December 1, 2006 | National Review Online

Cambio Means Freedom in Cuba

In the town of Madrugas on the outskirts of Havana, something extraordinary happened in the early evening of November 2. Several dozen agents of the Cuban state security tried to arrest dissident and community activist “Eddie” Hernández Arencibia. But his neighbors would have none of it. Several hundred formed a cordon around his house, the women locking arms in the front rank. When State Security started beating them, the men came forward and a meleé ensued. Another young dissident, Fernando López Montero, was seriously injured. A police van was overturned and set on fire. State security was forced to withdraw, empty-handed.

About nine days later, in the early morning, they came back — backed up by several hundred riot police. But the two dissidents were nowhere to be found: someone from state security had tipped them off. A massive manhunt ensued, and they were finally captured in international waters — by the U.S. Coast Guard. Both are now reportedly being held in Guantánamo pending review of their asylum petitions. Meanwhile, State Security emptied Hernández's house, throwing all its contents — and his wife — out on the street. She is now living among neighbors, at least five of whom have been detained without charges.

While the scale of the confrontation was unusual, such incidents have become increasingly common. The Directorio Democrático Cubano, a Miami-based pro-dissident group, keeps a detailed catalogue of pro-democracy activities in Cuba. Its report on incidents in 2005 alone fills nearly 400 pages.

News of the incident has spread in Cuba. But U.S. media has hardly noticed. Indeed, international journalists are so clueless that when they ask people on the street in Cuba to describe conditions there, they earnestly quote them saying, “Everything is going well,” completely oblivious to the large signs all over Cuba bearing the Orwellian caption “Everything is going well.” Only the bravest Cubans will say what they really think to journalists — or even to each other. Huge numbers of Cubans make their living by spying on their neighbors and even on their family members.

Castro's Cuba is a nightmare in which the Marxist ideal of social equality has been achieved through the brutal imposition of universal destitution. In Castro's “philosophy,” the profit motive is the ultimate evil that leads necessarily to capitalism. From the start, he sought to replace it with the “revolutionary conscience,” which should motivate all Cubans to work where Castro thinks they are needed, regardless of personal needs and wants.

Since August of this year, when the increasingly dim and incoherent Castro nearly died and was removed from power, his brother Raúl, head of the armed forces, has been seen publicly exactly once: to publicize the new law against “labor indiscipline,” which criminalizes the very indolence that has been the signal achievement of the Cuban Revolution. But criminalizing failures of “revolutionary conscience” is nothing new. Reynaldo Arenas recalls the pitiful sight of peasants hiding chickens from State Security just two years into the Revolution. And he remembers the persecution of “dangerous” elements in the society (such as homosexuals) sent to labor camps for reeducation. Castro's policies immediately sent the richest economy in Latin American into free fall, and when those policies failed for all to see, he began insulting the Cuban people as lazy “worms” and “leeches,” worse than capitalists — and he never stopped insulting them.

Cuba has changed little since then — so little in fact, that what we see today is little more than the decaying relics of the Cuba that Castro ruined. It may seem like a quaint and happy third-world country to visiting journalists of leftist persuasion, but Cubans — here and there — are well aware that the current poverty, which is worse than in almost any Latin American country except Haiti, is only the most obvious evidence of Castro's historic crime against the Cuban people.

Today, the most common word in Cuba is Cambio: Change. When the word first started becoming ubiquitous in windows, placards, and t-shirts in 2003, the regime sought to crack down. But today, as one prominent dissident told me, the word is everywhere, recalling the “Solidarity” slogan of the Polish pro-democracy movement.

Miami, too, is changing. Because of Clinton-era accords which dramatically expanded the number of visas granted to Cuban immigrants, some 20,000 Cubans are arriving in Miami every year. They are readily absorbed into the economy, thankful for the chance finally to work and get ahead, but they are not so ready to talk. It is heartbreakingly difficult to convince many of them that they are no longer in danger of getting arrested in the middle of the night for saying anything about Castro. But now those who grew up in Miami have a different Cuba to contend with: not the one in our parents' pictures and stories, but rather the one that exists now. And it has given us a sense of urgency to do something now that we never felt before.

In Miami, as on the Island, Cubans yearn for an end to exile — and they know the end is near. Soon, Cuban Americans will be free to discover the land in which their culture and spirit is rooted. And Cubans on the Island yearn for an end to their own exile — from the freedoms of the modern world. When I asked one dissident whether he wasn't afraid that his phone was being tapped, he said “What are they going to do? Throw me in prison? This entire island is a prison.”

Alas, while “Change” is sweeping the people here and there, no change can be discerned in the policies of the Cuban government — nor in those of the U.S. government. And now the two sets of policies are reinforcing each other, which can only benefit the Communist regime.

Four of the most important dissident groups in Cuba recently signed a petition imploring the U.S. government to lift travel restrictions to the Island. Some will cast this as a unilateral concession to the Cuban government, but the reality is that the Castro regime wants an end to isolation like a hole in the head. As one of the dissident leaders tells me, “We live in a closed society. What we need is an opening.” Ending the travel restrictions, a small but real change, would help bring the two communities closer together, and expose the sufferings of Cuba to the light of day. Even the smallest change would be the start of a happy ending to the horror story that began, one starry night almost exactly 50 years ago, when the young Fidel Castro landed his boat — and Cuba — in a swamp.

Mario Loyola is fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies