Ladies in White

How a Castro-less Cuba Could Be America’s Friend
Even after Obama’s visit, Raul Castro is telling his fellow communists
to watch out for Washington. But he’s 84, and the revolutionary
generation is dying off.
By JOHN CULHANE April 18, 2016

Speaking in front of a huge portrait of his brother, Fidel Castro, at
the Cuban Communist Party Congress over the weekend, Raul Castro made it
seem as if he hadn’t met with Barack Obama in Havana last month at all,
and that diplomatic relations hadn’t been restored after more than 50
years. Washington, Castro declared, was still intent on destroying
Cuba’s socialist revolution. “We must be alert, today more than ever,”
he said.

The decades-old standoff between the United States and Cuba may be
dying, but only by degrees. The question is, what is being born in its
place? Are the two countries headed toward something more than a
relationship between “frenemies” (a term I heard more than once from
actual Cubans when I visited the island recently)—especially after Cuba
finally rids itself of its octogenarian revolutionary brothers, Raul and
Fidel (ages 84 and 89, respectively)? Or is the gulf between America and
Cuba destined to remain far wider than the Florida Straits, as Raul
Castro’s statement seems to suggest?

A few factors are coalescing to make genuinely better relations a
question of “when,” rather than “if.” As Obama said, the trade embargo
is going to be lifted. That’s going to happen no matter which candidate
survives the paralyzing political season we’re suffering through. The
ground for that development has been seeded by the improved human rights
situation in Cuba, the changing views of the Cuban-American population,
and the long-overdue recognition that the embargo isn’t in anyone’s best
interest. Once the embargo is lifted, we can expect human rights to
improve further in Cuba, but that’s a long way from democracy.

At the Cuban Communist Party Congress—which happens only twice a
decade—Raul provoked mocking laughter from the aging crowd of loyalists
on Saturday by dismissing the Republican and Democratic parties in
America as a sham, saying, “It’s as if we had two parties in Cuba and
Fidel led one and I led the other.” But in fact even the difference in
governance between the two Castro brothers is striking. When Fidel
Castro ceded power to his brother in 2008, it didn’t seem likely that
much would change. But Raul Castro is much more of a pragmatist than the
revolutionary leader Fidel—who has been relegated to the periphery of
Cuban life. While Raul has been steadfast in his commitment to the
communist ideal of the Revolution, he’s been much more flexible on the
means to that end than Fidel. The doctrinaire, statist approach to the
economy has begun to give ground to a free-market approach. And human
rights and economic reform are tied in important ways, because continued
economic progress depends, to some extent, on trade with the United
States. That, in turn, is going to require some show of additional
movement in the human rights arena. (But probably not too much movement.)

Fidel, who disappeared from public life for several years after a
life-threatening illness in 2006, has been largely relegated to writing
rambling essays expressing his unreconstructed views of the Revolution.
His recent piece on Obama’s visit, which ran in the state newspaper
Granma reads like the last gasp of an exhausted orthodoxy.

Changes to the economy also have been dramatic under Raul Castro. The
huge redundant state bureaucracy has been reduced, with many
citizen-workers being stripped from the payroll and left to fend for
themselves in the private sector. Food rations given to workers at lunch
disappeared, on the (capitalist) theory that people should instead earn
more money and make their own decisions on what to eat. Although you
still can’t slaughter even your own cow without the government’s
permission, farmers can now sell their own crops. Citizens can open
small businesses, sell their own homes, and form co-operative ventures.
These and other reforms were spelled out in 2011, when the government
adopted more than 300 changes to economic policy. The goal is to
maintain the country’s communist ideals, but make implementing them easier.

By the standards of developed market economies, these are baby steps—and
they’re not directly germane to human rights. But these initiatives have
been accompanied by Raul’s quasi-Glasnost moves. For instance, Granma
now hosts a weekly gripe session, where frustrated citizens can wail
about the daily indignities that their lives are heir to.

But Granma is the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the
Cuban Communist Party, and it’s important not to overstate the case that
restrictions on speech have been loosened. Although the number of
political prisoners has declined in recent years, Raul Castro’s feigned
incredulity at last month’s news conference with Obama—when he professed
ignorance that Cuba was even holding political prisoners and demanded a
list of those imprisoned—doesn’t change the fact that Cubans continue to
rot in unjustified detention. (Estimates of the total number vary, in
part because the term “political prisoner” isn’t easily defined.) In
recent years, though, the government has modified its tactics somewhat,
preferring a mix of harder-to-document strategies, including harassment
and threats, physical coercion, and short-term lockups. (This seems to
be a favored strategy in countries that are taking small steps toward
openness while continuing to remind dissidents who is in charge. Vaclav
Havel spent more than five years at hard labor during the most
oppressive years of the Czechoslovakian dictatorship, but, as the
government began to loosen restrictions in the 1980s, harassment and
surveillance became the preferred means of oppression, as he describes

The best example of this newer strategy in Cuba may be the treatment of
the Ladies in White, a group of wives of political prisoners. They march
in protest every Sunday. Sometimes they’re stopped, and they are
routinely harassed, and sometimes they’re even placed in short-term
detention; indeed, they were arrested shortly before Obama’s recent
visit. But Raul Castro seems to understand that locking them up for an
extended period of time would be a major public relations disaster, at a
time when he’s been pounding the drumbeat for a more open society. So
they keep marching, in an act of political defiance that would have been
impossible in years past.

There’s been movement in other areas, too. There are a multitude of
faiths practiced in Cuba—I came across a mosque in Old Havana—and
religious freedom seems real. One pastor (who spoke on the condition of
anonymity) said he felt free to preach the truth of his version of
evangelical Protestantism, but that state officials sat in on his
sermons a couple of times a year—to make sure, he thought, that he
wasn’t wandering from religion into the political arena.

Progress on LGBT rights has been notable, as well. Shortly after the
Revolution, the government began a sustained crackdown on male
homosexuality. Gay men were imprisoned and forced into hard labor,
supposedly as a way of making them “fit” revolutionaries. But things are
radically different now—and a few years ago, Fidel Castro himself took
responsibility for the early crackdown on gay men, calling it “a great
injustice.” Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela, is a prominent LGBT rights
advocate, and raised eyebrows in 2014 when casting a lone—and
unprecedented— “no” vote in the Cuban Parliament against a workers’
rights bill that didn’t protect HIV status or gender identity.

The official Cuban line is still: “You want to talk about human rights?
OK, but only if we do that on both sides.” While in Cuba with a group of
touring law students (for a class on emerging economies), I heard that
statement—in virtually the same syntax—from every academic and
government official who addressed our group. The primary talking point
is always the same, too: Guaranteed, universal health care is a human
right. Cuba—in line with virtually all developed nations—provides it.

The pivot to health care is smart. The Cuban populace really does have
access to free and comprehensive health care, notably including even sex
reassignment surgery. The results are impressive, too: Cubans’ average
life expectancy equals ours, despite their much lower economic status.
And several medical innovations are impressive, given their compromised
resources. Two examples: They’ve developed a lung cancer vaccine, and a
treatment that greatly reduces the incidence of diabetes-related

The future of the political evolution in Cuba remains entirely unknown.
Parallels to other countries that have moved to a market economy under
communist rule are not especially helpful, because Cuba and the United
States have a unique relationship. The pace of continued progress may
depend on whether future leaders are confident enough to heed dissenting
voices without punishing them. It’s not surprising that the original,
now superannuated, revolutionaries still carry with them the worry that
dissent will flower into counter-revolution. That’s why freedom of
expression lags far behind other human rights in Cuba. That reflexive
view won’t disappear when the Castros finally leave the scene, but it
can be expected to ebb, over time, as the last of the revolutionaries
disappear. (Raul may just have hastened that day, announcing over the
weekend that Cuban leaders should retire at age 70!)

Cuba’s economic, social, and cultural connections to the United
States—deeply rooted by Cuban-Americans moving back and forth between
the two nations—will burst into full bloom once the embargo is lifted,
and continued progress on the human rights that matter to the U.S. seems
inevitable. It also seems likely that the hegemony of the Communist
Party will be challenged, especially if the party continues to lag
behind the popular will on how to address the country’s many problems.
It would be a great irony if the ground for change were tilled by
Mariela Castro, whose act of defiance was surely enabled by the
protective shield of her family name. A younger, more nimble, and more
U.S.-connected leadership can be expected to one day defy Raul Castro’s
plea for Cuba to hew to the one-party line.

Before long, our economic relations with Cuba won’t look much different
from our relations with other human rights violators, like China and
Vietnam. We might issue hand-wringing reports about continued abuses,
but trade and economics will drive the agenda, with human rights worries
acting as more of “an irritant,” to use Obama’s tellingly apt phrase. A
distance between two countries short enough to have been traversed by a
swimmer shouldn’t be too great to bridge diplomatically. Politically,
though? It will take a lot longer.

Source: How a Castro-less Cuba Could Be America’s Friend – POLITICO
Magazine –

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