Considering Opportunities for Cuba

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

Havana Bay

HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 9 — If there is something that has become tiresome to repeat from the great military theoreticians —from the mythical Sun Tzu to the more tangible Carl von Clausewitz— it is that the power of each adversary is a relative value that depends more on the weaknesses of their opposition than on their own strength at any specific conjuncture – which is, in short, a conjunction of rationality, motivations and chance.

The Cuban political elite knows this.  They have been taught it for five decades by Fidel Castro, a person who has always adapted his strategies to tactics, while at each conjuncture he has sought a breach that would allow him to become stronger.

This quality of his highly political cynicism has attracted and charmed many admirers, some celebrating the pragmatism he never had and others wanting to see the Comandante serve as his own opposition.  Nonetheless, this has allowed him to survive politically for half a century, even a couple decades after the Soviet subsidies ended and since the national economy entered in a process of deterioration from which it has yet to recover.

The maintenance of this relative position of power has been put at stake with the most recent political maneuver of the Cuban government: the release of dozens of Cuban political prisoners through the mediation of the Catholic Church.

For now, leaving to one side the probable human motivation of this action on the part of the Catholic hierarchy, it is undeniable that the Church has made gains with that action.  It has garnered visibility, applause and public recognition, and it has done a favor to the political elite.  But as we know, there are no free lunches in politics, and the bigger gains for the priesthood will be in the long term.  And speaking of the long term, the Church has the accumulated experience of two millennia.  Therefore at the end of that long term, the Church will remain alive, while all of us reading this will be dead.

The immediate winners of the prisoner release are Cuba’s leaders themselves.  In one fell swoop they have relieved international pressure in a context in which their visibility on the world stage cannot be easily avoided.  What’s more, they have done this without having to stomach the reentry of the released prisoners into the opposition movement.  Moreover, in one step have weakened the internal opposition, and within that have gotten rid of the most troublesome pebble in their shoe: “the Ladies in White,” a movement that based its strength on their weakness and articulated its position through their silence.  This was just the type of problem that the Party headquarters did not know how to tackle.

An outcome of this nature was only possible given the weakness of the various current and possible opposition members.  Certainly in another context the Catholic Church would have had a greater capacity to condition its mediation, and the opposition would have been able to press for other political cases beyond what they were able to do with some isolated figures, such as in the highly significant case of former hunger-striker Guillermo Farinas.

Building near the sea in Havana.

Exile/emigration would have been more effective than it usually is (meaning in our cases), and the public itself would have at least known of the maneuver, beyond what the Granma newspaper reported, and they would have been able to evaluate its outcome.

But it did not turn out this way because the Cuban government could act almost with impunity in the face of extremely weak, fragmented and dispersed actors.  This was the precise key to the political luck of the Cuban elite: more than of its own strength, it has enjoyed the weaknesses of its adversaries.  It has converted the fragmentation of “others” into its trump card, whether those “others” are situated in politics or in the marketplace.

I believe, however, that the political class has perceived that a substantial change could be underway in Cuban society: the erosion of the post-revolutionary social contract that implies the surrender of social autonomy of Cuban society in exchange for social security offered by a state that has opted for totalitarian rule.

This explains the visible edginess of the political class in the face of the imminent restructuring that will constitute a veritable social massacre, especially as they continue to implement the mass layoffs, complete the elimination of food subsidies and cut back on social programs in health care and education.

Police control and remittances

To accomplish this, which is indispensable for saving the economy and recovering their own spaces for accumulation, the political elite is relying on two resources.

The first one is the political/police control.  Their most visible side was the deploying of dozens of ideological brownnosers, whose shot across the bow was fired by the sycophant Granma editor Lazaro Barredo with his description of the Cuban masses as “nestlings” with their mouths wide open.  They are trying to explain that everything is being done on behalf of socialism and that no one will be left to their fate.  All of this is difficult to believe in the present setting, but they are trying to maintain the discipline of a minority (but hardened) fringe to secure political support.

Old Havana used book stand.

Notwithstanding, for the first time in post-revolutionary history one can foresee the application of the resource of massive repression, whose outline was already apparent with the last “Bastion” military exercises.  This national drill, its leaders said, was directed at putting down internal insurgency “motivated by imperialist interference,” as it curiously concluded exactly during those tragic days in which prisoner Orlando Zapata began his fateful hunger strike.

The other resource is us, meaning those of us who emigrated (and our remittances).  Those remittances, which some estimate to be around a billion dollars, have been a key pivot of ordinary Cubans over the last few years.  Without them the country’s situation would have been catastrophic.

In the newly created situation, remittances are even more important.  And with all certainty, the Cuban government (at least its more realistic technocratic sectors) has calculated that the only way for a graceful exit out of the crisis is to replicate the experience of their comrades from Beijing with Chinese nationals abroad.

There is no will for political change in the agenda of the Cuban government, except in those areas where greater political opening is necessary for economic reform to work.  This explains, for example, the existence of greater leeway for debate around the economy (as occurred in 1990-95), as well as the recent flirtations with the Catholic Church.

Likewise, a meager opening could be produced in the realm of immigration.  In this respect there is the visible mobilization of groups of pro-government émigrés that have been advocating a shorter agenda of change (these groups hardly ever move in any direction if they do not receive positive signs from their respective consulates).

This is a playing field on which the Cuban Government can produce changes, ones which will enjoy the sympathies of most of those who emigrated.  Such changes could include reductions on the exorbitant rates for consular services, the elimination of the ominous expropriation of 20 percent on each dollar exchanged, and the concession of more days added to the maximum allowed visit.  At the same time, these would not change the essential nature of the discriminatory and repressive system that characterizes the State’s relationship with the émigré community and with Cuban residents on the island around that same issue.

An interesting political dilemma posed

I believe there is a very extensive field in which the diaspora can collaborate sincerely with the island at this conjuncture: contributing money, contacts and invaluable experiences.  This would allow a decrease in the suffering of those positioned to lose from the proposed difficult restructuring measures and it would increase spaces for social autonomy.  But at the same time we must wonder if it is justifiable to simply do this by contributing remittances or if we would help Cuban society more if we were able to think about a progressive agenda in search of the recovery of the basic right to travel and return.

Havana street cleaner. Photo: Ivana Beluzic Shejbal

I sincerely believe that there does not exist a stronger and more genuine agenda for the diaspora than to demand its right to return to the Island and to enjoy the full restitution of the civic rights that were snatched from us when we emigrated, even when we did so against our will.  As a corollary, this would make an impact on the right of all Cubans to travel freely, both abroad and within the country.

This is not a question of seeking to replace the Cuban government with another one that we prefer.  It is not even a demand to move away from the one-party political system; anyone can argue for that from their own political agenda, and that’s legitimate.  What I am speaking of now is demanding the termination of an order of absolute exclusion that breaks with the most elementary principles of human dignity, law and governability.

It is simply a question of demanding the Cuban government to comply with what I have heard it say on several occasions to my friend Siro del Castillo: that it fulfill international agreements that it itself has subscribed.

It is a question of taking advantage of what would be a potential political opportunity to change the rules of the game around a highly sensitive issue and whose systemic repercussions would be staggering.

The opposite is more of the same thing: continuing to send money to families, visiting the island once a year, and being content when customs officers allows to enter a few gifts that will make life less difficult for our compatriots.

This question is…will we be able to take advantage of this opportunity?