Thursday, September 15, 2005

Fostering Democracy in Cuba: Lessons Learned

The remarks of James C. Cason addressing the members of the Cuba Transition Project
on September 12, 2005

It is a pleasure to be here at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. All of us here tonight know the Institute's vital contributions in helping us comprehend today's Cuba. I've been particularly impressed by the Institute's work -- especially through its Cuba Transition Project -- in helping prepare those committed to seeing a vibrant democracy and free market economy established in Cuba understand the challenges that they will face.

I want to thank Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart for their staunch support of the U.S. Interests Section's pro-democracy outreach to the Cuban people. We always knew that both of you were in our corner, and that support meant a lot to us at the Interests Section.

I also want to recognize my former boss Otto Reich, who as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs gave me, before sending me to Havana, the following instructions. "Jim," he told me, "President Bush is sending you on a mission."

Help the Cuban people understand that their nightmare is ending. Reassure them that the United States will assist Cubans in building a society that protects their personal liberties, promotes their prosperity, and wins for Cuba the admiration of the democratic world.

Tonight, I would like to share with you the U.S. Interests Section's initiatives in Cuba to advance President Bush's pro-democracy agenda. As articulated by former Secretary Powell in his "Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba" Report to the President, the U.S. Government should undertake the following six inter-related tasks to hasten change on the island:
-- Break the Cuban Dictatorship's Information Blockade;
-- Illuminate the Reality of Castro's Cuba;
-- Empower Cuban Civil Society;
-- Encourage International Diplomatic Efforts to Support Cuban Civil Society and
Challenge the Castro Regime; and
-- Deny Resources to the Cuban Dictatorship.

I want to focus on the first three objectives, as the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, by virtue of its physical presence, is particularly well positioned to advancing them in Castro's Cuba.

Castro often portrays his wrath against the United States as a battle between a Cuban David against the U.S. Goliath. In reality, however, it is the U.S. Interests Section that is the David trying to overcome Castro's looming security forces. We are confined to Havana. Cuban intelligence agents monitor our every move and harass our officers.

Cubans who deal with us are exposed to the regime's arbitrary and often harsh reprisals. The regime bombards Cubans with all sorts of lies about us, and blocks our efforts to communicate directly with Cubans.

How, then, have we been able to surmount the regime's efforts to isolate the Interests Section from the Cuban people? How have we helped advance President Bush's pro-democracy agenda in this repressive environment?

Breaking the Information Blockade

The Castro regime reserves for itself the exclusive prerogative to determine what Cubans should know.

As a result, Cuban bookstores are stocked with propaganda tomes, but little else. Internet access is restricted to a tiny group of vetted regime loyalists. Whatever factual information Cuba's media rations out is larded with irrelevancies or propaganda. Cuban news outlets trumpet far-fetched claims for a dysfunctional economy, obsess over every imaginable failing of the United States, and report ad nauseam Fidel's pronouncements.

The U.S. Interests Section has enthusiastically thrown itself into the task of breaking Castro's information blockade. Some examples.

The Castro regime scares off most Cubans from entering the Interests Section through its front door.

Ironically, however, probably more Cubans enter U.S. government facilities in Havana than enter all of the other diplomatic missions put together. In their thirst to escape the strictures of Castro's Cuba, considerably more than 100,000 Cubans entered our Consular Section and Refugee Annex in the past three years seeking to emigrate to the United States. Another 81,400 entered seeking non-immigrant visas. While in our buildings, Cuban applicants can listen to Radio Marti or watch TV Marti and CNN En Español. We treat them to humorous spoofs on the regime, and they knowingly titter.

They can read and take home press clips and other written materials. These applicants have a huge multiplying effect, sharing their impressions of what they have seen at the Interests Section with family members and friends.

During the past three years, we have also greatly augmented our distribution of uncensored informational materials to Cubans -- giving away over 540,000 academic studies, literature, news magazines and opinion pieces. We make available written and video material to all those who attend our receptions. We distribute materials to the independent libraries, often little more than a shelf in some brave person's apartment. The regime periodically raids these libraries, alarmed that average Cubans have access to the Gulag Archipelago, Martin Luther King's works or Newsweek in Spanish.

Let me share with you a little secret: some of the Cuban authors banned on the island whose works we distribute have an avid, if surreptitious, audience among regime loyalists. We've discovered that Huber Matos' compelling memoir, "Como Llego La Noche," has a particular fascination for members of the nomenclatura.

Recently, the U.S. Interests Section has been able to negotiate an innovative agreement with the El Nuevo Heraldo, the Spanish language cousin of the Miami Herald, to print within our premises the paper and to distribute. Our daily one hundred copies are snapped up, and are reverently passed from reader to reader. Accustomed to the stultifying distortions of Granma, Cuban readers of the El Nuevo Heraldo instantly appreciate the value of a free press. We plan to significantly expand our printing and distribution of this paper.

We also continued my predecessor, Vickie Huddleston's, excellent initiative of distributing shortwave radios, handing out thousands more. We have given these radios to good contacts, individuals we've met by chance, and the occasional disappointed visa applicant. These radios give their listeners the freedom to choose world-wide offerings, whether BBC, Radio Netherlands, Radio Prague or a host of Miami-based stations, including of course Radio Marti's 10 hours a day of Cuba-specific programming.

The U.S. Interests Section now offers the largest free, uncensored Internet Center in all of Cuba. I am pleased that during my tenure we were able to double the number of Internet terminals, and now over fifty Cubans each day use our Internet facilities. They can exchange e-mails, access world developments, research topics and browse the world-wide-web. Dissidents can discuss their political programs, human rights activists can highlight regime abuses, and independent journalists can file stories on the real Cuba.

Another initiative is to keep our diplomatic colleagues in Havana and other Cuba watchers, both on and off the island, informed about Cuban developments. Five times a week, the Interests Section sends out through our U.S.-based Internet server press clips on Cuba, written by international journalists and their independent Cuban colleagues. For a surprising number of diplomatic missions in Havana, our press package is their main source of uncensored, up-to-date information about Cuban developments.

Illuminate the Reality of Castro's Cuba

All Cubans know that the Castro regime punishes anyone who strays from its rigid dictates. For understandable reasons, most Cubans try to keep their heads down as they go about their daily lives. However, a brave, principled minority -- Oscar Biscet, Marta Beatriz Roque, Oswaldo Paya, Vladimiro Roca, Rene Gomez Manzano, Felix Bonne, just to name a few -- are willing to suffer the consequences for exposing the regime's lies and its mistreatment of fellow Cubans.

We want to help Cuban pro-democracy activists get themselves heard on the island and throughout the world, and to encourage citizens of democratic countries to call for the release of the more than 300 political prisoners in Castro's jails. But in a regime that monopolizes all means of communication, how is that accomplished?

Like other diplomats, I've met with academics, businessmen, journalists and politicians visiting the island to brief them on the real Cuba behind Castro's Potemkin village.

The Interests Section has its own Internet website, where we post our materials on Cuba.
However, I discovered that symbols were the most compelling means of conveying the repressive nature of the Castro regime. In Cuba certain symbols are readily understood. Symbols also catch the attention of the international media, and they get filtered back into Cuba through photos, illegal Internet access, contraband satellite dishes and TV Marti.

Let me share four examples.

Last year when introducing my deputy to the diplomatic community and press corps, we invited the guests to see first hand a replica of the solitary confinement cell that held prisoner of conscience, Dr. Oscar Biscet. Most were appalled by Dr. Biscet's inhumanely cramped cell. Subsequently, we moved this replica of Dr. Biscet's cell to our Consular Section so that all our Cuban applicants can see how ruthlessly their government treats the peaceful opposition.

In late 2004, we buried a Time Capsule in the garden of my Residence in Havana at the foot of the only monument in Cuba to the democratic opposition.

In a solemn, emotionally moving ceremony, Cuban pro-democracy leaders deposited messages to the Cuban people to be read on the eve of Cuba's future democratic national elections. Coverage of the event reminded the outside world, and through it Cubans on the island, that Cuba's political transition is inexorably approaching, and that Cubans need to think about how to ensure that democracy prevails.

You may recall the lighted number "75" we added to our December 2004 festive holiday decorations at the Interests Section.

We posted that sign as a reminder that in March 2003 Cuban agents imprisoned 75 pro-democracy activists, whose only crime was articulating their ideals. The Castro regime reacted with its characteristic heavy hand: it surrounded our building with swastika emblazoned billboards and for weeks literally blasted us with revolutionary music. However, the ensuing media coverage reminded the world that innocent Cubans are thrown into jail for having a different point of view than Castro's.
And even the most uninformed Habanero grasped that the world outside of Cuba was protesting the regime's arbitrary incarceration of political prisoners.

Our 2005 July 4th celebration witnessed the unveiling of another symbol -- a three story, lighted Statute of Liberty with the number "75" where the lamp is held. She was something to see. All those present, over six hundred Cuban activists, artists, intellectuals and journalists as well as our international guests, immediately understood that she represented freedom.

More than 120 media outlets reported this event, publicizing my criticism of the regime's dictatorial nature.

Perhaps appreciating that a heavy-handed propaganda approach demonizing me was counterproductive, the Castro regime tried its own hand at symbolic warfare. The regime sought to lampoon me in a series of ostensibly humorous "Transition Man" cartoons that still run on primetime TV. The cartoons portrayed me flying about, clad in a pink gown and waving a magic wand, trying to rollback the Revolution's so called "accomplishments," whether in education, public health or racial equality. However, dictatorships are not good at humor. Moreover, the cartoons inadvertently reminded all Cubans that a transition is inevitable, exposed the regime's scare tactics, and converted me into an icon of dissent. We've heard stories of children on buses pretending they were me, incanting "Cachan, Cachan" as they waved imaginary wands to magically obtain some scarce object. I don't think this was the regime's intent.

Empower Cuban Civil Society

In Castro's Cuba, there is literally no place to hide. All who anger Castro's ossified regime are ostracized, harassed or imprisoned. Our main contribution to the courageous pro-democratic activists who expose themselves to the regime's wrath is to let them know that we will never abandon them, and that we will support them until they no longer need us.

Other diplomatic missions may believe it preferable to have Castro regime officials attend their events rather than the dissidents. However, you have our word: we will never consider Castro's stooges to be the equal of the pro-democratic dissidents.

We show our admiration for the pro-democratic groups by inviting them to our receptions, which give them access to other diplomatic colleagues, foreign journalists and influential visitors. We always try to bring together visiting U.S. politicians with the dissidents.

We host special events -- on Easter, Fathers' Day or Christmas, for example -- for the families of the political prisoners, where the games we organize delight the children. For dissident children, many of whom suffer from constant taunts, these events are blissfully fun-filled.

We accept invitations by dissidents to visit them at their homes, even when we know that there is a possibility that Castro goons may organize an "acto de repudio" against our hosts at any time. I personally met with hundreds of Cubans throughout the island before the regime decided to confine official Americans within the municipality of Havana.

We also provide tools to the pro-democratic groups so they can communicate among themselves and with the outside world. We give them pens, paper, laptops and printers. We give them access to the Internet, fax machines, copiers, and cameras. The dissidents do their best to keep these valuable items hidden from the regime, but the regime routinely raids their homes and confiscates whatever it wants. Recently, the regime seized all of the baseball equipment owned by Cubans who were going to play a friendly match against an Interests Section team.

I'm particularly proud of one innovation we have put in place during my tenure -- videoconferences that link up Cubans on the island with international audiences. This new tool allowed three leading Cuban dissidents to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives, and to answer questions in real-time. We've also used them to bring together Cuban youth groups with Czech and Venezuelan counterparts. The videoconferences have enabled us to conduct training seminars between respected international journalists and aspiring Cuban independent journalists.

We are also hosting a popular series of videoconferences examining key transition issues, in which distinguished U.S. based experts exchange views with large groups of Cuban civil society members. Among the topics these videoconferences have explored include analyzing different constitutional options, restructuring the economy, revitalizing the public health sector, and instituting property rights.

We will continue these valuable, intellectually stimulating exchanges, and plan to broaden them to include discussions with experts from other democratic countries.

It's Relay Race

The Castro regime is no doubt glad to see Roger Noriega, Kevin Whitaker and Jim Cason leave the Cuba portfolio. The regime should contain its joy. Our next man in Havana will be Michael Parmly, a former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in our Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Michael is totally committed to promoting President Bush's pro-human rights and democracy agenda.

Promoting democracy in Cuba is not a sprint, but an ongoing relay race. I've lost forty pounds and I'm feeling a bit out of breath, but Michael is about to pick up the baton and race right past me.

Michael and I have talked extensively about his challenges in Cuba, and he intends to continue many of our projects. I have no doubt that he will lend his creativity towards developing new ones. Michael will also be able to count on the able support of our new Transition Coordinator, Caleb McCarry, the new Coordinator of the Office for Cuban Affairs, Steve McFarland, Deputy Assistant Secretary Dan Fisk and the proposed Assistant Secretary, Thomas Shannon. These outstanding individuals will make a great Cuba team.

And We're On The Final Stretch

Castro's rickety system cannot last much longer -- everyone on the island knows it does not work. Change is inevitable. I'm confident that the Cuban people will not be satisfied with a partial economic opening, but will demand that Cuba undergo a thorough democratic transition.

Achieving such a total, durable transition to democracy and free market economy remains the unwavering policy of the United States. We hope that international community partners will join us in demanding nothing less. Mere “stability” would not be an acceptable outcome; nor would any other outcome that fails to provide immediate, genuine freedom to the Cuban people.

We are prepared to work closely with the international community, multilateral financial agencies and Cubans in exile to help democratically minded Cubans on the island build strong democratic institutions as well as a thriving market economy so all Cubans can enjoy protection from arbitrary rule, personal freedoms and prosperity.

And on the eve of Cuba's next national democratic elections, I promise you that I will be on the island celebrating with you all. See you there. Viva Cuba Libre.


Robert said...

Awesome post Conductor, thanks!

Charlie said...

Thanks for posting your views on Cuban-American issues:) I'm finding blogs are a great source of news and information.

God bless,