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Cuba: Next in Line for a Color Revolution?

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The first decade of the 21st century is coming to a close and it is already being billed as the decade of revolutions. From orange to green to rose, the wave of revolutions in the former Soviet states and elsewhere has made the news cycle seem like a kaleidoscope of revolutions. A cursory (and incomplete) chronology may be in order:

  • 2003: Rose Revolution in Georgia follows the presidential election, leading to the ouster of Pres. Shevardnadze and election of Mikhail Saakashvili in March 2004;
  • 2004: Orange Revolution in Ukraine in the wake of the disputed November 2004 presidential election;
  • 2005: Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan following the disputed Kyrgyz parliamentary election in February and March 2005;
  • 2005: Cedar Revolution in Lebanon following the assassination of opposition leader Rafik Hariri, leading to the expulsion of Syrian troops from Lebanon and ending nearly 30 years of occupation;
  • 2005-2009: Red Shirts vs. Yellow Shirts in Thailand, the yellow shirts representing the People's Alliance for Democracy in opposition to the "red shirts", supporters of the deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra;
  • 2009: Grape Revolution or Twitter Revolution in Moldova after the parliamentary election results showed the Moldavian communist party winning the majority of seats;
  • 2009: Green Revolution in Iran following the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This list is incomplete; it could include the Bolivarian revolutions in Latin America led by Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez. It could also include the 2008 Tibet protests or a number of other mass demonstrations the world over. So what makes the above color revolutions illustrative? And is Cuba in line for a similar democratic transformation, an "Ocean Blue" or "White Star" revolution?

Several factors distinguish these new "revolutions" or social movements from their predecessors. First and foremost is the use of new Internet tools, particularly social organizing sites and message boards to quickly mobilize protesters and disseminate information. Much has already been reported on organizers' use of mobile phone technology, video and text messaging and social network sites to effectively lead and inform their followers. Secondly, the color revolutions are defined by their strategic and well-coordinated nonviolent opposition campaigns. Although violent clashes between protesters and pro-government forces did (and continue to) occur, the color revolutions are seen as largely peaceful protests, guided by commonly known non-violent opposition principles like Ghandi's or more concrete step-by-step opposition manuals like Gene Sharp's. Lastly, the revolutions are organized by younger sectors of the given societies, reflecting a more liberal consciousness and greater demands for personal liberties.

How does Cuba fare with respect to these factors?

To start, cell phones are not as ubiquitous in Cuba as in the above-mentioned states. In fact, until 2008 only government officials and foreigners residing in Cuba were allowed to legally use cell phones. Though thousands of Cubans had illegal cell phones registered in foreigners' names, Cuba until recently had the lowest rate of cellular telephone use in Latin America. In addition, as late as April 2008 when Raul Castro relaxed the rules regarding ownership of personal computers or cell phones, Cuba had an estimated fixed phone line penetration of 10% and a mere 200,000 computers connected to the Internet for a population of almost 11.5 million inhabitants. Things are improving. In 2008, George W. Bush eased embargo restrictions to Cuba allowing for the first time Cuban-Americans to send mobile phones to family members. Pres. Obama has also pledged to relax the embargo, raising the hope for greater assistance and flow of technology from the large Cuban immigrant community in the U.S. to Cuba.

Internet service is also bound to increase with the completion in 2010 of a submarine fiber-optic line linking Cuba with Venezuela. But the joint-venture between Venezuelan state-owned Telecom Venezuela and Cuban Transbit (Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe) will not necessarily deliver freedom of information or access to ordinary Cubans. A Cuban or Venezuelan firewall, or both, are all that would be needed to screen traffic. The frightfully effective Chinese, North Korean, and more recently Iranian firewalls come quickly to mind. Through its telecommunications monopoly (ETECSA) Cuba can instantly impose a cell phone and Internet blackout. Cuban officials will almost certainly have a technological upper-hand in the event of spontaneous mass demonstrations as are expected to follow Fidel Castro's death. In the near term at least, Cuba's centralized telecom industry will be able to avoid a messy post-facto crackdown on Internet service providers (ISPs) and social network sites like Facebook and Twitter. But, will control over information technology necessarily prevent the organic growth of democratic resistance?

Cuban demographics may hold a clue. According to the last official Cuban census in 2002, the median age of Cubans is almost 36. The median age in Iran by contrast is 27; in Moldova, 35. Three-fourths of the Cuban population now live in urban centers and according to the CIA Factbook the country has nearly 100% literacy. Like the university-based protesters in Iran, Cuba has a large number of highly-educated but unemployed graduates who will demand legitimate concessions from the socialist state, particularly with respect to personal freedoms and economic opportunities.

The lack of information technology making collaborative wiki-style revolutions possible in other countries does not prevent Cubans from protesting to demand meaningful reform. Organic, bottom-up social organizing campaigns were not invented by the Internet, but simply aided by it. Revolutions start with powerful ideas. The mode of transmission is secondary. Cuba's 1958-59 revolution, well-planned and well-coordinated, may itself serve as a model for future Cuban leaders. Then Radio Rebelde (Rebel Radio) was used to broadcast anti-Batista propaganda, urging ordinary Cubans to side with the revolutionaries. Now, with the state firmly in control of mass media, newspapers, and even the Internet, the new generation of Cuban revolutionaries may have to rely on the oldest forms of collective action, mass non-violent demonstrations and peaceful solidarity campaigns.

Of course, all this depends on there being a need to protest, on a cause for demonstrations, on a reason for a revolution. For 50 years, Fidel has ruled Cuba with an iron fist but soft heart, earning the fear but also respect of ordinary Cubans. The end of the Castro regime will not unleash a color revolution in and of itself. Fidel's legacy, I suspect, will be much like Stalin's. Cubans will pour out with overwhelming respect for the man who ended the corruption of the Batista regime and restored national pride to the Cuban people. But when the smoke clears, the apparent cronyism, repression and corruption of Fidel's state will lead to a period of de-Castroization as Cubans will seek freedoms and economic opportunities long lauded to them by family and friends in the U.S.

If the Cuban establishment has learned from the mistakes of other transitioning states, it still has time to make the reforms necessary to avert a full-scale collapse of the socialist order. If not, we may soon see the white star, Cuba's symbol of freedom, proudly carried by student protesters with ambiguous demands towards anxious state guards, both camps unsure of what they want, both anxious as to where they are headed.