Why ordinary Cubans stick with Castro Cuban exiles and U.S. politicians misread public feeling

March 10, 1996|By Wayne S. Smith

THE PREVAILING expectation in the United States, and certainly among American political leaders, has been that the end is near for Cuban President Fidel Castro.

The only real debate has been over how the end might come.

Indeed, Mr. Castro has been so demonized in the United States that most Americans find it difficult to believe the Cuban people do not want him immediately overthrown -- or dead. How can they support a man who is said to be a bloody tyrant and murderer with the worst human-rights record in the world?

The revolution unarguably has had a dark side. Mr. Castro is not a democrat and not inclined to tolerate dissent. People are indeed locked up for expressing opposition and are sometimes handled roughly. Human-rights activists calculate that as many as 900 men and women remain behind bars for crimes of a political nature -- down from tens of thousands in the 1960s.

But most Cubans see another side of the revolution, the side that has provided free education, excellent free health care, a high degree of equality and, most important, a sense of national pride.

Until the economic crisis resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union, most Cubans seemed to feel they had benefited from the revolution. Because of these economic difficulties, many would now like to abandon the revolution, as evidenced by the refugee crisis of 1994.

But one should not lose sight of the fact that far more Cubans are prepared to stay and see it through, even as they grumble over their plight. The majority of Cubans are black, and they have benefited most from the revolution. That majority wants to see change, but not a return to the pre-1959 situation, which the rhetoric of the white anti-Castro exiles often seems to threaten.

Only in the United States has a Cuban exile community had a strong impact on policy toward Cuba. Yet that impact results more from miscalculations by American politicians than from the strength of the anti-Castro exiles.

The Cuban-American community is by no means monolithic. It is now about evenly divided between those who favor some degree of dialogue with the Castro government and those who are bitterly opposed. This is true even though the vast majority of Cuban-Americans regard themselves as strongly anti-Castro and most remain skeptical that democracy can be achieved under him.

Moreover, the Cuban-American vote does not and probably never will determine the electoral outcome in Florida or even in Dade County, where most of the state's Cuban-Americans live.

Bill Clinton, for example, won the county even though only 18 percent of Cuban-Americans voted for him. He lost in the northern counties, where few Cuban-Americans live, over issues that had nothing to do with Cuba.

Thus his effort in 1992 to win Florida by supporting the Cuban Democracy Act and taking a hard line on Cuba came to exactly zero. He got 39 percent of the vote in Florida, precisely what Michael S. Dukakis had received four years earlier.

If either a Democratic or Republican administration wished to change U.S. policy toward Cuba, it could easily do so.

If anything, Cuban reform began before the socialist world collapsed around it.

The expansion of religious liberty began more than a decade ago, for example, and Cuban citizens, by and large, are free to practice their faiths without fear of persecution.

Believers can even become members of the Communist Party -- if they can reconcile their faith with the party's history of atheism. Earlier tensions between church and state have largely been overcome. Negotiations for a papal visit are ongoing.

Since the mid-1970s, Cubans have been able to vote in fair and democratic municipal elections. Voting is by secret ballot, and the process of nominating candidates is remarkably open. One does not have to be a member of the Communist Party to run for office.

In February 1993, the electoral law was reformed so that citizens of each municipality could elect their National Assembly representatives. Unfortunately, the nominating process was tightly controlled and, worse, only one candidate could vie for each seat.

The subsequent vote may have been meaningful as a general referendum on the Castro regime because the high voter turnout indicated a willingness to legitimize the government's attempts at reform. But as an election, it was a farce.

Still, it was a step forward. Cuban officials say that there is no reason the electoral law cannot be changed further.

Perhaps by the next elections, in 1998, the nominating process will be more open and there will be more than one candidate for each slot.

Meanwhile, the Assembly has gained in importance, and the elections of 1993 brought in new, younger faces more open to reform.

Some Cuban officials have suggested that the Communist Party be abolished in favor of a Cuban Revolutionary Party, the single party called for by the father of Cuban independence, Jose Marti.

These officials insist, however, that for the next few decades Cuba should stick to a system in which no party plays a role in elections.

"We simply do not want to get into the kind of debilitating party politics we see in surrounding countries," a Cuban political observer said. "There must be a better way of giving the people a voice in government."

Wayne S. Smith, who served in the U.S. Embassy in Havana from 1958 until 1961 and as chief of the U.S. Interest Section there from 1979 to 1982, is a visiting professor of Latin American studies at the Johns Hopkins University and a senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy. This article is adapted from a longer version in Foreign Affairs.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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