The Sharpening Crisis in Cuba

Remarks by Carl Gershman, President, the National Endowment for Democracy
At the conference: “Pro-Democracy Movements in Totalitarian States”
The United States Congress

We have arrived at a very dangerous new moment in Cuba. The deaths on July 22 of Oswaldo Paya and Harold Cepero, which could have been instigated by the Cuban regime, following hard upon the death under mysterious circumstances in October of Laura Pollan and the death in January of Wilmar Villar are ominous signs that the threat to democracy activists in Cuba is growing. The fact that Angel Carromero, the Spanish driver of the car in which Paya and Cepero were killed, is being held for homicide – when no independent investigation of the accident is being conducted, despite statements by members of Paya’s family that a second vehicle had run Paya’s car off the road – is very ominous. Carromero is being held as a hostage, possibly to silence critics or exact concessions. Never has there been a greater need for international solidarity to protect the civic activists in Cuba.

That is why the presentation here in the United States Congress of the Pedro Luis Boitel Award to six activists on the front lines of struggle is so important. These brave activists – Julio Columbie Batista and Blas Augusto Fortun Martinez, who are associated with the National Civic Resistance Movement Pedro Luis Boitel; Damaris Moyas Portieles, Donaida Perez Pasiero and Marta Diaz Rondon, who are with the Rosa Parks Women’s Movement for Civil Rights; and Jorge Olivera Castillo, a writer and trade unionist who is also the president of the Writers Club of Cuba – not only deserve but also need our fullest solidarity.

In 2009, I presented the Boitel Award to Ivan Hernandez Carrillo, the labor activist who was arrested in the Black Spring of 2003. In my remarks that evening, I drew a contrast between Boitel and Che Guevara. They were both of the same generation, Guevara having been born in 1928 and Boitel in 1931; and each became the emblematic representative of one of the two contradictory tendencies within the revolutionary movement. Boitel represented the movement’s democratic aspirations, for which he gave his life. And Guevara was the leader of the hard-line, pro-Soviet faction that imposed a harsh totalitarian system on the Cuban people.

Guevara oversaw the firing squads, founded the forced labor camps for political prisoners, and helped embed the ideology of class hatred into the Cuban system. As we know, Che Guevara became a cult figure for the political left, while Boitel died of a hunger strike in prison and was buried in an unmarked grave. And I asked the question: Between Boitel and Guevara, who will ultimately win – the democratic martyr whose unmarked grave has become a shrine for Cuban dissidents; or the murderous cult figure whose image adorns countless t-shirts and has been tattooed on the right arm of the Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona and the abdomen of boxer Mike Tyson? Whom will history absolve?

I believe that the answer is clear. Boitel will win because the Cuba system is now in the throes of a terminal economic, political and ideological crisis. Fidel Castro himself has said, in his famous interview with The Atlantic, that “the Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.” It will end, as President Reagan said of Marxism-Leninism in his famous Westminster Address, “on the ash heap of history” along with “other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”

Just look at the continued activism of the five Cuban dissidents who received the NED Democracy Award in 2009. Ivan Hernandez Carrillo is out of prison and now is the spokesman for the coalition of independent trade unions in Cuba. Antunez and his wife Iris remain militant activists in Central Cuba, while the intellectual Librado Linares and the Catholic activist Jose Daniel Ferrer are also both out of prison and fighting with renewed determination. Ferrer, the leader of the Union Patriotica de Cuba (UNPACU), an island-wide resistance movement, had been arrested earlier this week in the eastern province of Holguin, but he was released yesterday without any charges being pressed. His quick release is a sign of the erosion of the regime’s system of control and its inability to suppress a growing movement of civic resistance.

We can see evidence of that movement in many areas: human rights defense; independent journalism; growing labor unrest and the networks of independent trade unionists that Anibal Cabrera will be discussing later in this conference; independent bloggers and underground rock musicians; youth activists; and activists in professional associations of lawyers, academics, doctors, and intellectuals.

Change is coming, and it’s important that we start preparing now for the post-Castro future. While the struggle for a democratic breakthrough is still the highest priority, it’s necessary now to start thinking about and preparing for the process of democratic transition, which as we know from other contemporary experiences – think of Nicaragua, or Egypt, or Ukraine – will not be easy.

This was the advice that Czech President Vaclav Havel gave to Paya on November 17, 2003 – the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia – in an exchange of letters that we published in the Journal of Democracy. “Each democrat,” Havel wrote, “should behave today as if power were to be handed over tomorrow.” It was on the basis of that advice that Paya initiated a process of independent national dialogue, involving some 14,000 Cubans, that he called the Cuban Forum. This initiative produced a 170-page “All-Cuban Plan” containing recommendations on issues ranging from economic and political reform to education and health, the environment and public order, privatization of the media, and reuniting with the exile community.

Other activists today are also looking at the coming transition. The significance of this work goes beyond helping Cuban democrats prepare for the inevitable change. It also helps the opposition counter the regime’s strategy of instilling fear in the population – not just fear of repression, which is largely disappearing, but fear of the consequences of change, which the regime claims will being rampant capitalism as well as domination by the United States and Cuban exiles. As Paya said, it’s necessary to “dispel the myth that a transition will mean catastrophe for Cuba.”

For now, two things are essential. The first is that the forces of political opposition and the movement of civic resistance must stay united and project a vision of a new Cuba that builds on the legacy of past heroes like Felix Varela and Jose Marti, and draws inspiration from the martyrs of the present – brave democrats like Orlando Zapata, Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia, Wilman Villar, Harold Cepero, Laura Pollan and Oswaldo Paya who have not died in vain. The second necessity is building international solidarity for the Cuban democracy movement, especially in Latin America. This will help isolate the dictatorship and defend the front-line activists who desperately need our support. The difficulties that lie ahead are very great, but change is coming, and the courage of the activists on the ground in Cuba will hasten its arrival.