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Human Rights

Cuba and the Global Movement for Democracy

Remarks by Carl Gershman to the 25th Anniversary Conference of the Directorio Democratico Cubano.

La Habana

I am humbled to speak about the future of democracy in Cuba in the presence of such great heroes of the freedom struggle in Cuba as Antunez, Berta Soler, Antonio Rodiles, Juan Carlos Gonzalez Leiva, and Rolando Rodriguez Lobaina.

It’s also a great honor and pleasure for me to speak at the 25th anniversary conference of the Directorio Democratico Cubano.  I’ve worked closely with Orlando Gutierrez and the Directorio for many years, and they have truly kept the flame of freedom alive for the Cuban people. When Cuba becomes a free country, as I know it eventually will, Orlando, John Suarez, and others at Directorio will deserve to be recognized for their historic contribution to the cause of human freedom.

I want to speak this evening primarily about the prospect for democracy in Cuba. But before I do that, let me say a brief word about the global movement for democracy. While this movement is resilient at the level of civil society, we are nonetheless in the midst of what has been called "a democracy recession" that has three basic dimensions. 

The first is the failure of democratic transitions in many third-wave and Arab Spring countries, democratic backsliding in countries as diverse as Thailand and Turkey, and continuing problems of corruption and poor governance in many countries. The second is what we have called an authoritarian resurgence, as Russia, China, and other authoritarian countries assault civil society, block democracy assistance, undermine democratic norms, and aggressively push anti-democratic ideas and values. And the third is a crisis of confidence, political dysfunction, and geopolitical paralysis in the advanced democracies of Europe and the United States. Their passivity in the face of mounting international threats has emboldened the opponents of liberal democracy, which are rushing to fill the vacuums created by Western weakness and retreat. 

 I won’t say more about this right now, except to note that if the Cuban democracy movement succeeds in transforming Cuba, it will have a profound and positive effect on democracy far beyond the borders of Cuba, given the exaggerated and perverse role that Cuba has played in Latin American and global politics since Castro seized power in 1959.

Now let me turn to Cuba. When President Obama and Raul Castro last December 17 announced their intention to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba, the opposition leader Manuel Cuesta Morua said that the opening "represents the end of the 'epic' stage and the beginning of the political stage for civil society" in Cuba. 

Whatever one thinks of the opening and the way it has been handled —the reluctance of the US to use its leverage to pry open political space in Cuba, and Castro’s efforts to secure greater legitimacy and economic advantages for Cuba without liberalizing politically or reducing repression— it has created a new situation, and that's where we must begin in thinking about strategy and tactics for the future.

By the epic stage, I think Cuesta Morua meant a period when the only form of meaningful political expression was resistance to a totalitarian dictatorship. In the political stage that we’ve now entered, different and more varied forms of struggle are both possible and necessary.

The first thing to recognize is that Cuba has not entered a period of democratic transition.  The Cuba regime is very different from the authoritarian military dictatorships in Chile, Brazil and other countries that underwent a democratic transition during the 1980s.

The Castro dictatorship, unlike the old military regimes in Latin America, still has the features of what political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way call a revolutionary regime, meaning one that emerged out of "sustained, ideological, and violent struggle from below, and whose establishment is accompanied by mass mobilization and significant efforts to transform state structures and the existing social order."

Such regimes, they write, are strikingly resistant to democratization because they have destroyed all independent power centers, social institutions, and economic structures. In Cuba’s case, the regime also significantly weakened, even if it did not completely eliminate, the Church.  In addition, such regimes have strong ruling parties and cohesive mass organizations; they are resistant to coups because of the overlap between the ruling civilian and military elites; and they have powerful coercive structures that they don’t hesitate to use.

Therefore, we have to start by recognizing that the Cuban regime is more deeply rooted than the Latin American military dictatorships, and it does not allow the pluralism or have the internal divisions that had a lot to do witåh the successful democratic transitions in those countries three decades ago.

There is one other feature that is different, and it is that Cuba —because of its revolutionary and anti-imperialist posturing— has not been subject to the same degree of international pressure that was put on the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile or the Apartheid regime in South Africa.  Relatively speaking, the Cuban dictatorship has been given a free pass by the international community, as demonstrated by the silence on human rights violations it regularly commits and the fact that Cuba has been able to play a leading role in UN bodies, the nonaligned movement, and other international structures.

Yet the Cuban regime also has some very powerful vulnerabilities. Chief among these are its proximity to the United States and the many cultural affinities between our two countries - music and baseball being just two of them. The denser these ties, the greater the internal pressures will be for freedom and democratic normalcy in Cuba. Levitsky and Way write that reducing confrontation and polarization can undermine the cohesion of a revolutionary dictatorship, which explains why the Castro regime is actually very nervous about the future and has stepped up repression in the period since the opening with the United States. The number of political arrests in the first nine months of this year was 5.146, well over twice the number of arrests recorded in all of 2010. There were 882 arrests last month alone.  Again, this does not indicate the strength of the regime but its vulnerability.

There is also the additional factor of what we might call the inevitable erosion of totalitarianism, which affects even revolutionary totalitarian regimes. Totalitarian erosion is not the same thing as liberalization, but it does lead to more space for people at the bottom and less control from the top. Cuba today shares some of the features that we saw in the Central European communist dictatorships in the period before 1989. These include a limited increase in economic and cultural pluralism, even in the absence of political pluralism; a significant weakening of the regime’s political legitimacy as a result of its economic failures and ideological exhaustion, even as it continues to mouth the old revolutionary rhetoric; the decline in popular mobilization and the hollowing out of the mass organizations in terms of their internal cohesion and the loyalty of their members; and the replacement of charismatic leaders by technocrats, even if the old leaders have not yet passed from the scene. 

The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski prophetically called attention to the importance of these changes at a NED conference in 1987, noting that they opened new possibilities for change even if they had not yet altered the core principle of the system, which is the monopoly of political power by an unaccountable communist party dictatorship. Developments in Cuba have followed this pattern, as a result of which the Cuban democracy movement has been able to establish what Kolakowski called "enclaves of civil society" within the totalitarian system, which is what the Polish movement had succeeded in doing in the decade before the fall of communism. One core goal of the democracy movement in Cuba should be to build and enlarge these enclaves of civil society.

Thus, while we are not yet at the stage where we can anticipate the start of a process of democratic transition, there has already been a transition from totalitarianism to a post-totalitarian system, which opens the possibilities for further erosion and political opening in the future.

The Cuban regime would like to stop this process of erosion and promote what Oswaldo Paya, in his video message memorializing Vaclav Havel in January 2012, called "a fraudulent change so that those that have all the power may keep it and once more marginalize the people of Cuba." 

I want to say here what a personal joy it is to have Paya’s daughter Rosa Maria with us this evening. I have written and said many times that her father’s death was not accidental, and there needs to be a full and independent investigation to determine how and why he was killed.

I think the regime sees two possible models that it would like to follow. One of them is the China-Vietnam model of economic liberalization while maintaining the communist system of control.

The second model is establishing a hybrid regime, sometimes also called competitive authoritarianism. Putin a few years back called it "managed democracy," and what Chavez called "Bolivarian democracy" in Venezuela is another example of a hybrid regime. The Burmese military also wants to follow this model. It permits a charade of formal democratic features, such as fraudulent elections, a few NGOs, and some limited independent media. But the regime continues to maintain its hegemonic political control.

The Cuban regime probably prefers the first model because the second involves more risks.  A hybrid system has something in common with what Abraham Lincoln called "a house divided against itself," a system that Lincoln said "cannot stand." Yet the fact that Raul Castro has announced that he will step down in 2018, and that the regime is planning to amend the electoral law as part of a process to choose younger leaders, suggests that the regime might opt for the hybrid model.

Though the regime has no intention of allowing a genuine opening, or even considering relinquishing power at some future time, I think it has nonetheless started a process that cannot escape the logic of democratic transition, even if the conditions for a real transition are not yet present.

I find it interesting that when NED asked Cuesta Morua and other dissidents to spell out the key principles that should guide the democracy movement in Cuba, their points were all consistent with the established principles that have guided real transitions in the past.

The first is that existing coalitions and opposition groups in Cuba should, without merging, work together based on common goals. We all know that there are different tendencies within the opposition movement in Cuba, which is normal.  Such differences exist in every opposition movement fighting for democracy in a dictatorial country. In Franco’s Spain some people wanted to reform the system, while others wanted a complete rupture with it. The point is that the opposition, while not uniform, should still try to preserve unity, which is much more important than uniformity in any case. Diversity is a strength.

The second principle, which flows from the first, is that it is important to welcome and support different strategies for advancing democracy. One never knows what will provoke change, and it’s important to recognize that all can do their part in the democratization struggle.

The third principle is to acknowledge that even though many democracy activists and supporters abroad are critical of the policies of the United States and other governments toward Cuba, Cuban democrats should not isolate themselves from the international community but should try to build ties of dialogue and cooperation.

The fourth principle is to observe the politics of what is possible, which is the best way to move toward the politics of what is desirable. This means recognizing the inevitability of gradualism, the necessity for pragmatism, and the need to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. Being pragmatic does not mean that there is not also the need for mobilization and resistance.  As is the case with every movement for democracy, there is the need for both militancy and conciliation. Struggle and organization will be needed to open the way for eventual negotiations and a real transition.

And finally, the fifth principle —and this one is addressed especially to the supporters of the Cuban movement outside of Cuba— is that supporting initiatives that emerge from within Cuba is the best way to come into close contact with the Cuban people.

All these principles make sense, in my view, and in closing I would just add a few of my own. One is that we have to persuade people in the U.S. and elsewhere not to accept a hybrid regime in Cuba as an acceptable alternative to dictatorship. Competitive authoritarianism is arguably marginally better than a full-blown dictatorship, but it’s not democracy, and if democratic leaders in the United States, Europe, and Latin America appear to embrace it, they’re going to betray the Cuban people and undermine the moral and political case for democracy.

A second is that we must do everything we can to end the free pass on human rights that the Cuban dictatorship has been given by the international community. Whatever one thinks of the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S., it may actually make it easier to mobilize support for democracy since Castro apologists will now find it harder to blame the United States for all of Cuba’s problems. 

The third is to insist upon the observance of democratic norms and to oppose any attempt to apply a double standard to Cuba.  If the regime amends its laws to hold an election after Castro steps down in 2018, then let us insist that it be a real election, free and fair, with the opposition being able to organize and campaign, with a level playing field, and with the whole process monitored by international observers.

And the fourth is that we must help the opposition strengthen its international relations, so that there is a growing body of support in Latin America for a real transition in Cuba, and that the Cuban democratic movement have a voice in the process of establishing a new relationship between Cuba and the European Union. Obviously there is also a big job to do in the United States as well.

Six years ago, when I presented the Directorio’s Pedro Luis Boitel Freedom Award, in absentia, to Ivan Hernandez Carrillo, I asked the following question —"Between Boitel and Che, who will ultimately win— the democratic martyr whose unmarked grave has become a shrine for Cuban dissidents; or the murderous cult figure whose image adorns countless t-shirts?" To paraphrase Castro, "Whom will history absolve?"

I think that in the end Boitel will win. But for that to happen, the opposition will have to learn how to supplement courage and implacable resistance to oppression with strategic thinking and political organization, something it is already beginning to do. Despite all the difficulties, I think that the conditions are favorable for their struggle. Their cause is just, and they are up against a regime that has lost whatever raison d’etre it may once have had, is deeply corrupt, and now appears ideologically bankrupt to its people and to the world. 

Cuban democrats deserve the support of the global democracy movement. Because of the poisonous role that Cuba has played in international politics for more than half a century, a democratic breakthrough in Cuba will have a very broad impact. It will be a major step forward for democracy in the world, and it will give new momentum to the struggle for democracy everywhere. As we celebrate the Directorio’s 25th anniversary, let us reaffirm our solidarity with the Cuban people, and pledge that we shall never relent until Cuba becomes a democratic country, with liberty and justice for all.

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