Dissidents Extend Castro an Olive Branch

By Barbara E. Joe

While the uproar over little EliÁn GonzÁlez dominates news about Cuba, a little-noticed unofficial document, circulated at the Ibero-American summit held in Havana last November, could end up having longer-range consequences. It is an unprecedented offer by dissidents to work cooperatively with the current government to achieve a peaceful transition. Called "A Common Platform for a Transition to Democracy in Cuba," the 55-page paper is the work of the self-styled "moderate opposition," consisting of four illegal entities, the Party of Democratic Solidarity, the Current of Cuban Democratic Socialism, the Liberal Democratic Party of Cuba, and the United Council of Cuban Workers.

Some two dozen representatives of these groups met 28 times in private homes all over Cuba during the past year, a feat in itself since any gathering of more than four people requires government authorization. Instead of secretly complaining and denouncing the Castro government, these dissidents have extended an olive branch. The authors have bravely put themselves on the line. Signaling a change in official tactics, none of the authors has been arrested so far. In contrast, the four unfortunate writers of a shorter paper, "The Homeland Belongs to All," written in 1997, still languish in prison with sentences of up to five years.

Copies were delivered to two government agencies. The Maximum Leader himself is rumored to have asked sarcastically, "What transition?", by this remark-if true-giving grudging recognition to the document's existence.

The platform, which recommends broad economic and political reforms grounded in the Cuban constitution, never refers to Fidel Castro by name, though other prominent figures are specifically mentioned, such as early patriots Father Félix Varela and José MartÍ, and dictator Fulgencio Batista. But Castro and his revolution are a dominant presence nonetheless. The platform acknowledges that the 1959 revolution was supported almost unanimously by the people, that it promoted a high level of education (albeit heavily ideological in tone) among the citizenry and that it made medical care available to all. It observes obliquely that the "current leadership is the very same one that launched the revolution," faulting that leadership for adopting "an ideology not inscribed in the original texts of the revolution" and for seizing the struggle to restore democracy, end corruption, and solve social problems. As the platform points out, the system that was created closed off debate, adopted a Marxist-Leninist philosophy, and formed a hasty alliance with the Soviet Union. Accordingly, Cuban society became militarized and a totalitarianism was imposed that invaded the "most intimate and private spaces," including the family. Disillusion sparked an exodus of refugees such as had never before been seen in Cuban history.

Idealized goals

The authors may seem overly idealistic in envisioning "a society where every human being can develop in liberty, justice, and solidarity - that is, where the human person becomes the main actor in a living democracy." However, these goals certainly are worth striving for.

The paper notes that Cuba can learn from other countries where the transition process has been more abrupt, resulting in the rise of a robber-baron mentality or overt power struggles. Cuba has the luxury of being able to plan its transition in advance, rather than having it imposed by circumstances.

Transition is defined in the platform as "a gradual, peaceful, conscious, and deliberate transformation from one type of society to another." To head off future disruption and conflict, members of the current government are asked to participate in dialogue, negotiation, and consensus-building, along with the formulation of a program of specific incremental reforms, such as expanding Cuba's existing small business sector and giving more leeway to farmers. The authors invite government representatives to meet with them and exiles in a coalition striving for national reconciliation and democratic change.

The platform's authors contend that actual socialism, as practiced in Cuba, has failed. Such "games of human engineering and well-intentioned whims tend to create enormous difficulties for the people who are being utilized for such ends." The platform suggests that this failure is most apparent in terms of the economic rights that the Cuban government has long used to justify the suppression of civic rights, a failure exacerbated by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unemployment, a term not officially recognized in Cuba, is estimated at 25%, and as high as 35% in Havana. Prostitution and petty crime have grown. Yet, in an effort to be even-handed, the platform argues that the current economic situation is not as dire as U.N. figures indicate. While Cuba's annual per capita GNP of $1,250 places it right above Haiti with $800, the document suggests that government subsidies actually bring the Cuban total up to $2,900, almost on par with the Dominican Republic.

As for political freedom, "Cuba is no longer the monolithic society that some wish it were, nor is it the open society that others would like it to be." The platform calls for free elections, the unconditional release of political prisoners, and a halt to the harassment of dissidents and their families. It also proposes allowing workers to sign collective bargaining agreements and to be employed directly by foreign entities instead of by the Cuban government, which not only chooses workers for their political loyalty, but takes the lion's share of their pay from foreign investors. Finally, it says Cuban citizens should be allowed to freely enter public places, an evident reference to the current policy of "tourist apartheid." And they should be allowed to legally buy and sell motor vehicles and other goods to reduce the growing black market. Persistent racial antagonisms and inequities are openly acknowledged. The platform calls for the elimination of all forms of discrimination, including that based on sexual orientation, a rare stance in Latin America.

The organizations behind the platform are among several requesting registration under Cuba's associations law, but whose petitions have gone unanswered. Nonetheless, the platform foresees a growing role for non-governmental organiza- tions, including providing charity and social services.

The platform argues that "the need to solve the differences between Cuba and the United States...should not become a pretext for overlooking the very real and serious conflicts between Cuban democrats and non-democrats, and between democrats the world over and partisans of the schemes of the one-party state." Personalities of international stature are asked to become advocates for Cuban democracy.

Waiting for Castro

Officially, there has been no reaction or involvement from the government. Politicians are understandably reluctant to jeopardize their current status and privileges, nor is Castro likely to engage in a process that might end his rule. Surely, some officials who have seen the platform are sympathetic but, mindful of the unfortunate fate of those who express themselves too openly, they are not about to comment unless Castro himself gives the go-ahead.

Yet, complete stonewalling by the government only increases the risk of a future cataclysm when all the various factions, both within Cuba and in exile, rush in to seize power after Castro's demise. Not only will chaos probably result, but what is good about the current system might be thrown out with the bad. Those associated with the Castro regime will find themselves on trial or ostracized at best. The platform's authors desperately want to avoid conflict and retribution. But their success will depend on the Maximum Leader's willingness to engage in earnest dialogue. Unlikely as it is that Castro, Cuban exiles, and dissidents sit down together, the alternative will be worse.

The platform's authors may be naive in their faith in democracy, the rule of law, and modernization, as well as in the benefits of the market economy and globalization. But their conciliatory approach certainly deserves the wider hearing and debate that they are calling for.

Barbara Joe is a writer, translator, and human rights activist living in Washington, DC.

Peace Magazine Spring 2000

Peace Magazine Spring 2000, page 15. Some rights reserved.

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