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Cuba's Deng Xiaoping

Don't expect a "Velvet Revolution" in the Caribbean--even after Fidel Castro dies.

11:00 PM, Nov 16, 2004 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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Coral Gables, Florida

"CUBA'S FUTURE is in the hands of Cubans," declares James Cason, mission chief at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. He is addressing a seminar of earnest Cuba watchers hosted by the University of Miami's Cuba Transition Project (CTP).

Before this crowd, the puckish Cason needs no introduction. Since assuming his post in September 2002, he has turned his office into a vanguard of the Cuban democracy movement. He's befriended dissidents. More than that, he's visited their homes and had them over to his. He's also cranked up U.S. aid--radios, books, computers, and other materials. Cason recently drew attention to human rights by building a replica of a Cuban prison cell in his backyard.

He exudes a sober yet robust faith in the Cuban opposition. "Cuba's courageous pro-democracy activists are already laying claim to a say in their country's future," Cason says, "and are having an international impact." Their "lonely voices," he adds, "are getting less lonely by the day." The conferees later hear, by telephone, from two of the island's most famous activists: Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello and Vladimiro Roca Antúnez.

The CTP gathering was scheduled months ago, but its timing is felicitous, coming just a few weeks after president-for-life Fidel Castro's much-publicized fall. The tyrant's tumble prompted renewed speculation over his health--and over his successor. Fidel's brother, Raúl Castro, how head of the armed forces, has long been the heir apparent.

Such a dynastic takeover is not what those assembled here at the Omni Colonnade Hotel want to see. They yield to no one in their loathing of totalitarianism and their desire to see Fidel's revolution rolled back.

But they're not Pollyannas. They know Cuba's pro-democracy forces have been paralyzed since Castro delivered his knockout punch--a massive anti-dissident crackdown, the worst since the 1960s--in March and April of 2003. They realize the opposition is on the canvas, getting a standing eight count. They concede, reluctantly, that a peaceful "Velvet Revolution," á la Czechoslovakia in 1989, is unlikely.

I must say, I left Coral Gables feeling semi-despondent. The bravery and resolution of Cuba's democrats is inspiring. But, truth be told, they are nowhere near toppling the dictatorship. And the machinery of Raúl's succession is well oiled. While Cuba deserves a Václav Havel or Lech Walesa, it may have to settle for a Deng Xiaoping. That is, post-Fidel Cuba will probably resemble post-Mao China more than post-Soviet Eastern Europe.

Too pessimistic? Perhaps. After all, there is now a global consensus on Cuban democracy. European diplomats meet regularly with Cuban oppositionists, much to Fidel's ire. This has soured E.U.-Cuba ties. Indeed, America and Europe are now in greater harmony on Cuba policy, relatively speaking, than they've been in decades.

Nor should the island's dissident movement be written off as wholly impotent. Cuba's nascent pockets of civil society show promise. Says Jorge Más Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, "There are many Lech Walesas in Cuba, but they are not known." And recent history is littered with examples of prisoners-cum-presidents: Havel, Nelson Mandela, and Kim Dae-jung, to name three.

Havel, as it happens, is one of Castro's fiercest opponents on the world stage. And among European nations, the Czech Republic is the most active supporter of Cuban dissidents. Several speakers at this conference--held in concert with the Czech embassy--are Czechs, including Prague's ambassador to the United States, Martin Palous. They explain how Cubans can apply the lessons of Charter 77 and the Velvet Revolution to their own country. They recall the velocity of change in 1989.

"Don't believe pragmatists who say morality and politics are two separate things," booms Ambassador Palous. Havel has pre-taped a message for the seminar. "Cuba survives like a strange relic of the past," he intones. Nearly everyone notes the CTP seminar is occurring 15 years to the day (November 9) after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Conferees have studied Eastern Europe's democratic transition religiously.

The trouble is, so has Fidel Castro. Alcibiades Hidalgo, Cuba's former U.N. ambassador, says Fidel's inner circle has meticulously analyzed the peaceful implosion of the Soviet satellites. Few foreign events had a more profound impact on the Cuban Communists. Hidalgo, a high-ranking defector, predicts an "internal succession" after Fidel's death.