By Jaime Suchlicki | Jaime Suchlicki is Emilio Bacardi Moreau Distinguished Professor and Director, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami. He is the author of Cuba: From Columbus to Castro, now in its fifth edition.
Publisher note: Original title: Transition Si, Succession No in Cuba
The recent statement by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez at the Miami Herald’s Americas Conference launched an important U. S. government initiative. It challenges the Raul Castro regime to hold a yes or no referendum, supervised by the Organization of American States, on whether the Cuban people want democracy. It’s modeled on the successful plebiscite that ended the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile two decades ago. It is consistent with President Bush’s statements about the Cubans determining their own future.
The purpose of this tactical initiative is varied. First, it puts a Raul regime on the defensive and tests its willingness to provide an opening toward democracy in Cuba. Second, it could increase discussion among several Cuban government elites, particularly the military, in finding an honorable solution to exit from forty-seven years of dictatorship. Third, it provides a rallying point for the international community to pressure the current or next regime into opening the political process, and finally it creates a further justification within the U. S. and throughout the world for other, tougher administration measures if Raul Castro, as is likely expected, refuses, or ignores the U. S. challenge.
If Raul Castro were to accept a referendum, it would turn Cuba upside down. Voting would be preceded by months of discussion and preparations; it would necessitate that opponents would have access to Cuba’s controlled media; it would require visits to the island and participation of thousands of outside observers. All of that would make it extremely difficult for Cuba to return to the totalitarian ways of the past.
The dynastic succession from Fidel to his brother unfortunately is currently proceeding smoothly. The inevitable transition that we all want toward a democratic, open society will be difficult and lengthy. It will require, in addition to maintaining current U. S. policy, a major effort in several areas: public diplomacy and communication; diplomatic initiatives; support for the dissidents and human rights activists as well as for a civil society in the island; and a variety of covert operations to weaken the successor regimes.
The U. S. and the Cuban-American community need to develop policies and actions that undermine the Cuban regime, put it on the defensive and accelerate its end. A message of hope and prosperity instead of the suffering and misery provided by the current Communist regime is necessary to mobilize and embolden the Cuban people. A message to the Cuban military that other armed forces have prospered after transitions in Eastern Europe and Chile is key to encouraging Cuba’s military to begin to play a role in the vanguard of change, not against it. A message from the Cuban- American community that it does not seek revenge or profit in Cuba and that it stands ready to help rebuild the impoverished country is critical in tendering bridges to people on the island.
The road ahead is treacherous as a minefield. No one has a monopoly on how to accelerate transition to democracy. The lessons of Eastern Europe and elsewhere provide some guidelines on what could be done. Yet, it took decades of communist leadership changes, economic decay and internal corruption and significant help from the West and its institutions to end communism in Europe. Let’s muster all of these resources, as well as our resolve, to bring Cuba to the community of free nations. Let there be no mistake, the unswerving goal of the Bush administration, and my own, is for full democracy and freedom in Cuba.