Thursday, October 25, 2007

Faith, heaven, earth, and Cuba

If we were truly seeing “the dying gasps of a failed regime” in Havana, as President Bush said yesterday, then it might be possible to interpret his speech as something other than an expression of his deep personal faith that change is coming to Cuba.

But as former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote after the President’s second inaugural where he stated the “ultimate goal of ending tyranny” worldwide, “this is not heaven, it’s earth.”

And in Cuba’s little corner of this earth, it’s hard to discern the gasping government and the teeming opposition that would be poised to bring the President’s vision of change into earthly reality any time soon.

To be sure, there are human rights violations and there is opposition in Cuba, and beyond the formal opposition there is a widespread desire among Cubans, extending even into the communist party and spoken out loud, for profound change. And there is something else that the President ignored: a government that has a tiger by the tail, saying it too wants change, taking the public’s pulse, feeding expectations, studying options, figuring out what to do. As a result, the big question in Cuba today is how Raul Castro will govern, and whether he will deliver on the expectations he himself has raised.

One can’t fault the President for giving a visionary speech or for attempting to put political reform front and center at a time when the possibilities of economic reform are more prominent in public discussion.

But contrary to the Secretary of State’s view last May that Cuba has a “very nascent and fragile democratic opposition that is beginning to arise,” President Bush seemed to place Cuba’s opposition on the ramparts and spoiling for a fight, so much so that he thought it was time to tell Cuban soldiers and police that they will face a decision about “using force against your own people.” If they decide not to use force, they have now been assured by the President – of the United States – that there is “a place” for them “in the free Cuba.”

The President certainly did not try to dissuade Cubans from taking to the streets; he made clear that what matters to him is the final result of freedom, and if that comes at the expense of stability, that’s not a problem.

The President directed himself to those in Cuba who might be listening “perhaps at great risk.” Cuban officials, smarter than the average bear, apparently took about two minutes to call the President’s bluff. They ran 1,800 words of the speech in today’s Granma (pdf), and 15 minutes of it on Cuban television last night.

Which means one of two things: that everyone who reads Granma in Cuba today will be arrested by sundown, or that officials calculated that it serves their political interest for Cubans to know what the American President says about their country.

Why would that be? Here are a few guesses: to discredit the President’s assertion that they are weak; to highlight the President’s vision of possible violence and his indifference toward instability; to amplify his assertions that Cubans have no sense of community, that they cannot legally gather in groups of more than three, or that they cannot change jobs or houses; and generally to allow the President’s words to increase Cubans’ fear of radical change.

Before the speech, I thought the President was looking for a way to turn the page and start a new discussion about Cuba with U.S. allies. (Indeed, he did call for “the world to put aside its differences,” which is easy for him to say, since the “differences” are generated by his own policy.) But rather than diplomacy, his real interest seemed to be to draw moral distinctions between a United States bathed in virtue and other democracies whose conduct will “shame” them in the future.

The President concluded by leaving Cubans with “a mission.” His message seemed to be, in sum, “I have done what I can, and what I have done will not change Cuba; it is time for you to act.” The dying, gasping, failed regime ensured that his message was heard from one end of the island to the other. Now it’s up to the Cuban people to decide what to do with the new mission assigned to them.


Anonymous said...

very good analysis and spot on.

the claim that Cubans would be watching "in great risk" was an alright lie (cuban gov. often shows all debates about Cuba in USA b/c it serves their interest - US look like fools in the context of Cuban reality).

leftside said...

Lots of good stuff there Phil, but there is a lot more wrong with Bush's speach than just his detachment from earthly reality. Are we to understand that "in heaven" (where a real, popular, united opposition was ratcheting up pressure) this sort of posturing from a hypocritical, menacing neighbor with a long history of nasty interventionism in ITS OWN interests would be appropriate foreign policy?

leftside said...

Its a good point anon. One gets the impression from hardliners that the words "freedom" and "democracy" in regards to Cuba are taboo or censored. In reality, the Cuban population is better informed about what the US considers the iredeemable aspects of the Cuban system than anyone else. The Cuban people are not stupid. They know exactly what certain human rights groups and governments say about their Government and they have their own responses.

Phil Peters said...

Today I was asked if the Cuban state media's publication and broadcast of the Bush speech was without precedent.

I recalled the broadcasting and printing of Pres Carter's speech a few years ago (not quite same, but did have human rights criticism) and the broad distribution of the Administration's first commission report, excerpted.

Are there other examples?

Anonymous said...

I think that this particular instance may be unique in the full text sense, but the Castro government has often responded directly to foreign media and foreign dignitaries that speak abroad about Cuba, from amnesty international to Havel and Bulgaria.

Like you pointed out, Bush basically baited them into printing it in order to make him look the buffoon. While media is controlled (somewhat less successfully as we enter the information age)in Cuba, word travels and in a way, the gov is forced to confront these issues to maintain its media's semblance of reliability.

Thanks for your work!

Alex said...

It's not the first time. I remember the regime not only published a particularly virulent Reagan speech, copies were distributed to be discussed in classrooms, etc, as part of a "knowing the enemy" series. It must have been 1985 because I was in military school back then.

Of course I have no idea whether they passed around the full speech, if it was creatively edited, etc. i can't find any references on the internet. The part I remember very vividly about the speech was that Reagan alluded to Cuba's fleet of Mig 23 as capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

uh-huh said...

It's easy to understand W. Just believe the exact OPPOSITE of whatever he says.

For example when he says he supports democracy you may rest assured he doesn't give a shit about it.

Anonymous said...

In the hands of a skilled editor and propagandist, any speech can be used to serve anyone's purpose.

It is not necessary to change anything. Removing unsavory parts is all that is needed.

Follow up with skilled UNILATERAL "analysis" and "spin" and you have old-fashioned soviet-perfected propaganda at its very best.

That is why without a free and independent press, it is all propaganda.

You can argue, justify and debate all you want about the triumphs of the revolution - but if there is no INDEPENDENT, FREE PRESS - propaganda is all that is left.

uh-huh, and yet Bush, "the democracy hater" will be out of power in 14 months (and probably looking forward to it). On the other hand, Fidel/Raul & Co the, "special type of cuban communist democracy lovers" will be in power 'till they are dead.

Those who choose to keep their eyes closed are just as blind.

Phil Peters said...

Anon, maybe someone else said Cuba has a free and independent press, but I didn't. I agree re propaganda; my point is that the speech was so politically useful to the Cuban government that they printed and televised large parts of it.

Nick, Alex, thanks for those responses and for the info.