Inside Cuba? Pope Francis, Civil Society and Democratization

Diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana are, understandably, the big news of the day, the week and the foreseeable future. What happens inside Cuba, however, may be equally important.

What will be the internal impact on democratization of closer Cuban ties with the United States and even closer ties with the Vatican? The announcement that 53 Cuban political prisoners will be released as part of the international agreement could help strengthen law-based civil liberties, essential to democratization.

Equally important will be the impact of this momentous change on civil society, defined by the Spanish theorist, Victor Perez Diaz, as “markets, associations, and a sphere of public debate.” A strong, autonomous civil society can accelerate democratization, as autocrats in many countries increasingly understand.

The development of a Cuban market economy has received a great deal of attention in the press. Just today, a Cuban entrepreneur expressed the hope that he would eventually be able to buy decent beds for his Havana Bed and Breakfast. It would be a cruel irony if the eventual end of the economic embargo and increased international investment smothered Cuba’s small businesses. While international corporations could help re-build Cuban infrastructure, they would have much less impact on democratization than local entrepreneurs.

Equally important to civil society and democratization is the nonprofit associational sector. Although autonomous associational life tends to promote democratization, the emergence of democratization NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in many countries has had a more direct impact. For example, in Argentina, a group of NGOs successfully lobbied to have Supreme Court nomination hearings open to the public. Four sitting Supreme Court justices resigned within a week.

Even without democratization NGOs, as in Cuba, civil society can begin to build a loyal opposition. Although it is still difficult for either opposition parties or democratization NGOs to organize, the Cuban Catholic Church, the most important civil society organization, has begun to play an oppositional role, according to Arturo Lopez Levey, a political observer who studies Cuba. A dialogue between the Church and the regime begun in 2010 led to the release of 115 prisoners previously condemned for anti-government activity. Another result was that the Cuban government now has a policy of “catch and release” (within 3-7 days). The dialogue also strengthened the policy shift towards endorsing self-employment, although not trade unions. “While the party would like to prevent the economic changes from producing pressure for a transition to multi-party democracy, it would be naive to assume that these economic changes will not have profound political implications,” especially if state salaries stagnate while a new group of entrepreneurs emerge. The legal status of the Church and other religious groups allows them to serve as a point of convergence for various reform agendas. This is reinforced by religious publications such as Espacio Laical, Caminos and Palabra Nueva, which publish articles by pro-reform government economists and scholars plus “moderate” exiles and intellectuals from the Church, that expands political debate. All of this would have been more difficult without support from Pope Francis and his predecessors. http://newamerica.net/publications/policy/change_in_post_fidel_cuba

The “sphere of public debate” has also increased in other ways, as Cubans have gained greater access to the Internet and intellectuals and groups promoting citizen interests without challenging the state directly are tolerated. These include organizations working on women’s rights, social discrimination, consumer rights, gay rights, the environment, anti-abortion, the abolition of the death penalty and the right to freedom of movement. In December 2010 a group of Cuban gay rights activists protested their government’s negative vote at the UN repudiating acts of violence associated with sex orientation, and the government changed its position, arguing that it couldn’t ignore the views of its citizens.

Democratization is a long, hard slog, in any country. Given Cuba’s long history of authoritarian rule, this is particularly true in Cuba. In 2013, for example, a group of democracy activists were detained and beaten by security agents. But the Cubans themselves have been struggling to match their progress on health and education with economic and political liberalization for some time. The U.S. decision, based on negotiations brokered by Pope Francis, can only support this struggle.