Reaction to Cuba Letter - blog post by Martin Palous

Earlier this month, nearly fifty business leaders, former government and military leaders, and policy experts wrote an open letter to President Obama, entitled “Open Letter to President Obama: Support Civil Society in Cuba”, urging the administration to relax restrictions on Cuba travel, the lifting of the embargo, and increase support for Cuban civil society.

Since its publishing, I have had a series of discussions here in Miami on the implications of the letter. The main problems with the letter, which has been characterized by #CubaNow as “unprecedented and historic,” are as follows:

1. Its main ideas have not been discussed with the major groups of democratic opposition inside or outside Cuba! In result of this, there is practically no support on their side.

The major opposition groups inside Cuba – UNPACU, ALDECU (Guillermo Fariñas, José Daniel Ferrer, and Elizardo Sánchez), La Otra Cuba, Estado de SATS (Antonio Rodiles), and even Arco Progresista (Manuel Cuesta Morúa), all expressed reserved and rather negative responses to the letter. They question why the U.S. government should send such a signal to Havana now. The same reaction comes from the exile community – Cuban American National Foundation (Omar López Montenegro), PAC (Mauricio Claver-Carone), Directorio Democrático Cubano (Orlando Gutiérrez), and many others.

One cannot say that reactions to the letter come from “old-timers” who are afraid of any change and prefer the status quo, or that it is the typical move of the conservative “right” against the progressive “left.” The criticism comes from ALL sides of the political spectrum and leaves the authors of this initiative in dangerous isolation.

If the authors’ purpose was to support those struggling for democracy in Cuba, reinforce an opening of Cuban society, and avoid feeding divisions of the regime, it has failed.

2. The text suggests a number of steps “to increase support for Cuban civil society.” When the process of democratization finally gets off the ground, micro-entrepreneurs (“cuentapropistas”) should become important partners or allies of independent activists of civil society. But considering the basic facts which characterize Cuba today, this is not yet the case.

Right now, cuentapropistas are controlled significantly by the government. The instruments of its control are numerous; the totalitarian regime can be very innovative in its methods to keep things under its control and according to its own designs.

If one thinks that it is here where a decisive impulse can come on the path towards freedom - to the growth of independent Cuban civil society, which, as we well know from our Central European experience 25 years ago, is absolutely necessary to start the transition from the current economic inefficiency to future prosperity – it is unrealistic and given the global context in 2014, actually a dangerous illusion.

To sum up:

The authors should not put themselves in the position of those who know and are entitled to come with “unprecedented and historic” initiatives. They implicitly labeled all others as fools blinded by their idiosyncratic ideas, or as desperate old-timers, unable or even unwilling to “use this window of opportunity” which, as their letter states, “may not remain open indefinitely.” What makes them believe that there is a window of opportunity here that is already open? Is it really so? Why? And then, which player has power to close it again? Raúl Castro? His successor? Venezuelans, Russians, Chinese, Brazilians?

And what kind of positive signal should the Cuban government provide to prove that the window of opportunity is real? Any positive signal would show that the authors of this letter are right and all others who are skeptical toward the situation on the island are wrong. The major groups of Cuban democratic opposition have agreed that their basic demands can be articulated in the following four points:

  • The release of all political prisoners (including, of course, Alan Gross);
  • The immediate termination of all repressions against the activists of civil society (“actos de repudio”, arbitrary detentions, harassment from the side of state repressive organs, etc.);
  • The speedy ratification and implementation of international covenants of human rights;
  • The recognition that the activists of civil society –not just cuentapropistas - are legitimate partners in the social dialogue; the recognition that they are no longer perceived as “enemies of state” and receive full rights – as all Cuban citizens - to participate in the debate over Cuba’s future.

The last point, as Central Europeans know well from their own transition, is obviously the most difficult one. The road to a full-fledged discussion between the government and democratic opposition may still be very distant. However, the Cuban government can send at least a first signal in that direction, and there are certainly several options open to them. This would prove that there are real reasons for others, including the US government, to consider new positive steps and reciprocate.