Friday, December 15, 2006

Set dissidents free

Carlos Alberto Montaner

On Dec. 2 in a public square, Raúl Castro read a brief speech whose singularly odd note was an exhortation to the United States to sit down to negotiate with his government. Meanwhile, Fidel, in a hospital or maybe at his home turned into a comfortable hospice, drifted slowly to his death in a physical state so lamentable that his aides couldn't even put him on display to reassure his supporters and dishearten his enemies. He looked pitiful -- and because of it, they kept him under wraps.

It is the fourth time that Raúl publicly emerges from his trench waving a white flag, winks at Washington and races back to his lair. And it is the fourth time that U.S. diplomats ask themselves the same question: If this man really has something novel to convey to the U.S. government, why doesn't he use the hundred discreet channels of communication that exist between the two countries?

Work with the opposition

In Havana, there is an embassy -- called the U.S. Interests Section -- staffed by some very good diplomats. Important U.S. business people travel to Cuba constantly. There are journalists. There are military officers from both countries who meet periodically to discuss the U.S. base at Guantánamo. Pro-Castro politicians have access to, and good relations with, a few important U.S. legislators. What game is Raúl playing?

This time, as before, Washington's response was impeccable: Cuba's problem is solved not by a conversation between Washington and Havana but by sensible talks between the Cuban government and the democrats in the opposition.

If Raúl wants to start making intelligible gestures in that direction, he can begin by releasing the political prisoners, suspending the ''acts of repudiation'' -- violent pogroms against anyone who expresses dissent -- and instructing his bureaucracy to allow the registration of nongovernmental organizations created by the oppositionists.

That language would be lot more comprehensible than rally-fueled demagoguery. It would demonstrate that there really is a will to explore new paths in a post-Fidel stage.

Reject apartheid

A three-cornered table is not impossible, either. Why not? The fact is that Raúl has no way to ignore the opposition.

Throughout the 20th century, the Latin American left reproached Washington, and with reason, for maintaining good relations with dictatorships -- those of Trujillo, Somoza, Batista and Stroessner, among others. And it seems that Washington learned the lesson: One cannot have good relations with dictators who mistreat their people. It is not morally just to support them economically. They must not receive credit. They must be pressured so they change their methods of governance. Isn't that what the opposition asked of Batista?

American tourists, tourists from any democratic nation, if they can be legally restrained, should not travel to nations that practice apartheid and forbid their own citizens access to the same beaches, hotels and restaurants that the foreigners enjoy. That was odious in South Africa and is odious in Cuba.

Justifying tyranny

After almost half a century of confrontation with Cuba's communist dictatorship, Washington came to the wise conclusion that the best way to safeguard its interests and values is the existence on the island of an independent and prosperous democracy, capable of supporting a satisfied society that won't wish to escape en masse to the United States.

Nobody in the United States wishes to invade or annex Cuba. Those are excuses to try to justify tyranny. All that Washington, the European Union and the sensible world wish is for Cuba to be a normal, peaceful and developed country. That is in everyone's best interest.

The problem is neither the embargo nor the conflict with Washington, which lost its virulence long ago. The fundamental problem is between the Cuban dictatorship and a society that desires profound and peaceful changes.

If Raúl Castro doesn't understand this, he doesn't understand anything.

December 12, 2006

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