We are in the midst of a unique moment in Cuba. The deadbolts of the palatial halls have finally begun to yield, after long years of the absence of communication with the natives during which the tension between the government and the independent civil society –including all its actors- has reached a critical point. On Wednesday, May 19, 2010, there was a turning point that is leaning toward breaking the deadlock: the Cuban government, which never sought any in-country partner to discuss the serious problems of all types that have been afflicting Cuban society for decades and which have worsened since the final decade of the last century, has been forced to appeal to the highest authorities of the Catholic Church to mediate in one of the most controversial issues of today, that of political prisoners, the Ladies in White and Guillermo (“Coco”) Fariñas’s hunger and thirst strike demanding the immediate release of 26 of the prisoners of the Black Spring who are suffering from severe health problems.
Without a doubt, this is not a government concession; the autocracy needs to gain time. This year started out with a dire signal to the dictatorship, manifested, among many other events, with the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo during the hunger strike he held in prison for over 80 days, and with the impressive revival in consciousness of many voices in and out of Cuba. Added to the impact that this event had in public opinion is the resistance by the Ladies in White, sustained for seven years, in pursuit of freedom for family members, and the determined attitude of Fariñas, whose echoes have been gaining strength even in Cuba, a nation long plagued by chronic lack of information. On the international scene, the government has never been so isolated. Cuba is in urgent need of change, and the government knows it cannot continue to delay. Inevitably, the proud gerontocracy has been forced to lower its crest and, at the risk of breaking its neck due to the unusual exercise, to stop scanning the empty horizon for a saving sign and to look inward.
Nor are the events that have led to this point random or isolated. The Cuban government is experiencing its worst crisis: the inability of the system to sustain itself, the structural collapse, the foreign investors’ lack of faith, the people’s increasingly widespread skepticism (whose most recent evidence is the absence from the polls, the abstention or cancellation of more than one million votes in the so-called elections last April), the permanent emigration, the economy’s final syncopation and the humble but steady growth of demonstrations and civil requirements within the country, are some of the factors of a collapse that only the government could alleviate –since it has not avoided it- by fostering internal dialogue and introducing sweeping reforms in a hurry. It is imperative, therefore, to set in motion a mechanism whose inevitable consequence will be transition.
Though hoped for, the dialogue is still surprising. It was assumed that the government would never agree to talk directly with any dissident faction after demonizing them consistently as “mercenaries”, “sellers of the country”, “lackeys”, “traitors” and other similar qualifiers; it would be inconsistent to legitimize them, to give them the recognition that it always denied them. Thus, it appears that the authorities have chosen as a mediator, not the complacent Board Council of Churches of Cuba, ever-ready to support government interests stemming from mandates of the drive-shaft known as Caridad Diego, the dreaded Head of the Department of Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Communist Party -who, in a very uncharitable manner, dictates the norms to the more obedient and receptive among the shepherds of this peculiar flock- but to the highest hierarchy of the influential Catholic Church, the largest and most powerful religious institution in the country, which the government has crossed swords with on more than one occasion.
However, I feel very positive about this series of dialogues between the government and the Catholic Church in respect to political prisoners, provided they come away from it with solutions to a conflict created by the government itself. And, though on occasion I have criticized the lukewarm positions of certain high representatives of the Church, right now, I can’t imagine a better mediator –as long as this is a process and not just another government voice- to find the start of a path likely to lead to changes. This is an important first step. Do not forget, however, that neither the Cuban government nor the Church are the true protagonists of this dialogue, but Orlando Zapata, the political prisoners, the Ladies in White and Guillermo Fariñas, who are all heirs of so many years of civil resistance waged by thousands of Cubans. Let’s not lose sight either of the misleading nature of this government, a wolf ready to disguise itself as sheep, because emptying the prisons due to the pressure from current circumstances does not mean they won’t be ready to fill them at the first chance. As far as I’m concerned, I am keeping my skepticism under wraps: the yeomen of the system are not working hard in vain, inventing new nightmares under the rubric of “mercenaries”. This time, in keeping up with the times, they have included the term “cyber-terrorists” specifically designed for the prickly independent bloggers in Cuba.
Let’s then see if what some have already begun to call “Operation Frock” produces the desired effect and sets a favorable precedent to transition, peacefully and at medium term, toward democracy in the Island. Today, the high Catholic hierarchy has the unique opportunity to contribute to Cuba’s democratization and to the reconciliation among all Cubans; it also has the moral authority to do so. My best wishes for the success of its discussions.
Graphic: EFE photograph