"Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy." -- José Martí, Cuban patriot
Three generations of Cubans have lost the right to be free and honest. Yet, they may soon regain it. The initiative by the Obama administration, Pope Francis and the Cuban leadership has begun changing the country, now a dysfunctional and corrupt system where personal liberty has been subordinated to the needs of an octogenarian leadership and a revolution that has impoverished the people.
What is likely to happen in the future? Dictator Raúl Castro -- pushing 84 while 87-year-old Fidel pushes the emergency button on his wheelchair -- states that Cuba won't abandon communism. Despite communism's utter failure, the comment is likely designed to reassure loyalists in the government that they are safe. It also means that change will not come easily. But with the normalization of relations and the flow of people, ideas, the Internet, investments and the promise of a better life, the political opening will inevitably lead to democracy. The responsibility to make it happen lies with the Cuban people.
The Castro system has largely throttled the emergence of independent thinking and political organization outside of the communist party. Nonetheless, many heroic Cubans have resisted, finding themselves harassed or jailed. Many have left, and many have died trying in the waters off Cuba. It is a tribute to human courage that in recent years there has been a flowering of critical independent voices, such as Las Damas de Blanco and bloggers like Yoani Sánchez. The process of normalization will allow greater political space to the numerous civil-society organizations to expand and help educate the Cuban people about political rights and the task of democratization.
If past is prologue, Cuban authorities will resist change because they know that popular pressure brought down communist governments in Eastern Europe in 1989. And there is always the problem of what to do with ousted and disgraced dictators and henchmen: a rest home in the countryside, comfortable exile in Spain, or, less likely, a firing squad. The transition to democracy may be because Cuba is not Eastern Europe occupied by the Soviet military. It is an island with a home-made revolution that was not imposed by a hated foreign power.
Resisting demands by the newly empowered democratic voices will have serious costs, such as the benefits of full trade with the United States, economic failure, condemnation by the international community, and growing domestic opposition. Finally, there is the question of what will happen to the security and intelligence apparatus that is so deeply entrenched. It remains to be seen whether the security forces can be counted on to do the bidding of an illegitimate leadership that has no future. For example, would they use force to put down calls for democracy? None of these scenarios is pleasant to the aged leaders and other hard liners. They will have a difficult challenge accommodating change while trying to stem the democratic tide. The most challenging time for a dictatorship occurs when political change begins to undermine their power.
There are some 1.9 million Cuban Americans, many in the third generation since their parents left the island. There are, to be sure, divisions between generations on how to deal with the prospect of normalization. Some of the older folks are opposed and many suffered great losses, while the younger ones favor normalization. But all want a better Cuba. They are likely to surge onto the island, bring cash, goods, ideas, skills and political encouragement. Many will become politically active and tutor democracy. Normalization removes many obstacles for the full play of American and international influence. Resumed trade and open contact with the Cuban people will empower them to be confident and effective in claiming their right to participate in a Cuba where liberty and honesty can exist, freed from the repressive power of the state.
This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.
If you'd like to contribute your own blog on this topic, send a 500-850-word post to email@example.com (subject line: "90 Miles").