[freedomtowernight_edited.jpg] 26th Parallel: The Road to Change Is A Two-Way Street

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Road to Change Is A Two-Way Street

Following is a letter to the Miami Herald written by Carlos Saladrigas in reaction to the Juanes concert this past weekend. Saladrigas is chairman of the Cuba Study Group, a Cuban-American organization widely regarded to be moderate. Mr. Saladrigas words are in italics with my comments in regular font interspersed.

After watching the much talked-about Juanes concert on Sunday, I was left with a feeling that something transcendental had taken place.

Almost 10 percent of Cuba's population showed up -- about 30 percent of Cuba's youth. Considering the lack of available transportation, it became clear the Cuban people voted with their feet.

For a people used to speaking in code, things were said that, except during the Pope's visit, have never been said in Cuba in a public forum. The joy in their faces said it all, in sharp contrast to the taciturn faces normally seen during the interminable political gatherings of the past.

I'm not sure what Cuba's youth "voted on", other than showing up at a rare major international event for a good time.

Meanwhile in Miami, at the Versailles Restaurant, Miguel Saavedra and his Vigilia Mambisa had a steamroller crush dozens of blank CDs in yet another of their usual, but detestable, demonstrations largely aimed at intimidating dissenters from the hard line of exile politics. Unexpectedly, a spontaneous gathering of young people, fed up with a 50-year-old failed policy, outnumbered them, and gave Saavedra a dose of his own medicine. A recent poll showed that the vast majority of Cuban Americans believe his actions severely damage the hard-earned image of our community.

The only people who truly believe that the image of the Cuban-American community is severely damaged by the actions of Miguel Saavedra and Vigilia Mambisa (a small group, something Saladrigas himself would acknowledge) are those who fit one of two categories: those are already predisposed to disagree with and demonize anything and everything the hardliners put out, and those who don't have the strength and courage of their convictions to let their opinions and beliefs stand on their own. It is blatantly misguided to pin the image of an entire Cuban-American community on the actions and words of a few, just as it's wrong to think of Mr. Saladrigas and others of similar thought as comunistas or castro sympathizers. A little honest thought can go a long way, and Mr. Saladrigas as a so-called moderate should be moderate enough to realize this. However, we've been down this road before, haven't we?

There are many messages in the tea leaves of the concert. For hardliners in the Cuban government, the message is clear. The immense crowd wanted a moment of fun and relaxation, but, in a way, they were also there for a silent protest against a system that has wrought fear, poverty, hatred, bitterness, division and hopelessness. A desire for change was in the air.

Interestingly, tensions during the negotiations and words spoken by literally all of the Cuban performers gave us a glimpse of the debates and tensions that exist within the Cuban system. With a sense of déja vu, reminiscent of our own generational divide in Miami, we saw moderate and progressive voices prevail over the forces of inertia.

I certainly hope Saladrigas is right in that the concert served as a form of silent protest. But much more than that is needed. Only Cubans on the island can decide what to do with this spirit of peace and unity. Speaking of unity, perhaps it's not the "forces of inertia" in Miami that need to practice this, but the forces of oppression in Cuba. Just a thought. As far as life in Cuba after the concert, perhaps Yoani can put it in better perspective.

The tea leaves also portend a wake-up call for the Cuban-American community. After all, the hardliners failed to derail this concert. There are still those who will never change, but their numbers are rapidly dwindling. Although we at the Cuba Study Group have for years been saying that Miami is changing, it took Juanes' courageous and bold initiative to let us see it, feel it and to rid ourselves of the fear to say it that has gripped us for so long.

The massive attendance highlighted the large and growing disconnect between the exiled hardliners and the Cuban people. More Cuban Americans have come to the realization that we cannot afford to continue with failed policies to meet the challenges of the future. We need to engage. It is not reasonable to expect to partake in a new Cuba if we don't partake in the process that creates it.

Saladrigas sure sounds confident, doesn't he? I understand his desire to engage. After all, that's how humans of good faith typically function. However, when Saladrigas puts away his rose-colored glasses, it must be obvious that there's only one side willing to engage for what's RIGHT. If the other party refuses to acknowledge this, there can be no engagement. It's all hot air and dashed hopes. Ask Barack Obama and Bill Richardson how their attempts at engagement have progressed. Every time we see the castro regime time and time again thwart attempts at honest engagement, it proves most hardliners right. Every single time. This is something Saladrigas surely recognizes but seemingly can't bring himself to admit. He's hardly alone.

Juanes showed us the euphoria and effectiveness that comes from tearing down walls. The old policies of hurting the regime with collateral damage to the people need to give way to policies that help the people even when they may provide a collateral benefit to the regime. It needs to be all about the people.

Saladrigas appears to be invoking the Reagan-at-Berlin moment here. Walls are torn down when one speaks bravely and sides with the forces of right, but also and just as importantly, AGAINST the forces of wrong. Reagan did this. Juanes and his troupe did not. All the tourists, free trade and unfettered travel to Cuba do more than simply provide a "collateral benefit" to the regime. It legitimizes oppression and the denial of basic human rights endowed to us by our Creator. Unintended consequences, perhaps. But you know what they say about good intentions and the road to Hell...

During his visit to Cuba, Pope John Paul II asked the world to open up to Cuba, as he asked Cuba to open up to the world. This man knew that it takes openness -- he lived it. With his visit to Poland he nearly single-handedly brought the whole Soviet bloc to transition.

Juanes echoed his voice. Totalitarianism requires closeness. Fighting it requires openness. It is time to give openness, reconciliation and dialogue the chance they deserve. Let us all stand up to fear; it's time to change.

I'm not sure why Saladrigas concluded his letter with a comparison of the message delivered by Pope John Paul II to that of Juanes and company at a concert. Maybe he wants to lift up Juanes' message to the same righteous level as the Pontiff's in order to make it appear more significant. I don't know. Regarding openness, here's what Pope John Paul II said in his homily in that very same plaza 11 years ago (scroll down past the green text to get to the Pope's homily at the plaza on January 25, 1998):

As everyone knows, Cuba has a Christian soul and this has brought her a universal vocation.. Called to overcome isolation, she needs to open herself to the world and the world needs to draw close to Cuba, her people, her sons and her daughters who are surely her greatest wealth. This is the time to start out on the new paths called for by the times of renewal which we are experiencing at the approach of the Third Millennium of the Christian era!

Yes, openness is needed. But it's a two-part deal, which the Pontiff made very clear. The two parts are indispensable and inseparable. We've seen how our previous attempts, as well as those of others, at reaching out have resulted. A willingness to reach out should never be exclusive from a demand that wrongs be righted. In fact, it's our obligation as moral people to identify and root out the source of the wrong so that openness can take fruit. A new path cannot be taken with obstacles in the way, but only when both sides contribute to the removal of the obstacles. Our official policy to Cuba has always left this door open. Unfortunately, it's the Cuban regime that continues to block the path, much to the detriment and suffering of their people.


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