By Katharine Fisher
As Pope Benedict XVI concluded his visit to Cuba last week, news articles have intimated that the pontiff’s presence may pave the way for greater democratic freedom on the island. After his comments prior to the visit declaring Marxism an unfit system for political rule, the Pope’s homilies in Santiago de Cuba and Havana featured calls for political change and greater respect for basic freedoms. In meetings with the Castro brothers, however, Benedict did not appear to raise any controversial issues. Rather than using his authority (which has waxed and waned in Cuba as a result of the government’s eschewing religion after the 1959 Revolution) to engage in meaningful, spirited discussions with Cuban leaders, the Pope seemed hesitant. The Cuban revolutionary government has ruled the island for over fifty years, managing to withstand American encroachment, significant international pressure, and devastating economic sanctions to stay in power.
Prior to the pontiff’s visit, human rights groups and democratic activists around the world were hopeful that the event may succeed in persuading President Raúl Castro to soften some of his government’s controversial political programs. The papal stopover is taking place at a unique time in Cuban politics where significant reform efforts have already occurred in several areas. The Cuban government has diversified its trade relationships across the globe and pursued new economic partnerships with emerging powers in South America, most notably Venezuela. The Cuban biotechnology sector has made an international name for itself and, in some instances, has partnered with American pharmaceutical firms to promote innovation. Raúl Castro also authorized the sale and purchase of private property last November, which came as a shock to international observers skeptical that Cuba would ever begin to emerge from the veil of communism.
This economic restructuring has resulted in significant gains for the Cuban government, however the state still has a long way to go before the litmus test of democracy turns the right colour. The most fundamental principle of a democratic system is representative government, which only applies to Cuba’s legislative branch (the National Assembly). The state’s executive branch is chosen by the National Assembly, meaning that it is not elected by the Cuban people. This indirect manner of electing representatives, combined with the Communist Party’s monopoly over the political landscape, has drawn considerable scrutiny from civil rights groups around the world. Although other political parties exist in Cuba besides the Communist Party, rules are in place to limit their influence and ability to organize public demonstrations. The government maintains ownership over the vast majority of commercial enterprises and Cuban citizens must navigate through a labyrinth of regulations to open a business. Moreover, the media is tightly controlled and anti-government sentiment is not tolerated. Although many independent or ‘underground’ members of the press operate in Cuba, reports have shown that these journalists have been harassed, intimidated, or detained for speaking out against the regime. Political protests on the island often end with arbitrary arrests and a crackdown on the individuals involved.
The Cuban organization Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) has staged numerous protests since it was formed in 2003 after the government jailed 75 social critics. Even though these individuals have all been released (by way of diplomatic agreements and mounting international pressure), the Damas hold regular marches in Havana to protest their government’s behaviour toward dissidents. Many members of the group were detained for protesting before the Pope’s visit and subsequently released without charge. Despite the fact that this scenario plays out the same way every time a march is held, the Damas continue their efforts in the face of alleged harassment and threats from Cuban authorities. The Cuban government vociferously denies holding any political prisoners, however human rights organizations dispute this claim with solid evidence. The death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo in 2010, which resulted from a hunger strike protesting the holding of political prisoners, gained widespread attention. The near death of fellow hunger striker Guillermo Farinas in the same year was the catalyst for the government’s release of 52 individuals being held in custody. Dissidents in the blogosphere (such as Yoani Sanchez), as well as artists, poets, philosophers, and other intellectuals speak candidly about the political repression they say still exists in Cuba.
Although the Cuban government can boast about its inclusive public health care and education programs, it is painfully obvious that these investments have come at a heavy social price. Collapsing buildings in Havana (now a routine occurrence) represent a constant reminder of the government’s inability to address urgent needs. Infrastructure continues to crumble across the country, with roads and water systems in dire need of repair. A housing shortage also plagues the capital, however it is worse in rural areas where virtually no investments in construction are being made. Endemic poverty and an inability to garner a decent wage exacerbate these problems even further, leading to overcrowding in small dwellings or apartments. Recreations of Alberto Korda’s iconic Che Guevara photograph (which adorn many building façades in Havana) stand in stark contrast to how the 1959 revolución has progressed. Many of Guevara’s idealistic revolutionary goals for Cuba, developed after he witnessed the depth of poverty in rural South America, have collapsed under the weight of economic scarcity, authoritarianism, and in the words of the Pope, an ideological framework at odds with good governance. Yet Guevara’s recognizable visage continues to be used as a symbol of the revolución, often by graffiti street artists. Is this a sign that the Cuban people truly believe their state is capable of democratic reform? Or is it a memorial to a dream of a better life that fizzled out a long time ago?
Seeing as how the Cuban state has introduced promising reforms on the economic side, it is possible that more meaningful social reform may be on the horizon. It is very likely, though, that this transformation will not come at the behest of the Pope, an international organization, a human rights group, or pressure from the United States. Cubans are very proud and dignified people who do not take kindly to outside intervention in their personal affairs. A history of colonialism, slavery, and domination by external powers has entrenched a deep longing for self-determination in the minds of most Cubans. It is expected that authentic and enduring democratic reform will only occur after the last vestiges of the revolutionary brotherhood are out of power. If a new, more progressive, generation of political leaders succeeds the Castro brothers, Cuban citizens may have the opportunity to vocalize their dissent or organize a more effective internal resistance. As with any successful political change, the momentum for reform must come from those whose rights are being repressed. It happened in 1959, so it could very well occur again.
Katharine Fisher holds Bachelor and Master’s degrees in Political Science from the University of Windsor. Her specialization is the triangular foreign policy relationship between Canada, the United States, and Cuba. She has also conducted research on humanitarian intervention, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, and the Guantánamo Bay detention centre. She has worked as a research consultant for the University of Windsor’s Cross-Border Transportation Centre and is currently employed at the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board. She will begin law school at the University of Windsor in September 2012.