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Hunger strikes and suicides justified by strong moral, ideological, patriotic or religious beliefs usually touch people’s conscience. From Bobby Sands and the ten other Northern Ireland IRA youths who died in British jails in 1981, to the many cases of Basque and anarchist political prisoners protesting last January against bad prison treatment or the political manipulations by judicial authorities and police personnel in Spain and France, the issue of hunger strikes and their significance has had a continuous presence in the political arena in recent decades.
From this perspective, the case of the Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata, who died February 23 as a result of a hunger strike, or that of the current case, Guillermo Fariñas, are not unusual events. The death of Zapata is a human tragedy but that does not explain how it became a cause celebre. If one tries to understand it in context – something hard to do given the shower of opinions that have inundated the media – one has to take a step back from the news to examine some essential questions. Who are the Cuban dissident groups? What is the current national and international political context? What factors explain the reactions to the event by political actors in Europe and the United States? How does the international press construct the problem? What can be expected of Cuban policy toward the dissidents?
These opposition groups are not essentially different from the Cuban exiles in their methods and objectives. The most powerful anti-Castro organizations in Miami and New Jersey today no longer support war with bombs and armed groups. Dissidents and exiles do not agree on everything (for example, support for the embargo) but they share the same objective (to replace the system with a capitalist model), a common ideological denominator (anti- Castroism and anti-socialism) and the same allies (the United States, anti-communist governments and parties in Europe and other countries).
Their political nature is not captured with the adjective "mercenary," since it is likely that many, though they may receive money from the United States, have authentic ideological beliefs. Under the umbrella group Convergencia Democrática, a wide variety of interests, personalities and tendencies is associated; but their core tendency is toward the center-right. Although this partly explains their lack of acceptance in Cuban society, the main reason it is not a viable movement is that it lacks two essential political ingredients: leadership and legitimacy.
As opposed to the anticommunist organizations of the 1960s, which had a social and political base and a coherent ideology, the dissidents do not have roots in civil society. They lack influence in religious organizations or the working class, as in Poland; they lack prestigious intellectuals as in Czechoslovakia; they have no record of struggle against odious or corrupt regimes, as in Rumania. If they had these, they would represent movements of considerable impact. They are not "civil society;" they are opposition micro parties.
Minorities, of course, play a political role and a small group can develop into a great social movement. Therefore, why do the dissidents not appeal to larger sectors? I will take up three main reasons.
First, most of their criticisms of the system already form part of the debate among Cubans whether they are socialists or not. To suppose that dissidents are the lone heroic voices who dare to point out errors and to make demands of the government shows ignorance about contemporary Cuba. Dissent is manifested today within (and without) institutions, the intellectual movement, the various communications media, social, religious and cultural organizations and even inside the ranks of the political militancy.
Second, dissidents’ proposals do not constitute a coherent economic and political program, but rather a hodge-podge of imprecise ideological slogans ("national reconciliation," "strengthening of civil society," "pluralism"), and the classic nostrums of economic liberalism that have been well known in Latin America for the past 20 years. Anyone who takes the Varela Project as a serious plan for political reform based on the Constitution of 1992, has not read the Constitution closely; and above all, does not know the significance of the issues in the real public debate.: decentralization; participation and effective political control of the bureaucracy by the Popular Power; reordering the economy and making it more efficient; enlarging the private sector; extending cooperatization; improvement in income levels consistent with work and buying power; an end to generalized subsidies and bonuses; new social policies for the most at-risk sectors; public opinion reflected in the media; enlargement of spaces for free expression; strengthening of laws and constitutional order; and the democratization of institutions (including political organizations).
Third, it is very difficult for Cubans, regardless of whether they are in sympathy with Fidel and Raul Castro or share socialist ideals, to accept as legitimate groups that are supported by the United States, European parties and the most powerful exile forces whose reputations as champions of liberty and democracy are not very convincing.
Instead of the reasons given here, the lack of support for dissidents is attributed to the efficiency of the Cuban security apparatus (doubtless effective) and most especially to the ignorance, isolation, resignation and fear of the poor Cubans. This colonialist reasoning assumes that passivity and resignation are features of Cuban political culture – something difficult to prove based on the historic record of the last two centuries.
So, is the current reaction in Europe and the United States due at lack of information? Let’s see, what do their centers of intelligence in Havana say about the dissidents; what is the opinion of their diplomats about the leadership, ideological coherence, integrity and political viability of these groups? How do foreign correspondents on the island judge them (really) as they report their goings on every week in accordance with the demands of their editors?
If these diplomats and correspondents report the same things they tell me in private, I suspect those government offices and committees on foreign relations are well informed about the dissident groups’ capacity as a real political alternative in Cuba.
If that’s the case, the European Union’s resounding declaration have has nothing to do with civil society in Holguín or Santa Clara but rather with their own interests, partisan bickering and electoral strategies. No wonder that whenever officials are authorized to meet with the Cuban government, they usually are instructed they must also talk with dissidents. This ensures that there will be media coverage, which their own parlimentary opposition displays like a trophy and the respective governments like a helmet.
Since Guillermo Fariñas and other dissidents have gone on hunger strikes many other times, why is there such a reaction to them now? Eclipsed by the propaganda about bloggers like Yoani Sanchez, dissidents retook the front page with the death of Zapata, but above all, they did so at a peculiar juncture for the island. Despite its limited results, the dialogue between Washington and Havana has advanced more in the last year than in the previous ten: conversations have been renewed on migration and direct mail service, semi-official groups are exploring avenues of cooperation in drug interdiction; without lifting the restrictions imposed by Bush in 2005, the United States has again begun to issue visas to academics and artists; and there are initiatives in Congress to reestablish the right of freedom to travel to the island.
Furthermore, in spite of the "common position" adopted in 1996, the policy of the European Union, led by Spain, has substantially improved relations with the government of Raul Castro since June 2008 by lifting the sanctions implemented in 2003.
Change has also been advanced by the growing ties between Cuba and the rest of the region, not only with left- and center-left governments, but with others such as Mexico.
What could happen, some experts were asking in private several weeks ago, to interfere with this rapprochement? The answer was not long in coming. As in the incident of the planes in 1996, the Cuban government is held "responsible" for this "avoidable and cruel" event (the death of a "prisoner of conscience"). Obviously, this is convenient for the interests opposing dialogue.
Is there anything new in this old confrontation? There is the obvious "racialization" of the Zapata case by the media all across the ideological spectrum. He is described as an "Afro-Cuban mason (El Pais, Spain), "a 43-old black worker (Cubaencuentro), "not a prisoner for being black or a construction worker" (Kaos en la Red), "black, political opponent and a Palestinian" (El Mundo, Spain), "a Negro construction worker and victim of Marxist collectivism" (El Heraldo, Ecuador). This resonating effect is compounded by the intensity and saturation of the issue. El Pais alone published over twenty articles and editorials in the first six days after the death of Zapata.
Apart from this unprecedented interest in "Afro-Cuban dissidents, " the European Parliament demanded "the immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience." How consistent is this approach?
First, the handful of political prisoners among the dissenters are not imprisoned for reasons of "conscience" or for "criticizing the government" but for actively opposing the system in alliance with the United States, the exiles and the old European anti-communist forces. They have no weapons but they do have power resources put at their disposal by states and organizations: international connections, institutional funds, long-range communication means, for the purpose of making war by other means.
Second, what does experience teach about putting this Cuban government in the pillory? Not even those Cubans who might consider the policy toward dissidents inefficient would be able to argue that they should be pardoned right now, under pressure from a bloc of manufactured vested interests and their double standards. The island government has never negotiated under pressure, even during the Missile Crisis; it is unlikely to do so now.
Part of this political context is a certain perverse logic expressed in the question "What is Cuba going to do in exchange for …. ?" Americans to travel, licenses for corporations to sell food or signing an agreement on drug trafficking. According to this logic, Cuba must pay tribute for every minimum change in the US policy.
Hence, if the United States were ever to consider pardoning the Five Cubans imprisoned for infiltrating the exiles, the only and obvious "bargaining chip" would be these dissidents sentenced as "agents of a foreign power." A perverse logic, but in the end, logical. The dissidents are pawns in the chess board of contending powers. It is difficult to imagine realistic changes in the treatment of them as long as there is so little room for political maneuvers.
Along with a renewed democratic structure and a private sector, could Cuban socialism in the future also embrace a loyal opposition? That is not a question for congressmen and Euro-parliamentarians, but rather for Cubans who live their lives on the island.
Translated by Robert Sandels.
RAFAEL HERNANDEZ is the director of the magazine Temas (Havana). He has been a Visiting Professor at Columbia and Harvard University in the US. He is a social scientist.
This commentary was written for Cuba-L Analysis and CounterPunch.