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Archive for March, 2013

To Root Out the Remnants

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, Yoani Sanchez, MJ Porter in New York City. Photo from Penultimos Dias

Many of my dear readers have written asking for a comment on the long tour of Yoani Sánchez through several countries, and the travel abroad of other figures of internal dissent such as Eliecer Avila, Rosa María Payá, Berta Soler and Orlando Luis Pardo, just to mention some of the best known, and the significance this could have for the opposition on the Island

The topic requires, perhaps, a long essay, but it’s enough to follow the statements of the dissidents mentioned as published in various media, the packed agenda Yoani is covering on her journey, and the links that have been strengthened between Cubans critical of the Castro government on all shores, to understand that there is a before and after with regards to these journeys. The issues raised by all of them range across all the problems of Cuban society today and the crisis of the Castro model.

Rosa María Payá (Another promising young person of the Cuban opposition)

Most significant in this case could be the variety of opinions expressed by them and the fact that, despite differences of nuance, there is a consensus on the need for democratic changes in Cuba and that these must be achieved through peaceful and concerted means. I dare to suggest that, save for some specific remnants of some opponents who feel disenfranchised or who refuse to make way for new ideas and figures which have emerged in the political spectrum of resistance, there are many more who identify with and feel represented in the statements of all these young Cubans who are traveling the world.

Just recently I received a bitter critique from a longstanding opponent who felt diminished in importance because I didn’t mention her in an interview I did with my colleague Pablo Pascuel Mendez which was published in Cubanet in January. She did not understand that the questions put to me by the journalist had nothing to do with her activity, much less did my answers encompass disrespect for any of my fellow travelers from before or now.

The are no pedigrees nor privileges in the Cuban opposition, only fighters for democracy; it doesn’t matter who came before or after, we all matter. At least as I understand it. For that reason I have no problem promoting debates, which I consider essential, because a lack of transparency is nothing more than repeating the patterns of the government we condemn.

I think, in the end, that the words of our compatriots abroad will not only strengthen us by offering a more dignified and truthful picture of what the Cuban opposition is in the light of these times, but will also serve to further understanding and support for us within Cuba, which perhaps would be one of their most important contributions. Yoani, Rosa María, Eliecer and Orlando Luis are offering a magnificent example of the true variety of citizen awareness on the Island. Rooting out the remnants among ourselves would be a chance to feel that in them, somehow, we are all represented.

18 March 2013

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The vision of the demonstrations of mourning of the Venezuelans who just five months ago voted for the president who now stars finally in his own and absurdly long death, arouses both respect and compassion. Respect, for every genuine expression of regret deserves it, beyond our individual ideologies. Compassion, because the crowds of mourners who parade before our eyes in Caracas are behaving like a deceived lover, who although faced with evidence of infidelity insist on denying it.

As announced on Friday, March 1 in his Twitter account, the Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles has revealed that Nicolas Maduro and other Cabinet members lied about the state of health of the president. The irreversibly serious state of the President’s health and his impending death remained hidden in the rigged reports and medical details, murky and full of inconsistencies, designed to maintain political control at all costs and despite the inevitable extinction of the caudillo.

On the other hand, the prolonged absence and invisibility of the President was so scandalous that many sectors of the opposition demanded a proof of life, a factor which had a decisive influence on the public declaration of his death. It was curious that with the growing demonstrations of the opposition and the justice of their demand how suddenly it came about. In just a few days they adjusted the planned program with the extreme seriousness of “the emergence of a new respiratory program” followed almost immediately by the death of Chavez.

Most likely, as has happened in history with the death of other caudillos, we will never know the exact date that the Venezuelan president died. In fact, the serenity of his daughters during the wake suggests a knowledge well before the event, far beyond what they expected as a logical outcome.

But there are other great lies in this saga. Chavez lied maliciously when he declared himself cured by a miracle, after two operations for the same illness, to be eligible for re-election and to take on the electoral campaign that would place him once more in the presidency of Venezuela. He lied with all his energy and at the cost of his own life, to remain in power, proof of enormous irresponsibility, because in the end the voters, without knowing it, voted overwhelmingly for a prospective corpse. If, as some argue, the late caudillo followed directions from Havana, the acceptance of such interference would only prove a major deception to his people.

Overnight the king has been left naked and it is obvious that “the right, the oligarchy, the empire and Chavez’s enemies” were telling the truth. However, tens of thousands of Venezuelans mourn his death. Many times before in history other peoples have mourned their dictators and then quickly forgotten them. The people are fickle, because they need to survive all the passing conflicts. At the end of the day, a good share of the Venezuelan people lie “perhaps in good faith,” when they say they will defend with their lives Chavez-style socialism, a paradigm of 21st century justice.

And so the embalmed corpse of Hugo Chavez, which will have a permanent place in the new Palace of the Revolution will be, along with a twisted and sick perception of worship, a way to keep him among the living, even if it’s all little lies.

For my part, as I’ve watched so many tearful faces cross my TV screen lately, so many slogans and testimonials of loyalty to Chavez, I could not but recall that old bolero that played on the Victrolas so many years ago in the bars my Old Havana: “Who cares, life is a lie … lie to me again, your wickedness makes me happy.”

8 March 2013

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Walesa: Counsel and Realities

1362008912_lech-walesa0_1_1467669cLast February 6th a note was posted on the digital space Cubanet regarding a TV Martí interview with Lech Walesa, the renowned Polish trade union leader and undisputed trailblazer of the democratic transition in his country, during his recent visit to Miami. This note summarizes some thoughts Walesa put forth apropos freedom in Cuba and the role of the internal opposition on the island, which has caused mixed reactions among some members of Cuban dissident groups.

Overall, we may or may not be in agreement with Walesa’s opinions, but I don’t think that his interests were particularly directed at mocking the dissidents.  This is not an exceptional event either: with regard to the review of the situation in Cuba we know that from time to time someone appears who “knows” better than we do what must be done to end the dictatorship. Interestingly, that someone is seldom a Cuban.

But the matter comes up repeatedly, and this case brings with it other lessons, since the person rendering opinions is a recognized international leader, which implies that he enjoys the self-assurance of authority, in virtue of which his opinions may be assumed by others as absolute truths, or, at least, accepted as priori judgments.

That is why, at the risk of upsetting those who worship the sacred cows of politics and, at the same time, favoring my admiration and respect for Walesa’s extraordinary merits and leadership in the democratic transition of his country, I want to go over his words and discuss them on a personal level. I’m barely one among the thousands of Cubans who nurture independent civic organizations in Cuba, but every citizen is a political subject -even those who are not aware of it- and each individual’s opinion is worth, at least, as much as that of the most prominent leaders.

I do not think, however, that Walesa’s role in Poland’s recent history turn him into a de facto “expert opinion” to assess the Cuban case. In fact, his opinions display great ignorance about Cuba’s situation, about the nature of totalitarian power and about our history and idiosyncrasy.

I seem to feel a certain degree of arrogance, or perhaps a tad personal vanity in the phrase “I tried to give advice to the Cuban opposition but, for some reason, they won’t listen to me”. Without wishing to dismiss the value of Walesa’s political experience, I am not aware that anyone, in the name of the opposition here, has asked him for advice. His position is, as it were, the authoritarian father’s punishment towards a misbehaving child who does not follow the rules, and I must confess that -far from bothering me as a member of the Cuban opposition- at first I thought it even funny: Democratic Cuban colleagues, let’s not toil any more in our long resistance against the regime, we only have to follow Walesa’s advice!

Having said that, in a debate mode, I would like to know how the Polish leader could have commanded such a powerful syndicate as Solidarity in Cuba; a country in which the very government took it upon itself to terminate almost to the core the port movement, plus swept off all which once was industry. Mr. Walesa seems to have no idea that there are no laborers on this Island, only those who survive in the few sugar mills or in the very few shops or factories that have withstood the destructive power of the regime. We don’t have great trade to encourage the existence of port syndicate activity. We can’t begin to compare Casablanca, the modest shipyard in Havana bay with the gigantic complex of shipyards in Gdansk, with thousands of workers, the critical main stage of the Polish transition. Cubans don’t even have a merchant or fishing fleet.

There  are only minor vestiges remaining in Cuba of those great cigar factories that were the cradle and the kiln of Cuban syndicalism between the end of the XIX and the beginning of the XX century. How could labor unionism and a labor leader exist in a country without a labor force where the government lays off 20% of the active labor force without a second thought?  And we are not just talking about unions: here, even mere free association is taboo, because, while Cubans have not historically been strong carriers of civic traditions, the Castro dictatorship undertook to void any possibility of social autonomy from the first years following the seizure of power in 1959.

It seems unreasonable to move mimetically the experiences of a process of transition from one nation to another. The Cuban situation is neither better nor worse than that of Poland at that moment. It is simply different.  It’s enough to remember that in the political arena, the Polish opposition was able to count on the firm support of such an ionic figure as that of Karol Jozef Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, and the Catholic faith constituted a unifying element of the spirit of the Polish people towards democracy, which –coupled with a long tradition of struggle for independence and a solid civic culture- contributed decisively to the opposition’s victory. The struggle, in addition, not only went against a puppet government, but ultimately against a foreign power, the Soviet Union, at a time when the tensions of the Cold War were being undermined by the collapse of the East European communist models. So, at the end of the decade of the 80’s all factors came together which, taken together, led to the transition to democracy not only in Poland but in all the countries of the former socialist bloc.

Cuba, on the other hand, shows a very different scenario, though there are common elements in our circumstances of transition, such as the existence of a regime calling itself “communist” and a centralized power that controls the economy, the politics, the military, the enforcement agencies and the social structures. The fight is against a national dictatorship that has gone through several phases over half a century, including satellite status of that same Soviet power.

For its part, the Cuban Catholic Church is far from having a close relationship with most of society, but we must recognize the (local) civic community work of many priests in many parishes. We need to understand that we Cubans, in general, are not very zealous in matters of faith, and that the best known national paradigm of spiritual unity, José Martí, has been widely manipulated and quasi-prostituted from all ideologies and interests. As for the leadership of the religious institution, it is a very distant elite, very far from the politics of change that are evolving from independent civil society and the opposition. We have a Church of spiritual formalities not truly committed to the struggle of resistance. In fact, its tendency has been to fold under the power of the ruling autocracy.

I don’t think it’s a problem that there are “too many leaders within the opposition” in Cuba and no one among them who is “strong enough” to lead all of us. Actually, I think the variety of ideas and projects that exists suggests the possibility that one day we will have to choose among many proposals. Variety does not necessarily mean “disunity”, as shown by the trend of mutual support that has been occurring in recent years between different projects and teams. Perhaps the diversity -not “disunity”- is precisely the most practical and possible strategy in a country where power has cornered every area of society, including families.

Thus, operating as small cells and concurring on greater common endeavors, dissidence is uniting to meet the changes of the Cuban transition. Today we perceive many open fronts of the civil resistance inside Cuba that include both so-called traditional opposition parties, such as the independent press in all its forms and multiple civil society projects, which have demonstrated they are capable of collaborating with each other and of promoting common approaches, regardless of their ideologies. If that process is ever consolidated, or if it succeeds, the future will tell, but, at any rate, the variety of the Cuban opposition spectrum, far from making me worry, seems to me like a reflection of democracy in its midst, an idea which is shared by many representatives of the dissidence. At any rate, magnifying the advantages of what it insistently being called a “union” is as harmful to the opposition as it is opportune to the dictatorship.

We don’t need to found a monolithic union around a “powerful” single leader in order to reach democracy in Cuba (we have had too much of that in the last 54 years). In any case, the power of the Cuban dictatorship has been so complete that any action that appears will constitute an important factor to undermine the system without necessarily having to be subordinated to a particular leader. Experience shows that the power of a leader lies not only in his ability to summon, but in a combination of many factors, among which, his capacity to act is essential. Today, the actions of several local and regional opposition organizations are showing both their ability to fight and the summoning power of their leaders.

Another one of Walesa’s statements demonstrating his ignorance of the Cuban situation is one in which he said that “in cities and towns and people should have offered to fill new positions, new duties already, in the transformed situation.  In two years, there will be democratic elections (in Cuba)… we have to be prepared, because what will happen after the fall of the Castro regime will be chaos”.

I would dare say that in almost every city and town in Cuba social actors do exist who will play an important role in the zero hour, i.e., at the moment of time of the definitive changes, and, at every instance, there will be many more. The government’s inability to overcome the structural crisis of the system is, paradoxically, the main source of the general desire for change. Certainly, the Cuban transition has already begun and the system began in a process of erosion years ago that has been accentuating gradually, but permanently. However, reality still has not been processed to the point that it is possible to occupy the posts of local governments and participate in decision-making from legal structures that are strategically designed to avoid such an occurrence. Maybe not even our changes will take place that way.

No one knows if in just two years there will be democratic elections in Cuba, though I hope so. But I can assure Walesa that, by then, there will be more Cubans, today’s opposition and citizens of that near tomorrow, who will be prepared to meet the challenges of democracy after more than half a century of totalitarianism. We are striving for that.

Personally, I appreciate the good wishes for our country’s freedom expressed by the Polish trade union leader, but he really does us a disservice when lending himself to coin such a cliché. I also reject the dire predictions of social catastrophism: there will be no such chaos in Cuba because, at that moment, above all our differences and reservations, the love for our nation will be asserted among us, the will to rebuild on the ruins and the experience gained by several generations during long years of struggle, to finally found institutions that will prevent the return of a dictatorship. Believe me, Mr. Walesa, on these pillars will be born a most enduring union, not of the opposition, but of all Cubans.

Miriam Celaya

(Article originally published in Cubanet on February 22nd, 2013)

February 27 2013

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