Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Castro Brothers vs The Ladies in White

You have to hand it to Fidel and Raul Castro. They are masterful tacticians. Whenever they’ve needed to diffuse pressure, they set tongues wagging with speculation about reform. By the time the ruse is exposed, another period of stability has set in. The recent announcement that 52 political prisoners will go free has spawned a whirlwind of conjecture. Are the brothers at it again?

The slow-motion release that began last week and will go on for months will liberate one-third of Cuba’s political prisoners, according to the Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights. These men emerged some years ago as a group of independent journalists. Together with an organization of librarians and some bloggers, they later began an effort to bring to life a Cuban civil society. Not since the emergence of illegal human-rights organizations and political parties had anything more encouraging happened. No wonder the Castros incarcerated 75 of them. What they didn’t anticipate was that the wives and sisters of the prisoners would jump to fame. With a campaign that got louder and bolder with every pogrom that busted their marches, the incredible Ladies in White gained for these heroes the attention of the world.

One day, out of the blue, a prisoner deployed the ultimate weapon – the hunger strike. The death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo in February changed the game. The decision by Guillermo Farinas to replace Mr. Zapata, and the announcement by others that they would follow suit if the second striker died, took the struggle to a level not seen since the anti-Castro guerrillas of the 1960s. Left-wing celebrities – a bellwether of Cuban affairs – expressed their disgust for the Castros, friendly democratic presidents shunned them (except for Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who infamously called the prisoners criminals) and Spain’s socialist government confirmed that there was no hope that the European Union would lift the diplomatic sanctions. The economy, despite Venezuela’s subsidies, was stagnant, and Fidel Castro made sure, with intimidating columns from his sickbed, that the timid reforms his brother Raul had signalled he wanted were a non-starter.

Other releases have lifted people’s hopes in the past. In 1969-70, about 1,300 prisoners were deported. In 1979, after a controversial negotiation with some exiles, 3,600 opponents were set free – and expelled. In 1998, Pope John Paul II’s visit was followed by the release of 40 men – and another mass deportation. Few regimes have played more deftly the sinister game of confining and torturing innocent persons in rat-infested jails only to win praise for using them as bargaining chips in subsequent negotiations...

...The safest bet is to assume that the Castros are – for the umpteenth time – taking one step back before taking two steps forward. Raul Castro’s insistence that the prisoners leave the island with their families means he wants to get rid of the independent journalists and the Ladies in White – and abort the embryonic civil society they had painstakingly engendered. But it is not inconceivable, given Raul Castro’s bind, that the regime will try some reform in order to beef up the economy and ensure its survival after Fidel Castro dies – a move that, if it’s to generate international support and investment, will require a degree of political accommodation.

Not even Raul Castro himself knows whether reform will really occur. But one thing is clear: The Black Spring heroes and their Ladies in White have revealed to us, against all odds, that the Castros are not invincible. After 51 years, this is a soothing thought.

(Alvaro Vargas Llosa, "Are the Brothers Castro At It Again?" in yesterday's Globe and Mail)