Those Problematic Cuban Dissidents

Translator’s note: Rafael Hernández edits Temas, a Cuban journal of social sciences and the humanities. Books he has authored or edited include:  Cuba and the Caribbean and United States-Cuban Relations in the Nineties, 1989; Looking at Cuba -Essays on Culture and Civil Society (2003); the History of Havana (2006); and Shall We Play Ball? – Debating U.S.-Cuban Relations (2011). Hernández has taught at the University of Havana, and at Colombia and Harvard Universities in the United States.

Try to imagine a US political party calling for conversion to a political, economic, and social system similar to that of the People’s Republic of China. Let that party or grouping have no stable or defined leadership, or a coherent ideology other than opposition to the prevailing order in the United States and embracing the model of the PRC.

And maybe it defines itself as the genuine representative of North American society, yet stands for no real interest of any one social sector in particular. Let’s further suppose that the Chinese government, as part of its official foreign policy, granted this grouping hundreds of millions of yuan in order to promote a so-called project of “peaceful evolution” toward a model whereby the country builds intimate relations with China.

Finally, imagine that the People’s Republic was located exactly where Canada is today, with a population 30 times bigger and an economy 233 times stronger than that of the United States, which, for half a century, in this scenario, has had very bad relations with this country. And maybe this imaginary Chinese president insisted on being photographed with the leaders of such a grouping.

How would the US government react? Would it put this group in prison at the Guantanamo Naval Base, without any right to a trial or to legal protection? Would it regard the group as a peaceful protest movement because it doesn’t incite armed rebellion?

Perhaps the U.S. government would limit itself to charging the group with collaborating with a foreign power, thus exposing the group only to several life sentences. Or might it be possible to identify the group as a legitimate opposition organization, proposing to exercise its civil rights as it protests the established order, cultivates free thought, and its members behave like good citizens?

Would North Americans see the group as defenders of democracy and pluralism, capable of engaging in dialogue and respecting those who don’t share their ideas? Would they view members of the group as standard-bearers of freedom of expression, by virtue of their means of communication that are neither partisan nor dedicated to disowning the system, but rather to playing a role of providing information that is balanced and independent of any political tendency?

Would the U.S. government recognize the group’s political and intellectual leaders as capable of leading the country along the road of human development, independence, and citizen democracy?

If all of the above is taken into consideration in a spirit of equanimity –even if one may eventually disagree with the Cuban policy towards the dissidents–, it must be appreciated also that there’s more involved than simple ideological impulsiveness, incompetence in dealing with dissenters, mental fog, or just plain evil.

Naturally, the explanation does not rest on the assumption that these people themselves pose a real threat to Cuba’s national security. They are not the problem. Rather, it’s Washington’s policy of giving them support.

We still hear about “bringing democracy and human rights to Cuba”,  which means much more than  objecting “the Castros” and “the export of revolution”. Instead, it’s about transforming the social, economic, and political order of the country in their image and likeness (“promote our values,” as Obama said on December 17).

Beginning with Brigade 2506 (Cuban exiles defeated militarily at the Bay of Pigs in 1961) until today, Cubans on the island have regarded Cuban political exiles as a function of North American policy dealing with the revolution. In that regard, December 17, 2014 showed that it wasn’t the tail wagging the dog, but ultimately the dog doing the deciding.

In terms of realpolitik, the main question after December 17 (17D, as it is called in Cuba) left behind the option of confronting the dissidents as subversives (putting them in prison); using them as a bargaining chip when the time comes to negotiate with the United States (that country always requires things in exchange, for example, in case they consider returning the Guantanamo base), or applying the full extent of current Cuban law to them.  In all these alternatives, we would end up turning them into victims, or for some of the Western media, into heroes. The question now is whether or not this opposition is really contributing to Obama’s policy of December 17.

We need to understand that the new policy is already hooked into another logic, that of dialogue and negotiation. Pressure, ideological confrontation, and coercion are not excluded, but they come into play differently. The media on the island tirelessly harps on the idea that the United States has not given up on its objectives. That highlights an obvious truth for Cubans: they must not trust that powerful neighbor. It remains as imperialist as ever and has only “changed its methods.” However, if one thoroughly examines all this about “changed methods,” the new policy harbors large-scale implications.

In effect, the strategic formulation of 17D is aimed at opening up a highway for communicating with the heart of the Cuban political system. This new strategy represents an alternative to a half-century of ineffective brute force.

For example, to influence young people, it’s not so much the hip-hop groups (who haven’t unleashed revolutions anywhere), but rather government leaders, provincial  Communist Party officials, the armed forces and the state security, the technocrats, and the scientific, educational, and cultural institutions.

To get in touch with the economy evolving out of Raul Castro’s reforms the main targets are not just private businessmen who own paladars and food marketing services, but to the broad layer of managers, heading up the new public sector, anxious to gain efficiency in production and business methods.

This policy is aimed to reach, [out] not only to artists and filmmakers fashioning provocative creations, but mainly to the thousands of social communicators and journalists who work in the government media system. They are more adept with the internet than what is said, therefore they complain, with reason, about limited access to broadband and free wifi. They even admire (in known cases) CNN or Discovery channel as a model.

Will entry onto this information highway be left in the hands of the dissidents, many of whom are somewhat opposed to the politics of 17D? As for those Cuban-American congresspersons famous in the United States for their ultra-conservative persuasion, and who support dissidents on the island: will they be the bridge between Cuban entrepreneurs on either side of the Florida Straits?

And what about the Ladies in White, who let down the attempted mediation role the Catholic Church tried to play? It is hard to believe that advisors to the President of the United States could be so clueless about Cuba’s real civil and political society as to take the delegation of provocateurs that descended on Panama (to attend the Summit of the Americas) for actual emissaries of dialogue about democracy and freedom in Cuba.

Nevertheless, we must not forget that politics is mostly a strange kind of grand theater. Marti used to say that, in such a production, the most real thing is what is unseen. A former US Interests Section Chief, in the intimacy of a report to the State Department, observed astutely that “there are few if any dissidents who have a political vision that could be applied to future governance……it is unlikely that they will play any significant role in whatever government succeeds the Castro brothers.”

This wouldn’t be the first time that these two paths have diverged, that of the North American government and that of this peculiar Cuban opposition. The Missile Crisis had hardly cooled down when President John Kennedy accepted the flag of Brigade 2506 members, and promised to return it as soon as they triumphantly entered a “free Havana.” More than 52 years after President Kennedy’s speech in Miami’s Orange Bowl stadium, almost 300,000 Cuban-Americans, including descendants of those Brigade members, continue to arrive on the island, although not precisely to the tunes of war.

Those average Cubans, embracing their cousins in Havana’s Terminal 2, aren’t up there on the dissidents’ wagon, nor are they still waving that flag (a current property of the Kennedy Library),  but rather, another kind of banner: one that expresses their peaceful return to the land where they were born. They are going back to a Havana that is being revitalized little by little – or to a beach where they will retire, now that they see the promise of normalization floating over Cuba.

Translated by W. T. Whitney J., (Edited by Walter Lippmann of Cuba News)