Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Change by Attrition – The Revolution Dies Hard

    Change by Attrition: The Revolution Dies Hard / Antonio Rodiles
    Posted on July 24, 2013
    From World Affairs
    By Antonio Rodiles

    Five years ago, hopes were high among Cuba watchers when Raúl Castro
    officially succeeded Fidel. There was particularly intense speculation
    about who would be named the next first vice president of the Council of
    State. Bets focused on two candidates: Carlos Lage Dávila, a bureaucrat
    in his late fifties, and José Ramón Machado Ventura, an apparatchik in
    his late seventies who had been a captain in the guerrilla war that
    brought the revolution to power in 1958. Which of the two men was
    chosen, observers theorized, would suggest Raúl Castro’s orientation
    over the next five years and give a clue about whether Cuba’s course
    would be Raulista (reformist) or Fidelista (status quo).

    The answer came when Lage and his friend Felipe Pérez Roque were ousted
    along with other senior officials. Despite his substantial portfolio—he
    had initiated a series of reforms that gave standing to small private
    businesses and had negotiated a supply of subsidized oil from
    Venezuela—Lage was stigmatized for deviation from communist principles
    and especially for trying to consolidate a base of personal power. It
    later emerged that on several occasions he and Roque had mocked the
    Castros as dinosaurs of a prior age.

    In 2008, the international context was different from what it is today.
    Raúl Castro was attempting a modest rebranding of the Cuban government
    with the signing of the United Nations human rights covenants in New
    York. Hugo Chávez had become an inexhaustible source of resources and
    support for the disastrous economy Fidel had bequeathed to his brother.
    Barack Obama was emerging as the probable next president of the United
    States whose election would, according to Raúl’s calculations, increase
    the chances of ending, or at least relaxing, bilateral differences with
    the US without requiring that too much would have to be given up. The
    stakes were raised that same year when three hurricanes lashed the Cuban
    island, depressing its precarious economy even further.

    Still, despite diplomatic encouragement by the new US administration,
    the Cuban government gave little evidence that it actually wanted a new
    dynamic. Clinging to a society totally controlled by State Security and
    a huge army of informers, the Raulistas instead sent a signal of their
    own in 2009 by arresting American Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the US
    Agency for International Development, for allegedly passing satellite
    phones and computers to members of Cuba’s Jewish community.

    As the status quo regained its critical mass, Cuba’s democratic
    opposition increased its activities. Guillermo Fariñas’s hunger strike,
    activism by the photogenic Ladies in White, and the death of Orlando
    Zapata Tamayo after his own prolonged hunger strike all combined to
    create strong internal and external pressure on Raúl’s regime on the
    issue of political prisoners. A recognition that the situation must be
    dealt with led the government to enlist the intervention of the Catholic
    Church as liaison between the regime and the pro-democracy forces.

    All during these crises, the government maintained that its “reforms of
    the economic model,” supported by Venezuelan subsidies, would bring
    about neo-Castroism at an “adequate” pace, without creating social
    tensions or breaking continuity with the founding principles of the

    However, the much-publicized transformations of the economy never
    happened. Foreign investors have not queued up to invest in the Cuban
    future. First abject economic dependence on Venezuela (an echo of an
    earlier dependence on the USSR) and then the death of Hugo Chávez, “the
    brother from the Bolivarian country,” have upset all the nomenklatura’s
    rosy scenarios for transition without change.

    As it confronts what is likely to be a bleak future without the support
    of Venezuela, which must now turn inward to deal with its own soaring
    inflation and the legitimacy crisis of Chávez’s successor, Nicolás
    Maduro, Cuba needs to look once again and more realistically to the US
    and to what it would take to get a relaxation of economic sanctions. The
    release of Alan Gross would be a sign of weakness, but it would at least
    remove one key obstacle in the way of dialogue.

    But the regime’s room for effective maneuvers—maneuvers that would give
    hope for recovery without causing a crisis of legitimacy for the
    Communists—has narrowed. As all the early expectations created by Raúl
    Castro fade to black, the government looks for steps it might take to
    allow Cubans to breathe a little more freely and lower their demands.
    Relaxing the controls of the iron-fisted travel and migration policy, in
    hopes of easing the growing shortages suffered by Cubans, is one of the
    “audacious” steps the regime has taken.

    It is also naming “new” figures to fill the senior government posts who
    are actually part of the ancien régime. One of these, Esteban Lazo, was
    named president of the National Assembly. Symbolizing everything about
    the system that is old and unworkable, he will take the reins of an
    assembly that has never had a contested vote, not even on the very
    trivial issues which that body is allowed to discuss. Lazo is part of a
    retaining wall to block any initiative that might arise or come to this
    governing body.

    Substituting Miguel Díaz-Canel for José Ramón Machado Ventura—as first
    vice president, and presumptive heir—is an attempt to provide a Potemkin
    succession. Díaz-Canel, younger, obedient, lacking in charisma, and
    without his own power base, will depend entirely on the consent of an
    entrenched military apparatus to keep his post. As in the case of Lazo,
    his appointment is another indication that the old dynamic has not been
    discarded but merely given a face-lift. Both men will improve the image
    of the ruling elite but in no way diminish its power or control.

    Given the likely governmental schizophrenia that lies ahead—trying to
    create a narrow opening to the US while also making sure that any change
    in the upper echelons of government is only cosmetic—the opposition
    inside Cuba could begin to play a more crucial role. The collaboration
    among different opposition groups is more cohesive than in the past. The
    emphasis in recent months has been woven into a campaign called “For
    Another Cuba,” which demands the ratification and implementation of the
    United Nations covenants on human rights as the first step in a
    transition to democracy.

    How the opposition plays its cards could influence the form the
    government’s Plan B ultimately takes when all else fails, as it
    certainly will. In the near term, however, it can be assumed that the
    government, looking ahead to the end of the Castros, will continue to
    assign key positions to its most reliable cadres, people who will
    guarantee that “neo-Castroism” is the only alternative. It will also try
    to create the illusion that the faces it presents to the world as its
    new government are not actually Castroistas in sheep’s clothing.

    This narrative of rejuvenation will, however, require an economy that
    can afford it. And that is the sticking point: How can a completely
    disjointed and broken economy be repaired without fundamental change? It
    is hard to see how such a rescue operation could take place without a
    huge injection of capital, an injection that today could come only from
    Cuba’s northern neighbor.

    The US embargo and the EU’s Common Position are key pieces in the
    political chess game now taking place behind closed doors in Havana. If
    the government manages to pull off the magic act of getting the embargo
    dropped and securing an infusion of resources without first installing
    the basic reforms that would in effect toss the old regime on the ash
    heap of history, it would be able to keep its repressive apparatus
    intact—and we could say goodbye to any dreams of democracy. When I hear
    several pro-democracy figures advocate an immediate and unconditional
    end to the US embargo, therefore, I wonder at their naïveté.

    If on the other hand the international democratic community signals to
    the totalitarians in Cuba that ratification and implementation of the
    fundamental rights set out in the UN covenants is the only path to
    solving the Cuban dilemma, and if it conditions any measure relaxing the
    economic sanctions on the fulfillment of those international agreements,
    it will not take long to see results.

    The Cuban government has not been and is not reckless, despite the
    provocative behavior it engaged in when it sheltered under the Soviet
    umbrella. The elite want to maintain power, but not a brief, après moi
    le déluge power that lasts only for their own lifetime, with family and
    close friends inheriting a wasteland.

    The vast majority of the opposition, for its part, continues to hold the
    line by promoting peaceful change that transitions to a true democracy
    with the full and absolute respect of individual liberties and that will
    stand as a moral and political measurement of whatever status quo the
    government settles on in a desperate attempt to maintain its power.

    One subtle sign that this change is on the way, even if there is not
    immediate economic reform or political liberalization, will be the
    disappearance of the metaphors of combat as Cuba’s lingua franca:
    “heroic territorial militias,” “socialism or death,” “impregnable
    bastions,” etc. These clichés represent the necrosis of Castroism; their
    disappearance will mean that the head has finally gotten the message
    that the body of Cuban communism is dead.

    July/August 2013 Issue of World Affairs

    Source: “Change by Attrition: The Revolution Dies Hard / Antonio Rodiles
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