struggle in the mind and consciousness of policy makers and leaders and people throughout the world.”
In the past, such a harsh crackdown might have silenced the opposition, effectively removing their efforts from the world consciousness. But according to a survey of civic resistance actions in Cuba conducted by the Miami-based Cuban Democratic Directorate, that hasn’t been the case.
Orlando Gutierrez, national secretary of the Directorate, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting democratic change in Cuba and respect for human rights, recently addressed the future of Cuba’s democracy movement at a conference at the International Republican Institute.
Mr. Gutierrez says that if anything, the repression carried out by the Castro regime has strengthened the opposition. He recalls a conversation he had with Oswaldo Payá, an activist in the Christian Liberation Movement in Cuba and the national coordinator of the Citizens Committee for the promotion of the Varela Project, a petition signed by some 11,000 Cubans requesting a referendum to guarantee Cubans basic civil liberties.
Mr. Gutierrez says Oswaldo Payá told him that despite the crackdown, the Varela Project and the civic movement survive.
“I spoke with Oswaldo (Payá),” he says, “right before he left on a long trip throughout the island to meet with activists and leaders, to meet with the families of those who are imprisoned. And I spoke to him right after he came back. And when he came back, he was very upbeat, very enthusiastic. He told me, ‘Wherever I went throughout the island, I found that the population was not avoiding activists, but that it was actually expressing support for them. We found that the activists still on the streets had not been intimidated by the arrests, but instead had been inspired by the example given by those who were arrested and tried and condemned.’”
Mr. Gutierrez points to what he calls the Castro regime’s incoherence in how it handles opposition as a sign of dissent within the Cuban government. For example, in May 2002, Castro allowed former U.S. President Jimmy Carter into Cuba, where he gave a nationally televised speech that mentioned the Varela Project. Barely two months later, Castro organized against the project by mobilizing the Communist Party to gather three million signatures on a petition in support of one-party rule.
“A few months later under considerable pressure from the Europeans, and the European left in particular,” Mr. Gutierrez says, “the regime allows Oswaldo Payá to go on his trip to Europe to receive the Sakharov Award (for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament.) We saw how damaging that trip by Payá around the world was to the regime. And that same regime a few months later in March cracks down and arrests more than 100 people and condemns 76 to prison sentences.”
Mr. Gutierrez says these actions are a sign that a transition from dictatorship to democracy might be near.
“We’re seeing that there are differences within the regime that are becoming evident in its public policy,” he says. “And when a regime as harsh and as dictatorial as Castro’s begins doing this, begins contradicting itself publicly, it begins to lose power in the eyes of the people, because fear begins to diminish. Something that Philip Dimitrov said which I will never forget, ‘Transition begins when people begin to lose fear.’ And in Cuba, people have begun to lose fear.”
Philip Dimitrov, former Prime Minister of Bulgaria and the country’s first post-Communist leader, also attended the conference on Cuba’s democracy movement. He was on hand to share his country’s experience with the transition from an authoritarian state to a democracy.
“Eventually the leadership of the Cuban revolution should be in Cuba,” he says. “It is of extreme importance to guarantee that the people who now live in Cuba and fight Castro will feel that this is something being done by them. So without the names of those who are leading, without developing these names, without making efforts to give them name recognition and position them in a position that breeds trust it will be very difficult for them to manage.”
There is growing dissent within Cuba, even among those who support Castro. Most of this discontent stems from frustration with the declining economy on the island. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the billions of dollars in financial support it gave Cuba dried up too. These days the average monthly pay is less than $10 and most families rely on remittances from relatives abroad. Government food rations are meager and often do not last through the month.
Therefore, many observers wonder why the Castro regime would jeopardize vital commercial ties with the European Union to put down this non-violent human rights movement made up mostly of librarians, journalists and democracy activists. The European Union objected to the crackdown as well as the summary trials and executions of three young men who hijacked a ferry boat in an attempt to flee the island. Castro gave up EU humanitarian support in protest.
Orlando Gutierrez says the end of the EU’s engagement with the Castro regime is significant because it de-legitimizes the regime. Before Europe blamed the 42-year U.S. embargo for keeping the regime in power. Not any more he says.
“European policy makers have come to the conclusion, or many of them have,” he says, “that for change to come to Cuba, regime change must take place. And that for this change to be truly profound the change must be peaceful. The only true exponents of nonviolent change in Cuba are the leaders of the island’s civic movements. Therefore support for these leaders becomes a key element in promoting this nonviolent change.”
Mr. Gutierrez says the more isolated Cuba’s governing elite becomes as a result of Castro’s policies the more the cracks in the regime will be evident. Democracy in Cuba is possible before Castro dies, but that will only happen if the international condemnation continues to grow.