There are two ways dictatorships can end, says Óscar Elías Biscet. “One is a revolution of the superstructure, where the top changes itself. The other is a change from the bottom up,” like those that introduced democracy to Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and, most recently, Tunisia. Cuba’s leading dissidents are sure about their choice. “We want to build a a civic, nonviolent movement that will overturn this regime and bring democracy to Cuba,” says Biscet.
President Obama has bet on the other side. He has spent the past several years cultivating the regime of Raúl Castro, on the theory that normal diplomatic relations and increased commerce will lead, eventually, to greater freedom for Cubans. In announcing the opening, he went so far as to say that neither Cubans nor Americans should wish for the “collapse” of the Castro regime.
Last Wednesday, as Biscet arrived in Washington for the first time in his life, U.S. envoys from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department were meeting in Havana with Obama’s chosen interlocutors — regime security officials, including those from the notorious Interior Ministry, which oversees domestic repression. Biscet, who got to know the Interior Ministry well during the dozen years he spent as a political prisoner, was meanwhile explaining why Obama’s strategy is more likely to entrench than transform Cuban Communism.
“This was a great move for Castro,” said the 54-year-old doctor, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2007, while he was in prison. The rapprochement with the United States, he said, provided Cuba with a vital economic prop at a time when it was losing the support of imploding Venezuela. Meanwhile, “when people see Obama greeting Castro in the way that he did, it gives a totalitarian regime global legitimacy.”
Obama’s policy has had the effect of stranding the most pro-American, pro-democracy people in Cuba — the activists who have spent their lives fighting the system, at enormous personal cost. While the regime collects U.S. cooperation and dollars, repression of the opposition has sharply increased; according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights, there were 6,075 political arrests during the first five months of this year, the highest number in decades.
This month two of the most important dissident leaders, Biscet and José Daniel Ferrer, were allowed to leave the island for the first time. Why did the Castros abruptly grant them this permission to travel? “They are feeling strong,” said Biscet. “They think that at this point we won’t get that much attention.” Both nevertheless came to Washington to make their case. After all, congressional Republicans are still listening; they just passed legislation that would restrict the blossoming U.S.-Cuba military contacts.
Biscet and Ferrer have a lot in common: They were both arrested in the early 2000s, during a sweeping crackdown on the opposition, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. When a Vatican-brokered amnesty of political prisoners began in 2010, they both remained behind bars, because they refused to go into exile. Finally released in 2011, they both launched grass-roots political movements. Biscet heads the Havana-based Emilia Project, which he says has collected 3,000 signatures on a manifesto calling for democracy.
Ferrer, 45 and based in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, heads the even larger Cuban Patriotic Union, which runs its own social services and distributes DVDs of the news and information banned in Cuba’s public squares.
They differ, however, on Obama’s initiative. Biscet is implacably opposed, though he still calls the United States “a beacon of liberty.” Ferrer avoids condemnation, which he calls “political suicide,” given the broad support for the opening among ordinary Cubans who desperately hope for change.
Ferrer nevertheless has a similar view of Obama’s initiative. “They run the risk that the regime will be the one that comes out the winner,” he said during a conversation a week before Biscet’s visit. “They are making it possible that any change in Cuba will not end in democracy, but in something like the Russia of Vladimir Putin.”
So what do they the dissidents want? They don’t ask for another radical change of U.S. policy; only for measures that would help their fledgling political movements. Foremost is information — more U.S. broadcasting, more Internet access, more of everything that can provide Cubans uncensored news. “The control the regime has over the media is the greatest obstacle for people to wake up and channel their rebellion,” said Ferrer. Said Biscet: “Broadcasting TV Martí from an airplane was very expensive, but people watched it.”
That will be news to those in Washington who ridiculed U.S. broadcasting to Cuba and cheered Obama’s cultivation of the Castros. Their bet was that Cuba’s Communists would be better partners than its pro-democracy dissidents. So far, they’ve been wrong.
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