Cuba: The issues behind the 'dissidents'

April 10, 2010

Hunger strikes and suicides justified by strong moral, ideological, patriotic or religious beliefs usually touch people's conscience.

From Bobby Sands and the 10 other northern Irish republican youths who died in British jails in 1981, to the many cases of Basque and anarchist political prisoners protesting last January against bad prison treatment or the political manipulations by judicial authorities and police in Spain and France, hunger strikes and their significance have had a continuous presence in the political arena.

From this perspective, the case of Cuban "dissident" Orlando Zapata, who died in prison on February 23 as a result of a hunger strike, or that of Guillermo Farinas who is on hunger strike, are not unusual events.

The death of Zapata, who was not jailed for political reasons but took up the position as a dissident from inside jail, is a human tragedy. But that does not explain how it became a cause celebre. If one tries to understand it in context — something hard to do given the shower of opinions that have inundated the media — one has to take a step back from the news to ask some essential questions.

Who are the Cuban dissident groups? What is the current national and international political context on the island? How does the international press contribute to the problem?

The opposition groups inside Cuba are not essentially different from the Cuban exiles in their methods and objectives. The most powerful anti-Castro organisations in Miami and New Jersey today no longer support anti-Cuban bombings and war.

Dissidents and exiles do not agree on everything (for example, support for the embargo) but they share the same objective (to exchange Cuba's system for a capitalist model), a common ideological reference (anti-Castroism and anti-socialism) and the same allies (the United States, anti-communist governments and parties in Europe and other countries).

Though the dissidents receive money from the US government, their political character is not captured with the adjective "mercenary" since it is likely many have authentic ideological beliefs.

Under the umbrella group Democratic Convergence, dissidents, including social democrats, bring together their interests and tendencies. But their core tendency is toward the centre-right.

Although this partly explains their lack of acceptance in Cuban society, the main reason it is not a viable movement is that it lacks two essential political ingredients: leadership and

The dissidents do not have roots in civil society. They lack influence in religious
organisations or the working class. They have no record of struggle against odious or corrupt regimes.

If they had, they might represent movements of considerable impact. But they are not "civil society" — they are opposition micro parties.

Why don't the dissidents appeal to larger sectors? There are three main reasons.

First, most of their criticisms of the system already form part of the debate among Cubans, whether they are socialists or not. To suppose that dissidents are the lone heroic voices who dare to point out errors and to make demands of the government shows ignorance
about contemporary Cuba.

Dissent is manifested today within (and outside) institutions, the intellectual movement, the media, social, religious and cultural organisations and inside the ranks of political militants.

Second, dissidents' proposals do not constitute a coherent economic and political program, but rather a hodge-podge of imprecise ideology and the classic nostrums of economic liberalism that have been well known in Latin America for the past 20

Anyone who takes the dissidents' proposals seriously does not know the significance
of the issues in the real public debate throughout Cuba: decentralisation; participation and effective political control of the bureaucracy by popular power; reordering the economy and making it more efficient; enlarging the private sector; extending cooperatives; improving income to levels consistent with work and buying power; an end to generalised subsidies and bonuses; new social policies for the most at-risk sectors; how to better reflect public opinion in the media; creating more space for free expression; and democratising existing institutions.

Third, it is very difficult for Cubans, regardless of whether they support Fidel and Raul Castro or share socialist ideals, to accept as legitimate groups that are financially supported by the US government, right-wing European parties and the most powerful exile forces whose reputations as champions of liberty and democracy are not very convincing.

Their powerful backers attribute the lack of support for dissidents to the efficiency of the Cuban security apparatus and most especially to the ignorance, isolation, resignation and fear of the poor Cubans.

This colonialist reasoning assumes passivity and resignation are characteristics
of Cuban political culture — which is difficult to prove in Cuba's history.

The European Union's recent motion attacking Cuba has nothing to do with Cuban civil society but with its members own interests, partisan bickering and electoral strategies.

Since Farinas and other dissidents have gone on hunger strikes many other times, why is there such a reaction to them now?

Despite its limited results, the dialogue between Washington and Havana has advanced more in the past year than in the previous 10. Dialogue has been renewed on migration and direct mail service and semi-official groups are exploring avenues of cooperation in drug interdiction.

Without lifting the fresh restrictions imposed by the Bush administration in 2005, the United States has again begun to issue visas to academics and artists; and there are initiatives in Congress to reestablish the right of North Americans to travel to the island.

Furthermore, the policy of the European Union, led by Spain, has substantially improved relations with the Cuban government since June 2008 by lifting the sanctions implemented in 2003.

Change has also been advanced by the growing ties between Cuba and
the rest of the region, not only with left- and centre-left governments, but with others such as Mexico.

What could happen, some experts were asking in private several weeks ago, to interfere with this rapprochement? The answer was not long in coming. Obviously, pushing the issue of the dissidents is in the interests of those opposing dialogue.

The European Parliament's motion demanded "the immediate and unconditional
release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience".

But the handful of prisoners among the dissenters are not imprisoned for reasons of "conscience" or for "criticising the government" but for actively opposing the system in alliance with the United States, exile groups and other right-wing parties.

They have no weapons, but they do have resources put at their disposal by foreign states and organisations: equipment and long-range communications for the purpose of making war by other means.

(Accepting money from a foreign power to work towards overthrowing the government is not just a crime in Cuba, but the US and many other countries.)

What does experience teach about putting this government in the pillory? Not even those Cubans who might consider government policy toward dissidents inefficient would be able to argue that they should be pardoned right now, under pressure from a bloc of
vested interests with double standards.

The Cuban government has never negotiated under pressure, even during the 1962 missile crisis; it is unlikely to do so now.

Part of the political context is a certain perverse logic expressed in the question "What is Cuba going to do in exchange for US permission for Cuban Americans to travel, licenses for corporations to sell food to the island or signing an agreement on drug trafficking?"

According to this logic, Cuba must pay tribute for every minimal change in the US
policy of maintaining a crippling economic blockade (in operation since 1960).

The dissidents are pawns in the chessboard of contending powers.

The question of how to deal with these issues is not for US congresspeople and Euro-parliamentarians but for Cubans who live their lives on the island.

[Rafael Hernandez is a social scientist and director of the Havana-based Temas magazine. It was translated by Robert Sandels.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.