Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Cuba's future

Cuba's future

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

What would it be like to live in a tropical paradise, but to be banned
from using its most beautiful beaches; live blocks away from fine
restaurants, but not be allowed to eat in them?

To be required to get government permission to buy a car, to rent an
apartment, or leave the province in which you live? To be spied on by
your neighbours and made to participate in group "acts of repudiation"
against neighbours who flouted the government's restrictions? Welcome to

Vaclav Havel, former political prisoner, leader of Czechoslovakia's
Velvet Revolution, and eventual president of an independent republic,
once argued that totalitarian regimes fear and imprison dissidents
because they represent the potential of human freedom. Regimes that
govern through lies, fear, and intimidation cannot abide individuals who
remain true to themselves and their aspirations. Individuals who dare to
question such regimes find themselves in prison. In Cuba today, over 300
political prisoners languish in its jails.

In March 2003, the Cuban regime arrested and imprisoned 75 members of
Cuba's democratic civil society for such "crimes" as organising seminars
on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, running a library, and
writing uncensored articles, essays and poems about life in Cuba. In
June 2005, others were arrested for organising a protest outside the
French embassy.

Some of these prisoners have been given "conditional releases" (for
health reasons) dependent on their behaviour. While out of prison, many,
such as Marta Beatriz Roque, have been subject to harassment,
intimidation, and violent attack. In recent weeks, the regime has
released some well-known dissidents, while other activists have been
beaten and arrested. The message is clear: The regime will not tolerate
independent political activity that undermines its ability to control
Cuba's future.

The systematic repression of dissent should be unacceptable in a
hemisphere that, through the Inter-American Democratic Charter,
declared, "The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and
their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it." It
should be unacceptable in a larger community of democratic nations that
has committed itself to fundamental freedoms and political liberty. The
Cuban people deserve to elect their leaders just like everybody else in
the hemisphere.

The US does not seek to impose its model on Cuba. To paraphrase
secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, you cannot impose democracy, but
you can impose tyranny. As she said recently, "If you ask people, 'Do
you want to live in a society in which you have some say in who will
govern you, in which you can educate your children, both boys and girls,
in which you can speak your conscience, in which you can worship freely,
in which you can associate to promote your interests, the sort of basics
of democracy?' most people will say yes." Asking that in Cuba can land
you in jail.

When Fidel Castro became ill, he transferred power to his brother and a
small group of individuals who represent the bureaucracy and
institutions of Cuba's totalitarian state. They have prepared for this
moment for years by improving their internal policing, increasing
censorship, blocking foreign access to Cuba's democratic civil society,
and further closing any independent spaces existing in Cuba.

At this uncertain moment, Cuba sits between hope and fear. Hope for a
political opening that would lead to a free and democratic Cuba ready to
regain its place among the democratic nations of the Americas. Fear that
the regime will attempt to perpetuate itself, and the privileges of its
elites, through increased repression and jailings, deepening the
isolation of the Cuban people.

Now is the time for the international community to tell the Cuban people
that it stands in solidarity with their democratic aspirations, and will
provide the political and economic support necessary to make those
aspirations real.

The first step is for the international community to call on the regime
to free its political prisoners, stop the persecution, restore
individual political and economic rights and start down a path that
leads to free elections. The dialogue that needs to take place is one
between the Cuban authorities and the Cuban people about the democratic
future of the island. We look forward to the day when the people of Cuba
will enjoy the same freedoms as citizens of democracies everywhere.

Thomas A Shannon, Jr is assistant secretary, Bureau of Western
Hemisphere Affairs,
US Department of State.

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