Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A Personal Perspective on Cuban and US Forces for Change

Personal Notes: Diversity in and About Cuba

by John McAuliff

Cuba is a complicated place in a process of change. As a high level Foreign Ministry person told me twenty years ago, "We are not heaven and we are not hell." He was appealing for support that understood and respected Cuban history and reality.

There is broad agreement that the current economic system is a disaster (see Omar Everleny's ten recommendations here), while achievements in education, health and social environment are world class. The temporary or permanent emigration of some (but not all) of the smartest and most innovative people in their 20s and 30s is in part the consequence of the opportunities on any island (e.g. Ireland) and in part the response to deadening bureaucratic mindsets and hostility to "excessive" personal success. An omnipresent and greatly limiting factor on space to move and grow is the unilateral US embargo, understandably characterized by Cubans as a blockade.

One of the least understood dimensions of life in Cuba today is the range of active debate about the future within the country and among Cubans overseas. Within the system, the most visible expression is the magazine Revista Temas, its website and the monthly public panels it organizes, Ultimo Jueves. Opponents of self-transformational or evolutionary change in Florida and on the island disparage the same individuals and organizations as agents of the other side because they represent intellectual opening, inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable.

The strongest independent force was the "Laboratory of Ideas Cuba Posible", founded by alumni of Espacio Laical, a publication of progressive Catholics under the auspices of the recently deceased Cardinal Jaime Ortega. Under harsh attack as a proto-party formation for social democrats, the project was laid down in May. As explained to readers they leave a rich legacy of on line compilation of debate in Spanish including posts by their critics.

Still surviving is the on line magazine Joven Cuba, founded at the University of Matanzas in 2010. The rector of the university tried to shut it down but then Minister of Higher Education (now President) Miguel Diaz-Canel intervened. Its goals are described here.

"La Joven Cuba's relationship with the Cuban authorities has been marked by numerous ups and downs. Emerging at the University of Matanzas spontaneously and not by government order in 2010, it was then supported by the authorities and later banned for content considered "hypercritical." It had the public support of President Miguel Díaz-Canel in 2013 but after calls to terminate criticism by part the country's leadership in the following years, its relationship with the country's political institutions has deteriorated.

Opposition sectors in Cuba are also critical of LJC's defense of the social achievements of the revolutionary period and its reaffirmation of the socialist idea on the island. Opposition media that receive funds from the United States for regime change in Cuba qualify the project as "officialist."

Members of LJC have insisted on several occasions that their objective is to make a critical assessment of bureaucratic and totalitarian socialism, while prosecuting capitalism for its excessive exploitation of the human and natural resources of the planet."

Several months ago, Joven Cuba began to translate to English two of its best articles every week. They can be seen here. Just published is a very creative analysis of the special challenge of bureaucracy in a socialist system.

Cuban leaders speak regularly now of the Cuban nation to incorporate positively the population now living overseas. This was made possible by the opening created in the early years of the Obama Administration. It does not include the explicitly counter revolutionary Batista descended exiles who still dominate Florida politics but is broader than the old friends that risked life and livelihood when they expressed support. The growing sentiment for engagement has been demonstrated in successive polls by Florida International University.

To date the views of the moderate majority of Cuban Americans are not embodied in Congress, but they did influence the Obama Administration and are emerging as a force for modernization and collaboration in Florida, Washington and Havana. A good source for their perspective is the Cuba Study Group founded by Carlos Saladrigas and led by Ricardo Herrero. They "view national reconciliation as both a process and a goal." Click here for their current weekly newsletter with excerpts on the economic crisis from Omar Everleny Péreardoz, Ricardo Torres and Juan Triana Codoví.

I do not agree with repression of dissidents like the Ladies in White and UNPACU but it is hardly surprising given their financial and political support from explicitly counterrevolutionary exiles and the US government in a context of regime change economic warfare by Washington. Think about how we treated members of the Communist Party in the McCarthy era because of their suspected ties to our enemies in the USSR. But just as McCarthyism seriously crippled the US political fabric and national interests by over-reacting to a real threat, defensive paranoia from security agencies and ideologists in Cuba hampers their country's ability to creatively address substantial problems.

Poster on the wall of the home of an evangelical church member in Baracoa
An illustration of the complicated issue of civil liberties in Cuba is the role of evangelical churches in the Constitutional debate. I don't agree with their position against same-sex marriage but I was impressed that Cuban leaders gave them space to organize for their views nationwide and responded to their objection in the final text. On the other hand, the government's recent refusal to allow an evangelical leader to attend a presumably problematic conference in the US seemed like an effort to control dissidence. (Leave aside for the moment the logistical and political problems for Cubans who seek US visas.)
Then I read a report in the news service Vice that foreign churches were heavily involved. The story also cited Tracey Eaton's report that the fifth largest recipient of regime change funding by USAID in the Trump Administration was the organization Evangelical Christian Humanitarian Outreach for Cuba ($1,003,674) with links to Florida hard liners.

Cuban officials will never acknowledge that they are affected by policies of the US, but demonstrably when Washington tightens the screws economically and increases its domestic political intervention, space for dissent shrinks in Cuba and vice versa.


Fulton Armstrong argues persuasively in the American University Latin America blog that Trump's approach is not likely to change after Bolton's departure. My comment:

No doubt a realistic albeit a pessimistic analysis.
As the last paragraph suggests, however, it is the President's unpredictability that is hard to predict.
There is little reason for him to believe that before the election he can make an historic breakthrough with North Korea, Iran, China, Russia,
Afghanistan or the Middle East. (See David Sanger's article here.) How much does he need a significant diplomatic success to sell himself nationally?
If he was able to make a significant deal on Venezuela with Cuba, he could do it in a way that would satisfy all but the hardest hard liners in Florida by actually opening the door to a new government in Venezuela without further human cost internally and among refugees
If for example the President supported majorities in the Senate and House to legislatively end all travel restrictions, would the Cubans support Venezuelan leaders who were ready to have fair and open internationally supervised elections officially conducted by the existing UN recognized government in cooperation with the opposition controlled Assembly?
The Cubans would risk losing the economic and political benefits of their current special relationship with Venezuela, but unlocking  conventional US tourism could replace the declining benefit of oil from Venezuela and payment for medical services.  It  would enable higher paying Americans to fill rooms in all-inclusive beach resorts and new five star Gaviota owned hotels in Havana.
Establishing trust is the biggest challenge.   Both Presidents Diaz-Canel and Trump will be criticized by a portion of their base for giving stature to the other.

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