In Cuba, a struggle over history's march to democracy

Two recent events there underline the uncertainty that swirls around a post-Castro regime.

Two recent events in Cuba underline the uncertainty that swirls around a post-Castro regime.

On Friday, a hospitalized Fidel Castro met with a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo, Wu Guanzheng. It may be no coincidence that Mr. Wu's specialty is Communist Party discipline.

About a week earlier, opposition parties, Catholics, Social Democrats, and liberals, in a rare and usually dangerous kind of dissent, issued a "unity agreement," pledging to work for free elections and the democratic selection of a new leader for Cuba. Such actions usually bring sharp reaction from Cuba's ruling Communist Party.

All this is taking place amid continued speculation inside and outside Cuba about Mr. Castro's ability to return to power, temporarily transferred to his brother Raúl during his months-long hospitalization. Raúl Castro is a reliable bureaucrat but lacks the charisma of his brother.

Granma, the official party newspaper in Cuba, carried a picture of Castro and Wu, presumably shot in the hospital. Castro is dressed in a track suit and is standing. Party officials claim that his recovery is going well and that he will be back to work soon.

However, there has been no indication of whether Castro will be present at the big annual May 1 celebration, where he traditionally has delivered one of his four-hour speeches. Cuban observers in the United States point out that since his hospitalization, there have been no pictures of Castro walking, nor has his voice been heard on radio or television. Messages from him have supposedly been written by him, but they have been delivered by party officials. Speculation is that the messages are going through a filter to ensure that there is no deviation from the tough party line.

Meanwhile, Cuba's rickety economy is beset by continuing problems. This year's sugar harvest was well below normal, and tourism is down by 7 percent. Cuba faces a continuing shortage of oil and has been existing on deeply discounted shipments from Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chávez, sees Castro as a leftist brother in arms. Cuba's own oil is heavy with sulphur, which is highly corrosive.

Some power plants have been shut down as a result of using the damaging Cuban oil. Oil from Venezuela was intended for Cuban domestic use but the Cuban regime is selling some of it for badly needed cash to solve some of its financial problems.

While Venezuela's Mr. Chávez idolizes Castro, nations such as Spain that may once have been friendly to the Cuban regime are expressing concern about its continuing clampdown and imprisonment of dissidents and would-be reformers.

Two former Polish presidents, Lech Walesa and Aleksander Kwasniewski, issued a letter in March to the Cuban people, drawing on Poland's experience of abandoning communism for democracy. Published in the Miami Herald, the letter said Poland's example was a "testimony to the victory of agreement over conflict, dialogue over quarrel, good over evil."

The letter said the "time of change is imminent. The breath of awakening democracy in Cuba can be felt even … in Poland. Be persistent and in solidarity, be patient and indomitable, ready to construct common future for all Cubans, so that your beautiful country can become a friendly home to all those of your citizens who today inhabit the island and those who have been forced to abandon it." That last phrase is an obvious reference to the large Cuban exile community in Miami.

In a trenchant challenge to the Castro regime, the letter reminded it that "the time of tyrants and running the country while following 'the only right line' is coming to an end. A triumphant march of democracy cannot be stopped. We in Poland know this better than anyone else."

The letter was timed for the fourth anniversary of a Cuban crackdown on dissenters called the "black spring," an event that the letter called "yet another blow against the democratic opposition."

Unless Cuba remains a startling exception to communism's march to democracy elsewhere, change will come to a post-Castro era. Cuban expert Julia Sweig argued in "Foreign Affairs" earlier this year that power in Cuba has already been successfully transferred to a new set of leaders "whose priority is to preserve the system while permitting only very gradual reform." "[T]he pace and nature of that change will be mostly imperceptible," she forecasts.

We must see how the vigor and determination of Cuban dissidents measures up to the vigor and determination with which Castro has imposed communism on Cuba for almost 50 years.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is currently a professor of communications at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

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