Cuba: Last Gasp?
The ministries of economy and tourism, among others, have reportedly been purged of young technocrats responsible for bringing in foreign capital. Friday, the government summarily executed three men who, a week ago, had hijacked a Havana bay ferry in a failed attempt to reach Florida.
The Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese writer, José Saramago, a personal friend of Fidel Castro and one of his most vociferous supporters in Europe, broke with the regime Monday, after the executions. "This is as far as I go," the longtime Communist wrote in Spain's leading newspaper, El País.
Fuel on the Fire
In an apparently calculated breach of diplomatic protocol, James Cason, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, held a variety of high-profile, inflammatory meetings with local dissidents, some in his own residence. Many were among those arrested.
Some of Cason's guests turned out to be State Security agents who had infiltrated the dissident groups. Aleida Godínez Soler, a secretary to now imprisoned activist, Marta Beatriz Roque, was so trusted by the Americans that she was allowed to use the Interest Section's own computers.
"The Cubans did exactly what the Bush administration had hoped they would do," they overreacted to Cason's meeting, and to the war in Iraq, Smith wrote this Monday in the Baltimore Sun. Smith is pessimistic about the immediate future: "Tensions between the United States and Cuba will almost certainly worsen."
Other analysts have read the crackdown as an attempt by the aging dictator to preserve his legacy for his younger brother, Armed Forces chief and handpicked successor, Raúl Castro.
After all, the decades-old status quo of embargo and vitriol has been the key to success for hardline positions on both sides of the Florida straits. Castrophobia has long been the raison d'etre of many Republican-voting Cuban exiles. The omnipresent bugaboo of American intervention, bolstered by the embargo, has historically aided Fidel Castro in marshaling support at home and abroad.
The Cuban American community itself had been shifting from advocating a violent overthrow of the Castro regime, including U.S. military intervention, to understanding that this only weakened the small, but growing democracy movement in Cuba. Even the formerly hardline Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) had expressed a new openness to dialogue with Cuba.
On the island, the Varela Project, a petition seeking nonviolent reforms in the Communist state, was ignored by the government when it was presented last year, but remarkably more than 11,000 Cubans were willing to go on the record as supporting change. This would have been unimaginable only a decade ago.
The Iraq war may have simply created an opening for the latter faction, which includes the hoary likes of José Ramón Machado Ventura, a member of the ruling Communist Party Politburo and a Vice President of the Council of State, as well as the recently rehabilitated Ramiro Valdés Menéndez, a former, much feared, Minister of the Interior. Both are determined to recreate Cuba circa 1972 and fossilize it there after Castro's death.
The only question: Can it be done? In a nation where it is literally impossible to live on a peso salary, and the jobs paying dollars are not enough to go around, almost every Cuban has become accustomed to engaging in small acts of dollar-getting civil disobedience merely to eat.
Consider who was arrested: independent journalists, and activists trying to organize free trade unions, a network of underground libraries, and the Varela project, among others. Their very existence means at least some Cubans have a growing idea of what they want, and it is probably not less freedom.
The Crystal Ball
It was only the gradual opening of the economy and an influx of European money that helped them emerge from the post-Soviet hole. Today European tourism is one of Cuba's biggest industries. It's hard to imagine how Cubans will eat without it.
Nevertheless, according to one European Union diplomat, the arrests almost seemed calculated as "a terrible slap in the face." They began only three days after the European Union opened an embassy in Havana. Now, the imminent EU trade agreement to benefit developing nations will almost assuredly not include Cuba.
Help At Hand
In the midst of U.S. triumphalism, the fact that a resolution, any resolution, criticizing Cuba was approved is a sign of how much international support the Castro government has lost in the past few weeks.
Traditional friends were repulsed by the hasty executions. Mexico denounced the arrests and executions, but wavered over an official censure. President Eduardo Duhalde of Argentina announced Tuesday that Buenos Aires would abstain from supporting the resolution against "a small, blockaded country." It comes, he said, "...at an inopportune time, taking into account the unilateral war [in Iraq] which violates human rights." However, abstentions, like Argentina's and Brazil's, are no votes of support.
Buildings are crumbling around their ears. Many of the social advances they were willing to sacrifice themselves for, like universal education and health care, are also disintegrating as doctors and teachers have been forced by the new dollar economy to abandon their professions and drive cabs and clean hotel rooms.
In Cuba, as elsewhere, the evolutionary dictum still holds true: change or die.