Human Rights in Cuba

Time To Change

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Lessons Cuba Can Learn From East

The transformation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR or East
Germany) has important lessons for Cuba as the island opens up to
increased banking, agriculture and telecommunications exchange with the
U.S. But there is a major difference: The GDR liberalized its political
system first, removing the fear that Soviet troops might intervene and
the secret , the Stasi, might round up dissidents.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s contempt for GDR leader Erich Honecker and his
policy of self-determination resulted in Soviet restraint toward
political liberalization in the GDR, as well as Poland and Hungary.

Twenty-five years later, Cuba faces an opportunity to liberalize its
and maybe its politics. President Obama’s decision to restore
full diplomatic relations with the island nation enables U.S.
institutions to open accounts at Cuban financial institutions, offers
U.S. entities in third countries—such as in the and
—to transact business with Cubans in third countries, provides
access in Cuba to U.S. banks through the use of credit cards and permits
the export of telecommunications infrastructure as well as building
materials and agricultural equipment to private citizens and small farmers.

In short, Cubans will be allowed to access U.S. banking,
telecommunications and agricultural sectors. This is the limit of what
Obama can undertake through executive action in these areas. To lift
sanctions, he must seek legislative changes.

With access to U.S. credit, Cubans will be able to take advantage of
President Raúl Castro’s offer to privatize government-owned stores and
restaurants. However, privatization and access to credit do not alone
restructure a centrally controlled economy. A market-based pricing and
monetary system, together with a regulatory framework, have to be created.

There is no shortage of potential advisers from the former GDR, Poland
and Hungary who can advise Havana on the preferred transformation
models. The process can be painful with the ending of subsidies, but the
prospect of a market economy with opportunities to create wealth lured
many in Eastern Europe and may draw many more in Cuba to become

The economic transformation in the GDR was accompanied by a loosening of
the political system and the holding of free elections. The archives of
the infamous Stasi were opened, enabling citizens to examine their own
files and discover who had spied upon them.

This opening, known by the Russian word glasnost, changed the culture of
East Germans. It enabled citizens to criticize their government,
complain of shortages and mock political leaders. Are the Castro
brothers willing to do the same?

objected fiercely to glasnost when Mikhail Gorbachev
visited Cuba in April 1988. He claimed that glasnost would undermine the
communist system and he was right. To what extent will his brother Raúl
seek to still control independent voices on the island?

With increasing access to and social media, will he continue
the overt repression of dissidents? Cuban Yoani Sánchez has a
considerable following on her , but mostly off-island. Two years ago
she was permitted to visit Europe and the United States to deliver her
candid assessment of life on the island. Upon return, she has continued
to call for political openings and started a digital magazine. Others
have followed her, although artists have still been called into the
police precinct for questioning. Today, we cannot write that glasnost
has reached Cuba.

The removal of fear among citizens to express themselves is the single
most important factor that ended Soviet regimes in the GDR and
elsewhere. With the knowledge that a jail sentence no longer followed
criticism and street protests, citizens in the GDR came out in the
thousands to protest the regime in October 1989. When the GDR’s
spokesman inadvertently blurted over the radio that to the West
could occur “now,” thousands of Berliners heard him and rushed toward
the Berlin Wall. The guards had no instructions to shoot and were
quickly overwhelmed by fellow East Germans tearing down the dreaded wall.

Is there an equivalent in Cuba? Not yet. Instead, both the Cuban and
U.S. governments have approached the openings cautiously, taking each
measure step-by-step. Washington fears the rush of Cuban citizens
jumping into boats to reach Florida, and Raúl Castro tests each
liberalizing step in an agonizingly slow manner.

Global events are now pushing both Washington and Havana to move faster.
Both of Cuba’s sponsors, Russia and , are in serious financial
straits and must deal with a 46 percent fall in the price of petroleum.
For a second time in 25 years, the Castro brothers face a serious
decline in energy and aid from their principal patrons. In 1991, they
asked their citizens to create in Cuba renewable energy and foods. Now,
they are offering a new alternative, namely access to U.S financing and
the chance to expand their small enterprises.

If Raúl Castro opens up the political system step-by-step, we may see a
shift to liberalism. His release of 53 political prisoners is a good
start, but the test will come when he allows his critics to test the
limits of Cuba’s new freedoms. We should follow Castro’s treatment of
his fellow citizens closely over the next few months to evaluate the
Cuban people’s response to U.S. openings.

Diana Villiers Negroponte is Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy,
Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institute. This article first
appeared on the Brookings Institute website.

Source: Lessons Cuba Can Learn From East Germany –

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