Unión Patriótica de Cuba

Castro & Co. deaf to Cubans’ frustration

Posted on Thursday, 04.08.10
Castro & Co. deaf to Cubans’ frustration

Things aren’t going well for Havana, and the regime simply doesn’t get it.

On Sunday, Raúl Castro said: “Today, more than ever before, the economic battle is the main task.” Yes, the economy is a battle but only because the regime stubbornly refuses to take the market by its horns. Yes, state enterprises need to shed up to a million people from their payrolls, but the regime balks at legalizing the small-business sector. Yes, the state is paternalistic and agriculture woefully unproductive, but who’s to blame if not those in power for far too long?

Since early March, Havana has been swirling with rumors about a corruption scandal. A top general with a long revolutionary pedigree and a veteran Chilean businessman with close ties to Fidel Castro are involved. Authorities in Cubana Airlines, the airport, customs, the Transportation Ministry and travel agencies were using the airline’s planes to move passengers off the books. Could a stealth privatization be in progress among old revolutionaries?

But it’s in the international arena that the regime is facing its direst straits. Cuban hunger strikers — Orlando Zapata, first and foremost —
have put Havana in check. Cuban leaders see only a vast conspiracy in the worldwide outcry after Zapata’s death. Now Guillermo Fariñas, Darsi Ferrer and Franklin Pelegrino are on hunger strikes, asking that two dozen political prisoners in ill health be released.

On Sunday, Castro also said: “We will never yield to blackmail from any country or group of countries, no matter how powerful they might be, and regardless of the consequences.” He’s painting himself into a corner when all he has to do is look at the regime’s own past to find a solution.

In 1968, Comandante Fidel fired the interior minister and hired another trusted revolutionary. The new minister improved prison conditions, opened talks with political prisoners and established a plan to release them. Cuba’s attorney general has recently been replaced and, thus, the regime could avail itself of the opportunity to defuse the current crisis.

Why is the release of two dozen political prisoners for humanitarian reasons such an affront to the regime’s “principles” when 3,600 were freed in the late 1970s? The leadership then felt secure and thought the Cold War would last forever. Washington and Havana were on the mend which gave the regime cover for the prisoner release.

The regime today is confronting a restless society, especially among the young who have known only hardship and leaders who live in the past. In 2005, the elder Castro warned that the revolution could only be defeated from within (I agree). Only his recommendations — uphold correct ideas, banish markets, never make concessions — are a recipe for disaster. Maybe Raúl and others of his generation know it but can’t bring themselves to defy the Comandante.

In any case, the still-unfolding corruption scandal confirms that some elite sectors are also restless. Second- and third-tier government officials are likely pulling their hair at such intransigence when it would be so easy to end the international outcry. Just release the prisoners!

Interviewed by the Argentine newspaper Página 12, singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez said: “We have to overcome the logic of the Cold War. I wouldn’t care if they said we freed them under pressure. We have to change the old logic: We can’t be prisoners of our own past forever.” But, overcoming the Cold War mindset means opening the economy, listening to new ideas and reaching compromises. There’s no squaring the circle.

Perhaps the main difference between the late 1970s and today is that the demand now is coming from within Cuba. It’s not just that the hunger strikers are calling for the prisoner release but that many in the government are asking why such a big deal over releasing them. Wouldn’t their release help Spain make the argument against the Common Position in the European Union?

That’s a slippery slope, I can hear Fidel, Raúl and the other gerontocrats say. What’s next, allowing the Red Cross to visit Cuban prisons? Signing an EU cooperation agreement with a democracy clause? Engaging the United States? Legalizing the small-business sector? Publishing Silvio’s interview in Juventud Rebelde?

Why yes!

Marifeli Pérez-Stable is a professor at Florida International University and senior non-resident fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.


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