Op-Ed by: Mauricio Claver-Carone
Since Fidel Castro fell ill in 2006 and transferred power to his brother Raul, members of Congress have been weighing possible options in U.S. policy toward Cuba, partially by raising the fundamental question: “is there a viable pro-democracy movement in Cuba?”
The uncertainty is not surprising. For years much of the foreign policy establishment in New York and Washington, and advocates of “normalizing” relations with Cuba, have argued there are no viable alternatives to Cuba’s totalitarian dictatorship. The only answer is to “throw in the towel,” unilaterally lift U.S. sanctions and engage the Castros. Somehow this engagement is supposed to alter their ruthless behavior.
That position had been music to the Castros’ ears. But on February 23, 2010, it was permanently debunked. That tragic morning, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a forty-two year old afro-Cuban plumber and pro-democracy activist, died after an eighty-five day hunger strike. He was protesting the abuses of the Castro regime, his unjust imprisonment and denial of medical care.
Literally overnight, the international community's focus dramatically shifted. All of a sudden, there was undoubtedly a concrete pro-democracy movement in Cuba, noted for its courage and resilience. Since then, there is hardly a news story about Cuba that does not mention the opposition movement. While qualifiers such as “small,” “fractional,” and “divided” are frequently used by foreign news bureaus in Havana as they describe the pro-democracy movement—likely to avoid being booted from the island by the Castro regime—foreign reports no longer ignore the fact that a movement exists.
These accounts highlight a highly diverse group, challenging the Cuban state in a multitude of ways. There are the quixotic efforts of the wives, sisters, and daughters of Cuba's political prisoners, known as the Ladies in White, who dress in white and parade through public plazas. New regional bases of popular support are being carved out by leaders such as Jorge Luis Perez Garcia “Antunez” in the central province of Matanzas, by Orlando Zapata Tamayo's mother and siblings in the eastern province of Holguin, and by the Rodriguez Lobaina brothers in the Castros’ home province of Santiago de Cuba. These follow the historic trend of Cuba’s most prevalent revolutionary movements—against Spanish colonialism in the nineteenth century and against the Batista dictatorship in the 1950s—both of which originated in the eastern provinces and expanded westward to Havana. And then there is the stinging critique of the island's ever-growing blogger movement, led by Generation Y's Yoani Sanchez.
Cuba’s pro-democracy movement is becoming an increasingly difficult force to ignore. And for better or worse, everyone knows it.
The Castro regime knows it.
It is no coincidence that Fidel and Raul have spent the better part of 2010 doing back-flips to divert attention from the opposition. They have brought Fidel "back from the dead"—as he himself now boasts—for an ongoing series of speeches and interviews in which he has neurotically predicted nuclear holocaust and admitted the failings of Cuba’s socialist model (though he later recanted). The Castros have extended land-leases for foreigners to build sailing marinas and golf courses—for the use of foreigners only, of course. And most importantly, they began a crisis management campaign to clean up their image by announcing the release of dozens of political prisoners to Spain, although they will never be allowed to return to Cuba. Throughout the world, the Castro regime is now seen as making concessions in order to draw attention away from the pro-democracy movement.
The Catholic Church knows it.
At the peak of a summer standoff led by the Ladies in White and a hunger strike by a former political prisoner, Guillermo Farinas, the Catholic Church quickly saw an opportunity to become relevant, after decades of religious oppression and institutional silence. Catholic leaders volunteered themselves to intercede with the Castro regime to negotiate the release of political prisoners. What remains to be seen is whether the Church's intervention strengthened or weakened the pro-democracy movement by downplaying their role in the negotiations. Regardless, it represented an acknowledgment of the movement’s existence—and the potential power to be derived from it—by the Church.
The Spanish government knows it.
Just as the Catholic Church moved to intercede, the Spanish government weighed in as well. But unlike the Church, it was not motivated by its waning influence. Instead, it intervened as part of its ongoing effort to protect billions in investments on the island. Nothing is worse for business than instability and unpredictability. Again, this is a nod to the power of the opposition to disrupt business as usual.
Now finally, the U.S. Congress also appears to recognize it.
Instead of asking: is there a viable pro-democracy movement, members of Congress are asking: how can the United States support it?
In a July 14 letter to the U.S. Congress, some 500 pro-democracy leaders in Cuba explained how the United States might help, or at least avoid setting the movement back:
“At a moment such as this, to be benevolent with the dictatorship would mean solidarity with the oppressors of the Cuban nation. [We] believe that the freedom of Cuba will not arrive by means of the pocket-book or the lips of libidinous tourists, who are aseptic to the pain of the Cuban family. Rather, it will come through the efforts of those who, from within and abroad, fight for democratic change in Cuba.”
Plainly stated, the message of these pro-democracy leaders is simple: we are here, we are strong, and there is no reason to bail out the Castro regime.
Mauricio Claver-Carone is a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and founding editor of CapitolHillCubans.com in Washington, D.C. He is an attorney who formerly served with the U.S. Department of the Treasury and has served on the full-time faculty of The Catholic University of America's School of Law and adjunct faculty of The George Washington University's National Law Center.