Thursday, October 26, 2006

Cubans Begin to Just Say No

October 27, 2006

Did Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva misspeak last week when he said that it's a pity that Fidel Castro did not democratize the island while "he was still alive"? Or did he inadvertently blurt out a secret that only friends of the Cuban regime are supposed to know?

Lula has corrected himself. But the rumor mills are in overdrive since the utterance of those four little words, in part because the last time Cubans were shown proof of life was more than a month ago and the patient looked pretty bad.

Whenever the old man finally passes away, a public statement is likely to be delayed until Fidel's little brother Raul, who as of now is only the "temporary" despot, feels sure he has the upper hand. As we go to press, that effort appears to be a work in progress.

At this time the military seems to be loyal to Raul. Nevertheless, the dictator in waiting has at least two reasons to be worried. The first is Hugo Chávez, who pours an estimated $2 billion into the Cuban economy annually and seems to believe that he is the rightful revolutionary successor to Fidel. Rumor has it that attitude is not going down too well with Raul or his men. As Brian Latell, former CIA analyst and author of "After Fidel" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pointed out this week: "It may also be reasonable to speculate that Raul and his military commanders feel contempt for the mercurial and often bizarre Venezuelan, who rose no higher than lieutenant colonel in the decidedly less professional and accomplished Venezuelan military."

Fold into this mix the tension that already exists between elements of the regime that see themselves as ideologically pure and loyal to Fidel and Raul's army, which seems to enjoy making money -- as Mr. Latell describes so well in his book -- and all kinds of complications arise.

Yet Hugo and the fidelistas might be the least of Raul's troubles. Less noticed by the international press but at least as threatening are the island's dissidents, who are once again stirring things up, this time with their "non-cooperation campaign." While conventional wisdom discounts the movement as weak, disorganized and easily infiltrated, every action of the government suggests that popular resistance to the regime is spreading, even after a brutal wave of repression was unleashed more than a year ago.

It is also worth noting that Lula, a left-wing president of a country that has traditionally supported the Cuban dictatorship, has publicly lamented Castro's failure to democratize. That doesn't bode well for continued international support for the island slave plantation.

Non-cooperation is a strategy aimed at whittling away at the most fundamental tool of every totalitarian regime: fear. The system can survive only if each Cuban believes he is greatly outnumbered by lovers of the revolution and that in speaking out, he is doomed. This is why the regime risked so much bad press to crush the dissidents in March of 2003 in a brutal island-wide crackdown. Intense, debilitating fear must be kept alive if the regime is to survive.

Opponents of the regime also understand the power of fear and it is why they are hopeful about the non-cooperation campaign, which provides a passive way for Cubans to quietly discover solidarity. Rather than calling on citizens to actively rebel against the government, "non-cooperation" asks them simply to refuse to participate in the oppression.

The concept of non-cooperation was born in response to the government's practice of mobilizing neighbors to attack dissidents. This tactic, known as "acts of repudiation" is a longstanding totalitarian weapon. On Nov. 8 of last year Eliécer Consuegra Rivas, an activist in the eastern part of the country, graphically described how the regime was attempting to gin up hatred: "We, the human-rights activists, are being threatened before the public eye by representatives of the regime who claim we are going to poison the water, that we throw rocks, that we are terrorists, even that they will cut off our heads; they are threatening us with death.

"I would like to tell the people of Antilla that the municipal authorities are planning to collect signatures at the workplace in order to apply a label of 'dangerousness' to us and imprison us for our political stance," Mr. Consuegra said. "We encourage all workers to not accept this villainy and fallacy." The petition effort failed and non-cooperation was born.

A few months later the dissident movement's highly revered Jorge Luis Antúnez began echoing the call for non-cooperation from his prison cell in Camaguey. Mr. Antúnez is a Cuban hero. During his 16 years in the gulag he has been beaten, isolated for weeks at a time -- once for 47 days -- in tiny, filthy, rat-infested spaces with no windows or ventilation, and has consistently been denied medical care. (Harry Belafonte where are you?)

In January, Mr. Antúnez was allowed to make a phone call, using the moment to publicly endorse non-cooperation. On Aug. 4 he repeated his message: "We invite you not to cooperate with the repression and . . . to join those who defend your human rights, justice, and struggle for a free, pluralistic and prosperous society," Mr. Antúnez told his Cuban brethren.

For speaking out, Mr. Antúnez was thrown back in isolation. But it's likely he judges his gamble worth it. The idea is spreading and reports from the island say that local participation in repudiation squads is down. The government now has to bus thugs into neighborhoods where it organizes attacks.

The non-cooperation campaign is also aimed at the Cuban worker. With low pay and poor conditions, laborers have never been highly motivated. The campaign strives to link this reality to the politics of resistance. It could be generating results: Since the spring the regime has been complaining, in the state newspaper Granma, about inefficient workers, and in September Raul gave a speech at a labor convention exhorting the country's work force to improve productivity and discipline.

You won't learn much about this from the foreign media with bureaus in Havana or from correspondents or academics who visit Cuba. The quid pro quo for getting an island visa is good behavior toward the regime, and that means ignoring the groundswell of grumbling in politics and economics. Raul, on the other hand, is well-informed, which is probably why Fidel's "status" remains under wraps.

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