Cuba Spring, or Trap?

Cautious optimism about Castro's opponents


When the child opens a little of the door, someone will stick in a finger, and the government won't be able to close the door again… Things in Cuba will develop very slowly, very slowly, but things will be normal before long.
Nestor Baguer, Cuban journalist and dissident

Nestor Baguer, one of the most convincing and compelling dissidents I have ever met, spoke those poetic words to me in February 1998, three weeks after Pope John Paul II's historic visit to the communist island, which triggered the release of 270 political prisoners and the relaxation of laws restricting religious worship. "I think fear is almost lost," the rail-thin and aristocratically charming Cuban patriot, then 76 years old, told me. "I think people will be more open to opposing the government… I think there will be a definite change."

Baguer's prediction has been haunting me ever since this weekend's unprecedented public gathering of the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in Cuba, a coalition of 365 independent non-governmental (and therefore illegal) dissident organizations whose 200 participating representatives stood up on Saturday in the face of possible arrest and declared Fidel Castro's regime as "Stalinist…totalitarian and essentially anti-democratic," while calling for free elections, freeing of political prisoners, and voting rights for exiles. It was a stunning display of oppositional cojones in an era when both the democrats and the Castroites have been escalating their life-and-death struggle over the future of this proud but wrecked nation.

Dissidents have been jamming their fingers through Castro's closed door for more than a decade now. In June 1997, right before the Fifth Communist Congress, four brave souls (Martha Beatriz Roque, René Gómez Manzano, Félix Bonne and Vladimiro Roca) faxed over to the government a document entitled The Homeland Belongs to Us All, calling for "true economic liberalization, which would entail the democratization of the country," and charging that "the philosophy of the government is not to serve the people but to be their dictator." The "Gang of Four," as they came to be known, were quickly hauled off to the Cuban gulag for jail terms of around five years each.

In 2001 a "secular Catholic" group called the The Christian Liberation Movement launched The Varela Project, which gathered more than 11,000 signatures of Cuban citizens on a petition asking Castro to merely follow Cuba's constitution by allowing for a public referendum on "freedom of speech, the freedom of communication media and the freedom of enterprise." The Varela Project was openly inspired by Czechoslovakia's groundbreaking Charter 77, which at the height of Cold War "normalization" brazenly challenged the Communist government to follow its own laws and the international treaties it had signed.

"The human rights movement in Cuba was born in 1976; we were very influenced by those dissident movements in Eastern Europe," Elizardo Sanchez, founder of the non-governmental Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, told me back in 1998. The post-communist Czech government in particular has been a strong advocate for the Cuban opposition; former president Vaclav Havel has lobbied for the Nobel Committee to bestow the Peace Prize on Varela founder Oswaldo Payá, who sounded positively Havelian in a March quote to The Associated Press: "When Cubans are capable of saying that beyond our fear, we want change, that hits the nucleus of power."

Unless the Cubans who are saying "we want change" are actually on the side of power. And make no mistake—some of them almost certainly are. Including, apparently, my pal Nestor Baguer.

In 1998, Baguer was head of the oldest independent media organization in the country, the Independent Press Agency of Cuba (APIC), whose handful of journalists would fax out reports to foreign organizations like Reporters Sans Frontiers and the Washington-funded Radio Martí. He pecked out his copy on a 1947 typewriter held together by rubber bands, told marvelous stories about his family's extensive newspaper holdings from before the Revolution, endured three jail terms, and wrote Castro-bashing pieces with leads like, "Without a doubt, the most disinformed people in the Americas are the Cuban people." He hobbled around on a fractured hip that doctors refused to operate on, and only reluctantly admitted to his many international visitors that yes, he wouldn't mind some foreign medicine now and then for his bleeding ulcers. For years I considered among my prized possessions a couple of original articles he typed up about baseball in Cuba.

Then in April 2003, Baguer was "outed" as a revolutionary spy, code-name Octavio, whose testimony against his fellow dissidents and independent journalists (whom Baguer now called "information terrorists") led to around 75 being tossed in jail, in Castro's splashiest crackdown in a decade. I didn't recognize this new double agent, and in fact I'm still not convinced that an ailing octogenarian's "confession" came wholly without government coercion, though that could be the grief talking. (For a harrowing account by another hoodwinked reporter, try this chastened tale from the Chicago Tribune's Gary Marx.)

The opposition may be gaining in audacity on Castro, but the dictator's infiltration into their ranks, facilitated by lingering sympathy for a Revolution that was far more popular once upon a time than any of the communist takeovers in Central Europe, has sewn massive confusion and paranoia. The Varela Project's Payá refused to take part in this weekend's conference, which was largely a Gang of Four affair, calling it "a fraud against the opposition, facilitated by the imprisonment of the majority of its leaders." Organizer Martha Beatriz Roque and her assistants, Payá said, "were working with state security agents and were supported by hard-line exile factions."

Cuban dissidents are bitterly divided over the U.S. embargo, the post-Castro role to be played by Miami exiles, and above all about suspected ties to the jefe himself. Sometimes it seems there are as many dissident groups as there are dissidents. As the pre-Octavio Baguer once told me, "Everybody in opposition in Cuba wants to be president."

But the intrigue and division shouldn't talk anyone out of taking great heart in this weekend's events. Even if half the opposition are spies (and I don't think there's any chance of that), they are spies who are breaking new boundaries of political expression, and creating an impressive body of democratic literature that will prove invaluable when Castro finally dies.

For if the Central European experience is any guide, there can be no final and precise accounting for exactly who collaborated with the regime, and to what extent. (To read excellent examinations of that subject, I recommend Tina Rosenberg's The Haunted Land, Lawrence Weschler's Calamities of Exile, and Timothy Garton Ash's The File.) But there is, at least in my observation, a direct link between the quality of post-totalitarian governance, and the quality of the dissidence that came before.

We may never know which member of the opposition was on the take. But every day they stand up to Castro, and speak simple public truths to a power that can and has tortured them in prison, the prospects improve for a sane and successful post-Castro Cuba.