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Havana Club

Why Cuba's historic civil society gathering was so important.

12:00 AM, May 26, 2005 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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CUBAN DISSIDENTS have never had a Lech Walesa or a Václav Havel. Nor is there a pro-democracy force on the island comparable to Solidarity or Charter 77. But that might be changing.

Last Friday and Saturday saw the inaugural meeting of Marta Beatriz Roque's Assembly to Promote Civil Society in Cuba. About 200 Cubans attended the two-day event, which took place in a dirt-filled garden outside Félix Bonne's Havana home. Cheers (in Spanish) of "Down with Fidel!" and "Freedom! Freedom!" reportedly rang out, as participants marked Cuba's original Independence Day (May 20).

Assorted Western diplomats--including officials from the European Union, Czech Republic, Poland, Canada, and Japan--came to observe. James Cason, America's senior envoy in Cuba, dropped by to deliver a videotaped message from President Bush. "We are working for the day of Cuban freedom," Bush told the assembled delegates (some of whom yelled back "Viva Bush!"). And "we are confident that Cuba sera libre pronto." Bush praised the "courage" of those gathered to "protest oppression" in their homeland.

To appreciate the Assembly's truly historic character, consider the following. Never before had such a well-publicized pro-democracy summit occurred on Fidel Castro's watch. (Oppositionists tried it before, in the mid 1990s, but a string of arrests scuttled their hopes.) Never before had so many leading Cuban dissidents thronged a single area to thumb their noses at the government. Never before, according to a Miami Herald report, had any dissident meeting in Cuba gone off "without incident or obvious police presence." (Though a day prior to the summit, Cuban authorities expelled a Czech senator and a German deputy who planned to attend, and on May 20 they detained four Polish journalists.) And never before--since 1959--had Cubans on the island drafted and promulgated a 10-point resolution for transitioning to democracy.

The resolution, agreed upon by Assembly participants, dubbed Castro's regime "Stalinist," "totalitarian," and "essentially anti-democratic." It laid out several benchmarks for liberalization, including economic reforms, genuine pluralism, abolition of the death penalty, and the release of all political prisoners. Roque read the resolution aloud to exultant cries of "Bravo!" and "Cuba libre!" In a secret ballot, she was picked to co-chair--along with fellow Assembly organizers Félix Bonne and René Gómez Manzano--the Assembly's nascent 36-member board.

That's the good news. The bad news? Cuba's highest profile dissident, Oswaldo Payá, snubbed the Assembly, which he deemed a "fraud" orchestrated by "extremists." Payá, leader of the island's Christian Liberation Movement and recipient of the European Union's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, commands great clout among Cuban dissidents. His conspicuous absence from the May 20-21 meeting bodes ill. So does the absence of independent economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe. Vladimiro Roca, head of the rival Todos Unidos coalition, did attend the congress. He stressed the need for anti-Castro oppositionists to iron out their differences "in private, never publicly."

But the fact is, internal squabbling wracks Cuba's dissident movement as it once did similar anti-Communist campaigns in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (and does today in China). The chief fault line separating the two camps: Payá's Varela Project and National Dialogue initiatives promote democratic change within Cuba's post-1959 constitution; Roque and others want to scrap the Communist system entirely and chart a new democratic framework from scratch. The Roque forces--and their Cuban-American allies in Miami--often worry that Payá is too soft on Castro. Payá opposes the U.S. embargo, as does Chepe, while Roque and her Assembly support it wholeheartedly.

There are other cleavages, to be sure, but the Payá/Roque split is the most salient. Such rifts pose a dilemma for Cuban democrats, but not an insurmountable one. So long as the rival dissident factions don't undermine or sabotage each other--which has happened in the past--the more democratic coalitions, the better. After all, their grassroots activists champion the same fundamental goal: Cuba's nonviolent transition to decent, representative government.

For much of his 46-year rule, Fidel was able to squelch pesky opponents--by means of arrest or exile--before they attracted global attention. But that hasn't happened with Payá. His international fame, some have argued, now functions like a get-out-of-jail-free card. Castro can't imprison or banish Payá without risking a clumsy PR disaster.