Sunday, January 30, 2011

How Cuba is (and is not) like Egypt

Egyptian protesters prayed Saturday in front of a military vehicles in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo on Saturday. (Photo: Scott Nelson, New York Times)

Like most Cuba-watchers, for me the scenes playing out in Egypt, Yemen, and previously in Tunisia, can't but make me wonder if something similar will or could happen in Cuba.

As I read the following three articles in Saturday's New York Times (along with one from the Miami Herald appended to the end of this post), I played a game:

Each time the word "Egypt" appeared I replaced it with "Cuba," each time "Cairo" popped up, I inserted "La Habana," and each time the name "Mubarak" appeared I replaced it with "Castro."

Try it yourself over the next few days and see what fits and what doesn't.

Here are a few quotes from the articles to give you an idea:

From Compact Between Egypt And Its Leader Erodes (titled "Egyptians’ Fury Has Smoldered Beneath the Surface for Decades" in the on-line version):

"Egyptians [Cubans] are sick and tired of being corrupted and when you live on 300 pounds [pesos] a month,” about $51, “you have one of two options: you either become a beggar or a thief,” said Ghada Shabandar, a longtime human rights activist. “The people sent a message: ‘We are not beggars and we do not want to become thieves.’ ”

Egypt’s Military Is Seen as Pivotal in Next Step

“Are they on the side of the nation or are they on the side of the regime?” a former senior Western diplomat with long service in Cairo [Havana] asked. “That distinction had been blurred. We are now seeing a modern test of whether there is a separation between the two.”

Egypt Cuts Off Most Internet and Cell Service

"Autocratic governments often limit phone and Internet access in tense times. But the Internet has never faced anything like what happened in Egypt on Friday, when the government of a country with 80 million people and a modernizing economy cut off nearly all access to the network and shut down cellphone service."

For starters, I'd say that the following seven characteristics make Cuba LIKE Egypt:

1. Government Corruption: As the first quote above indicates almost everyone feels obliged to beg or steal to survive. However, that is only the visible (and largely forgivable) tip of the iceberg when compared to high-level corruption and abuse of power by well placed state firm managers, party cadres, and members of the military.

2. Rising economic inequality: Though this seems much greater in Egypt than Cuba, its inroads in Cuba are undermining the legitimacy of the regime among it most loyal supporters.

3. Strong historic link between the political and military leadership: Raul was the longest serving head of the armed forces in recent history before becoming president. Mubarak and all his predecesors came from the military. (This may be cracking as we wrtie in Egypt).

4. Lack of transparent electoral democracy: One party with no legal opposition in Cuba; one party with only a symbolic opposition in Egypt.

5. Big brother: The secret police are always watching.

6. Yankee go home: Both conutries have a history of strong anti-imperialist nationalism and nationalistic pride.  Egypt overthrew a Western-backed king; Cuba threw out Uncle Sam.

7. Dynasty of strongman authoritarian rule by one man or one family: Fidel and Raul for 50+ years in Cuba; Mubarak for 30 years in Egypt.

While these seven characteristics make Cuba quite DIFFERENT:

1. U.S. Policy: We staunchly support Egypt for pragmatic reasons while we staunchly oppose Cuba for ideological (and self defeating) reasons.

2. Regional, economic, and strategic importance: Egypt is a key ally in a region where we have few friends. Egypt has also made peace with Israel. Though Cuba was once the "key" to the New World and the Caribbean and all of Latin America, now it only has symbolic and perhaps nostalgic importance for the region's leftists. And economically Cuba is nowhere.

3. Immigrant lobby: How many Egyptians do you know in Congress?

4. Religious radicals: All the Catholics left Cuba in the early 60s and even they never went to church. There's no Cuban equivalent of the Muslim Brotherood.

5. Maintenance of social safety net: Though social services are not what they once were, Cubans fear losing the few social, educational, and health guarantees they have through a chaotic revolt.

6. Open violence and routine torture: The Cuban regime is repressive and uses violence and intimidation when necessary but extra-judicial killings and torture are rare. Not so in Egypt where they are commonplace.

7. The internet: Everywhere vs. Nowhere.  See below...

The following article by Myriam Marquez in the Miami Herald makes a strong case for this final difference.

The Mideast is on fire, but will Cuba be next?

A young fruit vendor sets himself on fire in Tunisia frustrated that a corrupt government keeps him from getting a job worthy of his college degree.  The Middle East is on fire, and who puts out those flames will determine if there will be an opening for true democracy or the same old oppression with perhaps a different face.

In Egypt, college students and the poor were on the streets again Saturday demanding President Hosni Mubarak, who has held power for 30 years, to step down. In Yemen, thousands of student protesters have been marching to oust Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled for three decades.  And as these images reach our televisions, computer screens or smart phones in South Florida, many people have told me they can't help but think about Cuba. As one reader put it in an e-mail: ``What's wrong with Cubans? They've had a dictatorship for 52 years! Cowards!''

Easy for you to say from the comfort of your American home. Try living there. There have been reams written about how many Cubans experience the ``Stockholm syndrome,'' the paradox of hostages loving their captors for not killing them.

I'll never forget in 2002 interviewing 20-something and 30-something Cubans who had a long list of gripes against the régime's corrupt policies, and yet they would not say a peep about Fidel Castro. When pressed, they would admit that Fidel's time had passed but that he wasn't responsible for the corruption. Raúl was more suspect because he ran the military, which controls the economy.

My head hurt trying to decipher these young Cubans' thought process, but it was clear that people knew very little about what was happening in the world beyond what the Cuban government wants them to know.

And that is what distinguishes Cuba from most of the Middle East, where Internet access, satellite television service and cellphones have played a huge role in bringing protesters together. The Internet remains blocked to most Cubans, who have the lowest ratio of computers in Latin America. Smart phones are a pipe dream.

Land lines are like cars in Cuba -- few people have them and getting a line is prohibitively expensive for people who earn on average $20 a month.

Satellite TV is accessible for tourists in hotels, but it's a crime for the average citizen to own satellite antennaes, though a black market has sprouted.

Bloggers like Yoani Sánchez of Generation Y don't post directly to the Internet. They need foreigners to go to Internet cafés and spend big bucks to connect and send their messages to friends abroad who then post for the world to see. Few Cubans -- including Yoani -- can check out those posts.

Technology is power, which is why Raúl Castro isn't about to take President Barack Obama's offer to open up telecommunications on the island by allowing U.S. companies to wire it.

Cuba has turned to Venezuela for the fiber optic cable, which blogger Sánchez noted in a Jan. 24 post is:

"the carrot dangled before the eyes of the inhabitants of this disconnected Island . . . When we are connected with Venezuela along the seabed, it will be even more immoral to maintain the high prices for access to the vast World Wide Web from hotels and public places. They will also lose the justification for not allowing Cubans to have accounts at home, from which we can slip into cyberspace, and it will be more difficult to explain to us why we can't have YouTube, Facebook and G-mail."

On Friday, Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas was arrested for the third time in as many days and then released. He was on his way with other dissidents in Santa Clara to lay flowers at the statue of Cuban independence hero Jose Martí to mark the 158th anniversary of his birth.

There were no tweets to the masses in Cuba alerting them.

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