Arturo Lopez-Levy is lecturer and PhD Candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He has a Masters degree in Economics from Carleton University (1997) and a Masters degree in International Affairs from Columbia University (2003). In Cuba, Lopez-Levy worked as Secretary of the Bnai Brith Lodge of the Cuban Jewish Community (1999-2001) and a political analyst for the Cuban government (1993-1994).
By Arturo Lopez-Levy
In an unprecedented gesture, Raúl Castro invited the Cuban Catholic Church through the mediation of Cardinal Jaime Ortega to facilitate a de-escalation of conflict between the government and the Ladies in White, a group composed by the wives and mothers of the prisoners arrested during the Black Spring of 2003. As result of this dialogue, the government transferred twelve prisoners to their provinces easing their communication with their relatives. The prisoner in the most precarious health, Ariel Sigler, was released to his home.
Juan de Dios Hernandez, Havana Auxiliary Bishop, referred to the release and transference of prisoners as steps of "a bigger ladder to climb carefully." After all, the agenda of dialogue proposed by the Church to President Raúl Castro also included urgently needed economic reform as well as ways to improve dialogue between different segments of Cuban society, including its Diasporas.
Despite it being merely a beginning, the merits of the dialogue between the Church and the Cuban government are already visible. A dialogue between domestic actors creates a space for change that would be otherwise unachievable through the interference from the United States or the European Union.
Encompassed in the dialogue between the Cardinal and the president, there is a nationalist consensus to defend Cuba's self-determination and the Revolution's achievements of health and education. From the time of Fidel Castro's resignation from the presidency due to health problems, the bishops have rejected any violation of Cuban sovereignty. Moreover, they have affirmed their preference for policies of engagement of the international community to smooth any future reform the government makes.
These cooperation dynamics blow some of the steam from the existent polarization between the government and the opposition. The Church; insisting on its non-political character, is providing Cuban politics with a classical third actor to whom others can make concessions without losing face. At the same time, it heightens the relevance of "mature issues" such as economic reform or Cuban citizens' travel rights in which progress is both possible and desirable.
The idea of reconciliation as a process implies the maturation of issues, continuity and sequence. And, it is worth noting the benefits of its gradual character that avoids the false expectations of too-fast solutions to decades of acrimonious polarization and siege mentality. It is of strategic importance to close the gap between the dominant discourse in the United States and Europe centered in multiparty elections and property claims versus the real items on agenda inside Cuba about the right to travel, access to Internet, and economic reform.
In the view of most relevant domestic actors such as the different religious groups, the reformers inside the government, the party, and the Armed Forces; political stability is a central concern. Forcing multiparty elections as required by the Helms-Burton law is putting the cart before the horse. Social reconciliation (at the family, religious, cultural, or academic level) and economic reconciliation (spaces of economic interaction between Cubans of different life experience and political ideas) should come first. These processes can create a proper atmosphere for the dismantlement of the political structures of hostility.
Solidarity with Cuban political opposition should not impede a realistic analysis of its exiguous possibilities at the current juncture. Actors such as the religious communities gather more Cubans from all political and social venues at their prayer rooms, libraries, and recreation facilities than any political group in the island. According to Professor Sergio Cabarrouy, from the dioceses of Pinar del Rio, Cuban Catholic publications reach at least 250,000 Cubans every month. These magazines, such as Palabra Nueva and Espacio Laical, cover not only theological but social and political themes such as U.S.-Cuba relations, Cuban history, economic reform, national reconciliation, etc. In contrast to TV Marti, these public spaces are not invisible and do not cost millions of dollars to U.S. taxpayers.
The European Union and the United States cannot choose Cuba's most relevant issues and actors. Yet, they still can identify them and provide an international atmosphere that assists their efforts of liberalization. In the last weeks, the Catholic Church demonstrated its key relevance. Washington and Brussels should pay attention to Cardinal Jaime Ortega and other Bishops' policy suggestions.
Their recommendation must be heeded: 1) to avoid confrontational and selective approaches (such as the unfair inclusion of Cuba in the list of terrorist countries); 2) To engage Cuban government and civil society as much as possible, though not through subversive regime change programs but with open and constructive cultural exchanges; 3) To pay attention to the presence within the Cuban government ranks of non-liberal moderates with an agenda of economic reform and liberalization; and, 4) To end the U.S. travel ban to Cuba, and replacing the embargo with a principled engagement that promotes Human Rights with the dignity of a democratic superpower, respectful of Cuban sovereignty and multilateralism.