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German reunification experience offers lessons for Cuba in transition--panel.

Germany's experience with reunification after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall holds crucial lessons for the future of Cuba, said panelists at an Oct. 4 conference in Miami.

As in Germany, Cuba must find paths toward reconciliation--between those who have lived in the communist system and those abroad, and between those responsible for human rights abuses and those who suffered them.

The centrist Cuba Study Group organized the event at Miami-Dade College, attracting more than 100 people. It held a similar conference last year that explored lessons from South Africa after apartheid and Northern Ireland following the Good Friday accords that ended years of fighting between Catholics and Protestants.

Speakers came from former West and East Germany, as well as Cuba and its diaspora. West German scholar Dieter Dettke, who teaches at Georgetown University, distilled this advice:

* Lesson #1: Reconciliation must come with justice, not with revenge nor a handshake. There must be a "fair judicial process" to account for past abuses, so people can learn to live together peacefully, he said.

After German reunification, hundreds of top East German leaders were indicted and tried for abuses. An agency also was set up to allow citizens to see the files kept by East Germany's state security, known as Stasi.

Some critics said the new German government should have been tougher on communist abusers. But Dettke said it's better "to be mild" to promote co-existence, rather than "degenerate into revenge."

Yet fair trials are essential. Hungary's "handshake revolution" did not hold former officials accountable, sparking a "culture war" which suggests that a lack of justice "backfired in many ways," said Dettke.

* Lesson #2: Cooperation helps pave the way for reconciliation. Instead of isolating East Germany, the West German government in Bonn had taken steps since the 1970s to build people-to-people ties, such as allowing families to visit.

"These human contacts were extremely important to keep hope alive" for those in the East, Dettke said.

West Germany also actively engaged with the communist East German government, recognizing it through a treaty and exchanging permanent representatives. "You don't want to back the other side into a corner and push them" further away, said Dettke.

* Lesson #3: Plan ahead for critical issues that are certain to arise. That includes ways to deal with contested property and nurture civil society. It's important to identify leaders in the "niche society" of dissidents and human rights activists who may be critical for future reconciliation.

In East Germany, the Lutheran Church offered a roof to those dissidents, allowing space for that niche group to dialogue.


But West Germany's handling of reunification also had missteps that offer lessons for Cuba, said Gunter Nooke, a former East German dissident and later a human rights commissioner in reunified Germany.

For one, don't forget to bring justice - with financial compensation - to the victims of past abuses.

Courts in the former East Germany convicted relatively few top communist officials for their abuses, partly because of difficulties gathering evidence that could hold up. And the new regime often turned to the same people who ran the old one because they had management skills.

That left many activists who had helped topple the old regime out in the cold econom ically, said Nooke.

"The rule of law has been more favorable to the perpetrators than the victims," said Nooke. He urged direct financial compensation to the victims of past abuses plus training to develop new managers.

Also, prioritize improvements to the economy. In communist East Germany, the top concern among ordinary residents was day-to-day survival in a nation of shortages.

By making the eastern economy stronger and workers more hopeful, it then became easier to focus on tribunals and past abuses, said Nooke.


Still, reconciliation must be a two-way street to really work, some participants said.

"It has to have a sinner who repents what he has done, and a victim who is willing to forgive," said Nooke.

For many Cubans both off and on the island, that process has already begun.

South Florida businessman Carlos Saladrigas, a former anti-Castro hardliner who now actively engages with his homeland, likened his stance to being in a hotel that has two guest rooms that can connect. He's opened his door to the next room, even though the door on the other side may still be closed.

"Reconciliation has to start with each individual," said Saladrigas, who helped launch the Cuba Study Group (see "Miami's Carlos Saladrigas: From hardliner to healer," CubaNews, March 2009, page 8).

Added Dagoberto Valdes, a lay Catholic activist in Cuba and editor of Convivencia magazine: "Waiting for the change, we're not enjoying the journey." He described reconciliation not as an end but a path.

To be sure, the German experience doesn't fully apply to Cuba. The context for the two countries differs. For starters, the U.S.--home to the largest Cuban community abroad--has opted for embargo instead of close engagement with its communist neighbor.

And Washington surely won't pour the many billions of dollars into a post-communist Cuba that Bonn generously directed into East Germany.

That leaves more of the burden for Cuban reconciliation and reconstruction on Cubans abroad, not a government with massive resources, said Marifeli Perez-Stable, a professor at Florida International University who's been working on Cuban reconciliation issues for more than a decade.

"We wish we had a Federal Republic of Germany, but we don't," said Perez-Stable.

Sessions of the "Second Conference on Reconciliation and Change: The German Experience" were videotaped and will be available for viewing at Cuba Study Group's website at

The organization is now looking into the possibility of a conference next year on lessons from Spain after the death of fascist leader Francisco Franco.

Doreen Hemlock, former Havana bureau chief and now business writer at the South Florida SunSentinel, is a regular contributor to CubaNews.
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Author:Hemlock, Doreen
Article Type:Conference notes
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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