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Tahrir Square and Plaza de la Revolucion: nada que ver!

Throughout Miami's Cuban quarters, a new obsession has taken root: the idea that Cuba should follow the path of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and other Arab countries witnessing a wave of social revolts--a sort of long-distance domino effect.

In late January, the usual Calle Ocho talk shows and bloggers appealed to the people of Cuba to take to the streets, following the example of Cairo's Tahrir Square. They urged mass demonstrations to openly challenge and confront the Cuban government.

In the end, however, nothing much happened. A few dissidents phoned in from Cuba, while 4,000 older folks staged a small demonstration in Miami's Little Havana. It was, as usual, "all quiet on the Western front."

Was this a surprise? Of course not. Former CIA analyst Brian Latell--an expert on Cuban affairs, said that despite his wishes, "Could something similar happen in Cuba? There are many reasons to suppose not."

BBC correspondent Fernando Ravsberg dismissed any possibility of such a domino theory hitting Cuba, noting that the island's dissidents were absolutely incapable of achieving significant mass mobilization (a view fully shared by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, according to Wikileaks revelations).

More recently, fellow British correspondent David Usborne quoted a Canadian diplomat in Havana as saying, "We write to our capitals every day and say it is not going to happen in Cuba. Change is going to come not at once, but bit by bit." Indeed, there's a world of difference between Cairo's Tahrir Square and Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion.

FIDEL AND NASSER: DIFFERENT APPROACHES

What Egypt had in 1953 was a coup d'etat that got rid of the monarchy but suited the needs of pro-British local oligarchs. The overwhelming majority of the Egyptian people saw no tangible benefits as a result. Cuba, on the other hand, staged a deeply rooted revolution that "enjoyed" U.S. hostility even before its victory in 1959.

A major collision with Cuba's oligarchy was followed by a radical course of action, including civil war and foreign intervention. The vast majority of Cuban citizens in the early years following that revolution saw many tangible benefits and felt empowered and truly represented by the young leadership.

For the Egyptians, their recurrent defeats vis-a-vis Israel and its allies--and the ultimate compromise--meant humiliaton, demoralization and the growing loss of credibility of its nationalist foundations.

In Cuba's case, Fidel Castro's dominant personality was an overwhelming factor for almost 60 years, and not just because of his authoritarian style--but also because of his ability to gain followers, persuade, infuse hope and enthusiasm, personally take risks and go wherever he was needed. Fidel, in short, remains a man of extraordinary charisma and political skill. Likewise, Gamel Abdel Nasser's personality ensured him a considerable following, but more in line with the Pharaohnic tradition until his early death.

Nasser was influential in the Middle East and to a lesser extent in Africa. Cuba was--and remains--a source of inspiration throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, capable of rallying considerable mass support and from influential figures, well beyond the limits of the left.

Raul Castro now commands on his own merits and just because he's Fidel's brother. He relies not on charisma but on teamwork, institutions, successful results, sound discussions and greater transparency.

Corruption in Cuba, while it flourishes especially in the middle and lower echelons of state bureaucracy, pales in comparison to the gigantic and institutionalized proportions of corruption in Egypt and other Arab countries.

Institutions and highly qualified technocrats support the Cuban system. On the contrary, Sadat and Mubarak eroded whatever merits Nasser had and transformed Egypt's petty corruption into a full-scale system while the vast majority suffered in poverty.

Their political tools--Party, parliament, mass organizations--were not at all similar to how these tools are utilized in Cuba.

Over the last 30 years, Egypt's military has become a creation of the United States, and its pattern of behavior during this recent crisis followed the guidelines set by the Obama administration after this spontaneous revolt unfolded. On the contrary, Cuba's Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FAR) is the most respected institution in Cuba and has always been inseparable from Cuba's leadership.

APPLES AND ORANGES

There is no doubt Cuba's economic and social standing has eroded considerably. The older generations are frustrated with all the blunders and misguided policies. An entire generation has suffered extreme shortages and material hardships; corruption touches the lives of Cubans in many different ways.

Yet as sociologist Aurelio Alonso recently stated: "You may even find some levels of poverty, although you will not find any form of destitution." Many Cubans don't entirely blame their old leaders.

In contrast, Sadat and Mubarak ransacked Egypt's economy but raked in billions through corruption schemes. True, Cuba's leadership doesn't have the credibility it used to have--and the new leaders have yet to gain the respect and acceptance of the people--but in terms of magnitude, there is simply no comparison to Egypt.

A recurrent argument has been the role of repression and fear. Is there repression in Cuba? Yes, but mostly by control and preventive action, along with a systematic display of isolation and "infiltration" techniques that call for selective action against certain dissidents.

When protests erupted in 1994 throughout Havana, there was no deployment of FAR units, no tanks, bayonets or tear gas.

Some police action and Fidel Castro walking straight into the crowd of demonstrators put an end to this one exceptional outbreak of violence. A few minutes later, the same demonstrators were cheering and chanting, "Fidel! Fidel!" No one was killed or massacred.

One last point: observers often note that the Castro regime sees emigration and family remittances as two "airbags" that cushion the impact of Cuba's economic crisis.

It's partly true, but there's a catch. This suggests that such "airbags" didn't exist in Egypt--yet the fact is that emigration and remittances are much more crucial to Egypt than to Cuba.

Tahrir Square was a fine example of a spontaneous revolt lacking organization and leadership. Now the protesters are gathering again because they feel cheated.

On May 1, Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion will witness hundreds of thousands of people marching in support of the latest economic reforms undertaken by the Cuban leadership. So much for comparisons.

Former Cuban intelligence officer Domingo Amuchastegui has lived in Miami since 1994. He writes regularly for CubaNews on the Communist Party and South Florida's Cuban exile community.
EIU VULNERABILITY INDEX

COUNTRY            RANK    INDEX

Yemen               147      8.8
Egypt               138      8.8
Tunisia             145      8.2
Zimbabwe            146      7.6
Jordan              117      7.3
Iran                159      7.3
Saudi Arabia        161      7.3
Afghanistan         150      6.7
Nigeria             123      6.4
Cote d'Ivoire       139      6.1
Tajikistan          149      5.8
Azerbaijan          135      5.5
Belarus             130      5.2
Vietnam             140      5.2
North Korea         167      4.9
Qatar               137      4.6
CUBA                121      4.3
China               136      4.0

This chart shows how various nations stack up in
the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index
2010 (rank out of 167) and their potential
vulnerability to political revolt, on a scale of 1
to 10.
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Author:Amuchastegui, Domingo
Publication:CubaNews
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Apr 1, 2011
Words:1177
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