Cuba in 2015 from the Central European Perspective

Cuba in 2015 from the Central European Perspective

By Martin Palouš

1. The New US policies

The decision of the US and Cuban Governments to re-establish the diplomatic relations between the two countries has certainly added new dynamism to the debate on Cuba. Two schools of thought are clashing here. The argument of the supporters of the new US policy towards Cuba is clear and simple: the policy of isolation practiced by the US Government in the past has not produced any positive results, so let us try something else! Regardless of how strong the will to hold power and the intense survival instincts of the Cuban totalitarian regime are, there are a growing number of new elements characterizing the current Cuban situation that are not and, by their very nature, cannot be under its control. In spite of all the efforts of the current power-holders to preserve the status quo the Cuban reality today is different from the past and is changing irreversibly with ever growing speed. Yoani Sanchez once said: “Cuba se cambia”, and nobody can stop this trend! The Government of the United States must depart in its policies towards Cuba for the basic fact that any society simply cannot remain the same forever. The constructive engagement of the Cuban Government, the re-establishment of diplomatic relationships between Cuba and the United States and their gradually renewed economic cooperation must be perceived just as a first, but absolutely necessary, step on a journey towards the accomplishment of the ultimate goal the US Government is pursuing here. Its new Cuba policy is certainly not to serve the US “national interests” only, but to enhance – in conformity with the fundamental American values and principles- freedom and prosperity of the Cuban people!

The opponents of the decision of President Obama to engage the current Cuban Government in the process of rapprochement believe to have now strong empirical evidence supporting their point of view. The new US policy is already a year old and nothing has really changed in Cuba. It has generously offered a number of concessions and nothing has been obtained in return. Raul Castro’s Government is still using its traditional methods of control and manipulation, fully endorsing the original ideological visions of Fidel and subscribing to the “revolutionary” program based on them.

The situation, in fact, has worsened for the Cuban people on the island since the “thaw” of the Cuba-US relations was announced. The level of repression used on a daily basis against the members of the awakening Cuban civil society has actually increased.

Raul Castro may be advancing some rational reforms in order to address the basic problems of the Cuban people struggling day after day for their subsistence, and to adjust the Cuban economy to the challenges of the international system emerging in the beginning of the 21st century. It doesn’t mean, however, at all that he is ready to get rid of the “substance” of the Cuban “socialism” being “actualized” now; that he has changed his mind and ceased to be an “unrepentant” communist. He has never made even the smallest effort to extend his economic reform agenda into the political sphere. His principal goal is still what it has always been: to preserve the leading role of the Communist party using all available means at his disposal and oversee a smooth succession of power from the aging Moncadistas - still its principal current holders - to the “politically conscious” members of younger generations.

2. Normalization of the EU-Cuba relations

In February 2014, the Council of European Union Foreign Ministers agreed to start negotiations on a new bilateral agreement between the EU and Cuba. A diplomatic process got off the ground two months later. A declared common intention is to overcome the unproductive and outdated legacies of the past; to adopt a new treaty which should govern the full scope of relations between the EU and Cuba (the political dialogue, cooperation, economic relations and trade) in a single agreement. It should be a standard legal instrument, similar to the treaties regulating the relations of the EU with other states of the ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) Group, all of which, unlike Cuba, are signatories of the “Cotonou Agreement” . As far as the character of normalized” EU-Cuba relationships regulated by a new treaty is concerned, there is a profound difference between the expectations of the two “high contracting parties.”

For the EU, the normalization of this relationship requires Cuba to finally start behaving like a “normal” ACP country; to open up its political and economic system and set itself on the way of national reconciliation: democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and economic prosperity. It implies that all general guidelines the EU has discussed internally and adopted for the various spheres of international cooperation with all other partners from the developing world (such as the “Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy,” adopted on 25 June 2012, for instance) are fully applicable. The revolutionary “exceptionalism” - still aggressively defended by the Cuban Government - is not to be tolerated anymore. It must be replaced unconditionally by the co-operation “in good faith”, based on the joint recognition of all basic purposes and principles of international cooperation as stipulated by the Charter of the United Nations.

Having decided to engage Cuba, the EU is not at all resigning to its principles. Human rights are to “remain at the core of the relationship” between the EU and Cuba - the words of Catherine Ashton, the EU “Minister of Foreign Affairs” in the spring of 2014. This recent decision to re-engage Cuba should not be understood as “a policy change from the past”! The EU 1996 “Common Position” still remains in force! Therefore, the only concession made here is that the EU has agreed to start this process under the existing circumstances, despite the fact that the current state of human rights in Cuba is, for sure, far from satisfactory or even acceptable.

The Cuban Government perceives the normalization of the relationship between the EU and Cuba through its traditional ideological lens and gives it an entirely different meaning. Departing from the sacrosanct principle of “non-intervention into domestic affairs of sovereign states” it sticks to the claim of having free hand to handle the process of Cuban transition in its own way; to keep in power all those who have been ruling in Cuba for decades and are responsible for the current highly unsatisfactory state of affairs on the island and replace them gradually by their heirs being recruited now among loyal and “politically conscious” members of younger generations.

But on the Cuban side, there has also been a positive signal sent to the EU. In the past the Cuban Government conditioned any future engagement with the EU on the strict demand that the said 1996 “Common Position” has to be first lifted. It has now agreed to start this process without any precondition and thus accepted the reality that the respect for human rights is a necessary condition for the EU if any progress is to be made in the bilateral relationship.

3. Sovereignty belongs to the Cuban People!

From the point of view of the activists of Cuban civil society the processes taking place today in the realm of international relations can play only a secondary - just enabling and certainly not decisive – role. The principal demand of those who belong to the Cuban “parallel polis” - the mix of traditional human rights defenders, church activists, members of independent political parties of all colors from the left to the right; public intellectuals, journalists, artists or just open-minded and freedom-loving people without any specific skills or qualifications; blacks or whites, radicals or moderates – reminds us of the demands of East and Central European peoples made in the “miraculous year” of 1989. It is not just a minor improvement of the dysfunctional Cuban state. It is not just an “actualization” of Cuban “socialism.” It is the respect for inalienable human rights and freedoms of Cuban citizens! It is the re-opening of Cuban society being closed for almost six decades by the ruling regime! It is the restoration - by peaceful means and without violence - of sovereignty of the Cuban people! It is the recognition that the Cuban nation - as any other nation in the world – is endowed with “inalienable right to alter or change the shape of its Government”; that it is up to Cubans only – and not in the hands of any foreign power or outside player- to decide the future of their homeland!

There is obviously one vital condition missing if the restoration of sovereignty of the Cuban people is to become reality and the process of democratization finally launched. It is the restitution of the Cuban “political nation” – the re-birth of a body politic in Cuba with a clear sense of purpose and vision, a community of freedom-loving people really showing the will to replace totalitarianism with democracy!

But how is such a national revival to be achieved? Here lies the main challenge for the Cuban democratic opposition. And it is not only to resist, on a daily basis, all of their repressive action from the “ancient regime” still in power, as some of its courageous leaders seem to believe. It is to turn itself into a power capable of opening the way for Cubans to move from their bleak presence to a better future and propose a realistic scenario on how to get out of the current stalemate.

The problem is that the Cuban democratic opposition has always been highly fragmented and consisted of a number of competing factions. In spite of all sorts of calls for unification made in the past – and now again and again - it has not been able to do so. It has not yet offered a realistic program of democratic transformation acceptable for all Cubans as a viable political alternative to the current state of public matters on the island.

4. The relationship with the United States: a historical problem or a historical opportunity?

The persisting disunity within of the Cuban “parallel polis” has manifold reasons and this phenomenon certainly calls for a detailed and historically informed analysis. Such an enormous task obviously exceeds the scope of this short text. There is, however, a key external aspect contributing significantly to the current state of matters that must be reminded here: the complicated relationship between Cuba and the United States which has been developing throughout the 20th century.

The thing is that this relationship has always been, for obvious reasons, highly asymmetrical: on the one side the United States, the leading power of the liberal West with global responsibilities and also corresponding imperialistic ambitions and on the other side Cuba, a relatively small island country in the US neighborhood, belonging to the developing South, exposed historically to all sorts of direct or indirect forms of American influence and manipulations.

And here is how Jose Marti - the “apostle” of Cuban independence and one of the founding fathers of the modern Cuban nation - articulated the basic Cuban political problem in the last decades of the 19th century, the dilemma which stands in my view as the greatest challenge for the leaders of Cuban democratic opposition today. On the one hand it is the United States - “the land of the free and the home of the brave” in the words of the American National Anthem - who is undoubtedly the most important strategic partner and ally of free Cuba. On the other hand, however, an independent Cuban state must vehemently resist, said Marti, to be fully “Americanized”, because its place is within the family of free Latin American nations. It should not be mentored endlessly by the United States or even subjected to the US hegemony. It must be built as “a homeland for Cubans”; their “res publica” resting on their own spiritual and cultural traditions and resources; a vibrant democracy able to bring them into a better future together with other free nations, including Americans, while protecting and further cultivating their own unique Cuban identity.

Those who entered Havana triumphantly in the last day of 1958 in order to form there their “revolutionary” government – in power ever since - of course, immediately started to give this fundamental Cuban raison d’etat, articulated by Marti, their own twisted ideological interpretation. The unrelenting anti-Americanism has quickly become one of the principal political tools in the hands of Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries, to be used indiscriminately to suppress all their - both domestic and international – enemies. It was intentionally built by them into the very foundations of the Cuban totalitarian state. All their critics could then be stigmatized as traitors and persecuted as agents of American imperialism. The defense of the Cuban Revolution against the continuing acts of aggression committed by the United States could be declared as a principal patriotic duty of all Cubans. Whoever refused to support, or at least to get his/her behavior coordinated with this official line, could be eliminated from the Cuban public life at the discretion of the ruling power and severely punished.

And there is no need to add: the Cold War between the East and West which was in full swing in the moment of creation of Cuban “socialist” state, framed the designs of its founders with a highly favorable international environment and contributed decisively to its exceptional stability. In Europe, this conflict ended more than quarter century ago, but the political regime created by the Castro brothers and their cronies in the late 1950s is still here in the 2010s, still using its old, well-tested anti-American rhetoric to remain in power.

Does this new situation - at the end of 2015, when the US and Cuban Embassies function again in the national capitals and more “constructive” steps on the both sides are in the pipeline in the context of “re-engagement” - also open new opportunities for the Cuban democratic opposition? Definitely yes, but under one condition: that it is used creatively to overcome, once for all, the heavy burden of Fidel Castro’s political legacy; that the difference in opinions as far as the new US policy toward Cuba is not perceived as a casus belli in its ranks, as a reason for escalation of “ideological” divisions within Cuban “parallel polis”, but as a call for its unification. The dispute between the supporters and opponents of the steps taken by President Obama and his Administration - a manifestation of political pluralism that lies at the very core of American democracy; a continuing and never-ending struggle taking place on the US political scene which will only intensify in the year of presidential election 2016 – should not paralyze the possibility of dialogue among the Cuban dissidents! Exactly on the contrary, it should be used by them as an opportunity to demonstrate that in spite of all their differences, they stand united by the common goal, able not only to talk to each other, but to act “in concert”.

The most outspoken voices in the debate on Cuba in the United States have always belonged to the Cuban exiles who have arrived to US soil during more than six decades of the Castro dictatorship and have managed to create there a compact, politically influential and economically strong community - having more than two million members now and preserving a strong sense of national identity. What is their place within the Cuban democratic opposition?

There is no doubt that Cuban Americans are indispensable players in this collective effort: they represent an important part of the Cuban nation, and no one serious, as far as I know, has ever proposed that as exiles they should stay out of the struggle for democracy whose center is obviously at home. On the contrary as citizens of the United States they have a special responsibility- a significant role to play in the context of the future development of the endemically asymmetrical US-Cuba relations: to participate actively in the search of a new modus vivendi between Cuba and the United States; to initiate a national debate looking for a balanced, realistic answer to the old question raised by Jose Marti at the very beginning of a still unfinished journey for Cuban freedom and independence. When “actualizing” Cuban socialism, the government of Raul Castro seems to be ready now to treat Cuban Americans with certain respect and not as traitors. He is even ready to welcome them as honored, valuable visitors on the island– as long as they are willing to stay out of Cuban politics and assume the role of providers of financial assistance to their relatives living there; as long as they are ready to accept the fact that a substantive portion of their money will end up in the coffers of Cuban totalitarian state and be used as a means for its survival.

On the contrary, it is the restitution of the Cuban political nation composed of free-minded and committed people from both sides of the Straits of Florida, that the Castro regime is afraid of more than anything else; that therefore should be perceived as the number one priority of Cuban Americans; that is the main reason why all of them, democrats, republicans and independents, should join forces with those who struggle for Cuban freedom on the island and become active carriers of this unifying process.

But let’s be honest and realistic here: to bridge the gap between those who have had to live for the decades exposed to the “totalitarian radiation” and those who have not, is not an easy task. What is being opened here is a genuine “Pandora’s Box”, containing many unsettling questions - especially those touching upon the role of the Cuban-American exile community in the “crises” during the six decades of strained relationships between the United States and the Cuban totalitarian regime, and being systematically, and very “creatively”, used by its propagandistic machinery.

What is required here is the courage to really start the process of genuine national reconciliation, to launch an inclusive national dialogue - involving Cubans of all generations living on the both sides of the Florida Straits, including those who some politicians would like to leave behind: the former political prisoners of the communist regime. There should be no doubt that a true, undistorted record of their encounters with the Cuban recent history – the stories testifying to their patriotism and personal courage, full of suffering, but also of acts of their solidarity with all others who shared their fate - has an important place in the current process of Cuban liberation, bringing into the national debate about the Cuba’s future the questions that should not be just forgotten, glossed over or treated - as some debaters seem to believe - as an old crap belonging to the history’s garbage dump. Just the opposite is true. A new “social contract” among Cubans should, for sure, focus primarily on the Cuban future. But as it has been already convincingly demonstrated in many cases of countries in transition, it cannot be reached without recognition of and justice being served to what has happened in the past.

5. Encuentro National Cubano

At the same time when the US Secretary of State was visiting Havana to re-open the US Embassy, there was another Cuban event taking place in San Juan, Puerto Rico worth of being paid attention to: the Cuban National Assembly (Encuentro Nacional Cubano), the constitunt meeting of a new platform of Cuban democratic opposition. The representatives of twenty three independent entities from Cuba and more than thirty exiled non-for-profits were in attendance. The objective of the “Encuentro” was to launch the debate on the common course of action in the current rapidly changing situation. For the first time the members of non-violent democratic opposition from the island and from the outside of Cuba met in such large numbers and talked to each other with a sense of common goals putting aside their differences, mutual grievances and recriminations. They all seemed to understand that it is their unity and a feasible political program for a new Cuba in the 21st century, what should become their most powerful weapon in their political, i.e. non-violent struggle against the obsolete totalitarian regime. Thus, what could be seen at the San Juan Cuban gathering was something really unprecedented: a surprising harmony between home and exile, the reconciliation of two most influential Miami organizations – the Cuba American National Foundation and the Freedom Council. The support pronounced publically by Diego Suarez - one of the veterans of the liberation struggle against “Castro-communism”, now more than eighty years old - to Rosa Maria Paya – twenty seven years old daughter of Oswaldo Paya, whose Projecto Varella had been heavily criticized in the Miami conservative circles in the past – has become a kind of symbolical expression of new spirit of hope and determination which has prevailed at the San Juan meeting and is hopefully in action till today.

The Cuban National Assembly elected from its ranks nine members of its Coordinating Committee – five from the island and four from the exile – and entrusted them to represent the Assembly before the world and be in charge of organization of its activities in the next six months.

The Assembly accepted the strategy of non-violence and peaceful struggle and associated itself with the “Agreement for Democracy” adopted by the major Cuban oppositional groups already in 1998. The Assembly has decided to launch public campaign for the plebiscite with legally binding results demanding free, fair and pluralistic election in Cuba; to look for all the possible way how to tear down the cyber wall which is still preventing the members of internal opposition to communicate effectively among themselves and with the world.

What has also been agreed on by the Assembly, were the fundamental, non-negotiable demands of Cuban democratic opposition: the release of all political prisoners; the abolishment of the Cuban laws, suppressing the fundamental rights and freedoms of Cuban citizens; the recognition of the right to freedom of expression, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and peaceful demonstration; the recognition of the right to religious freedom and free choice of occupation; the recognition of the right to create political parties equally participating in political decisions; the holding of free and fair elections monitored by international observers.

It was also decided that the next Assembly will take place after six months with the basic task to discuss and adopt the National Cuban program for the 21st century. The next Assembly will also assess the current situation of Cuba as well as the results achieved. Based on this assessment, it should come with concrete proposals concerning both its future institutional set up and its further political steps and strategies.

6. The US and the EU “engagement” of Cuba Government and the basic philosophy of “Helsinki process” that brought the end of the Cold War in Europe

In spite of all the differences between the processes of “re-engagement” of Cuban Government recently started by both the United States and the European Union there is one significant similarity here. In both cases three separate “baskets” of problems are being put on the negotiation table in the context of new relationship to be created between the parties: peace and security, economic cooperation and human rights. Both the US and the EU argue - in line with their fundamental values and principles - that the third, i.e human rights basket is an indispensable part of the whole “package.” And both the US and the EU get the same reaction from the Cuban side: the bilateral relationship can be substantively improved, its new mutually beneficial forms agreed, even the proposed dialogue about human rights is possible, but under the condition of full respect for Cuban sovereignty and non-intervention to the Cuba’s internal affairs.

This argument is actually very similar to what the Western diplomats were hearing from their Eastern counterparts when the process of “détente” in Europe was launched in the 1970s. Isn’t it necessary then to draw inspiration from here in order to achieve in the today’s negations with the communist government of Cuba the desired results? Should not the governments of the United States and the EU insist that the Cuban state must not only honor its international obligations in the area of human rights if the negotiations are to move forward in the spirit of cooperation, but stop using the concept of state sovereignty in a way which is obsolete and out of step of current international law - recognizing as its emerging norms the concepts of “democratic entitlement” and “democratic legitimacy”? Should not they insist that any progress in negotiation can be made only after Cuba accepts the notion that the state sovereignty is not absolute or unconditional, because “Governments instituted among Men”, as American Declaration of Independence phrased it, derive their just power from the consent of the governed”? That the state sovereignty is always secondary and contingent to the sovereignty belonging to the people? Shouldn’t they insist that the independent voices of civil society must be also allowed - in an appropriate way - to participate in the process of “rapprochement” and turned into an indispensable “third” party to the agreement which will also be in charge of its implementation?

When in 1975, the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe was signed, there were also many skeptical voices, especially in the United States, that this deal between the East and West to secure the peaceful co-existence of states with “different social and political systems” was a victory of the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and the ultimate confirmation of the status quo which was established in Europe as the result of the Second World War. But just the opposite turned out to be true. The third basket of the Helsinki Accords, however, opened the space for Czechoslovak Charter 77, The Polish KOR and later Solidarnosz, for the Helsinki Committees and other similar bodies emerging first in the Soviet Union itself and later throughout the whole region. It was the Western diplomats who sought and managed to secure for these civic initiatives, sometimes after a very hard fight, at least some level of international recognition. And it was this recognition what empowered them also domestically; what not only created a kind of protective shield against the excessive persecutions of their participants, but opened the way to the miraculous year of 1989 with its wave of peaceful and democratic revolutions which changed radically the political face of the whole region.

The diplomatic processes taking place around Cuba today call for exactly for the same strategy. The Cuban democratic opposition seems to be aware of it and there are multiple encouraging signs that that they are ready to step out internationally as a coherent enough and sufficiently organized body able to communicate effectively with its international partners; to present to them their own version of transition in Cuba; to comment on the deals which are on the table and bring to the consideration of diplomats and governmental experts their own inputs. What is necessary now is the clear commitment on the side of both American and European diplomats not to “re-engage” the Cuban Government only, but to be engaged actively, creatively and in the “Helsinki spirit” with the Cuban civil society, to seriously listen to their arguments and bring into the process of negotiation with the Cuban side also their communications.

7. The Summary in Conclusion

There are several signs of hope coming out this year that in spite of stubborn resistance of Cuban Government, the “Helsinki” spirit” is waking up in the Cuban context. The negotiation between The EU and Cuba about a new bi-lateral treaty is followed closely by the European Parliament. The conference “Quo Vadis Cuba?” was organized in Berlin and attracted a very good attention, offering an opportunity to a representative group of Cuban democratic opposition to send out its message. The level of awareness what is at stake here is slowly rising. The trans-Atlantic dimension of the Cuban question – is there space here for some cooperation or co-ordination between the United States and the European Union in their processes of engaging of Cuban Government, for instance as far as the dialogue about human rights and assistance and political support of the Cuban democratic opposition is concerned? – is slowly getting ground and more attention. But the most of work still remains to be done – the Cuban “parallel polis” composed of the people from the island and living in exile seems to be well aware of that and is determined more than ever to keep pushing. Let us hope that its international partners and supporter will hear this call and assist – inspired by the “Helsinski spirit” which changed Europe - the brave Cuban democrats in their continuing effort to finally tear down the last remaining “Berlin Wall”.